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The Nature of Attraction or Wherein I Talk About Sexual Politics Stupidly April 19, 2012

Posted by Gina in Skepticism and atheism.
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When I was younger and starting to become aware of my own sexuality, I used to get attracted to people who made me laugh.  This started at an early age.  I think my first crush was on a kid who was a year or two older than me when I was in 3rd grade.  He used to crap me up all the time and I think attraction for me at the time summed up to wanting to spend more time with him and hoping that he liked making me laugh.  This attribute served to be the thing that really attracted me to people for years.

OK, it’s not really any different now…not in the slightest.  But, now that I’m a bit older and a bit more self aware, I have realized much more what the attraction was about.  Wes will look at this and move to remind me that I think everything is funny.  I won’t argue against that point as it is very true that my sense of humor covers a wide range of things.  It really does suck to be you if you manage to NOT make me laugh because that generally means I’m either highly upset with you or you are the least funny person on the planet.

Note: This has happened.  I have, in fact, not laughed at things.

Anyway, as I have mentioned before, I have had the fortune of being surrounded by generally very intelligent people for most of my life.  Some of them have been very funny also and so I think I have often equated a fabulous sense of humor with intelligence.  It has become apparent to me that the real number one thing that initially attracts me to you is your intelligence.

If you are smart AND funny, well, then you have the potential of being hella sexy to me.

The things that the people I have been attracted to have in common are that their sense of humor and general social skills indicate that they are also comfortable with these aspects of themselves.  I am attracted to confidence and it is confidence that is backed by a mind worth being confident about.  When all these things align, I find myself attracted.  It usually comes upon me unexpectedly (heh heh…SO MATURE).

Notice that I have made no mention of body type or looks.  For me it has always been the case that I am attracted to a mind long before I am fully attracted to a body.  When I am out and about, I notice that some people are good looking, but that does not immediately equate to attraction.  Sexual attraction growing to the point where I actually want to do something about it takes time and generally only happens after I have had a chance to connect with someone intellectually (often in the form of a very funny conversation).

Today I was having a text conversation with Shaun during which he said this:

Fine. So long as this part does not get me type cast.  I still have dreams of one day playing roles of a kung fu master/spy with a pet/sidekick super monkey.  His name is Mr. Mister.

Wait…wrong text conversation.  That is clearly irrelevant to this post.  Right?  Yes, definitely.  No, the one I meant to quote was one we had in response to his latest post.  I was saying that I wish I was generally more attracted to people, that there wasn’t such a strong mental element to it.  He said,

I have trouble comprehending the idea of having a desire which is blocked by another feeling.  I find attraction to be undeniable when it happens.  It hits me quite strongly and immediately.

I have talked about this with Wes, and with women like Jessie and Ginny and it appears (based on a very small sample) that there is a divide about this between the sexes.  Ginny being our in-house sexologist probably has more to say about this from an intellectual/academic standpoint…you know, with like studies and facts and shit.  So hopefully she’ll want to weigh in!  But yes, based on my “research”, the women I have spoken to experience attraction in a way similar to me while Wes has communicated similar sentiments as Shaun where he doesn’t really understand how someone can be good looking to me but I am not attracted.

Part of it could be that this is an inherent biological difference between men and women.  From an evolutionary biology point of view, the female of the species is the bringer of offspring, the continuer of the line and so genetic dominance is attractive.  In humans, the best “candidate” isn’t necessarily the man who can lift a truck over his head or beat the shit out of the neighbor.  It could be the cleverest person.  People want their children to be intelligent so that they can become the next Bill Gates or something.  Especially in our technology laden culture, we have the advent of the sexy nerd.   Industry is moving away from manual labor more into mental labor.  We are elk no more!  I don’t know…ask Dawkins or something for a better explanation of this or read Sex at Dawn…which I should probably do.

But I think much of it has to do with how women are programmed to feel and think about sex by society.  Yes, I am about to speak in some generalities.  So sue me.

