Beyond Sex: The Multi-Layered Model of Attraction
Coming of age, I knew I was gay. But, something always felt... different.
At the age of sixteen, you could probably find me adoringly gazing at a male classmate in my Physical Education class. It was every weekday at third period. I knew that I couldn’t be seen looking fondly at the guy across the gym. There were cultural scripts to follow and threats of violence to evade. A gay boy like me wouldn't dare to cross them in such a toxic environment. I remember most vividly how his body allured me, and I wanted to be close to him. He lit a torch in me – a burning desire that I couldn’t dare act upon. Oh, the flurries of gay adolescent love. But, more importantly, it was a deep affection that I was not even certain how to act upon. I knew I loved men, but how did I love them?
In those glorious days of high school (I hope the sarcasm is conveyed properly here), I was a shy “overweight” gay adolescent boy who wanted to be left alone. I socially cued most of my peers to grant me my wish. I hid away at the third and fifth bell’s ring, which signaled the social deathmatches known as “Break” and “Lunch.” I shuffled on campus with my eyes plunging into concrete – a walking embodiment of “awkward silence.” While it was an effective strategy for getting most people to ignore my existence (or perhaps laugh at it from afar), it also ensured that I received what I utmost did not seek: attention. Because of that, I was never able to avoid the interrogations:
“Are you a faggot, Michael?” “Do you like dick? I know you do, fucking faggot.” “Do you want to have sex with men? Do you like it up the ass?”
It was a call with no response, an attack without defense. I was frozen, never able to rip words to counter from my throat. While others were convinced they saw in me what I could not see in myself, I was lost in the labyrinth of attraction. Rather than scream out my confusion, my insecurities and instabilities, I dealt with this puzzle internally. I knew, on some level, that I was drawn to others “like me” – from my male peers who would mock me to men of an older age, they brought me warm yet perplexing feelings. Still, it did not take long for me to learn that I was ambivalent to their “sexual play things," which never did much to unearth soothing tingles of pleasure within me. I had detached their genitalia from their bodies, and it was this dividing of the body, being charmed by certain parts and repulsed by others, that propelled me to asexuality.
While my identity is still in flux, internally confronting these traumatic interrogations buried the seeds of how I would come to understand attraction as multi-layered, in which various forms may function in social congruence or conflict with one another to construct our individual attraction-based positions. Attraction should not merely be classified as a sexual endeavor, a singular or universal mode of experiencing desire, love, or yearning passion towards another human being(s). Attraction is complex. For me, it is that feeling of, yes, that man is the eye of my desire, I crave to be with him, not with his dick (if he even is to have one) and not to engage in sexual intercourse, but because I want to embrace his body, to be close to him at night, to share my life with him, to tell him my secrets as we spill our emotions out to each other.
Yet, in terms of identity, what does this really mean? How do you navigate a society that seeks to unravel you carelessly and toss you away into overstuffed boxes that don’t really fit you, but also, for some of us, kind of do? It is difficult to speak of attraction as existing beyond sex, out of reach from its suffocating grasp, to those who understand it as solely being sexual object choice. I use beyond sex here not to claim that other attraction-based experiences are superior to the sexual, but to assert that they have agency to exist and thrive beyond its touch. In a society where love, attraction, and desire are intrinsically tied to sex, it is critical to consider how these experiences can operate beyond its reach. This is to say that if someone were to tell you that they were attracted to you, most people would assume and expect sex to be the core or defining part of that attraction, not a mere possibility. In our society, attraction implies sex. And, really, there is unfortunately no other way around it. The repercussions of this manifest in a widespread silencing of other forms of attraction as experiences that may exist independently from sex.
When sex is positioned as attraction's ultimate expression, we are restricted, only able to engage in romance, in sensual play, in adorning our bodies in sexy garments, for that greater goal: to reach sex, to touch sex, to feel sex. It is the sexual which is seen as the most real, the apex expression of love between humans and bodies. Sexual attraction is hegemonically understood as attraction itself. As a result, most people simply assume that “the rest” of a person's desires line up automatically and accordingly. This “rest” may involve any other dimension of attraction-based experiences, from traditional romance, to sensual pleasure, to aesthetic adoration, to emotional and intellectual intimacy, but it is always presumed to run in parallels, along preconceived notions of orientation. That is to mean, if someone is heterosexual, they are also to be heteroromantic, heterosensual, heteroaesthetic, and otherwise to be forever socially-exalted as “hetero.”
