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Pramana

Research on Why Psychologists Use “Attraction” to Define Orientations

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Pramana

I’ve complied some research on why psychologists commonly use the concept of “sexual attraction” to define the concept of sexual orientation (as well as the related question of why they commonly use “romantic attraction” to define romantic orientation), and on how the concepts of “sexual attraction” and “sexual desire” are defined by psychologists with reference to the use of those concepts in asexuality research. The search for conceptual clarity in this area has been a source of frustration for the asexual/aromantic community. One of the problems is that all three of these concepts involve multifaceted phenomena, and psychologists will emphasize different aspects of each depending on the specific focus of their research. Furthermore, all three of these concepts are built from other concepts which themselves lack fully satisfactory definitions. After all, what is sex? What makes some activities sexual, and others not? How is it that the same activity can be nonsexual in one context, yet sexual in another?

 

Nevertheless, the following is intended to provide a working outline of how these concepts are understood and utilized by psychologists, with particular attention to their use in asexuality research. I’ll first provide a brief schema, followed by quotes from articles to support it.

 

Brief answer: 

Sexual attraction is the “why”, while sexual desire is the “how”. If you ask someone what it means for them to be heterosexual, they might say it’s because they desire sex with members of the opposite sex, and not with members of the same sex. If you were then to ask why it is that they only desire sex with members of the opposite sex, they might respond that it’s because they only find members of the opposite sex to be attractive.

 

Analogy: 

If you go art shopping, you might find that certain paintings are beautiful while others are ugly, that some evoke an emotional response while others are bland, etc. The preferable artworks are those possessing qualities which evoke in you a positive reaction that causes you to be drawn to them. That is the force of attraction in operation. And that experience of attraction creates the motivation for wanting a particular painting which has an abundance of attractive qualities. That sense of wanting is an expression of desire.

 

Additional Factors:



“Sexual attraction” is often used interchangeably with phrases like “has sexual desires for” or “has a sexual interest in”, whereby having sexual thoughts and fantasies about certain persons is seen as indicative of that state. On that account, there are a couple of important qualifications:
 


1. “Has sexual desires for” does not equal “actually wants to have sex with”. For example, you might have sexual thoughts/fantasies about a physically attractive person you’ve seen in a public place, but you don’t want to actually have sex with them because you don’t know who they are. Or, you might start to have sexual thoughts/fantasies about someone with whom you’ve developed a close friendship, but you don’t want to actually have sex with them because you don’t want to upset the friendship relationship.


2. “Lacks sexual desires for” does not equal “unable to enjoy partnered sex with”. There is plenty of research which shows that people are capable of becoming physically aroused by the appearance or touch of others despite finding them unattractive, including those who are outside their sexual orientation. On that account, it should be kept in mind that many people enjoy using sex toys to aid masturbation, even though they probably don’t have sexual desires for those objects. Thus, even though people often report some degree of aversion to the thought of being sexual with someone who is outside their orientation (such as heterosexual men disliking the thought of being sexually active with other men) there are ways people could still potentially obtain intrinsic goods from that form of sexual contact.

 

Quotes Regarding Academic Definitions of “Sexual Orientation”

 

Concerning the motivations for defining sexual orientation in terms of sexual attraction, I’ve provided some quotes from a 2016 article called Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. This article is useful because it was written by a group of psychologists to provide a survey of current scientific thinking regarding the concept of sexual orientation.

 

“Sexual orientation is defined here as attraction to members of the same sex, both sexes, or the other sex. Most researchers studying sexual orientation focus on self-reported patterns of sexual attraction rather than sexual behavior or identity, because sexual behavior and identity can be extremely constrained by local culture and because sexual attraction motivates behavior and identity, rather than vice versa.”

 

“Four related phenomena fall under the general rubric of sexual orientation, but they are conceptually and empirically distinguishable. They are listed here not in order of importance but in an order that reflects their degree of historical attention. The first phenomenon, sexual behavior, consists of sexual interactions between persons of the same sex (homosexual), the other sex (heterosexual), or both sexes (bisexual). The second phenomenon, sexual identity, is one’s self-conception (sometimes disclosed to others and sometimes not) as a homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual person. The third phenomenon of sexual orientation is one’s degree of sexual attraction to the same sex, both sexes, or the other sex. The fourth phenomenon is one’s relative physiological sexual arousal to men versus women (or to male vs. female erotic stimuli), which is more closely related to other aspects of sexual orientation in men than in women.”

