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Towards a Better Model of Attraction

1 Jun

So, a few weeks ago I was sitting around in the dining hall with fiveroundsrapid and bitey-mad-lady, and as tends to happen the conversation turned to attraction and all its complexities (after we had exhausted the conversation about Doctor Who, of course).  FRR is romantic and asexual. BML is kinky, panromantic, and (probably) pansexual. I’m kinky, aromantic, and straight. Between us, we are officially confused about this attraction business.

After a good half an hour of discussion, this was the result. After three napkins worth of notes, we felt we had just scratched the surface, but I thought it was interesting enough to make a post about.

So, our model divided attraction into four components: romantic, sexual, emotional, and kinky. Following this post on Hacking the Heart, I’m going to add a fifth: sensual attraction.

Romantic Attraction:

I did my best to define romantic attraction in this post, and I think I was on the right track there. I’ve since refined the definition and found better ways to talk about it, however, so I’m going to start from scratch here.

Romantic attraction (as I define it) is the particularly “romantic” part of things. It’s butterflies in the stomach, intrusive thoughts of the other person, thrills when you hear their name. Most crucially, from a definitional perspective, it’s contentless. It’s not that you feel drawn to the other person because of some other thing, you just feel drawn to the person, full stop. If you find yourself adding the word “because” in a sentence, you’re probably not talking about romance any more. As an aromantic, when I miss someone, I miss them because I miss the conversations or the sex or the cuddles. When a romantic person misses their partner, however, they just miss them because they miss them. The other person’s very existence (divorced from anything about the person) is something that pleases them.

I’m convinced that this thing exists, based on the conversations I’ve had with several romantic people over the past few months. If enough people say that this isn’t what they mean by “romantic attraction”, then I’ll change the label, but this is definitely a real phenomenon.

Romantic attraction is on a scale (from completely aromantic to completely romantic), and can come with a gender preference.

Sexual Attraction:

Sexual attraction is a primal, full-body experience of desire for the other person, often connected with arousal and/or sexually explicit fantasies. For some people, it can happen immediately upon meeting the other person. For others, it requires a certain amount of emotional intimacy before it occurs (these people are called demisexuals). I suspect there are even more complications than that, however. For me, it doesn’t really occur until there’s been some sensual intimacy (I’ll talk about what I mean by that later), though emotional intimacy is much less important.

Again, this is on a scale from completely asexual to completely sexual, and can come with a gender preference.

Emotional Attraction:

We might need a better word for this, but I think this is a crucial and under-appreciated part of attraction. This is the desire to really get to know the other person, and to share in their life. It involves a desire to be vulnerable with the other person, and for them to be vulnerable with you. It can include sharing secrets, taking care of each other, and talking about feeeeeelings until the wee hours of the morning.

I see no reason this sort of attraction couldn’t be on a scale, with optional gender preference, just like anything else.

Kinky Attraction:

This definitely exists, and it’s definitely different than any of the above. For me, this is often prior to, or even exclusive of, the other types of attraction. I’m a dom, so it manifests for me as a desire to take power (generally physical power) over the other person. It can involve fantasies of dominating them, though it need not. Like sexual attraction it’s very visceral, but it has a totally different feel. I imagine there is a parallel experience for subs, and I would be very interested to hear how it manifests for my kinky readers of all orientations.

As with everything else, it’s on a scale with an optional gender preference.

Sensual Attraction:

I’m stealing this idea wholesale from Antissa, so let me quote what she says about it:

Sensual attraction is experiencing the desire to be in physical contact with someone, though that physical contact, no matter how close or intimate, need not be sexual.

I think this is a really useful concept. In my own case, I experience sensual attraction well before sexual attraction, and the switchover is very dramatic. For more details, her whole post is fantastic.

And, once again, it seems obvious that it should be on a scale with an optional gender preference.

I suspect that we could continue adding varieties of attraction more or less indefinitely. I also suspect that no two people share the exact same attraction profile. Each of these can vary in their intensity, frequency, and type of person they are aimed at. I have some level of kinky attractions to all sorts of people, but am primarily attracted to women in every other category. I am aromantic (or very close to it), but have overpowering needs for sensual and emotional attraction. Strong sexual attraction is pretty rare for me, but strong emotional attraction happens all the time. I don’t have any reason to believe that I’m especially complicated, so I bet we’d find that we need a lot more labels than “gay, straight, bi, and asexual” once we got everyone to think about themselves in these sorts of terms.

