Sexuality and Orientation Labels: Words and Definitions

This is basically an overview of the words I use when talking about sexuality and orientation labels, the way I organize them, and what they mean to me. I will probably write more about this later, probably using various analogies.

In General

Attraction: Attraction in general has to do with finding people attractive. Attractiveness goes into the category of subjective qualities, like, for example, prettiness, or tastiness. Because it’s subjective, it is ‘in the eye of the beholder’, but also often gets affected by the ideas prevalent in society. So two people might disagree about whether a particular painting is pretty or a particular food is tasty, but a lot of Americans have ‘inherited’ the cultural opinion that pizza is tasty while spiders are not.

Desire: Desire in general has to do with wanting something. Particular desires can be nebulous/general, and/or specific/anchored, as in ‘someday, I want to travel’ vs. ‘someday, I want to climb the Eiffel Tower in Paris’. Desire is mental, but has to do with actual actions. Desire is also a ‘strong’ thing- ‘I want’ as opposed to ‘that might be nice’ or ‘that might interesting’ or ‘sure, I could do that’.

Sexual Things

Sexual Attraction: This definition inherits from attraction in general- sexual attraction has to do with finding people sexually attractive. However, being more specific, it also allows a more specific definition. Definitions for personal perceptions of subjective qualities are well described as questions. So ‘is this pretty?’ is defined by the question ‘when I look at it, do I think it looks nice?’, while ‘is this tasty?’ is defined by ‘when I eat this, do I think it tastes good?’. Similarly, ‘is this [person] sexually attractive’ could be defined as ‘when I perceive them, do I find them sexually appealing?’ (more common words for ‘sexually appealing’ are, of course, ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’).

Sexual Desire: Sexual desire means mentally wanting sex/sexual things. It can range from the very general (‘I want to have sex’), to the very specific (‘I want to do sexual act X with person Y’). There can also be constraints (‘I want to have sex, but only with men’, or ‘I want to have sex, but with my partner in control’, etc).

Sexual Arousal: Sexual arousal has to do with the physical and/or mental state of being sexually aroused, which is a state the body can go into. It involves blood to the genitalia, relaxation of certain muscles, generation of certain fluids, etc.

Sex Drive/Libido/Horniness: (I use all three of these words to mean the same thing. I think many people would put horniness with arousal instead, but the way I’ve seen it used, it seems to fit here better.) This is the physical desire for sexual things.

Discussion- Now, the question is, which of these things is being talked about it discussions of sexual orientation? By definition, it is the the first one- heterosexual means attracted to the opposite gender, homosexual to your own, bisexual to both, pansexual to all, asexual to none, etc. And it is definitely not the last two, which is one of the reasons it is important to split them off: a lot of asexuals experience arousal, and sexuals can experience arousal even from things they are not sexually interested in, and there can be a disconnect between libido and desire: some asexuals, for instance, do not want to have sex at all, but have higher libidos, which annoy them, and which they might satisfy by masturbation, while some sexuals have desire that their libido does not keep up with, and might therefore want hormone therapy.

The interesting thing is actually the connection between the first two things, for two reasons: first, because a lot of discussions about orientation have to do not with attraction, but with desire, and second, because these two, unlike the others, seem to generally come together: the same people who find women sexually attractive feel sexual desire toward women, a common alternate definition for ‘asexual’ is ‘not interested in sex’, etc. So the answer would be ‘sexual orientation is defined with respect to attraction, but generally involves the corresponding desire as well, which works, because the two correlate’. More interesting things happen when this correspondence is lacking, but that’s a question for another time.


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