Thoughts on definitions of sensual attraction (because there are way more than I thought)

[Note: this was originally posted on my Pillowfort blog]

Trigger Warnings: There is some outdated language in here about what we would now call “allosexual people” which isn’t exactly a slur but does have some unfortunate connotations.

I’m not quite sure if this should count as a trigger warning but? I’ll be marking any links from my Tumblr blog with a * so you can skip those if you want. The blog has a large background image that’s a pin-up sort of thing from a music magazine.  It’s not terribly explicit- really you just see a lot of leg, and there are not any genitals/boobs/flat chests showing. It’s probably not anything most people will find triggering but it’s kinda in a grey area so just a heads up!

So, to start off I found this definition on Coy’s recent thread on Aropocalypse about the Split-Attraction Model:

Sensual Attraction – 

When you’re attracted so someone through your senses (other than looks). This may mean that you’re attracted to the smell of a person or you want to be touched or hugged by a person. “I want to hug/kiss you”

Which is…quite different from my first exposure to the term, this tumblr post*:

experiencing sensual attraction but not sexual attraction is so weird, like you see a hot character and someone’s like “oh wow they’re hot!” and you’re like “YEAH!” and then they’re like “i wanna leave hickies all over then and kiss the hell out of them and bite them and shit!” and you’re like “YEAH!!!” and then they’re like “and then fuck them senseless!!” and you’re like “NO!!!!”

And the definition of sensual that I would have first seen (assuming that the search function on my blog is actually working properly and any other posts with that information weren’t deleted in the recent purge of NSFW content) comes from this post*:

Sensual Attraction

A desire for physical contact as in hugs, kisses, etc. with a specific person

The definition Echidna provided includes an example that is similar to the definition that I was familiar with- wanting to be touched/hugged by another person- but it’s the definition itself I take issue with.

For one, by defining as sensual attraction as not being about looks, it seems to imply that blind people can only experience sensual attraction, especially compared to the definition of aesthetic attraction that they provide:

Aesthetic Attraction –

When you’re only attracted to the way a person looks and desire nothing more. “You look nice”

…which in turn seems makes it seem like only sighted people (I think that’s the correct term, do correct me if I’m wrong) can experience aesthetic attraction. Elizabeth has similar critiques of the way “aesthetic attraction” is typically defined and goes into more depth.(the definitions given sexual and romantic attraction, oddly enough, make no explicit mention of looks factoring into those kinds of attractions).

And as for my personal experiences…looks do matter in determining whether or not I am attracted to someone- other senses can factor in too, like the sound of a person’s voice, but the most distinguishing part of sensual attraction to me is the desire to do “sensual acts” (kisses, cuddling and kink mostly) with that particular person, not why I feel that kind of attraction.

Seeing how these two definitions were in conflict with each other, I decided to Google “sensual attraction” just to see what other definitions there were, and came across this AVEN thread from 2009 where the term‘s creator explains the definition.

[EDIT: Siggy found an example of sensual attraction being defined back in 2006! So this actually wasn’t the very first use of the term.]

In responding to a new poster’s thread, I posited a new term: sensual attraction. It seems to describe something I’ve been reaching for to explain why romantic asexuals aren’t just friends with their partners. That there is something else going on. The romantic scale would go something like this:

sexual attraction – having a desire to engage in sexual acts with a certain individual (intercourse, orgasmic interludes).

sensual attraction – having a desire to engage in sensual acts with a certain individual (kissing, cuddling, hugging, hand holding, etc).

romantic attraction – having a desire to engage in a romantic relationship with a certain individual (dating, marriage, etc).

So for instance, if I have a crush on someone, I would never have sexual attraction. But I do experience sensual attraction. I want to engage in sensual acts with that person. I also need certain sensual acts in a relationship or I wouldn’t feel satisfied.

It’s obvious that not all asexuals would experience sensual attraction. Aromantics would not experience any of these. Some romantics may not feel sensual attraction, yet they might engage in sensual acts to please their partner just as they might with sexual acts. Some romantics (me for instance), would have romantic and sensual attraction. Sexuals would most likely have all three (and some gray-As in certain contexts I guess).

There are quite a few things to note here: for one, this was a term that was originally intended for aces to distinguish their romantic relationships from those of allosexual people, and as a way to denote that they were not platonic in nature. It is explicitly something that the coiner, at least, does not believe aromantics could ever experience, but that not all alloromantic people feel sensual attraction.

As was pointed out in the replies to this thread (…six years after its creation), aromantic people are able to feel sensual attraction. Somebody else also critiqued the idea that sensual attraction was a part of a sliding scale between sex and romance. I agree with both of these critiques- the sliding scale especially leans heavily into amatonormativity, and so does saying that aromantics can’t experience that particular type of attraction.

This also gets into the arguments that Coy has been making about how the split-attraction model isn’t well defined– sensual attraction as a term predates the split-attraction model, and was originally intended to be heavily related to romantic attraction, yet the first definition I saw explicitly referenced a “split model”.

In the Urban Dictionary definition of sensual attraction, we have a different issue: instead, sensual attraction is so divorced from romantic attraction that they are seen as mutually exclusive:

a desire for touch ie: hugging, cuddling, hand holding, kissig, etc. but not a sexual or romantic relationship with a person. no lust is involved

While this is true in my particular case, obviously that’s not true for everyone.

It hasn’t really come up too much so the differing definitions haven’t really been an issue so far in my interactions with other people but clearly they do exist and its a good idea to be aware of these differences in case they come up in the future. This is hardly an exhaustive list of definitions, just the ones I’ve personally come across. 

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on definitions of sensual attraction (because there are way more than I thought)

  1. [EDIT: Siggy found an example of sensual attraction being defined back in 2006! So this actually wasn’t the very first use of the term.]

    I thought sensual attraction was already around for at least a year or so (maybe even longer?) before 2006. I recall it being around in 2005? And I think things usually didn’t get added to AVENwiki for a little while after they were coined in a discussion thread. I can’t see the “Relevant thread” linked to from AVENwiki since it’s long gone by now, but I think it would likely be significantly older than the date that AVENwiki page was updated (Dec 2006). I could be misremembering, but…

    Anyway, I think multiple people have independently come up with the term “sensual attraction” and defined it in different ways. I often disagree with their definitions.

    For me sensual and aesthetic attraction are frequently integrated, not distinct/separate experiences. It makes sense for me to consider aesthetic attraction (defined WAY more broadly than just being about looks) a sort of sub-set of sensual attraction, which is a very broad category of basically any kind of experience of attraction that heavily involves any of the senses (including looks). While the (now) more typical “wanting to hug, cuddle, kiss, hold hands, etc.” definition of sensual attraction, is what I would have probably called “physical attraction” back when I was more interested in distinguishing types of attractions, for lack of any better alternatives. “Physical attraction” is a terrible name though, it’s very unclear and people will tend to assume it’s a euphemism for sexual attraction. So I guess these days I would probably go with “tactile sensual attraction” to specify that I’m talking about desire for physical contact, not just a desire for any kind of sensual activity. I just, at the very least, think that “sensual attraction” should also include ideas like “I want to be so close to you I can smell your hair” which doesn’t necessarily involve physical contact.

    I hope I explained that clearly? You may be interested in reading a couple of posts I made last year where I got into this, and had some discussions in the comments about it.

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    • Oh, thank you so much for linking to those posts! I’ve read them before and that’s actually where I got the critique of most definitions of aesthetic attraction from, but I couldn’t find it when I was writing this! I’ll definitely make sure to link to the post in here!

      Liked by 1 person

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