ADDENDUM: Outlawroad complied a great list of definitions, which I think improves on my post in certain ways. You can see it here.


I Have Weird Friends

5 Feb

I was originally going to make several of these separate posts, and I may still expand some of them (especially if people are curious), but for the moment I’m just going to present these as disconnected-but-sorta-related tidbits. Most of them are about my friends, a few of them are about me. Here’s a very partial list of people I know:



A person in love with both halves of a monogamous couple, who would be ecstatic if she got a chance to be in a triad with them.


A person who is widely known to be very sexually active, who nonetheless doesn’t experience sexual attraction. He enjoys the physical sensation, and likes getting to know people in an intimate way, but doesn’t feel the instinctive sexual attraction most sexuals do.


A person who tends to stop experiencing sexual attraction during the first couple sexual experiences with a new partner, and thinks that’s a pretty reasonable way to do things.


Two people who are deeply incapable of understanding the social function of jealousy, to the point of doing things that anyone else could easily have told them would provoke very strong jealous reactions.


A person who is in something like romantic love with a small, tightknit group of platonic friends.


A person whose preferred “aftercare” after an intense BDSM scene is to immediately starting intellectually dissecting it.


A person who fetishizes traditional fancy-restaurant-and-wine dates, in much the same way other people have kinks.


A person who actively seeks out “emotional one-night-stands”: intimate, personal, flirtatious conversations that last several hours without necessarily leading to anything afterwards.


Multiple asexual people who are very active in the BDSM community.


A lesbian in a serious relationship with a man.


A person who thinks an intense game of chess is amazing foreplay.


A person who met her current, long-term partner online (not through a dating website), and didn’t meet her in meatspace until after they were in a relationship.



If I have a point here, it’s the amazing range of experiences and drives people have. The idea that all of these people could be served by the same very specific set of relationship structures and assumptions just seems laughable to me.

The Anatomy of Relationships

16 Jan

In my last post I pointed out some of the flaws I see with the current monogamous culture, and even (to a lesser extent) with mainstream polyamory. But it’s a lot easier to tear down than to build up, and we need to have some way to talk about our relationships. In this post, I’m going to lay out how I’ve started to think about relationships, in hopes that it will help us build a vocabulary that doesn’t buy into mainstream monogamy and the relationship binary.

In my view, no two relationships are identical. It’s not ultimately helpful to talk about whether “friends” or “partners” should come first, or whatever, because both terms are under-defined. More useful, in my opinion, is to talk about the specific features of the relationship, which can differ along many axes. Sitting in bio class, I jotted down a partial list of potential factors to consider:

  • Sexuality. Is the relationship sexual or not? How “far” does it go, and how often? Are there particular sexual elements that are emphasized or de-emphasized?
  • Touch. Is touch an important part of the relationship? What forms of touch are expected/acceptable/unacceptable? What purposes do each form of touch serve?
  • Limerence. This is the “in love” feeling I was calling “romance” in this post. Does either person feel limerence toward the other? Do both? How strong is it, and how long has it lasted? If limerence is not present, was it present in the past?
  • Emotional Vulnerability. Do either or both people feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable with the other? Do they feel comfortable crying in front of the other? Is emotional vulnerability an occasional or frequent part of the relationship?
  • Thought-Sharing. How much does each person know about the other? To what extent is it expected that new thoughts will be shared with the other person, and how does that differ based on the topic? To what extent is it acceptable to have secrets from each other, and how does that differ based on the topic?
  • Resource Sharing. Are the practical matters of life intertwined? Do they share living spaces, finances, clothing, etc? To what extent is borrowing without asking acceptable?
  • Commitment. Have promises been made about the permanence of the relationship? Can the relationship be dropped if either person becomes busy or interested in something else? What actions are required to end the relationship?
  • Prioritization. Do they have an obligation to put each other’s needs ahead of their own needs or the needs of “outside” people? How far does this obligation extend? Does it differ based on the type of need?
  • Time. How much time do the people in the relationship spend with each other? How much of that time is one-on-one, and how much of it is in groups? How much of that is “accidental” and how much does each person actively seek out time with the other?
  • Common Interests. What activities or interests do the people in the relationship have in common? How much of the relationship is based on those activities or interests? How would the relationship change if either or both people lost interest in those topics or activities?
  • Group Membership. Is there a shared social group? How much of the relationship is based on that group membership? How would the relationship change if either or both people left the group?
  • Exclusivity. Are certain activities reserved for the relationship? (This can be sex, but it needn’t be. My relationship with J was exclusive with regards to watching new episodes of Dr. Who.) Must this activity be one-on-one, or can it be done in a group setting? Are there non-exclusive activities where it’s nonetheless expected to invite the other person?
  • Negotiation. Have conversations about “the future of this relationship” happened? Are the expectations of the relationship explicit or implicit?

