Sexual attraction vs sexual arousal

Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction. The concept of ‘sexual attraction’ can be tricky to grasp, especially for those who experience sexual attraction hand in hand with other experiences.

This page attempts to break down exactly what sexual attraction is, and to differentiate it from other elements of sexuality and the human experience.

Sexual attraction – I like you!

Sexual attraction is the feeling people have when they find a person/object sexually appealing. This is the feeling someone might have when they see an attractive stranger or celebrity and say things like “he/she is soooo hot!”. This is the feeling that often motivates people to seek sexual encounters with other people, although many people will choose not to act on this feeling.

People can have a variety of sexual preferences. Some people only experience sexual attraction to members of a different gender and may label themselves “straight”. Other people are exclusively attracted to people of the same gender and may label themselves “gay”. Other people may find that they can experience sexual attraction to people of any gender and might label themselves “pansexual”. Some people may also have feelings of attraction to certain objects and, depending on their culture, these feelings may be called “kinks” or “fetishes”.

An asexual person is someone who lacks sexual attraction altogether (or only feels it only very rarely). Asexual people may feel other forms of attraction to people, such as romantic attraction or aesthetic attraction.  Some asexual people experience sexual arousal and the urge to do things typically labelled as ‘sexual’.

Sexual arousal – my body is aroused.

Sexual Arousal (or libido) is the physiological element of sexual experiences. It involves physical changes such as getting erections and vaginal lubrication, among other things. Sexual arousal is affected by physiological processes and hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone. This process may be triggered by the feeling of sexual attraction in allosexual people, but can also exist without sexual attraction.

There are some asexual people who never experience sexual arousal and feel no reason to engage in behaviours such as masturbation. However, many asexual people do experience sexual arousal, and some even have a high ‘libido’. The average frequency of sexual arousal experienced by asexual people is typically within the standard range for allosexual people, (although on average tends to be slightly lower). Essentially, the ‘equipment’ works just fine in many asexual people, but without being accompanied by sexual attraction, there is usually little desire to have partnered sex.

The feeling of sexual arousal in asexual people is sometimes described as ‘a drive directed nowhere in particular’ or ‘a physical tension that needs releasing’. Some asexual people who experience sexual arousal just ignore this feeling. Others choose masturbation as a response to this feeling. For some asexual people masturbation can be highly pleasurable, for others it can feel like little more than a release of physical tension or ‘cleaning out the plumbing’. Some asexual people even seek out partnered sex for the physical sensation it provides. These people can still identify as asexual, because asexuality is defined by a lack of sexual attraction, not a lack of sexual arousal.

Sex drive and sexual desire. 

Sex Drive as a term can be used in different ways. Sex drive usually refers to any ‘sexual’ feeling that provokes or motivates ‘sexual behaviour’. This term may be used to describe the experience of sexual attraction that motivates allosexual people to desire partnered sexual experiences, but can also be used by asexual people who experience sexual arousal and the desire to masturbate.

Sexual Desire is a way to describe the experience of sexual attraction and wanting to act on it, or the feeling of arousal and desire to find relief by masturbating. As such, this concept can be used by both allosexual and asexual people, similar to the term sex drive.

Want to learn more about asexuality and related phenomena? Learn about romance and the asexual spectrum.

Learn more about sexual attraction and arousal elsewhere.

  • The Asexual Visibility & Education Network is the world’s oldest and most visible asexuality education website. The AVEN forums have attempted to unpack the distinction between sexual attraction and arousal before.

The Asexuality New Zealand Trust has no control over, accepts no responsibility for, and does not necessarily endorse the content of external websites.

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