Sexual Desire: Ur Doin It Rong?
September 22, 2012 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Sexual desire: how does it work, in your experience? To what extent does the visual have primacy? Is my experience deeply atypical or odd, and/or should I be concerned?

My question this week is about sexual desire - the degree to which my own experience with it is bizarre or atypical, and the degree to which others' experiences (especially men's experiences) are different from mine. My own experience with this sort of thing (mid/late twenties, straight woman) is that I usually notice attractive people of both sexes when I'm out and about, but I'm not attracted *to them*, in the sense that I'm not aroused by looking at them. I'm very rarely attracted to bodies, even beautiful bodies, that don't exist in any relational context to me. For instance, if I saw a naked picture of Brad Pitt or Tim Tebow or whoever the current Hottest Man Ever (TM) is supposed to be, I would likely recognize the aesthetic beauty of the body without being turned on. There have in my own life been a few rare exceptions to this, when I have been turned on by looking at the body of a man whom I didn't know well or at all, but I can count them on one hand, and only one of these experiences was particularly intense.

(I should preface the next bit with the possibly relevant fact that I have dated a few people and been in one long relationship but I haven't had sex, for religious reasons rather than lack of desire.) I don't have solid empirical experience to go on yet, but my limited experience leads me strongly to believe that I probably wouldn't be immediately aroused from the body of my significant other, if he were standing naked in front of me, unless there were something else at play, either tactile or mental (kissing, massage, thinking of all the reasons why I love him, him telling me how much he desired me, some sort of particularly romantic setting, etc.). Conversely, I sometimes find myself turned on by something not really sexual at all, like someone's really crisp prose, or big vocabulary, or playful wit with just enough of a rough/sarcastic/flirtatious (yes, I'm nerdy!). I tend to find myself attracted not so much to someone's body as a physical object, but to a man's physical presence, which involves his body and is located by it, but isn't really centered on its aesthetics: I often am turned on by a very masculine presence - confidence, forthrightness, a playfulness that comes from mastery of something, controlled power, assertiveness/aggressiveness, etc. (all usually realized in intellectual or mental ways rather than physical, as I tend to work in the realm of ideas and engage in that way with others).

I could imagine being really aroused by the visual of someone's body, but that would happen after I was already turned on - it wouldn't be what would initially flip the switch. I don't find porn arousing, especially absent a story-line, and explicit pictures of genitals don't really do anything for me. I tend to think that I have quite a high level of sexual desire, but it's often free-floating, and not attached to specific individuals or motivated by a particular desire for sex with them specifically. For instance, it would be perfectly possible for me simultaneously to feel sexual desire but not want sex with my partner, because for whatever reason I wouldn't feel turned on by him specifically at any given point in time. When I masturbate, I don't necessarily need to masturbate *to* an image, real or imagined; it's very possible for me just to focus on the pleasurable sensations, without some sort of visual in mind, although fantasizing about a visual image or a scene would probably make the whole thing faster and more intense. Even if my fantasy involved visual elements, they wouldn't be graphic but would be in a more soft-focus, and I would emphasize in my imagination at least as heavily the contextual factors and the interpersonal factors (the person's desire for me, for instance) as the actual action. I can't imagine having a one-night stand with a stranger, even were I not opposed to it for personal reasons, because I can't imagine ever being attracted to someone enough to sleep with them without knowing them. I usually only find myself attracted to men whom I have known for a while - men who have a particular manner or way of relating, and with whom I've built up a particularly engaging and sparkling web of interaction. Often male bodies that I wouldn't initially have considered especially physically attractive become intensely physically attractive to me once I know the man in question - I experience my attraction for a man as physical, but it doesn't really stem primarily from the bodily, but is a constellation of more abstract characteristics that suffuse my visual interpretation of someone's body. Sometimes, however, I deeply admire someone as a person and love their company, but that doesn't render them more physically attractive to me (although sometimes it does, unpredictably). I often don't know why I'm not attracted to someone, or why I'm attracted to someone else whom others might consider "objectively" less good-looking (not that such a thing exists).

Is this all bizarre? Is it totally outside of the realm of normal (for a woman, if it matters)? Should I be concerned? Do any/many men experience desire in a similar way? I know men are the ones who are popularly supposed to be more "visual", but I've also heard a lot of women talking about fantasizing about good-looking men, often whom they don't know (actors, athletes), and it seems to me that my experience may be extremely atypical for women as well. I'd be curious to hear people's thoughts on this, or personal comments or anecdotes. I'd be especially interested to hear from men, about the degree to which their desire is visual versus something more holistic. Does it begin as visual, and then, as you get to know someone, it becomes broader and less physical (i.e. the opposite of how mine seems to work)? Are most women like this too? Do others experience this phenomenon where someone's more abstract qualities are subconsciously brought to bear on your physical impression of them, so they become more or less physically attractive when you know their personality or character more? Any thoughts are welcome (specifying gender and possibly rough age and sexual orientation might be helpful, if you're comfortable!)!