This is just a partial list, although I think it hits many of the crucial points. What other factors can you guys come up with?

This model has a lot of potential uses. Looking at this list, it becomes increasingly clear how many different things get lumped together by culturally enforced monogamy. A “romantic relationship” (which you’re only supposed to have one of) is supposed to have high levels of each of these factors, with the potential exception of Group Membership and (unfortunately) Negotiation. A “friendship”, especially between people of different genders, is not expected to have high levels of anything besides Common Interests and Group Membership, although Sexuality and Limerence are the ones that are most vigorously policed. (Same-gender relationships, especially between women, occasionally get designated “best friends” and have a bit more leeway with other factors.)

Modern Polyamory does much better, and there are many more acceptable combinations. However, there are still holdovers from monogamy. Many of these factors are expected to happen together. In particular, high levels of Sexuality are expected to accompany high levels of anything besides Group Membership and Common Interests. (Metamours are a weird case. There need not be high levels of Sexuality between metamours, but the relationship is defined by each having high levels of sexuality with a third person.) This is the stuff I was talking about last post, just translated into this new model.

Another use of the model is as an introspection tool. What factors do you need most in your life? Are there any two or more factors that need to be a package deal for you? Are there any factors you don’t care about?

For me, I need a ton of Emotional Vulnerability and Thought-Sharing in my life, and think almost all of my relationships are better when those are increased. I also need a lot of Sexuality, but don’t need all of my relationships to include it (so long as there is at least one person, preferably two or three people, with whom I have a high level of Sexuality). I don’t care about Limerence at all (in fact, the other person feeling it often makes me actively uncomfortable). Moderate-to-high levels of Time and Prioritization are greatly appreciated, and a good way to encourage me to invest a lot of energy into the relationship, but they’re not crucial once a relationship has been established (and very high levels make me uncomfortable).

Finally, this model offers us new possibilities for building new relationships that work for us. As long as they fulfill the needs of the people involved, any combination of these  factors is potentially valuable. Rather than sticking to the culturally accepted relationship scripts, we can find the best equilibrium for our unique relationships of all sorts.

Romantic Orientation 101

6 Jan

This is the post I should have written before my last one. The technical definition of (a)romantic is interesting, but only for people who are already informed about that aspect of asexual theory. This post is for all you poly and kinky people who have no idea what this idea of romantic orientation is.

AVENwiki defines romantic orientation this way:

Romantic orientation refers to an individual’s pattern of romantic attraction to men, women, neither gender, either gender, or another gender.

This concept came about due to a subset of asexual people who, while they didn’t desire a sexual relationship, nonetheless wanted to establish romantic relationships, often with a specific gender. The traditional sexual orientation labels are obviously insufficient to describe such a person, so a parallel series of romantic orientation labels was added. Thus, someone might be asexual and homoromantic, or asexual and panromantic, and so on. The parallel to “asexual” in this schema is “aromantic”, someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction to anyone.

This is obviously crucial for the asexual community, as this is often the only criteria for choosing romantic partners. But I think that sexuals, especially in the polyamorous community, could also stand to gain a great deal by considering this model.

