Saturday, May 7, 2011

What Causes Sexual Attraction?

"So, if neither your weight nor your looks have anything to do with whether people find you sexually attractive, then what is it that makes one person have a crowd of admirers while another individual sits there forlorn and abandoned?" people might ask after reading my recent posts. 

I know that this will come as a shock to people who have been brought up in a Puritanical tradition that expects human sexuality to be easily subjected to ideology and reason. Still, the truth is that sexual attraction has nothing whatsoever to do with easily quantifiable things like weight, height, size, number of college diplomas, IQ, figures in the bank statement, or anything of the kind.

It happens very often that a tall, beautiful, ripped guy with fantastic hair and a sunny disposition can't find a date in a decade. And in the meanwhile, a short, skinny, balding dude with a nasty personality gets crowds of women flock to him as if by magic. (I know both these guys, so please don't argue with me about it.) How often do you look at a female friend who is not only nice and kind but also stunningly beautiful with a modelesque body and wonder how the hell it is possible that somebody like her is single and can't get to the second date for love or money? While the short-legged, plump woman with bad skin and an extremely bitchy personality is juggling four men at the same time and trying to carve out space for numbers five and six.

If you forget about what you see on television and look at people who surround you, you will, without a doubt, realize that appearance and weight in no way correlate with whether one has any personal life whatsoever or can get anybody give them a second look. When I was much younger, I would go out with four of my girlfriends with an express purpose of meeting guys. One of my friends was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in real life. She had Victoria Secret body and John Frieda hair that were completely natural. She is also a highly intelligent person with a fascinating personality and many interesting hobbies. As we'd hit yet another bar on one of our outings, each of us (and most of the other women and men there) would get interested people come up to us and try to meet us. Our beautiful friend, however, was consistently treated like she was invisible. She really wanted to meet somebody, she tried hard, but people didn't pay attention to her. For the five years that I knew her, she was completely celibate. And not because she wanted to.

What really attracts people sexually is an exuberant, happy and healthy sexuality. Sexually healthy* people give off little tells that we observe and process often without even realizing it. A healthy sexuality entails, among other things, a different relationship with one's body than the one that less sexually healthy people have and a different attitude to sensual experiences. A sexually healthy person moves in a less constricted, freer way, holds him or herself different. You can say a lot about people's sexual health if you observe them select and ingest food and drink, buy clothes, touch different fabrics, choose scent. Whenever we meet a person, we immediately pick up on such things. Those who show many signs of a happy sexuality, attract a lot of people. Those who give off none, attract nobody.

It is a symptom of a sexually unhappy culture that one actually needs to explain that sexual attraction is caused not by how many inches your waist measures but by how sexually healthy you are.

* I don't know if I need to clarify this, but just to be on the safe side I will. Sexual health is a capacity to enjoy sex for its own sake without needing to justify it or feeling guilty about it. It's very similar to a healthy relationship with food. When we eat (or deprive ourselves of food) to relieve stress, exorcise emotions, punish ourselves, out of a sense of obligation, because of social expectations, etc. it is obvious that this is not a healthy relationship with food. It's exactly the same with sex. 

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think definitely that the way you feel about yourself, how healthy, how sexy, how worthy is the most attractive characteristic one person can have. Having this feeling is obviously easier to feel this way if you have high social status, or the physical features that are valued at the moment in society but can be developed without them anyway.

Regarding your Victoria Secret Body girlfriend, I think she was ignored because many of us men think that when a woman is too pretty, we won’t stand a chance with her, and hence we try to hit someone we whom we’d think we’ll have better chances. This is the ‘old’ social conditioning at work.

I personally, have taken a lot of time acknowledging that I’m attractive. I have felt the gazes, heard the whispers, answered the silly questions but always pushed for that definite proof from the girl/s in question, which ultimately made me very unattractive.

Lear

Clarissa said...

You are trying to rationalize again, my friend. This isn't about social status or social conditioning. It's about sexual health or lack thereof, which have absolutely nothing to do with anything "social" or "economic."

profacero said...

I agree with this post and am amazed more people don't see these things.