 

“Although the four aforementioned phenomena of sexual orientation (behavior, attraction, identity, and arousal) tend to go together—homosexually oriented persons tend to identify as gay or lesbian and to have sex with same-sex partners—they do not always. For example, some men who identify as straight/heterosexual have sex with other men and appear to be most strongly attracted to men. Some adolescents engage in homosexual activity yet grow up to identify and behave as heterosexuals. Similarly, some individuals pursue same-sex relationships in sex-segregated environments, such as boarding schools, prisons, or the military, but resume heterosexual relationships once other-sex partners are available. Moreover, the degree of association among homosexual attraction, behavior, and identity varies across individuals in different cultural contexts. For example, in some cultures and communities, homosexually attracted men regularly engage in same-sex behavior while still maintaining a heterosexual identity. In other cultures and communities, such a pattern may be less common, and homosexually attracted men may find it difficult to find male partners without identifying themselves as homosexual or bisexual.”

 

See: J. Michael Bailey, Paul L. Vasey, Lisa M. Diamond, S. Marc Breedlove, Eric Vilain, Marc Epprecht, Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, September 2016, Vol 17, Issue 2, pages 45-101.

 

Quotes Regarding Academic Definitions of “Sexual Attraction” and “Sexual Desire” in the Context of Defining Asexuality

 

To show how this understanding of sexual orientation is operationalized in asexuality research, I’ve provided a couple of examples from leading sources on the topic. First, here are quotes from a 2015 article by Anthony Bogaert defining sexual attraction and sexual desire, within the context of defining asexuality:

 

“[A]sexuality is construable as a lack of sexual attraction or a lack of interest in others. Thus, this definition implies a lack of lustful inclinations/feelings directed toward others. This lack of sexual inclinations/feelings toward others should be of an enduring nature or imply an enduring disposition or orientation.”

 

“Using a definition that centers on a lack of sexual attraction would not necessarily mean asexual people lack sexual desire. Sexual desire refers to an urge for sexual stimulation (including potentially an orgasm) and may include both partnered and nonpartnered stimulation (e.g., masturbation).” 

 

See: Anthony F. Bogaert, Asexuality: What It Is and Why It Matters, Journal of Sex Research,  May 2015, Volume 52, Issue 4, pages 362-379.

 

Second, here is a complimentary explanation by Mark Carrigan from the asexuality entry in The Sage Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies, which is interesting because it focuses on the relation between attraction and desire:

 

“However, within the asexual community, an important distinction is drawn between romantic asexuality and aromantic asexuality. Nether group experiences sexual attraction, but the former experiences romantic attraction while the latter does not, with romantic attraction being experienced as a desire for proximity and intimacy with partner(s) that nonetheless lacks the sexual component that is commonly assumed to accompany attraction of this form. It is important to recognize that those who experience neither romantic nor sexual attraction do not therefore lack any inclination to form meaningful personal relationships, instead simply not experiencing either a romantic or sexual dimension to the formation of those connections…

 

There is a great deal of variation in how asexual people feel about sexual activity, sometimes described in terms of individuals being sex-averse, sex-neutral, and sex-favourable. Some asexual people experience an active aversion to sexual activity, ranging from a mild distaste to an intense repulsion at the idea of it. Others are simply indifferent to sexual activity, manifesting in an absence of interest in the idea and, in some cases, a willingness to participate in sexual activity for reasons extrinsic to it, such as enjoying the intimacy with a sexual partner while deriving no satisfaction from the sexual act itself. Sex-favourable asexuality has been a topic of many recent discussions in online asexual community spaces, with some making the case that there has been a tendency to overlook the existence of sex-favourable asexual people within the community itself and within the academic literature. Understanding sex-favourability necessitates consideration of the distinction between sexual desire and sexual attraction. While commonly invoked as part of the “umbrella” definition introduced as the start of this entry, the issue of sex-favourable asexuality invites deeper interrogation into how this distinction should be understood. It has usually been framed in terms of the notion of a “nondirected sex drive” that leads to a desire for “release” but in a way that involves no sexual object. However, in the case of sex-favourable asexuals, this involves a stronger sense of regarding sexual activity favourably but in a manner not defined by sexual attraction to a partner, encompassing a diverse range of possibilities that are rendered invisible if asexuality is understood solely in terms of sex-neutrality or sex-aversion.”