Recognizing the equal legitimacy but different features of romantic and aromantic people is by itself, quite helpful. One of the problems that led to J and I separating is our mismatch in romantic intensity. It went unnoticed for a long time, because I was willing to do things that I knew would make her happy, but ultimately I was not romantic enough for her, and she was too romantic for me. Poly people are all about knowing oneself and one’s partners, and this gives us another thing to add to the list of considerations and negotiation topics. Aromantic people shouldn’t be scolded for not being romantic enough, but neither should romantic people be deprived of their romantic needs and desires. Luckily, a romantic/aromantic match is not nearly as problematic in a poly relationship as in a monogamous relationship, as the romantic person is free to seek outside romance, but that is a need that it is useful to identify and work to fulfill.

Another important consideration, in my opinion far too under-appreciated in the poly community, is the possibility of compartmentalized orientations. (I believe I stole that word from Asexual Curiosities, but I’m not sure.) [Edit: slightlymetaphysical informs me in the comments that this is a misuse of the term. Help me come up with a better term?] If it’s possible to be asexual and homoromantic, then it is probably possible to be heterosexual and homoromantic, or any other combination. J, in fact, is currently wondering if her longtime identification as pansexual (or bisexual, in the past) is a misinterpretation of a more complicated compartmentalized orientation. Being able to identify compartmentalization seems like it would be quite useful in a poly context. We are all about getting different sexual and emotional needs fulfilled by different people, and this offers us a way to think about that. Someone who is solely sexually attracted to women might find that they are deeply interested in a non-sexual romantic connection with a man, and possibly even not interested in such a relationship with a woman (or any other combination). I have heard lots of stories of people who had very meaningful life relationships with their non-sexual metamours, and I wonder if some of that is due to straight people being homoromantic, and that sort of thing.

Moving past the “simple” labels of gay/straight/pan and to a more nuanced model that considers sexual and romantic attraction separately is a great analytical tool, and offers new possibilities for poly people to discover new and better ways of organizing their romantic and sexual lives to best fulfill the needs of everyone involved. My next few posts will be on demisexuality, negotiated platonic relationships, and community-based intimacy, all of which I believe offer even more tools for the poly toolkit.

Let’s talk about (a)romantics

6 Jan

So, the smart way to start this blog would be to post a few basic, non-controversial introductions to relevant issues. Maybe, at most, a mildly original take on something I have special knowledge of. And I’ll probably do all those things eventually. But I’m not smart, so let’s start the blog by diving into a major topic of controversy in a community I have just discovered: the definition of (a)romantic. We had a brief but useful conversation on this subject over at Asexual Curiosities, which led to this post.

Unlike “asexual”, “aromantic” has no widely agreed-upon definition. AVENwiki starts by saying, “Aromantics are people who have little or no romantic attraction.” This is fine, as far as it goes, but it puts all the definitional work on the words “romantic attraction.” It goes on to attempt to define the difference more precisely, but it offers two very different definitions, neither of which are very satisfying. The first defines aromantics as people who don’t form deep emotional connections with other people. From what I’ve read, aromantics tend to disagree with this claim. Aromantics can have intimate connections with family members or friends, they just aren’t “romantic” connections.

And indeed, the second paragraph of the same article contradicts itself, saying that aromantics can form deep emotional connections, but they aren’t a “purposely initiated monogamous separation as found in romantic couples”. This definition seems little better, as it puts the essential difference in external, culturally defined relationship practices. This definition would include all polyamorous people in the definition of aromantic, which seems to miss the point.

If anyone wants to defend either of these definitions, I would be glad to hear it, but until then I’m going to assume that neither of them are satisfying.

Another type of definition that obviously fails is “friendship + sex”. In addition to the obvious problem that it excludes asexuals, Kaz’s comment here nicely points out that it fails even among relationships between sexuals.

A slightly better attempt at a definition is to point to traditional romantic activities, like flower-buying, candle-lit dinners, Valentine’s Day traditions, etc. This won’t work as a complete definition, however, since those things are obviously culturally determined. I don’t think we want to say non-Westerners are automatically aromantic, nor do we necessarily want to exclude counter-cultural people who reject the commercialism and cliche of romantic practices. I’ll come back to this later, however, because I think there might be a grain of truth here.