Although of course: when Schwyzer talks about the dating market, he's talking about social acceptability and so on. There are plenty of guys who have an official wife who looks a certain way and performs various public functions, and then the women he's actually interested in sexually.

I think that for a marriage to work, attraction and sex has to be fully 50% of it, with only 50% left for whether they're a decent person, whether you have anything in common, whether you get along otherwise, and so on.

Most Americans say 50% is a lot to assign to just sex but I say that if it's not 50% then you should just be friends or business partners or something.

Clarissa said...

Absolutely, profacero. We are 100% in agreement here.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am also one of those people who would avoid eye contact with a breathtakingly beautiful woman out of fear. It would not matter how sexually healthy she was.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the sentiment that one has to have a healthy sexuality and love oneself first in order to attract potential sexual partners.

I also think these qualities are more common in people who are conventionally attractive. Yes, there are some people who aren't conventionally attractive and still manage to attract a lot of beautiful sexual partners but that is a rare occurrence.

In fact, I'd go as far as saying that in general, people with the same level of attractiveness pair up with one another. So, conventionally attractive men pair up with conventionally attractive women. Conventionally 'ugly' men are paired up with their counterparts in the opposite sex. Yes, there are exceptions -- an ugly man with a hot woman being the most common example of such an anomaly -- but this can be explained by some other attributes of the guy such as money/fame/talent etc.

Stringer

Clarissa said...

Please note that I'm not discussing pairing up, marrying or living together in this post. I only discuss sexual attraction. There are tons of marriages and relationships where sexual attraction plays no role whatsoever. So it makes no sense to discuss them in this thread.

"there are some people who aren't conventionally attractive and still manage to attract a lot of beautiful sexual partners but that is a rare occurrence."

-It happens every day in real life. Not on television and movies, but in real life, all the time. Because there is zero correlation between "conventional" anything and sexuality.

Anonymous said...

Please note that I'm not discussing pairing up, marrying or living together in this post. I only discuss sexual attraction.

- You're right. Like profacero said, one might be in a relationship with someone and still be sexually attracted to a different 'type'. Point conceded.

It happens every day in real life.

- I haven't seen this at all so my experience is clearly different from yours. Let's agree to disagree then.

Stringer

profacero said...

Stringer -

What I really mean, though, is that the people some people choose as their official partners may be more attractive conventionally than those they are more attracted to sexually.

That is: what flies on the dating / marriage market, for people who are looking for a whole package that will help promote their careers and so on, isn't necessarily what is a turn-on sexually.

profacero said...

Continuing - that's one reason why you have guys with a wife and a mistress, for instance.

Or why it is possible to have a great affair with someone who for compatibility reasons wouldn't be right for you to marry.

Or, be in love with someone your family doesn't think is "right" -- for reasons of income or whatever -- for you to be with.

What the post is about is *sexual* attractiveness.

profacero said...

And re: "I also think these qualities are more common in people who are conventionally attractive."

Yes, I guess it is easier to feel attractive and uninhibited if you have always elicited attraction. Part of why I am confident is that where I grew up blond meant gorgeous, so I learned to assume I would be considered good looking.

profacero said...

But, continuing: that (knowing one has a desirable characteristic such as blondness) is just one level of it all, a superficial one.

Attractiveness at another level is sensuality and being comfortable with this. I remember being admired in a restaurant because I was starving and the food was good - "she is eating with such pleasure," I heard someone say.

It is why people like looking at some athletes and dancers, I think -- it's not so much that they look good as that they using their bodies and being present in them.

Anonymous said...

profacero: I understood what you meant. Sorry if it didn't come out that way in my post.

Even if we exclude 'official' relationships and only count random hookups, which could be considered as a suitable proxy for determining sexual attractiveness, I still see mostly beautiful people hooking up with other beautiful people. Not for marriage, not for long-term relationships, only one night stands. In bars, clubs, house parties, wherever. I have yet to see an instance of a 'short legged, plump woman with a horrible personality' (as Clarissa puts it) juggling multiple lovers.