TL;DR: How does sexual desire work, for you? To what extent does the visual have primacy? Is my experience deeply atypical or odd? Others' experiences (your own, your friends', that of people you've dated) very welcome as data-points! (Sorry for the length: I just wanted to try to articulate everything as best as I could; since it's sort of strange, I thought comprehensiveness might be helpful to flesh the situation out.)
posted by UniversityNomad to Human Relations (45 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Totally normal. Just over-thinking it.
posted by greta simone at 1:34 PM on September 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

You sound normal to me. If it's important to you to talk to people who relate to desire in the same way you do, or give a label to it, you might want to google 'demisexual'.
posted by corvine at 1:37 PM on September 22, 2012

It's not odd at all.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:38 PM on September 22, 2012

Seconding that this is fine and you are just over-thinking it.
posted by Lobster Garden at 1:39 PM on September 22, 2012

Is the experience that I described one that most people here would identify with, or does this sound different from others' experiences with this?
posted by UniversityNomad at 1:40 PM on September 22, 2012

I'd also be very curious to know how this breaks down on gendered lines, if at all!
posted by UniversityNomad at 1:42 PM on September 22, 2012

Absolutely normal. I don't want to gender stereotype, but some folks think that this is much more common for women than men.

My most conventionally attractive BF (very tall, model build, strong jaw, the whole 9 yards) had the least amount of sex appeal to me, when it got right down to it. It's more about someone's character and masculinity (and one of the most masculine men I've met--and been very attracted to--was a three-inches-shorter-than-me Navy vet...with an art degree!).
posted by availablelight at 1:42 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds similar to how I felt before I started actually having sex, yes. Sexual desire and fantasy changes over time and with experience. However, I would say that a significant majority of women probably enjoy having sex with people whom they like and find sexy for any number of reasons, not just their looks or the sight of their penis. Penises are actually kinda dopey looking, honestly.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:45 PM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

For further reference, taking a look at Emily Nagoski. She has some good stuff about how sexual motivation system can work.
posted by platypus of the universe at 1:51 PM on September 22, 2012

Well if you're taking a poll, this sounds largely similar to, although not identical with, my own experiences (female, your age). There are some visual images that I find sexually arousing, but they're not images of men's bodies (they're images of situations that match my fantasies). And the chemistry that I have with someone when we interact is what gets me going, not the visual contemplation of their body.

I like to talk to people about sex, so I'm not totally inventing this, but it is only a generalization over a collection of anecdotes: I'd say you're not just within the range of normal (if anything about sexual desire and behavior could qualify as normal) but pretty damn near the middle of normal. You definitely shouldn't be worrying about it. I can see absolutely no grounds for concern in what you described, at all.

And on preview...haha I agree with the young rope-rider about penises!
posted by ootandaboot at 1:52 PM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Totally normal. Just over-thinking it.

I'm a dude, and I endorse this comment. Especially if you haven't had sex yet, I'm not sure if there is much value in this kind of intellectualizing and speculating, honestly.

Attraction and desire are complicated and often contradictory. I'm happy to look at a cutie on the street -- but the minute she says something meanspirited my attraction disappears, and most of us have had the opposite experience of being physically unattracted to someone and then over time finding their personality and demeanor so compelling that they become highly desired.

So speaking purely personally, the visual is huge for me -- but not more important than the tactile or (oh my god this is key) how someone smells. If we're talking about real desire, not just eying someone on the street, it's the whole package that matters to me.

Penises are actually kinda dopey looking, honestly.

They totally are. But the women I've dated have all spent huge amounts of attention on the tactile experience of the penis, rather than staring at the goofy thing. There are a lot of ways to enjoy both someone's entire body as well as focus in on its parts, and I'm not sure how much it changes things if one person is more visual and one is less, as long as you are ending up in more or less the same happy place.
posted by Forktine at 1:56 PM on September 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think it's important to remember that both men and women are socialized into how we/they experience sexual desire. I mean, the way you describe sexuality seems completely normal - as in reasonably common - but also the product of gendered socialization.

Here's a thing: once, I was exactly like you. I'd say that I'm still more like you than not. But the more comfortable I became with sexual desire and the more attentive I became to bodies in general, the more I found that I could look at a person or a picture in a purely sexual way. I feel like I was becoming able to name and acknowledge feelings that had always been there in potentia but that I had felt too much shame and fear to recognize. It was actually kind of shocking - and it's inconvenient sometimes. I don't particularly want to be struck by how alluring my crush looks draped over the sofa reading a book when I am in the middle of something else and don't really want to get any further into "I am so hung up on you" anyway. But on the whole, I think that having access to a broader range of sexual expression is good.

If you want wild speculation about gender norms in the society in which I grew up, here they are: I think that men are encouraged to acknowledge and foster in themselves a disconnected, visual and assertive sexuality but not to acknowledge anything else, and with women it's the reverse. And that absent the rather brutal and misogynistic gender conditioning we experience, most people would recognize in themselves a great variety of sexual responses and desires. (And a great variety of gender expressions, actually, but that's another question.)
posted by Frowner at 2:02 PM on September 22, 2012 [12 favorites]

Late twenties, straight female here.