 

See: Mark Carrigan, The Sage Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Studies, Edited by Abbie E. Goldberg, United States of America: Sage Publications, 2016, pages 91-94.

 

Summary 

 

Psychologists understand sexual attraction to be an intrinsic part of an individual, as a mechanism that evolved to direct sexual desire towards suitable reproductive partners. Since attraction directs desire, and not the other way around, attraction is seen as the explanatory end point for understanding people’s patterns of preferred sexual behaviours. The interrelation between sexual attraction and sexual desire is complex. A variety of circumstantial factors can influence who people actually desire to have sex with, and sometimes people can gain enjoyment from partnered sex even though they lack attraction to their partners, since the ability to receive physical pleasure from touch is not entirely constrained by the experience of attraction. Thus, sexual attraction is viewed as having an evolutionary origin to intrinsically orient humans towards a particular pattern of sex, age, appearance, social status, personality, and other sexual partner preferences, whereas sexual desire is not. As a result, sexual attraction is considered to provide more explanatory power and to be more reliable as a definition of sexual orientation.

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MistySpring

It seems to be that some sexuals do experience this “nondirected sex drive” which describes the experience of sex-favorable asexuals as well. Like how you can seek out sex with someone you are not attracted to, maybe even the opposite of your preferred gender. The difference is from what I can tell that sexuals who experience this also can experience sexual attraction but sex-favorable asexuals do not.

This doesn't bring up that sexual attraction doesn't have to have anything to do with looks/visuals though. That complicates things further in determining sexual attraction but still I don't think it disproves that "nondirected sex drive" exists. 

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JDP
39 minutes ago, Pramana said:

sexual attraction is considered to provide more explanatory power and to be more reliable as a definition of sexual orientation.

So no sexual attraction means no sexual orientation. Got it.

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Deus Ex Infinity
3 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

So no sexual attraction means no sexual orientation. Got it.

I don't think so. Everyone seems to have some sort of "orientation" even without experiencing sexual attraction.

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JDP

How?

 

The article is all about the exclusive relationship between attraction and sexual orientation. The inescapable conclusion is that the latter depends on the former.

 

Androromantic, for instance is a romantic orientation, not a sexual one.

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Deus Ex Infinity
18 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

How?

 

The article is all about the exclusive relationship between attraction and sexual orientation. The inescapable conclusion is that the latter depends on the former.

 

Androromantic, for instance is a romantic orientation, not a sexual one.

Indeed. That's why I don't agreed with the conclusion of this research. It doesn't match my personal experience.

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Flower Boy
38 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

So no sexual attraction means no sexual orientation. Got it.

Not necessarily, otherwise the term asexual would lack meaning.

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JDP

Sexual psychologists defining sexual orientations makes sense, I supposed, but I don't trust them to either define or understand asexuality, because of their inherent bias.

 

For the same reason I don't want Bible-thumpers trying to understand or explain atheism.

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JDP
1 minute ago, Retrobot said:

Not necessarily, otherwise the term asexual would lack meaning.

Asexual literally means "without sexuality"

 

That is the meaning.

 

There ought to be a different word for "without attraction."

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Flower Boy
1 minute ago, asexjoe said:

Asexual literally means "without sexuality"

 

That is the meaning.

 

There ought to be a different word for "without attraction."

Ehhhh, afraid I don't agree with you on that. That's like saying homosexuality means "same-sexuality", see the issue there?

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JDP
1 minute ago, Retrobot said:

Ehhhh, afraid I don't agree with you on that. That's like saying homosexuality means "same-sexuality", see the issue there?

But that is what it means, etymologically. What's the issue?

