This is a submission for the October 2021 Carnival of Aces on “Attraction”. If you follow the links in the prompts, and read the other submissions from this month, you’ll see much conversation about the fixation on attraction models and why they don’t work out for many people.
Today, however, I wanted to look at the flip side of the issue: why have attraction-based models caught on so much in the first place? One thought I have – which I intend to illustrate using the Klein Grid as a reference for conventional thought about the diverse factors of sexual orientation development – is that of the many factors that can be used to determine sexual orientation, attraction-based definitions are perhaps the more accessible for people with limited sexual and relationship experience, which includes a disproportionate amount of ace people as well as younger questioning people in general.
Let’s Talk about the Klein Grid
Whenever I attend general LGBTQIA workshops on sexuality models, they frequently follow a predictable pattern, beginning with the simplest grandfather of all models, the Kinsey Scale, maybe stepping through the Storms model, and eventually working their way up with the notoriously expansive Klein Sexual Orientation Grid. In this context, it’s often framed as an example of an overly-complicated graph that gets pulled out for laughs and as a cautionary tale about what happens when you nerd out about models too much. Instead, things like the genderbread person, which distills sexuality down into twin factors of romantic/sexual attraction to men, women, or nobody in a way that resembles many of the asexual community’s own approaches to sexual orientation theory, are often presented as the more reasonable compromise. But the more I reflect on it, the more I think that we may not be giving Klein a fair shake, and that the most laughable thing in the end is the idea that the experience of human sexuality and relationships is something that could ever be simplified into a clean, numerical measure (something the ace communities own misadventures with graphs has shown us).
While it may still be up for debate whether the numeral aspect of the Klein Grid can really be useful as an actual research tool or even as a personal identity model, I do think that it’s many rows and columns do serve as a good examples of some of the many, many different factors that go into a person’s sense of their sexuality, which can include anything from sexual or emotional attraction, to fantasy, to sexual behaviours, to community affiliations, to personal and political identification, and more. Understanding that different people weigh different cells more or less heavily also helps us to understand why multiple people can take the same experiences and wind up classifying them in completely different ways.
I also think the introduction of “past”, “present”, and “ideal” (future) components – which may or may not differ – and acknowledging that they all still have an influence on our concepts of sexuality is also important. That’s because at its core, sexual orientation labels are in large part a system for taking past and present experiences and extrapolating them to make predictions (or declarations) about the future.
Consider the following definition of sexual orientation from Wikipedia (emphasis mine): “Sexual orientation is an enduring pattern of romantic or sexual attraction (or a combination of these) to persons of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or to both sexes or more than one gender.”
In order to draw a pattern (like a line), a person must have at least a few points of past data to extrapolate from. Once that data is gathered, however, you can attempt to fit a path to it, and then use the trajectory of that path to both communicate current trends and to predict future outcomes. When doing this kind of analysis, it also makes sense to weigh recent/current experiences differently than past experiences, especially since sexuality can often evolve over time.
However, this idea of “enduring patterns” presents a challenge for many questioning asexual people: how do you fit a path when you have almost no data points to fit it to, and at what level does an absence of data become an indicator in and of itself?
Going back to the earlier example of the Klein Grid, one of the first things that jumps out to me is how some of these factors were much more easily identifiable for me than others, especially when I was a young, potentially asexual teen really questioning my identity.
The first problem was that as someone who has never had sex, the past and present sections of the sexual behavior section were right out – no data there. On the same lines, as someone who had never dated, let alone fallen in love, I had no data to input for the past and present of the emotional preference section either. And without any experience to draw on, I had no idea how to guess what my future ideal might be either! (In retrospect, that big fat nothing that remained a big fat nothing for years would eventually be a clear sign, but it wasn’t helpful at an age when many of my later-revealed-to-be-distinctly-not-asexual friends were mostly not having any sex or even dating yet either).
As a questioning person, the self identification row was just a bunch of question marks, because that’s what I was here to try and find out! So no help there either.
Finally, as a high school student, my social habits and lifestyle at the time were largely determined by who I had been placed in high school classes and after school activities with, rather than any more insightful groupings (I did more of that in college and especially as an adult). So those factors didn’t provide much insight until I was much older and more socially independent.
That basically just left sexual attraction and fantasy as the only things left that I could easily use as determiners. Therefore, should it really be so surprising that many other young, questioning aces with little else to go on have also fixated so strongly on attraction as the factor to weigh most heavily?
Stuck Inside Our Heads
I think one of the most appealing things about attraction-centered models of sexuality, for both questioning asexual people but also for younger or more inexperienced people in general, is that they are (at least in theory) the easiest factors to test and draw conclusions about, because they both begin and end inside your own head.
When it came to other things like “what gender do you prefer to have relationships with” or “what gender do you like having sex with” or “do you even like sex or dating at all?”, I have no way to answer that, because I’ve never tried dating or having sex enough to know for sure what I do or don’t like, and I possibly never will.
I can of course still attempt to infer what I would probably like or not like, based on how much I like adjacent things that I have tried – as a lifelong picky eater, I already do the same thing when deciding which new foods I want to try. For example, just as not liking beef steaks makes me doubt that I’ll like bison steaks and thus decline to order it, my own apathy for kissing and petting let me suspect that actual partnered sex won’t be that much more appealing. But at the same time, the drawback that arises with that picky eater analogy is that even if inference works 95% of the time, I can also still name a dozen times when my own guesses about what I will or won’t like have been wrong.
Because of that, there’s always a lurking doubt and a constant anxiety that comes from never having actually tested that inference. Now, I want to emphasize that I don’t think that actually testing out whether I could enjoy sex is necessarily a good idea, since the potential negative consequences of pursuing sex or romance that I’m not sure about are much riskier than just having to spit out a mouthful of raw oyster that I just reaffirmed that I hate. So I’m mostly content to leave it as an unknown. But at the same time, that leaves it as shaky territory that I don’t feel comfortable building a sexual identity on. If you tell me to choose a label based on that, I’d have been once again left paralyzed and unable to choose.
Attraction and fantasy, on the other hand, are things that are far easier to experiment with (at least in theory) – you either feel them, or you don’t, end of story. No inferences needed, no pressure to “just try” some external action to prove or disprove anything – all you need to do (allegedly) is think about it for a bit. This makes it far more accessible for people who have no experience with the other categories to draw on. And since ace communities are disproportionately likely to have young people who also have less experience with sex and relationships, it makes sense on some level why attraction has become such a heavily weighted factor, above and beyond other potential factors.
In practice, of course, things rarely work out so cleanly, especially when it can be impossible to even nail down a clear explanation of what attraction is even supposed to be, other than an occasional vague “you’ll know it when you feel it?”. In addition, it doesn’t necessarily explain why “attraction” became so highly valued in ace community models and definitions while other internal-feelings-factors like “fantasy” remained afterthoughts. But it definitely provides more food for thought.
(note: this has also been posted to my pillowfort here, if you’d like to follow any additional discussion there.)