I think I identify with your experience. Also I'm not usually attracted to/aroused by conventionally attractive men even though I can appreciate that they are attractive. I've also never had the posters of Brad Pitt or Vin Diesel or anyone else hanging on my walls. For awhile I had a celebrity crush on Matt Lauer for various reasons.

Attraction for me is mostly based on personality and (almost more importantly) sense of humor - the sarcasm/wit that you mentioned. I totally get turned on by someone who is witty and makes me laugh. If I'm talking to someone who otherwise would be the hottest person in the world to me, and we don't mesh at all personality-wise, I probably won't be turned on by him. I know I'm attracted to physical traits to a degree though because even someone who makes me laugh and has that sarcastic edge that totally turns me on, if I'm not past a certain threshold of physical attractiveness I won't become sexually attracted to him. I think the threshold varies though and will be different depending on other factors.

Anyway, I was going to come in here and say that you were over-thinking it, but I think I also over-think it. I would say that as long as this doesn't bother you then it's totally fine and normal.
posted by fromageball at 2:05 PM on September 22, 2012

My experiences are pretty similar. I wouldn't want to have sex with someone purely because I find them physically attractive, I have to actually like them to be turned on and want to sleep with them. I've also found that in relationships, the stronger my feelings become, the more attractive I find a person, even if initially I was somewhat indifferent to their appearance. I don't think this is uncommon at all.

I also can't see myself masturbating to/ being really turned on by an image of someone who is physically attractive, although this seems to be considered normal for guys to do... I need something more to go on to be turned on. Most conventional porn doesn't do anything for me.
posted by catatethebird at 2:07 PM on September 22, 2012

Super normal. I have never been turned on by visuals, and to be perfectly honest, I have never been physically attracted to anyone I have dated/had sex with, and I honestly can think of one time I saw a man I had an physical attraction to. It doesn't matter that much to me. I am attracted to people for myriad other reasons, and those attractions lead me to enjoy the physicality of the person. I have physical attributes I prefer or find pleasant, but that's not the same as being physically attracted to someone.
posted by peacrow at 2:21 PM on September 22, 2012

...also, if this weren't common, women wouldn't complain/mock so much about shirtless flexing mirror shots and disembodied penis photos from near-strangers that flood their inboxes on dating sites.
posted by availablelight at 2:23 PM on September 22, 2012

You're doing it plenty right. For me, and I think for more people than not, desire increases with context. Honestly, there's a knack to looking at a more or less random naked body and wanting to have sex with it - and probably for a lot of people, part of that knack is imagining implicitly or explicitly that the naked body owner has desirable qualities like mutual interests or an admirable personality (see: celebrity crushes, and the devastation/hysteria therein when it is discovered that said celebrity holds the "wrong" political views or criminal disposition or other incompatible traits. It's not just a fine-tuned booty, it's the imagined scenario that this person is compatible in various ways).

Obviously, as you've observed, even if someone is attractive by your general standards and also an awesome person, that still doesn't automatically flip the sex switch. It just doesn't. That's probably a mystery of biology and neuroscience, but it also makes it possible for us to work and do the shopping and chores, so it's something of a survival mechanism as well.

Don't underestimate the fact that "visual" means a lot of things. I get a little weak-kneed in the presence of a nice person in a suit, and people who have really graceful hand gestures. That's visual, it's just not nudity. I'd be much more likely to think, "I find that person in that suit very attractive" than "hey, that random stranger's got his wang out, hey-o!" I'd be more likely to call the cops, you know? Context. And I see my husband get out of the shower all the time, and yeah, I acknowledge that he's cute and all but I still get to work on time.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:46 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

34 y/o male. This seems relatively normal to me. Regarding your hypothesis about males being more visual, I definitely am visual to a limited extent, in the sense that I consider people completely unsexable unless they have an attractiveness rating of at least 7 out of 10. However, I have found that (for me, at least) personality will modify how attractive the other person looks to me by +/- 3 points, so people I might consider average become totally datable, whereas people who are physically gorgeous become unappealing to me. To my mind this trick of perception subtly manifests either as minor physical flaws becoming much more noticable to me (when somebody has an unattractive personality) or minor blemishes being overlooked or registered as an "exotic quirk" (when somebody has an attractive personality).
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:47 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of other people of all genders and sexual orientations feel like you. There are probably more women than men in the set of people who feel like you, at least that's what the studies I've seen suggest (haven't seen studies on this that include non-binary-gendered participants that I remember). I think, too, that as people get older and perhaps as they become more sexually experienced, they may in many cases develop more nuanced and idiosyncratic patterns of attraction that include lots of non-visual stimuli.

People in public spaces often talk about a smaller and more culturally prescribed set of emotional responses than they would share with people they knew well. "Movie Star A has a great ass! So hot!" is a less personal and intimate thing to share than "Movie Star A seems vulnerable but brave---I find that really attractive."

Something to look at, if you want to see where other people are about this stuff, is qualitative research on sexuality and sexual response. The Kinsey Institute and the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality have a lot of resources.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:48 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guess I'd say that as a dude, my reaction to visual stimuli is different than yours. I find the sight of my wife to be a significant trigger of arousal for me, although it is sort of complicated by the fact that she well knows my hot buttons, so when I am seeing her in some half-dressed state, I often know that she knows that I'm likely to be aroused by that and that just makes it kind of a feedback loop. I'd say that visual stimulation is a primary factor in my arousal.