In the end I feel the proof is in the pudding. I'm not a free market proponent but the sexual attractiveness 'market' comes as close to it as one can get. Your sexual attractiveness is determined by how many people are attracted towards you. If I'm at a club and see guy A hooking up with multiple women in one night, I'm gonna conclude he is more attractive than some other guy B who gets shot down by every woman he approaches. And in my experience that guy A is more often than not, 'conventionally attractive'.

But here I am, posting this on a saturday night, watching the Pacquiao-Mosley fight, so what the hell do I know, haha!

Stringer

el said...

Clarissa, but didn't Hugo write just that? That heavy women (I agree "heavy" there doesn't mean size 14, as somebody commented at that post) attract men sexually, but for status reasons may have difficulty to marry? If they get sexual attraction, but not "pairing up, marrying or living together", how does it help them? Some women did describe meeting such men and being hurt by it, and I don't think they've been lying.

Clarissa said...

I don't remember the word "marry" in Hugo's post. However (even though both Hugo and mine posts are not about that), people pair up (in cases of legitimate pairing up, not selling oneself for money or anything else) for completely different reasons altogether.

" If they get sexual attraction, but not "pairing up, marrying or living together", how does it help them?"

-Why prioritize marriage over sexual fulfillment? Isn't a sexless marriage a gazillion times worse than having a new desiring partner every three months?

Anonymous said...

profacero - Didn't notice your two previous posts. I agree with your point about feeling attractive and uninhibited because you've always attracted attention. It just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I remember being admired in a restaurant because I was starving and the food was good - "she is eating with such pleasure," I heard someone say.

- I think this is a privilege enjoyed only by thin, attractive people. I'll bet my life if an obese woman was enjoying her food in this manner she would instantly be a target of derision and hurtful jokes. 'How disgusting! This is why she's fat!' etc.

el said...

Why prioritize marriage over sexual fulfillment?
But those women want a life partner, not a new body every night. And marriage can go with sexual fulfillment just fine.

Clarissa said...

"But those women want a life partner, not a new body every night."

-Which "those" women? And how do you know what they want if you've never met them? Or are we talking about some concrete women you know?

"- I think this is a privilege enjoyed only by thin, attractive people. I'll bet my life if an obese woman was enjoying her food in this manner she would instantly be a target of derision and hurtful jokes."

-Again, not true. People behave with you according to the rules you set. Even if I got to weigh 300 pounds, nobody would talk to me with derision. Everybody would be too scared to do that.

I also know several extremely thin women who believe that everybody watches them with derision whenever they eat.

None of this has anything to do with anybody's actual weight.

Anonymous said...

Clarissa - I'm not talking about people in her company. Obviously, they'd be her friends and wouldn't care if she was fat or thin. I'm talking about other people in a restaurant, whispering, talking behind her back.

Stringer

Anonymous said...

Also, these are two different things. In one case (the unattractive fat man/woman) people are *actually* making derisive comments. In the second case (the thin person) nobody's making any derogatory comments but due to her own paranoia or poor body image she *perceives* that people are watching her with derision.

Stringer

Clarissa said...

"People wouldn't care so much about what others think about them if they only knew how little people are likely to think about anybody but themselves."

Do you really regularly take time to observe who is eating what at a restaurant, examine strangers' plates, observe their weight, and whisper to your friends about your observations? It would have never occurred to me to waste my time this way. I think that the majority of people are too preoccupied with themselves to notice what anybody else eats.

el said...

Which "those" women? And how do you know what they want if you've never met them?
Well, one woman commented on another blog and agreed with Hugo. Most people pair up (married or not) at some point in their lives.

Anonymous said...

I don't take time out of my life to observe and point out that other people are ugly or fat because I'm not an asshole. But other people do. I've seen it.

Also, if you have time to observe them select and ingest food and drink, how they buy clothes, touch fabric, choose scent and so on, I'm sure someone can go the distance and also observe what's on your plate and how big or small you are. ;-)

Stringer

Clarissa said...

'Well, one woman commented on another blog and agreed with Hugo.'

-One woman is definitely a lot. :-)

As I already said, pairing up occurs according to entirely different rules. All things being equal, a person is likely to choose a partner who is prone to obesity if their parent of the opposite gender was big.

profacero said...