Another grain-of-truth definition relies on physical intimacy, like cuddling and hand-holding. I don’t think this works for sexuals, because an aromantic sexual could enjoy those things for the sexual thrill. I’m not even sure it works for asexuals though. My guess is that there are probably aromantic asexuals who nonetheless enjoy touch for other reasons, though I’d love to hear from people with more experience in such things than me. Even if we don’t like it as a complete definition, though, I think it’s pointing in a useful direction.

Part of the problem I have with this discussion is that I suspect I may be aromantic. When I analyze my own intimate relationships, I don’t find anything I would isolate as specially “romantic”. Everything is some combination of sexuality and emotional intimacy for me, without any need for an additional category. Unfortunately, if I’m indeed aromantic, then I’m going to have a lot of trouble describing what romance is!

Because of this, I enlisted the help of my good friend J. J and I were in a monogamous relationship for about nine months, and were primary polyamorous partners for about five months after that. She is definitely romantic, and I thought she might be able to help tell me what I might be missing.

I asked J a barrage of questions about how she felt in a variety of scenarios, and we worked together to cobble together a possible definition of romantic. Specifically, these were the two crucial questions:

First: “Is there a reason you enjoy cuddling so much, beyond the sexual implications and the promise of emotional intimacy?”

I asked this because I’ve always secretly been a bit perplexed by some people’s attitude toward cuddling. I enjoy cuddling with attractive women because it is sexually thrilling, and I also like the implied promise that conversations in that setting will involve acceptance and emotional intimacy. But I don’t understand why someone would enjoy silent cuddling with someone, once the sexual thrill has worn off (which it quickly does).

This was clearly a promising question, because J reacted with absolute incomprehension. “It’s cuddling! How can you not love it?” When I pressed her, she said, “When I cuddle with someone I love, it makes me all floaty. It’s a high!” (“Floaty” is a term often used in the BDSM world to refer to a rush of endorphins that comes from, for instance, being flogged. It’s supposed to be a very intense sensation, so saying that cuddling makes J floaty is a strong claim.)

Second: “Do you get the same feeling from, for instance, being surprised with flowers?”

J: “Partially. When I cuddle, it’s that floaty feeling combined with a sense of calm. When I get flowers, it’s still a floaty feeling, but combined with excitement.”

I think we’re onto something here. According to J, this natural high is much stronger with people she would consider herself romantically attracted to, doesn’t require touch but is amplified by it, doesn’t require symbolic gestures like flowers but is enhanced by them, and is not necessarily connected to sexuality, conversation, or “good company” (though it can and often should be combined with those things).

So here’s a preliminary definition, that I’d love to get some comments on:

“Aromantics are people who do not experience the feeling of romance. Romance is a natural high that occurs in the presence of certain people, without obvious connection to sexuality, ‘good company’, or emotional intimacy.”

I’m definitely not married to this definition yet. J might be very idiosyncratic, or this might be a common phenomenon that nonetheless isn’t what people mean by (a)romance. But it seems promising, and I’d love to hear if this matches people’s experience. What do you guys think?

(Brief addendum: J and I further speculated on whether this was just a specific manifestation of the obvious fact that she’s more emotional in general than I. Is there anyone who considers themselves emotional but aromantic, or unemotional but romantic?)

EDIT: I just ran across an interesting comment by someone calling themselves wizardsapprentice, over at Writing From Factor X. The whole comment (and parent post, for that matter) is interesting, but the most relevant bit is this:

I’ve often wondered about what makes a romantic relationship different from any other as well. But recently, for the first time, I have an answer for myself, although it’s not something that I can define and communicate, because it’s just that I experienced it for myself. What is the difference between love and in love? I still don’t know, but now I feel that I can tell that there is one and I can identify the shift within myself. I know the exact night it happened, but I don’t know exactly what changed. Before that she was a friend I thought was cool, after that thinking of her made mood skyrocket up, my stomach fluttery and my thoughts speed up. I had always thought people were making that stuff up, but it seriously had physical effects. Nothing is likely to come of it because she already is in love with someone else, but the experience has been enlightening.

If I’m not misreading wizardsapprentice, this could easily be the same feeling J was talking about. Possible support for our theory?