When it comes to women that are not my wife, my reaction is similar to yours in that I have no interest in sleeping with someone that I see who is lovely, but different in that in some circumstances I find their appearance arrests my attention. In a scenario like browsing a magazine or surfing the web where I'm unable to make anyone uncomfortable, I might find myself in a kind of brain-locked admiration of a hipbone or leg or whatever. This lizard brain reaction must not be unique to me, since advertisements aimed at men are extremely likely to feature physically appealing women.

My wife shows no sign that catching sight of my naked form as I exit the shower sends her into a frenzy of arousal, but then again I bear no resemblance to "Hottest Man Ever." 30 years of extremely close study of what tends to arouse her suggests to me that she is not at all unlike you, however.
posted by Lame_username at 2:48 PM on September 22, 2012

Both totally normal, and something that you may find changes somewhat within the context of a specific relationship. I am almost never turned on by random pictures of even really beautiful naked guys. Yet I can be turned on by visual aspects of MY specific naked guy - he has a context, we have a context together, that makes the purely physical something beyond itself. (And yet, as Lyn said, I still get to work on time. Sometimes with a little frisson of "man, I really would like to get me a piece of that tonight", and sometimes with a feeling of "Oh my god, get out of my way, I need the goddamn hair dryer to get to the bus on time.")

For added fun: I'm bisexual. All of this that you're describing and that I'm saying is similar to my feelings toward men, is NOT quite what goes on with my attractions and feelings toward women. And with both genders, there's been some change over time in my responses in this arena. But there's a certain core that remains unchanged for me and what you're describing feels very familiar.
posted by Stacey at 2:51 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Absolutely normal.

I would caution you not to categorize any expression of sexual attraction as bizarre (sure there are some unhealthy exceptions to this rule, but you'll absolutely know these without question, i.e. animals, children, dead people).

How your sexual desire is experienced and expressed will change over time. Different things will turn you on ten years from now.

I do tend to believe that men are more visually stimulated than women. But really, I've dated men who were more turned on by the fact that I could beat their friends at a video game, or that I like Tom Wait's voice than by the sight of my nakedness.
posted by dchrssyr at 2:53 PM on September 22, 2012

To carry on, I think that the narratives we have for how we experience sexuality are really reductionist and harmful.

"I'm a visual person; most men are." "I need emotional intimacy; most women do." "Unlike most men, I need to feel emotionally close to a partner to enjoy sex." "Unlike most women, I enjoy casual sex." Those are all 21st century common sense boxes that we're supposed to sort ourselves into, using the language of foundational, unchanging, innate sexual natures to describe what we know from history (sailors! at sea! nominally straight men who had sexual relationships, sometimes sustained and romantic, with other men!) (the middle ages, when Europeans believed that men were continent and women were loose and always on the prowl!) to be an extremely various, unstable, fluctuating condition.

I mean, just try to pay attention to what you are feeling and what you want in any given situation. Don't, for heaven's sake, categorize your sexuality as if it were some obscure breed of butterfly.

Also, women are very strongly socialized to think it's normal to be repelled by men's bodies. How many times did I hear growing up that ew, men were hairy and smelly and gross and made gross noises, and that hardly any women were actually physically attracted to the men they had sex with because women don't care about things like that, and penises are weird and gross, and men have all these gross, excessive carnal desires. And of course no woman would ever want to look at, like, some muscle-bound hunk or whatever, because that's just too ridiculous for words. Male beauty? An oxymoron. And women who were sexually attracted to male bodies were consistently depicted as pathetic - drunken, trashy women groping some ridiculous Magic-Mike style dancers, or women too stupid know that they're past it making licentious remarks.

Sometimes I think that it's not that I'm not attracted to men; it's that I'm not attracted to 21st century heterosexuality. Male bodies, yeah, I can be attracted to those, but the social position I'd have to take to be a woman in a straight relationship - that flips me right out.
posted by Frowner at 2:55 PM on September 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm a reasonably hetero female, love my husband with the firey passion of a thousand suns. Love having sex with him and he can turn me on like crazy but I still go OMG put some clothes on and put that thing away, if I see him naked unexpectedly, it's become a bit of a running gag between the two of us. He on the other hand can get turned on by say catching sight of me in a very boring everyday bra he's not seen me wear before.

Your reactions, and appreciation of the male body as a more aesthetic than arousing thing seem pretty normal reactions to me because that's pretty much how I see it, only once in my life has a guy made my jaw drop and loins throb just by how he looks, and he was some random dude at a bus stop I saw as I drove by.

As a side note, I can watch porn and admire how attractive everyone is in a sort of a detached from what is going on kind of way but mostly think man sex looks weird, if the sound is down, the second you turn the sound up and I hear all the moaning and groaning BAM instant turn on. So you know don't worry so much
posted by wwax at 2:56 PM on September 22, 2012

I'd be especially interested to hear from men, about the degree to which their desire is visual versus something more holistic. Does it begin as visual, and then, as you get to know someone, it becomes broader and less physical (i.e. the opposite of how mine seems to work)?

