Defining the relationship

The line between romantic and sexual attraction

Written by Julia Pingeton | Illustration by Sean Miyaji

If I were in a relationship with a man, people would assume I had strong romantic feelings for that man. Unless otherwise stated, the assumption based on this relationship would be that all of my romantic and sexual feelings revolve around men. The same would be true if I were dat- ing a woman.

One way society tries to understand the messy world of sex and love is to restrict these parts of people’s identities into discrete and easily definable categories. So, who you sleep with has become the most important way of identifying your sexual and romantic life. This sounds straightforward, but it is not. Centralizing sexual activity as the sole marker of a person’s identity is a problem. It equates romantic and sexual orientation. This supports the assumption that the romantic feelings a person has are exactly correlated with their sexual feelings – which can make it difficult for people to understand their own identities and the identities of others. If you sleep with boys, you love boys, if you sleep with girls, you love girls, and if you don’t sleep with anyone, you don’t love anyone at all.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is not romantic orientation. Sexual orientation is a construct that is defined by the people we want to have sex with or who we feel sexual attraction toward. Sexual activity can mirror orientation, but not always. Consider a person who wants to pass as straight in a society where being out as queer might be punishable either by institutional or social discrimination. It may be compulsory for them to engage in sexual activity against their true desires in order to maintain appearances. Now consider a person who is asexual. In a society where sex is used as currency, the pressure to engage in sex is high, though individual desire may be low, non-existent, or only existent in the presence of strong emotional bonds.

Sexual attraction is an “other”-directed activity. I believe sexual attraction can be conceptualized in a similar way as the senses: we are presented with individuals that either do or do not elicit a physical response. Thinking of this part of identity on the individual reactionary level takes away some of the need to generalize about sexuality and make assumptions about a person based on their sexual orientation. A common stereotype, especially in com- munities that lack a strong queer presence, is that if you are out as gay you want to have sex with anyone (and everyone) of your gender. You’re reduced to a caricature of your sexual desires. I’ve had a friend describe to me the experience of being a gay man in our high school, where not many people were out. He had a lot of female friends who would ask, “Oh, you’re gay? I have a friend you should totally meet!” as if everyone who is gay is desperately seeking a partner at all times and will be attracted to anyone of the same gender. Despite the good intentions, the gender of those you’re attracted to might not be the only consideration you have in finding a partner.

Romantic orientation

On the other hand, romantic orientation describes the people you are attracted to on an intimate, personal level. This can involve sexual attraction, but not necessarily. Deep and soul-crushing Wuthering Heights-type love is not the only way to have romantic attraction; crushes count too. In my experience, having sexual feelings for a person can be (too) easy to the point of being reflexive. But I have also felt uninterested romantically in a person to whom I still felt a strong sexual attraction. This is really annoying (and a perfect example of cognitive dissonance), but it serves to show that sometimes sex and romance are not at all inextricably linked.

Personally speaking, experiencing romantic attraction has been more reflective of what I feel inside. It involves integrating how another person embodies those inner feelings in their own manner. Even having a crush on someone goes beyond the surface level. When I get crushes, it is because of the way a person speaks about their passions or the ideas they have or their curiosities, and a host of other attributes that sound cliche when written but remain true. I mean to say that romantic attraction is about finding those aspects of myself I value and discovering how those can manifest in someone else.

Orientations and identity

Knowing who a person sleeps with does not mean you know who they love. The same is true the other way around. Sex is not love and love is not sex. Although the two can be present in one relationship, they are not mutually inclusive. Take, for example, someone who is asexual. Not desiring to have sex with anyone does not mean not having romantic interest in anyone. Being asexual does not mean you have to be aromantic; being heterosexual does not mean you have to be heteromantic. Our understandings of our own orientations exist on sliding scales.

Both sexual and romantic orientations are self-defined, and can be defined outside of the heteronormative cis-centric framework. For some, sexual orientation may not be totally based on gender. Some people who enjoy different kinks or fetishes might not consider gender at all when defining their sexual orientation – in these cases, it might be more helpful to define these relationships in terms of domination or submission. Similarly, romantic orientation is not necessarily based on a partner’s gender, but rather in key parts of the person’s personality relevant to a relationship. Distinguishing between sexual and romantic orientation leaves more room for people to unpack their own identities and ultimately understand themselves better and on their own terms.

At one point in my life, I identified as heteroromantic and heterosexual. This was largely due to a fear of shame associated with being attracted to other women. Even after slowly recognizing my sexual orientation as not exclusive to men, because I had never had a girlfriend, I questioned the legitimacy of my attractions to women. This in turn made the process of recognizing my own sexual orientation more confusing; how could I be into girls if I hadn’t ever dated a girl? And moreover, how could I be into girls when I had been into guys?

Part of my confusion came from mistaking romantic feelings for platonic ones in relationships with other women. I remember explaining my own romantic feelings to myself in terms of admiration, and even jealousy. By framing my desires in this way, it became less frightening to admit that feelings for other women were there. I still felt concerned that if I gave power to these feelings then my life would change. I felt it was possible my feelings would be dismissed as just a confusion of some collective female experience – as if my feelings toward other women would be invalidated by my feminism, or worse, judged as some stereotypical university phase women go through, where they sleep with other girls for the stories they can share with partners who are men later.

This confusion came in part from the fact that I felt like having relationships with men meant I couldn’t feel romantically about women in the same way. Especially with bisexuality, I believe there is a fundamental misconception that, yes, you might be sexually attracted to two or more genders, but romantically, you’ve got one preference. Ironically, bisexuality is one of few cases where people seem to feel the need to separate romantic and sexual orientation – when the lack of proof of romantic orientation can be used to undermine a person’s sexual orientation. Feeling romantically toward a person of my gender is easily dismissed as based in some imaginary collective female consciousness or sisterhood, while feeling sexually about a person of my gender can be dismissed because of fantasies about girl-on-girl as a vehicle for male arousal (à la Blue is the Warmest Color). Letting go of those restrictions over how I am meant to feel has been very freeing indeed.