Hmmm, how complicated. OK, yes, bad (and blind to privilege) example from me, being admired because of eating with pleasure. Context was, it was in some small Peruvian town and I was clearly foreign (blond) and foreigners were expected to be uncomfortable, afraid of the food, and so on. So I was getting props for not being one of those pretty but useless and uptight white girls.
;-) Still I see the point.

profacero said...

Well, I've been wandering around at Jazzfest a little bit, between grading, the last two weekends. That is a large crowd. There are all sorts of fat+thin couples, and conventionally attractive+not ones, walking around.

There are of course many other couples, people on similar scales of conventional attractiveness, but I just saw a man I'd love to touch with a woman I'd hate to look like on his arm, and they were clearly very, very happy.

At an emotional level I feel as the people who disagree with Clarissa do. I consider myself to be at a B level of attractiveness and I tend to think I can't get A men. I also have fairly conventional tastes and so I want men to be tall and not fat, or bald. However, I notice that many people are more confident and less conventionally than I, and I am betting they are happier.

Anonymous said...

I'm loving this discussion.

profacero - The people who you saw were 'official' couples, which we have established are not indicative of 'real' sexual preferences. You can't have your cake and eat it too (and look sexy while doing it!).

I consider myself to be at a B level of attractiveness and I tend to think I can't get A men.

- I feel the same way. I don't think I can get A women. The only times it has happened is in social situations where I'm perceived to be the alpha male of the group, which for me is when I play tennis. I'm part of a co-ed league and have had 'A' girlfriends mostly because they were first attracted by how well I played the game, and only later with me as a person. In bars and clubs I am invisible.

Stringer

Clarissa said...

Who are these "A men and women" and how do you recognize them?

" I'm part of a co-ed league and have had 'A' girlfriends mostly because they were first attracted by how well I played the game, and only later with me as a person."

-You also don't seem to be interested in them as people, separate human beings, if even now you just see them as a uniform group that doesn't deserve more than a single letter.

Anonymous said...

Who are these "A men and women" and how do you recognize them?

- I think I outlined it in an earlier comment:

'If I'm at a club and see guy A hooking up with multiple women in one night, I'm gonna conclude he is more attractive than some other guy B who gets shot down by every woman he approaches. And in my experience that guy A is more often than not, conventionally attractive.'

You also don't seem to be interested in them as people, separate human beings, if even now you just see them as a uniform group that doesn't deserve more than a single letter.

- That's not a fair assessment. It's obviously not a uniform group and is composed of very different kinds of people but since in this discussion we're only focusing on sexual attractiveness I'm not going to be talking about how one of my girlfriends was into quilting and another loved Hemingway.

Stringer

Clarissa said...

As I already said, you find yourself at the place of "I don't think I can get A women" because nobody wants to be "got", especially as part of some vaguely defined herd that is only characterized by somebody else's existent or non-existent attention.

I have to be honest with you, I believe that seeing the world in these terms will undermine your personal life forever. Any woman who's worth anything, will run away as far and as fast as she can after she hears you say this phrase about getting or not getting A (or B. or C) women.

I don't know what kind of men I can get because I have no interest in getting "men." "Men" don't exist. I always formulated any search for a partner as looking for a person with whom I will be able to have an XYZ type of relationship. This way, it's all about me, not about some preferences of total strangers.

I highly recommend this strategy.

Anonymous said...

This way, it's all about me, not about some preferences of total strangers.

- Wise words and the words of a person more confident than I am. I'm confused, though. How does laying down a formula XYZ to find the perfect relationship jive with sexual attractiveness, which we claim to be to be instantaneous, unpredictable and not subject to any rules or constraints? We're going to like what we're going to like.

I can see that my choice of words may not be the best but I was following profacero's template. I'm sure the phrase wasn't intended with its literal meaning. We are participants on a feminist blog that we love. I don't think anyone here thinks of looking for relationships in terms of 'getting a man/woman' as if they're property waiting to be acquired. My apologies, nonetheless.

Stringer

Clarissa said...

No need for apologies. We all like and appreciate you, Stringer.