So, the battle of the sexes in high school or college or at the single’s bar:

Men are considered aggressively sexual by nature.  Boys will be boys and all that.  There’s nothing they can do about it.  IT’S JUST HOW THEY ARE!  Their mission in life is to have sex.  Women are the gate keepers of sex.  They are not sexual by nature.  Those who are happen to be deeply flawed and sinful (and are god damned whores).  In addition, because men are aggressively sexual and women are the gate keepers of the number one thing that they want, they will do whatever they have to get it.  Men, just because they’re men, are entitled to sex.  To deny them it is cruel, but YOU MUSTN’T GIVE IT TO THEM, lest you want to become a god damned whore.  Basically, you are either a frigid bitch or a god damned whore.  I can’t stress that enough.  Men are stupid, base creatures that have no choice but to do whatever the testosterone coursing through their blood tells them to do and since you, as a woman, have no real value in society except for your ability to have children and then raise them not to be serial killers (serials killers are a result of women in the workplace, obvs), you must remain virtuous so that your mind can be kept clear so that you can mother everyone.  It’s like that part in Clash of the Titans where you find out that the oracle can only tell the future as long as she remains a virgin.  And then she has sex with Perseus and can’t see the future anymore and dooms the Earth.  Next thing you know, Zeus is screaming “Release the Kraken!” and a bunch of other stuff happens and then Perseus stabs the kraken with his testosterone laced phallic sword, and all the peasants rejoiced.  Thank goodness there was a male demi-god around so that no one had to pay for the oracle’s whoring ways.

Or something.

In addition to the massive amount of responsibility women are burdened with as the sacred gatekeepers of consensual (hopefully baby-making) sex, there is the whole other issue of the high likelihood of rape/assault.  Yes, this happens to men too, but not nearly as often.  Men are generally not afraid of being raped when they leave their house and go wait for the bus.  Women deal either consciously or unconsciously with the concept of Shroedinger’s Rapist.  Every man has the potential to harm you.  We are gatekeepers not only of the consensual sex we have, but also of the non-consensual sex we have.  If we are raped or are assaulted, we must have done something to encourage the asshole who did it, because men can’t help themselves.

I mean, don’t even get me started about the magical nature of my hair that I so brazenly allow to fly freely on a daily basis.  Also, you can usually see my wrists.  THE SCANDAL!

Yes, that was likely the worse wrap-up of gender relations ever, but I think I made my point, while also getting to mention krakens.  Big win!

In case you missed my point, I’m saying that, at least in America, women are the victims of a sex negative society and I think that it has affected how most women experience attraction initially.  In an existence where being female is a flaw, in a culture that does not condemn violence against or shaming of women NEARLY enough, feeling a great sense of safety, trust,  and value beyond our reproductive organs is attractive.  These conditions make us feel safe to express our sexuality, to allow it to develop and exist.

This is, I think, a large part of my experience.  When I am out and about and see an attractive woman, I find that I have more of an instant physical attraction to her…likely because I am not programmed to fear for my safety around her.  She might be a maniac, but that worry doesn’t enter my mind.  I am programmed to be wary of men I don’t know well so initial physical attraction is hindered by that fear.   I have experienced wanting some kind of sexual contact with a woman without the desire of a relationship (though only mildly…I’m still new to letting go of my inhibitions in this regard and haven’t ever actually acted on these mild desires).  I have never experienced this with a man.  And I think this all comes down to whatever threat level I feel.

So that explains why some women have more reservations about allowing themselves to just be attracted to people.  Admittedly, as I explained above, my attraction to people still doesn’t develop simply because I feel safe with them.  When I feel safe, then I can get to know you more.  OK, so I don’t think you’re going to hurt me, but are you actually enjoyable to spend time with otherwise?  Feeling safe leads to a meeting of the minds.  Attraction to the body comes after this, for me.  I don’t know why this is.  Evolutionary biology?  I’m just some kind of weirdo?

Wes and Shaun think I’m weird for this, but the women close to them seem to agree with me.  What do you think?

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Comments»

1. Timid Atheist (@TimidAtheist) - April 19, 2012

This is one of those nature vs. nurture subjects. How much of how we react to someone we find physically attractive is part of how our bodies work and how much of it is how we were raised to react to such sights?