Of course, most of the time, they are. But before I progress onward, it is critical that I clarify what I mean here by forms or layers of attraction. Attraction is complex, as has been previously declared. Most people claim to experience each layer of attraction in parallel directions, so they never consciously confront any form independent of or beyond sex. Of the numerous forms in existence, these are several:
Aesthetic Attraction: Attraction based on a visual appreciation or captivation of the physical appearance or allure of another person(s). Aesthetic attraction may be completely disconnected from sexual or romantic attraction, and instead considers the visual aesthetics of another person(s). It may be described in a similar manner to appreciating or being captivated by the beauty of a striking natural setting. You may feel as though the person(s) in question is simply more visually intriguing than others, but not necessarily because of a sexual or romantic component attached to the attraction.
Emotional Attraction: Attraction that is predicated on personality rather than the physical appearance of another person(s). Emotional attraction often includes or represents the desire to be in non-tactile contact with another person for the purposes of forming, fostering, or maintaining an emotional and personal bond with them. You may feel fascinated or drawn to a person(s) based on their personality or aura, which may result in you wanting to be around them increasingly, without involving anything sexual, romantic, aesthetic, sensual, or physical.
Intellectual Attraction: Attraction that involves a desire to form, foster, or maintain an intellectual or mental connection or engagement with another person(s). Intellectual attraction may involve a connection to someone mentally that is separated from the rest of their bodies. It grapples with what the person(s) in question is thinking, and potentially includes a desire to interact or engage with that person(s) further in intellectual or mental respects, without necessarily involving any other form of attraction.
Romantic Attraction: Attraction to another person(s) predicated on a desire to experience contact that may be conceptualized as "romantic." How romantic attraction is defined remains relatively amorphous, yet clearly strays from sexual attraction, and is frequently entwined with a desire to be in a romantic relationship with another person(s). Romantic attraction does not have to be in congruence with sexual attraction, which is exemplified most prominently in the asexual experience. Asexual people may be both asexual and romantically attracted to anyone or no one.
Sensual Attraction: Attraction predicated on an inclination or passion to engage with another person(s) in a manner that could be described as physical or tactile, as well as intersecting with any of the senses. Sensual attraction may include the desire to hug, kiss, cuddle, hold another's hand, etc., while not including the desire for sexual activity or engagement. It may also include gaining gratification or being aroused by another person(s) through other sensory experiences such as smell.
Sexual Attraction: Attraction to another person(s) that spurs a desire to engage in sexual activity, most often, but not always, being sexual intercourse. To be sexually attracted to someone is predicated on your desire to engage in contact with them sexually or to be aroused in a manner that generates such interest. This attraction may be based on physical qualities of the person(s) in question as well as other non-physical aspects yet remain tied to sexual desire or a desire to sexually be in contact with that person(s).
Beyond the sexual, other forms of attraction are not understood as independent, but rather, they are positioned in a flattened congruence in the shadow of sexual attraction. The hegemonic perspective on attraction may therefore be visualized as existing at the center of an orbital overlay. From this position, those who have internalized a "sex equals attraction” type worldview only gaze forward, always at the nearest, the most pervasive: the sexual. Their reach extended, they forever hold and never let go of sexual attraction. Their awareness to what lays beyond is eclipsed, blurred by sex. Of course, if the forms align, what exists beyond sex may not be so crucial to the person in question. However, when layers of attraction are not in congruence, things become messier, and far too complex to fit in the confines of such a limited model.
Attraction is multi-layered and molded by our individualized experiences. While sexual, for many people, is their primary mode of understanding their attraction-based position in this world, it's not exclusive. For example, I am a gay person. I know I like men. If I wasn’t asexual and aromantic, I probably would be at brunch right now on a Grindr date looking for sex with a man (it’s a joke). The point is, sex occupies a non-important and relatively nonexistent position in my construction of self and in relation to how I understand my gay attraction and desires. For many people in my life, this is difficult to grasp. When I say, "I'm gay," the majority tend to think: "oh, he wants to have sex with men" and not "oh, he may want to be in a romantic non-sexual relationship with a man" or "oh, he wants to be in a nonsexual sensual relationship with a man."
This is because sex is first to be understood – positioned as necessary in the conception of attraction and in interpreting desire between humans. Sex eclipses other forms of attraction that arrange themselves in its unending shadow. For those of us (mostly ace and aro people) who find ourselves outside of this "sex equals attraction" worldview, our expressions of desire, love, and passion tend to be confronted with disbelief at best and perceived as outright lies at worst. When ace and aro people assert our asexuality and aromanticism as legitimate, our legitimacy is questioned, or we are ignored completely. Attempting to validate our relationships can thus prove to be difficult, wherever we happen to exist in the maze of identity.