It doesn't have to be an either/or thing. People one finds stunningly attractive can become less so once you realize they're not very bright or are very petty. Conversely, people who aren't attractive can become so once you find out they're incredibly smart or witty or funny. It depends on what you like and your chemistry with the other person.

Most heterosexual women I've known have no strong desire to stare male bodies and penises, but do enjoy the sight of their specific mate's body and penisl. Size and shape tends not to matter, just that its attached to someone they have feelings for.

You sound perfectly normal and fine, but over thinking this. Which some guys will be attracted to, so there you go.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:04 PM on September 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with the others who have said that you are super-normal.

My anecdata, for what it's worth: I am a bisexual female (married to a man) and you have more or less perfectly described my attraction to men. My attraction to women is like the stereotypical hetero guy's attraction -- extremely visual and physical.
posted by gentian at 4:15 PM on September 22, 2012

I have found it changes. I am rarely attracted to anyone I do not know intimately (although I have had this oddly strong physical reaction to the actor Sasha Roiz on screen) (which is so weird I cannot even begin to parse it since he is unlike most of the men I find attractive in real life) and that attraction can wax and wane.

So, for instance, I have a friend who was originally a casual sex partner. I had ferocious sexual chemistry with him. Absolutely ridiculous. The fact that he is short, dumpy, hairy and pale was part and parcel of it. Ten/eleven years later I still find him attractive in a visual sense but that sexual chemistry has fizzled out due to just the natural rhythm of things when you aren't committed partners and the fact we are both married to people we are totally in love with and committed to. In another instance I have a friend with whom I have had no sexual chemistry with or attraction to until he grew a beard. Then suddenly I'm wondering where the hell this latent attraction has come from given we are both happily married. When the beard is gone I still find him attractive but I am not attracted to him. Emotionally there is no attraction.

When it comes to my partner? I have always found him attractive. I have always been sexually attracted to him. Certain things he does make him more attractive (tight jeans, tighter shirts, suits and bare feet and so on and so forth) and certain things do not (shaving the beard, dumb ass faces, talking about pooping etc.) but they don't affect my sexual attraction to him. Visual plays a part, but for me sexual attraction is separate to finding someone attractive but the two have some correlation.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:18 PM on September 22, 2012

Because you asked about experiences: I'm your opposite, and I feel like I'd be missing a lot of my sexuality if I was magically changed to operate like you.

I'm attracted to physical traits on people, even if I don't like them or know then that much, or even if I din't find them otherwise attractive. I'm really into bikes in my city and spend a lot of time riding around and know most of the other people into bikes; sometimes I'll be lusting after someone's muscular calves in traffic and then I'll speed up and pass them and I feel a little gross because it turns out once I can see their face it's the kind of crusty dude who never cuts his hair, or the guy who is always blackout drunk at parties, and they're not someone I'd ever fuck but I am turned on looking at certain parts of them.

I have had sex with someone(s) I found attractive that I had absolutely no intention of developing a romantic attachment to. It's a luxury.

I've changed my mind about whether or not I'm going to sleep with someone based on physical traits; oh eww that back hair is kind of weird, oh hey your dick is huge maybe we SHOULD go buy some condoms.

I have a visual library (spank bank) of attractive dudes I am friends with or have previously had sex with that I have vivid fantasies about while masturbating.

I perv out on my partner's body all the time. Those moments are distinctly separate from the times I'm like "aww you're so sweet" or "damn you are smart and clever."

Does that mean I'm doing it wrong? Or that you're doing it wrong? No. It means people sexualit and desire in a variety of ways.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:01 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mid twenties female. The way you describe your sexual desire sounds quite similar to how I feel, and how friends I've talk to about it feel.

I'm curious why you thought your experience was atypical?
posted by horizonseeker at 7:39 PM on September 22, 2012

I'm also wondering why you thought you were outside the norm on this.... ever wondered why, stereotypically, men like Playboy magazine and women like romance novels?

If you look in a Playgirl magazine, yes, there are pictures of naked men, but they also dedicate significant sections to storytelling about fantasies or real encounters, whereas you find very little of that in Playboy. They are catering to what, stereotypically, turns women on.