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Flower Boy
Just now, asexjoe said:

But that is what it means, etymologically. What's the issue?

Etymology aside people don't use it that way nor does it reflect it's definition.

 

But I'll stop ragging on, I'd hate to derail.

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JDP

I'm sincerely interested in your explanation.

 

I've always understood homosexual to mean males doing males, females doing females.

 

That is the denotation, anyway.

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Pramana
27 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

I'm sincerely interested in your explanation.

 

I've always understood homosexual to mean males doing males, females doing females.

 

That is the denotation, anyway.

38 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

Asexual literally means "without sexuality"

 

That is the meaning.

 

There ought to be a different word for "without attraction."

For describing orientation, "asexual" isn't equivalent to "lack of sex", just as "heterosexual" isn't equivalent to "opposite sex sex", etc. If "asexual" meant lack of sex, then every celibate person would be asexual. Likewise, if "heterosexual" meant "opposite sex sex", then any heterosexual person who was paid to produce gay pornography would actually be bisexual. Here's an explanation of etymology provided by @Flygunn in a reply to this thread:

 

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JDP
19 minutes ago, Pramana said:

For describing orientation, "asexual" isn't equivalent to "lack of sex", just as "heterosexual" isn't equivalent to "opposite sex sex", etc. If "asexual" meant lack of sex, then every celibate person would be asexual. Likewise, if "heterosexual" meant "opposite sex sex", then any heterosexual person who was paid to produce gay pornography would actually be bisexual.

I see celibate defined as abstaining from marriage and sexual relations. Except for the marriage part, that describes an asexual.

 

Someone who chooses not to have sex, when s/he could have sex, is asexual -- without sex.

 

It's attraction that is irrelevant, not behavior. Who cares whether or not someone is attracted to men, women or to elephant seals? If that person never acts on his/her attraction, s/he isn't "oriented" sexually.

 

As for the last bit, I was in the adult entertainment business, producing gay porn (along with others in my company) and I was not bisexual, nor am I.

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Flower Boy
4 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

I see celibate defined as abstaining from marriage and sexual relations. Except for the marriage part, that describes an asexual.

 

Someone who chooses not to have sex, when s/he could have sex, is asexual -- without sex.

 

It's attraction that is irrelevant, not behavior. Who cares whether or not someone is attracted to men, women or to elephant seals? If that person never acts on his/her attraction, s/he isn't "oriented" sexually.

No.

Nope.

Completely, 100% wrong. I am attracted to men sexually, thus I'm (for the most part) gay. The fact that I can't have sex because of personal issues does not change this at all. Action and orientation aren't the same thing, jfc. Abstinent folx aren't magically turned ace via actions.

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Pramana
14 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

I see celibate defined as abstaining from marriage and sexual relations. Except for the marriage part, that describes an asexual.

 

Someone who chooses not to have sex, when s/he could have sex, is asexual -- without sex.

 

It's attraction that is irrelevant, not behavior. Who cares whether or not someone is attracted to men, women or to elephant seals? If that person never acts on his/her attraction, s/he isn't "oriented" sexually.

 

As for the last bit, I was in the adult entertainment business, producing gay porn (along with others in my company) and I was not bisexual, nor am I.

I'm having difficulty following the logic of your argument. Are you saying that behaviour defines orientation in the case of asexuality, but not heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality?

I would add that it's pretty well accepted both in academia and in the asexual community that celibacy doesn't equal asexuality, and that behaviour doesn't equal orientation. Granted, I find that some people in the community hold antisexual views which may be relevant to their decision to identify as asexual, but that's a separate issue (which might be included in a disjunctive, descriptive definition of asexuality).

 

1 hour ago, asexjoe said:

Sexual psychologists defining sexual orientations makes sense, I supposed, but I don't trust them to either define or understand asexuality, because of their inherent bias.

 

For the same reason I don't want Bible-thumpers trying to understand or explain atheism.

I'm also having trouble figuring out what you're talking about here? What inherent bias? It's not like people who do academic research on asexuality have some sort of agenda to convert people to sexuality. In fact, one of the main psychologists researching asexuality, CJ DeLuzio Chasin, identifies as asexual.