All of us experience attraction in what I refer to here as a multi-layered model. We experience sexual attraction, or we don’t; we experience romantic attraction, or we don’t; we experience sensual attraction, or we don’t; we experience emotional attraction, or we don’t; we experience intellectual attraction, or we don’t. Like a beautiful but chaotic conglomerate of multi-colored threads or clay that comprises a vibrant whole; the levels mesh together and can frequently feel messy. Some colors may be missing completely, others may be deeply immersed in each other, while another is loose, hanging, nearly free. Each form of attraction may exist independently yet simultaneously in relation to others. Together, our experiences with attraction come to define each of our social attraction-based positions within this model.
Some may experience sexual attraction, and the passion they feel towards others may be heavily entwined with sensuality and aestheticism. In other words, they may feel that their sexual attraction exists because of or in direct relation to their sensual and aesthetic pleasures that they derive from the act of physically viewing or touching another's body. In this sense, the layers of the sexual, sensual, and aesthetic may be merged, overlapped, in direct intimate contact with one another. One could not exist without the other. At the same time, for others, one layer or form may not be so deeply linked to another. As an asexual aromantic gay person, my gayness is not enmeshed with my (lack of) sexual or romantic attraction. Rather, for me, it is sensual love and emotional intimacy that defines my gay attraction, while sex and romance are relatively nonexistent from my attraction-based position. It is not because I lack sexual or romantic attraction that I am gay.
To further communicate the complex possibilities of attraction-based positions and their potential relational existences to each other, let us briefly consider the following examples that may further aid in conveying the attraction model explained in this article:
Person A is a cisgender heterosexual man. While he is sexually attracted to women, he experiences homosensual bonds with other men. However, since sexuality and gender are heavily policed in our society, largely due to toxic masculinity, Person A never expresses his sensual attraction towards men for fear of having his privileged position as a heterosexual being called into question. As such, Person A simply assumes his position as strictly "hetero" or "straight" and does not explore these other facets of self. As such, his sensual desires that may deviate from heteronormativity remain silenced.
Person B is an asexual aromantic non-binary person. They do not experience sexual attraction or romantic attraction. Person B primarily identifies by their aesthetic and sensual inclinations, which happen to be panaesthetic and pansensual. Person B struggles with feeling validated. Their panaesthetic and pansensual identities are called into question due to misconceptions that asexuality and aromanticism means "no attraction" and "no desire." They often have to erase their asexual and aromantic identities and frequently feel pressured to engage in sexual and romantic activities in relationships.
Person C is a cisgender homoromantic asexual woman. Person C attempts to navigate queer and gay spaces, but encounters issues due to her asexuality being perceived as "unqueer." Some gay people refer to her as "still in the closet" or afraid to "come out all the way." When she tells others that she is gay and also asexual, people assume that she is simply using the latter as a cover to be "respectable" or that she just hasn't "found the right person yet." As a result, navigating queerness proves to be difficult for Person C.
Person D is a homoromantic heterosexual person. As their experiences with attraction exist in social conflict with one another, they feel a sense of internal division and strife. Person D feels constantly conflicted in expressing their passions and desires for a relationship. Person D wants to be in a romantic relationship that could be defined as "gay," but finds themselves only sexually attracted to the "opposite" sex. As such, they are divided on whether to refer to themselves as gay or straight due to their blurry existence on this binary.
Attraction may be a process that envelops and pours out on and through our bodies in tandem or it may be a very distant appreciation, a relationship without touch, a coupling without romance, a deep love without sex, yet still one that is valid and deserving of fulfillment. When attraction opens up, so do the identities that many of us construct our individuality upon. Is someone still to be classified as "straight" or not if they are heterosexual and homosensual? Is someone to be classified as "gay" or not if they are homosexual and heteroromantic? While it is presumed that most often attractions tend to not run in such immense social conflict with one another, these binaries may begin to destabilize as more people are encouraged to express the complexities of their actual attraction-based positions rather than defining themselves upon the gay and straight binary that is heavily embedded in society.
As the attraction aperture expands, exploring attraction in more depth may challenge and change the meanings of various labels, from "straight," to "gay," to "queer." When does one gain access to queerness, and does any convergence from "hetero" attraction open that person to queer identity? Understanding attraction in this multi-layered way operates in inherently subversive respects to these binaries and the current status quo. Of course, at the forefront of this movement are ace and aro people, who have been identifying by these various forms of attraction beyond sexual and romantic for many years. It is there, out on the horizons of queer intelligibility, that attraction exists as a multiplex of love, intimacy, connectivity, passion, and desire. It is where expressions of attraction between humans are no longer based solely in the sexual, where passions beyond sex no longer are eclipsed, and where they may break free from its dark shimmer to be free.