However, even though I think that your experience of sexual desire is very similar to many other women's, I would encourage you that if you ever do find something about your sexual desire or experience that is not similar to the majority of women, that you do not see it as a personal flaw or cause for concern.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:28 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Non-binary, asexual data point. I do experience only the non-arousing visual appreciation. Obviously, I can't contribute much more than that to your question, but I am curious about some answers:

Some people say they are turned on by wit... Really? As in, you talk to someone witty and think "OMG must get to bed with witty person"? Or is it more a quality you find attractive like "sense of humor" or "kind to animals" that you want in a partner? I have a really hard time to imagine it's the first option...
posted by MinusCelsius at 8:59 PM on September 22, 2012

Witty usually means smart and playful mental and language fun. So yes, interesting and someone you want to know more.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:27 PM on September 22, 2012

Some people say they are turned on by wit... Really? As in, you talk to someone witty and think "OMG must get to bed with witty person"? Or is it more a quality you find attractive like "sense of humor" or "kind to animals" that you want in a partner? I have a really hard time to imagine it's the first option... - MinusCelsius

Done right, it does have a physical effect as long as there is some sexual component for me. So if I'm bantering wittily with my partner and we're being a little flirtatious I am a lot more likely to make a move than if we are just being flirtatious or just being witty with each other. Witty conversation in general makes me energised and happy and from there I am much more likely to want to have sex in general - so not aroused by the conversation in any way but I am at a point where I am more likely to initiate or accept sex because I'm happy and content and energised by being around people.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:45 PM on September 22, 2012

Oh, I often want to fuck strangers because they're witty or have a mellifluous voice or are doing something cool. I think that's pretty usual for people who like to fuck other people. It's very different from wanting to be friends with them.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 PM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some people say they are turned on by wit... Really? As in, you talk to someone witty and think "OMG must get to bed with witty person"? Or is it more a quality you find attractive like "sense of humor" or "kind to animals" that you want in a partner? I have a really hard time to imagine it's the first option...

Well, it's not like I hear someone smart and funny on the radio and get a stiffy. But I'm also not going to be attracted to someone who isn't smart and funny -- so when someone who I already think is cute turns out to be smart also? Swoon!

For me at least, these things aren't separable, at least in person. From a distance, I can look at just physical appearance. In a text-only setting, like MeFi, I can have writing-crushes on all kinds of people (I mean, I don't usually even have an idea if someone is male or female here, much less cute). But in person, cuteness and smartness and how they smell and how they treat other people and a dozen other things are just part and parcel of attraction.
posted by Forktine at 10:37 PM on September 22, 2012

I am extremely visual with both men and women but true desire for me is whether I find this person smart AND sexy AND kind. Yep, kindness is a big turn on. But I'm not big on fantasies at all. I'm not especially interested in romance (unless it has an edge to it). Certain voices will do it for me as will genitalia. I am not, however, attracted to many people on a daily basis at all. I'm either extremely attracted to a very small number of people (knowing their personality well is not a prerequisite) or I feel nothing at all.

Early 30s woman.

Everyone is different.
posted by heyjude at 10:58 PM on September 22, 2012

First: everyone's different, and you're well within normal range of variation. Can't say that enough. I know women like you, and polar opposite, and men of just as many persuasions.

I'd be especially interested to hear from men, about the degree to which their desire is visual versus something more holistic.

"Holistic" isn't the right word, but neither is "visual". Spectrum's more complex than that. Desire is also not the same as arousal; as you said concerning visual attraction, I can definitely follow someone home because of the way they look or smell, without strictly being aroused. What tends to get me aroused most is sound. Took forever to figure this out.

Seriously, everyone's different.
posted by ead at 11:35 PM on September 22, 2012

Before I'd ever had any kind of sex, I felt a lot like you. I was emphatically attracted to men who were *not* conventionally attractive, and more turned on by personality traits and certain interpersonal dynamics. I also read a lot of erotica during my sexual awakening, and was muuuuch more interested in male/male fantasies than male/female fantasies. As I gained more experience with men, I started to become much more visual/physical, and male/female fantasies turned me on more. I suspect some kind of hormonal shift, beacuse it's only in the last 1-2 years that I've been able to glance at a photograph of an attractive shirtless guy and actually feel some stirring down below. It's not super intense, but just a kind of visual magnetism and mild-to-moderate physical response.

I'm also extremely attracted to male genitalia-- I don't think they look dopey at all, an erect penis is a huge visual turn-on for me. It used to be a kind of unfocused and abstract attraction (as a signifier of desire and a locus of pleasure that was kind of analogous to my own body?) but now it's in a very visual, "othered" way, where I'm simply turned on by the exposed maleness of it. And I definitely perv out on my boyfriend's body. I'm also much more turned on by the idea of a man performing sexual acts on me now (penetration, cunnilingus), whereas before I was really only powerfully turned on by the idea of "servicing" a man, sometimes to the extent of rape fantasies. I think as I became more comfortable and confident in my sexuality, I was more able to fantasize about my own pleasure without shame and the need of the "being taken by force" narrative (which is really not a turn on at all anymore). I guess I grew out of the visualization of myself as an object to be used.

I'm also very, very turned on by my boyfriend, so loving sex is a much more stimulating fantasy for me now than it ever has been before. (Most of my exes were not particularly physically attractive to me, so while I enjoyed being with them, my fantasies while alone strayed a lot.) It's really fascinating to me how this has changed over time, which I enjoy attributing to my smokin' hot and incredibly sensitive boyfriend, because I love him.