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JDP
3 minutes ago, Retrobot said:

I am attracted to men sexually, thus I'm (for the most part) gay. The fact that I can't have sex because of personal issues does not change this at all. Action and orientation aren't the same thing, jfc. Abstinent folx aren't magically turned ace via actions.

I'm trying to understand your logic, Retrobot.

 

If you are attracted to men, but would rather die than have sex, why call yourself gay? Why not call yourself asexual?

 

 

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Flower Boy
Just now, asexjoe said:

I'm trying to understand your logic, Retrobot.

 

If you are attracted to men, but would rather die than have sex, why call yourself gay? Why not call yourself asexual?

 

 

Y'know I'm done. Someone else can take it from here, I'm really not in the mood for this.

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JDP
3 minutes ago, Pramana said:

I'm having difficulty following the logic of your argument. Are you saying that behaviour defines orientation in the case of asexuality, but not heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality?

No, I'm saying behavior determines sexuality too.

 

Someone who merely thinks of sex with animals isn't a zoophile. Someone who merely thinks about sex with prepubescents isn't a pedophile. Someone who merely has thoughts about sex with men aren't gay. Someone who fantasies about the opposite sex isn't straight, either. Big deal.

 

All these labels have no meaning without behavior.

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Pramana
7 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

No, I'm saying behavior determines sexuality too.

 

Someone who merely thinks of sex with animals isn't a zoophile. Someone who merely thinks about sex with prepubescents isn't a pedophile. Someone who merely has thoughts about sex with men aren't gay. Someone who fantasies about the opposite sex isn't straight, either. Big deal.

 

All these labels have no meaning without behavior.

With respect, I think what's happening here is that you've made up your own concept which has nothing to do with what anyone else is talking about, and then you're trying to appropriate asexuality and other sexual orientation terms for it, hence the resistance from other members.

There's a reason why religious monastics who take vows of celibacy and avoid sexual intimacy aren't considered asexual. Repressing sexual thoughts/fantasies doesn't change the fact that one still has them.

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JDP
15 minutes ago, Pramana said:

With respect, I think what's happening here is that you've made up your own concept which has nothing to do with what anyone else is talking about, and then you're trying to appropriate asexuality and other sexual orientation terms for it, hence the resistance from other members.

There's a reason why religious monastics who take vows of celibacy and avoid sexual intimacy aren't considered asexual. Repressing sexual thoughts/fantasies doesn't change the fact that one still has them.

The difference being that monastics can experience sexual intimacy and avoid it. That is much different than not being able to experience it at all.

 

I'm not alone in insisting that the word asexuality have a precise meaning. I do not leave that definition to academics, particularly sexual ones.

 

And this forum isn't the official voice of asexuality.

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BionicPi
31 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

I'm trying to understand your logic, Retrobot.

 

If you are attracted to men, but would rather die than have sex, why call yourself gay? Why not call yourself asexual?

Ergo the stereotypical very sexual teenager who remains abstinent should label themselves ace? What about a bisexual person who is in a relationship with a person of one gender? Are they suddenly no longer bi?

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Pramana
18 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

The difference being that monastics can experience sexual intimacy and avoid it. That is much different than not being able to experience it at all.

 

I'm not alone in insisting that the word asexuality have a precise meaning. I do not leave that definition to academics, particularly sexual ones.

 

And this forum isn't the official voice of asexuality.

Sure, but it is well established both in academia and in the asexual/aromantic community that behaviour isn't the same as orientation, and that asexuality isn't the same as celibacy or antisexuality.

Asexuality already has a precise meaning: An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.

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JDP
1 hour ago, BionicPi said:

Ergo the stereotypical very sexual teenager who remains abstinent should label themselves ace? What about a bisexual person who is in a relationship with a person of one gender? Are they suddenly no longer bi?

Is he abstinent by choice? 

 

Is he really sexual? 

 

Is someone who never wants sex with both sexes really bisexual? 

 

I don't understand why feelings determine identity if that person refuses to act on those feelings. 

 

Maybe I'm wrong about all of this simply because I don't see this as any kind of "community."

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Pramana
2 minutes ago, asexjoe said:

I don't understand why feelings determine identity if that person refuses to act on those feelings. 