To answer your question, there are way more sexually attractive people than the number of folks one can manage to have a relationship with within a lifetime. :-) So how do you choose between the multitude of attractive people one who is suitable for a relationship at each given point of one's life? This is where knowing exactly whom you are looking for aside from just sexual attraction really helps.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna sound like one of your annoying students when I say, "But Professor Clarissa, I thought relationships were out of syllabus for this discussion".

Let's (just) talk about sex, baby!

Jokes aside, I agree. You have to look at things other than sex when deciding upon a long term relationship.

Stringer

profacero said...

Re the people at Jazzfest -- we never said you *can't* be in an official couple with someone you're actually attracted to.

I think you're taking all of this far too literally, Stringer! The question was, what makes people sexy ... the answer was, not just conventional good looks! You've got to know that! There was charm!

Like in my Arabic class way back when, I had this major crush on a classmate, he was really kind of amazingly ugly and not even a student, was just taking the class so he could travel and speak. He spoke other languages too and had traveled a lot, had interesting stories, interesting job and job skills, interesting activist projects as I found out, and interesting friends as it turned out when he had a party and invited me.

profacero said...

...anyway so then I asked that guy out, figuring that if he invited me to a party with a lovely hand painted invitation delivered to my door, he could be interested, and he turned me down. He could have actually not been interested, but he could have lost nerve at that point.

profacero said...

...then, Stringer, in an earlier period there was this other one I missed, because *I* lacked confidence. He, was even conventionally good looking but that was not why I liked him. I was the one who escaped because I knew how neurotic I was about relationships then. I didn't want to impose that one someone this non neurotic so I escaped. I am sure I hurt his feelings and I wonder what he did with his life, I had not thought about that for some time. If he'd re-approached me after I gave him the brushoff one day when I was feeling weird, I'd have been thrilled, but then summer happened and we didn't coincide, and how was he to know anyway ... so my point is you should relax and do whatever.

Anonymous said...

profacero - Now I think we're arguing the same point. There's nothing that you've said that I disagree with. So this seems as good a time as any to end this highly entertaining discussion.

Stringer

profacero said...

Oh yes -- and the other point to be made is that just because *you* don't think you're the best looking person doesn't mean someone else doesn't. If you go around projecting "poor me, I am not worth it" or anything of the sort, it will not do you any good.

(I'm feeling a little like Hugo now, coaching guys on picking up women, hmmmm ;-))

Pagan Topologist said...

No one has mentioned pheromones. They play a much larger role than we all imagine, I think.

profacero said...

Very well, but for the record, arguing same point, no: I'm arguing Clarissa's point, it ain't conventional good looks that does it no matter how much you may see certain guys getting swarmed in bars.

:-)

Clarissa said...

I agree completely on pheromones. I read that people with healthy sexualities are the ones that send off these pheromones in huge batches. I know that my terminology sounds idiotic and I have no idea where to find the link to this material. But the point is that I agree.

And profacero and I agree too. :-) This is turning out to be a very happy topic.

Anonymous said...

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

I don't know how I went from disagreeing with Clarissa, to agreeing with profacero who I thought was disagreeing with Clarissa, to finally agreeing with Clarissa who as it turns out was always in agreement with profacero. Well, damn.

Anyways, yeah, if I ever bitched in real life about not being good looking I'd never get laid. That's why I love the internet.

Stringer

Leum said...

I'm not sure I agree with you entirely. I think looks do play a role in whether we're sexually attracted to someone. Probably not the only factor, but definitely a factor. I'm also not convinced that the main thing is being sexually healthy. I'm not sure that you can read a person's attitude towards sex in their public behavior. More likely it's overall confidence and self-assurance.

profacero said...

Actually, Stringer, what I figured out from this thread is where I should systematically cruise -- among foreign language nerds. Where you should systematically cruise is not in bars per se but among travel buffs, wherever it is they hang out.
Probably you and I should become a tag team, although I do not know how to do this virtually. ;-)

Clarissa said...

Confidence and self-assurance have nothing to do with it either. A person can be extremely self-assured and totally sexually unattractive.