None of this is to say that anyone else is wrong or sexually stunted (see: Freudian theories on clitoral/vaginal orgasm, feminist theories on rape fantasies, &c.), just that sexuality changes a lot over time, and there's no reason to ever feel like you're "wrong," unless for some reason your sexual desires are turning into acts that hurt people. I do feel like my sexuality has become more healthy, in a way, but that's a personal reckoning, and I enjoyed my sexuality back then as much as I do now-- it just had different baggage. I don't think everybody who has rape fantasies has them for the same reasons that I did, for instance. But in sum: the visual is important to me (though it's the full experience of sight, smell, sound, urgency, &c. that makes it really great), but there have definitely been times when it was less so.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:08 AM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I keep thinking about this. I've realized that as I've gotten less heterosexual in actual practice I've become much more able to be attracted to men's bodies. Like, yes, this queer woman would totally have no-strings sex with men - if we could magically subtract gender roles from the equation. Now, I'm basically still a mushy romantic who prefers to have a big crush on someone and hang out on semi-dates and have it be a huge giant deal to hold hands, but those things can both be true.

To what do I attribute this?

Basically, I think I've learned to see myself as a subject. Stoneandstar's narrative really resonates with me, but I'm not quite as neutral about it. I think it's an actively bad thing that women are discouraged from seeing themselves as sexual objects - that rape fantasies and servicing-men fantasies and fantasies that revolve around being desired rather than desiring are not just hey, some of the fantasies that you have, which is fine but instead the first, foundational fantasies that many women describe. I don't think it's bad to be a person with those fantasies (might as well enjoy your sexuality as much as possible wherever your head is at, right?) - I think that the primacy of those fantasies is a bad sign.

I think it's kind of dismal that women tend to be brought up to be so nice, sexually - that we're supposed to be as sexually fungible as possible, as long as the guy is nice and really loves us. I remember very clearly thinking that I did not want to have strong sexual preferences since it seemed to rude and unfair - I hated being judged sexually, so why would I want to judge some guy? The fact that this led to years of mediocre sex and bad relationships didn't seem to compute. Many of my sexual relationships hinged on the feelings I got from being desired, and that burned out pretty quick, leaving me not only without interest but without even the idea of what interest would feel like.

I remember the first time that I was actually acutely sexually attracted to a real person that I knew, and how shocking it was. I felt really lucky, actually, to have finally moved from this sort of muted half-desire into...well, being a sexual subject. Instead of wanting to be wanted, or wanting to be close to a nice person I could trust, I actually wanted something sexually for myself just because I wanted it. It was great. It was a kind of power, to think of myself as able to have sexual wishes that were entirely divorced from whether those wishes were "nice" or "appropriate" or "fair" or even possible. I wanted something for me - that's something I had not been brought up to do. I had been brought up to deny what I wanted or to camoflage it in socially acceptable reasons - it was never, ever okay to just say that you found a person attractive if it was not socially appropriate for a nice woman to say so.

I emphasize that all these mental processes took place at the pre/un-conscious level, which made them very hard to name and identify.

The funny thing is that knowing what I like has actually broadened what I like. I went from "oh, really I don't care about appearance, I can hardly even describe the bodies of the people I sleep with and have no strong feelings about any of them" to being able to see, describe and eroticize the bodies of my partners. Bodies came into focus as sexual things instead of just as vehicles for beautiful souls.

I will go out on a limb here and say that I think it is healthy and good for women-who-are-attracted-to-men to be able to look at men's bodies in a sexual way, a desiring way separate from "I love you and because I love you I love your body". I think it's something that women are very, very strongly discouraged from doing - to the point where many of us think it's vulgar or dangerous, or don't even recognize the possibility. I think it's something that can be learned - I definitely owe a lot to certain types of pornography and to various novels by gay men on this score. I think that it's a good thing to be capable of and aware of in yourself a wide variety of sexual response - I think it's stunting and harmful to be all "I am only attracted to models and cheerleaders, that's just how it is naturally for me", but I also think it's sad to be unable to be an autonomous sexual subject.

I think that women are often reluctant to engage in what we see as creepy and objectifying behaviors because we don't want to act like jerky straight dudes. I think we're often encouraged to think that it is virtuous and a sign of superior character to be 'above' the merely physical. And I'm personally not interested in setting up a mental hierarchy of Musclebound Hunks To Whom I Am Attracted Because Only The Best Will Do, or taking a competitive, dominating stereotypical straight-guy attitude towards sex, where the goal is to achieve homosocial victory by sleeping with the highest-status woman you can - where sex is really about proving your masculinity.

But I think that sexual objectification as a misogynist/patriarchal status game is separate from being a sexual subject. You don't have to be a creepy jerk to pay sexual attention to bodies, that's what I'm saying.

I will close this very long comment with an anecdote: see, I read all these tumblrs. (Does one really 'read' a tumblr?) Mostly tumblrs full of queer people, many of them fat. One of the things that my newfound 'eroticize bodies' powers has given me is the ability to, er, eroticize bodies. What I'm saying is that because I have learned to pay sexual attention to bodies, I'm able to pay attention to marginalized bodies, to value and be attracted by them. Like, fat queer people are hot. Back before I really "saw" bodies, I would not have been able to think this, because I felt that it was vulgar and dangerous to find bodies 'hot'. I would have felt and seen nothing. This ability to see bodies as sexual hasn't turned me into some giant creeper who cares only for mainstream, generic straight dude beauty; instead, it's allowed me to see people as sexual beings outside of what I'm supposed to.
posted by Frowner at 6:07 AM on September 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

In my experience as a sometimes-funny person, women are attracted to humor (yes, sexually attracted) whereas it doesn't impact mens' sexual attraction. There have been studies that show this as well if I remember correctly.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:14 AM on September 23, 2012

Yup, normal This is pretty much my experience (female, mid-30s). I could look at brad pitt naked all day, appreciate that he is aesthetically pretty, and feel nothing else. To be honest even though I am mostly straight I would be more likely to get a charge out of seeing a naked woman.