 

Maybe I'm wrong about all of this simply because I don't see this as any kind of "community."

Again, going by common understandings of these concepts, a person who refuses to act on their attractions/desires due to a personal belief system or personal circumstances would be considered celibate rather than asexual.

That said, of course people are free to develop their own concepts and sense of identity. My point is that what you're talking about doesn't seem to have much in relation to how asexuality and sexual orientations are generally understood, either in the community or in academia.

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Pramana
4 hours ago, MistySpring said:

It seems to be that some sexuals do experience this “nondirected sex drive” which describes the experience of sex-favorable asexuals as well. Like how you can seek out sex with someone you are not attracted to, maybe even the opposite of your preferred gender. The difference is from what I can tell that sexuals who experience this also can experience sexual attraction but sex-favorable asexuals do not.

This doesn't bring up that sexual attraction doesn't have to have anything to do with looks/visuals though. That complicates things further in determining sexual attraction but still I don't think it disproves that "nondirected sex drive" exists. 

My understanding is that a sexual person who experiences a "nondirected sex drive" would in addition experience sexual attraction and a directed sex drive, whereas an asexual person would only experience a nondirected sex drive if they experience a sex drive at all.

In that sense, it is similar to the concept of autochorissexuality. Sexual people may have autochoris fantasies, but they would also have at least some non-autochoris fantasies, whereas autochorissexuals would only have autochoris fantasies.

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Cimmerian

(Back to the OP post).

 

It's interesting to see more explanation about why and how they decided which part/word influences or directs the other. And it's nice to see some research acknowledging they may need to re-examine their operational definitions and assumptions when dealing with these same concepts within the asexual population since they do not act or have the same linear connection that they would otherwise expect when studying a sexuality.

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Nowhere Girl
23 hours ago, asexjoe said:

No, I'm saying behavior determines sexuality too.

 

Someone who merely thinks of sex with animals isn't a zoophile. Someone who merely thinks about sex with prepubescents isn't a pedophile. Someone who merely has thoughts about sex with men aren't gay. Someone who fantasies about the opposite sex isn't straight, either. Big deal.

 

All these labels have no meaning without behavior.

That would imply that a person who has never had sex has no sexual orientation. And this is obviously wrong - allosexual people usually know whom they desire.

Back to the first, I think, topic I posted here: questionnaires about sexual orientation are indeed biased in favor of sexually active people. In case of at least some questionnaires a person who has never had sex simply cannot give valid answers. And that's not something I would accept because I believe that sexually inactive adults, while being a minority, shouldn't be perceived as an anomaly unworthy of being included.

I agree that asexuality shouldn't be defined solely as lack of sexual attraction. For some asexuals their lack of interest in sex is much more decisive that lack of sexual attraction. It's more like they have to align definitions with their feelings, look closely and decide that they probably don't feel sexual attraction anyway. On the other hand, I'm still trying to figure out how would sex-averse allosexuality feel like - even though I may in fact be close to this group - and I feel like such people could benefit from the ace umbrella, identifying as asexual could make them feel better. So asexuality is about more than just attraction, but the solution is not to argue that "asexuality is a lack of orientation" or that attraction doesn't matter.

PS. Yes, I think that one can actually be a paraphiliac who chooses not to act on their attraction for moral reasons. And I believe that such people deserve respect and support.

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Mermaidy

Behavior isn't so black-and-white.  Homosexuals can have heterosexual sex so that they aren't persecuted if they live in intolerant communities.  That behavior doesn't reflect the sexual orientation.  

 

a heterosexual experiences sexual attraction towards the opposite sex whether or not he acts on his sexual attraction.  behavior is generally a good indicator of sexual orientation, though, because MOST [orienation]sexuals WILL have sex with [orientation] because they are sexually attracted to [orientation].

 

It's not useful to define asexuality at this point in terms of anyone who doesn't have sex because most people know it either in terms of "asexual reproduction" or the sexual orientation.  Sexual-orientation-asexuality honestly should've been called something else entirely, like "nonsexuality" or something similar, so that there wouldn't be these irrelevant semantics debates.  

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