For me, the first time I saw a boy and felt attracted I was immediately embarrassed. As a child I’d been told sex was for marriage and to me sex included being attracted, wanting to kiss, even just holding hands. My first instinct then was to be ashamed of my emotions and my physical desires.

As I grew older I was able to overcome some of that, simply because the body’s desire was greater than my shame. And I also tend to be stubborn and do the opposite of what I’m told out of spite. (Yet I was a very good christian girl until college, go figure.)

I’ve spoken to several men who react the same way as you do Gina. They don’t feel a physical desire simply because they find someone attractive, they need a connection for that desire to be there fully. And I’ve met some women who react like Wes and Shaun.

In the end we’re all a little bit different, but somethings come down to how we’re influenced, both directly through family and friends and indirectly through media and what we consume and are exposed to in our daily lives.

Of course now days I’m celibate and have been for around 10 years. I rarely have urges and I never act on the ones I do have. Depression has something to do with this, but so does being badly burned by my ex and fear of a repeat with someone else.

2. Gina - April 19, 2012

Yes, I would agree that everyone is different. I think we are born with certain persoanlities that affect how we interact with the world and that as we interact with the world, it influences us. Our relationship with sex seems to be particularly susceptible to outside influence. I had certain circumstances growing up that left terrified of the consequences of sex (and was taught that these consequences were pretty unavoidable and would ruin your life). I’m sure this has affected the way I pursue it. Could it be as ridiculous as “if I’m risking everything, you had better be worth it”? I think this attitude used to be somewhat the case. I have mellowed out quite bit over the years in that this isn’t an imperative anymore. But perhaps its affects still remain.

3. Amanda - April 20, 2012

I think this is really smart anlysis. I also find that even when I don’t have to negotiate the whole sexual assault/risk issue (like when I know someone well enough to not feel threatened) the other expectations I anticipate can make an otherwise appealing person seem less so. Most men are socialized to believe their identities and needs come first (NOT to say all men, or that this socialization always takes); hence the higher incidence of raping. I can’t really get it up for someone until and unless I’ve established that I’m not going to have to spend all my time reminding them that I’m not here to provide an audience for their Big Ideas/ get them a beer / t&a.

4. Ginny - April 22, 2012

Finally weighing in! I’ve been avoiding blogs because I’m caught up in finals, but it’s time to take a break.

I think attraction is way more complicated than we make it sound by assigning it a single word. To make it slightly more complicated but still too simple, the best working theory I know of for how sexual desire actually works is the dual-control model, described at greater length here: http://www.thedirtynormal.com/2010/02/21/how-sex-works/

Basically, sexual desire is controlled by not one but two elements: excitation (the sexual excitation system, or SES), and inhibition (SIS, you’re clever enough to figure out what it stands for). They’re like gas and brakes, and your experience of desire is like the overall motion of the car. Things that rev up the gas include thinking about sex, seeing someone attractive, being touched in a way you like, etc. Things that put on the brakes include feeling threatened, feeling anxious, worrying about possible consequences of sex.

The important thing to remember is that most of the time these are operating unconsciously. It’s not like you have the experience of “I’m really turned on right now, but also really anxious!” That’s a different feeling. Like I said, your experience of desire is the overall motion of the car, which is formed by the sum of gas + brakes (where brakes is a negative value.) If there’s enough inhibitory stimuli, you won’t feel turned on even if there’s also excitatory stimuli like a hottie over there.

And yeah, on average, women more often have more sensitive SIS systems, more responsive “brakes” than men do, and men more often have more sensitive SES systems. But everybody’s different.

5. Ginny - April 22, 2012

Maybe I should add to clarify: in addition to internal, unconscious inhibitory systems, there are external, conscious ones. Things like, “that person is hot and totally into me and I totally want them, but my spouse would feel betrayed,” or “I want that person but I know they’re an emotional train wreck and I’d only feel regret for getting involved” are conflicts between frontal lobe and SES, not between SIS and SES. They take place on a conscious level and feel very different from SES/SIS conflicts which result in overall just not feeling desire.


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