Men getting close, touching, talking - those things are the things that turn me on. But ... only with certain men, and usually not until I've gotten to know them.
posted by bunderful at 6:27 AM on September 23, 2012

Frowner, I think I agree with you in that that evolution is a really powerful and interesting thing, but also in that before I was in touch with my sexual subjecthood, I really couldn't muster up sexual attraction to things that might seem more "selfish." It's really incredible how it wasn't just "oh, I'm attracted to men's bodies but I'm ashamed so I'm suppressing it but it's still there," it was a complete absence of attraction. I think this actually has to do with some kind of mental dampening effect, since I've noticed that whenever I'm anxious or ambivalent about anything, it fails as a sexual fantasy for me. Now that I feel liberated from the power dynamics that made me feel like rape fantasies were the only acceptable sexual expression, they cause me to feel a mild disgust, which makes them completely powerless as fantasies. Also this really helped me understand why older men (or some younger men) would express a preference for older women-- I am much better, more dynamic sexual partner now that I know my own desire qua desire.

I think that women are often reluctant to engage in what we see as creepy and objectifying behaviors because we don't want to act like jerky straight dudes. I think we're often encouraged to think that it is virtuous and a sign of superior character to be 'above' the merely physical.

Yeah, exactly. I found it really powerful to embrace the physical, but I also knew I was breaking out of a really strongly reinforced narrative about female sexuality being the more "virtuous." I think it's interesting in that 1) it's pretty widely acknowledged that projecting purity and virtue on women is a powerful social mode of control, and 2) that lesbian sexuality in the mainstream is so often divested of any of its rawness and treated like this totally pillowy, topological, ephemeral thing.

Clearly there's some kind of natural awakening or progression here (see: Lisa Simpson's Non-threatening Boys magazine). But I think it's definitely something that's affected by gender dynamics in one way or another. In general as a woman, it took a long time for me not to feel threatened and intimidated by straight men, because there were actual, tangible threats to me as a person to be hurt or used as an object. Assuming objecthood was a form of defense.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:23 PM on September 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I should add to that last sentence that once I realized men wanted to "use" me (which I discovered through porn), I had basically two options: resist that and try to nurture my own organic, somewhat aggressive sexuality in a completely unfamiliar realm where I felt alone and disempowered and mildly humiliated, or 2) learn how to eroticize masochism (and being used or being an object) and fit the normalized narrative of female sexuality, which in my limited experience made (younger) men fairly elated. It was a struggle then, in all the typical ways that growing up is a struggle, and I was afraid of my own desire. I can imagine young men go through something similar.

I am still sexually attracted to a sense of humor or a good writing style, though. I'm just also very attracted to bodies. (As another data point, I've always been attracted to female bodies, though I've never been with a woman sexually. I think another factor is that men's bodies usually aren't depicted as something to be used or lingered on, except in gay porn/erotica, which is why I gravitated toward it early in my sexual awakening.)
posted by stoneandstar at 3:32 PM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I forgot to add thoughts about the attractiveness of the penis. I think it's alright. I have no real preference as far as looks go for the penis itself but I don't think they're weird looking (at least, no more weird than my vulva). I don't get turned on by dick pics, but part of liking to look at naked dudes is the wang.

I think the comments about being an active participant really hone in on something. It has certainly been true for me and it does relate to penis attractiveness. If all you're expecting is being a receptacle for the penis, it's gonna be a weird thing because there is no real analogue for you. Sure, fingers and tongues can go inside, but it isn't the same and you do a whole lot of other things with your fingers and your tongue. But as an active participant the penis is something to explore and have fun with (I assume there is some cross over with women's vaginas for men). If you just think of a penis as something a guy fucks you with, it will be a weird thing to see. If it is part of a wider concept of bodies and attractions and active participation, it's probably less weird. Or it rapidly gets less weird.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:03 PM on September 23, 2012

Just wanna add that yes - it all sounds very normal and very much like I have experienced my sexuality. It is confusing though - there's so many messages about what a woman's sexuality should look like, that you can't help but start wondering if there's something amiss with your own.

I remember in high school listening to girls talk about guys "buns" and I just didn't get it. I was still working with "cute face, nice smile, fun to talk to" - it hadn't even occurred to me that there were other parts I should be checking out. It just didn't match up with what I was interested in. I still feel that way sometimes, on many different levels.
posted by Locochona at 2:01 PM on September 25, 2012

« Older Is this a terrible idea?   |   Handling complex business logic without... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.