Writing From Factor X

April 2, 2011

If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It

Sam posted a piece last week about the limits of “sexual attraction” as a term, and I’ve been feeling confused and ranty ever since. It’s a good piece, and you should read it, but mostly what it’s done is remind me why I get frustrated a lot by discussions like this.

See, I’m one of those really analytical people who likes to quantify things. I like to have certainty. I like to have operational definitions for my terms so I’m sure what we’re all talking about. I like to be clear about things. Most of all, I like to be fairly sure that I know what we’re talking about when I have conversations.

There is a large part of me that reacts to something that says “well, actually, this term is squishy and imprecise” with flailing and dismay, and then my natural tendency is to start trying to construct better definitions. Unfortunately, when you have no actual personal experience of the thing you’re trying to describe and you’re trying to define a feeling, constructing better terms is fairly challenging.

It’s like this: you’re born into a world where, upon maturity, everyone gets a pet elephant which is invisible to everyone but themselves. Society is structured around the needs of peoples’ elephants. People talk about the elephants and their foibles incessantly. The mass media includes the elephants in every story ever as major plot points. Until you hit the age where you get your own elephant, you can’t see them, but you’re assured that you’ll get your own when you grow up and then you’ll understand everything.

So you grow up, you reach the Age of Elephant Acquisition, and… no elephant. You infer that elephants exist–after all, people keep insisting they must, and people your age have started talking about their elephants and how wonderful and interesting they are, and also people with fairly unusual elephants are willing to do truly baffling things for the elephants’ sake. Probably, you think, the elephants exist, but you’re not sure, because you’ve never experienced anything that seems like an elephant of your own, and couldn’t it be possible that this is some sort of elaborate plot or mass delusion or something?

But people keep insisting that the elephants are totally real, and everyone else your age has started talking about how their elephants are doing. And you’re seriously the only one who is confused by the elephants thing, so you maybe try to casually bring it up–maybe you sort of try to ask people how their elephants look in casual conversation, because it’s possible that you do have an elephant and you just haven’t noticed! Possibly they are in fact very small and hard to see, but they cause a lot of mischief! After all, sometimes funny rustling things happen around you, too, just like they do to people who do have elephants. So you try to ask around, in case it’s something that you can miss, or you’re not interpreting things right, and you look very hard for things that can be interpreted as being sort of vaguely elephantine. But when you do ask them, people give you funny looks and treat you as if you’re stupid for asking, because duh they know what an elephant looks like. Everyone has one! All you have to do is look, it’s not like they’re hard to see!

You see how this can become frustrating.

Eventually you assume you are, in fact, different and not just unobservant, and try to construct the image of what an elephant looks like so that you can understand properly. But no one who has one will sit down with you and answer your questions and help you understand, even if you’re really stubborn and you ask a lot of people a lot of questions. You end up having to construct your understanding of the elephant from tiny snippets, little bits of information you can coax out of normal people before they get aggravated and change the subject. And of course everyone emphasizes different parts of what the elephant is, because everyone is different and thinks about things differently, and you have to try to pick at the distortions as best you can.

That’s what it’s like, being asexual and trying to define sexual attraction on its own. Or being aromantic-ish, and trying to define how romance works. I suppose being agender and trying to suss out gender identity is similar, and I bet there’s other parallels to make. The thing is: you don’t have something, and you’re trying to understand how it works, and no one who says they understand will try very hard to teach you what it’s like.

The thing is, you could say that my innate need to define things is fairly unproductive, and that human sexuality is so varied and complex and squishy that operational definitions are useless. You might also say that there’s no point to defining things well enough to have labels, because that gets in the way of celebrating our Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Except I’m not going to say that, because I think operational definitions are really useful even if you don’t have an innate desire to categorize everything properly so you can understand it better.

For one thing, operational definitions are sort of necessary to having conversations about things. If no one is quite sure what the terms we’re using actually mean, conversations usually end up confusing a whole lot of people. Especially if someone asks for a bit of clarification and no one is able to provide it.

You know who else operational definitions are really useful for? Questioning people. No, seriously, if you’re questioning whether a particular label works for you or not, or how you should identify, or whether you “count” with a specific group, it really helps to be able to point to things and say “well, I have that, and that, but not that.” How can we use terminology that says “asexuals don’t experience sexual attraction” without explaining what sexual attraction is? How can we expect questioning people to make a decision about whether a term fits them when the definition of that term is unclear?

I have been trying to figure out how romantic orientation theoretically works so I can decide what mine is for, oh, two years now, because there is no concrete definition anywhere and every time I corral a bunch of romantic asexuals into a corner and demand that they explain I get shrugs and “I don’t know, you just know.” (Well, when I’m not getting outright condescension, anyway. That’s always fun.) Asking people who haven’t spent a lot of time around the asexual community is arguably worse, because they’re prone to giving silly explanations like “friendship but with sex!” and that’s clearly wrong because the category of friends with benefits also exists, and also there are longstanding romantic relationships which are without sex–lesbian bed death, anyone?–even outside the asexual community. No matter how much I ask this question of people who use these terms I never get any answers.

So how on earth are we supposed to get people who actually do claim to see the invisible thing to describe it? Because if those of us who can’t see are trying to paint around the invisible thing–well, it’s clear we’re missing something, even if we’re not quite sure what.

The problem is that people who aren’t missing that feeling are considered to be the default. So there’s no incentive for them to define the modular feeling that some of us are missing–be it sexual attraction, or romantic attraction, or other things. No matter what they do, on that aspect of their sexuality they get to be easily understood and mainstream. Why would they spend their time defining what an elephant is? From their perspective, all they have to do is invoke the concept of “elephant!” and everyone will understand them! Except those of us who don’t have the elephant to begin with, and we’re in the vast minority.

Here’s the thing. If painting around an invisible concept doesn’t grasp the whole of the thing, perhaps someone who actually experiences the invisible concept should define it. Until then, those of us who aren’t “default” and need to explain how ought to continue to try. It would be good to have the help of people who do experience these forms of attraction. But if they’re not going to work on a definition, the rest of us need our painted edging to get by.

61 Comments »

  1. I really should have saved it, because I keep needing to reference it and wish I could link to it, but a while back there was a Queer Secret that was basically “I understand now that not needing labels is a privilege” from a person who used to think that people trying so hard to find a label were wasting their time. You’re right in the thing about being able to talk to each other is the need for common definitions and understandings (or else you could be having conversations about two completely different things). So even if you don’t personally feel a need to strictly define something, that doesn’t mean having a definition isn’t worth it.

    Looking back at a post I’d made about definitions I realized I’d categorized attraction by “nots” (not desire, not drive, etc.). I think when you’re defining something by what you understand it not to be, that means you don’t actually know what it is. And I don’t, as evidenced by my need for a beta to make sure any of my sexually-focused fanfic “passes” well enough, as it were.

    I accept the challenge to attempt to define romantic attraction, though, since I actually experience it. I’ve tried before, in my own head, and had an extremely difficult time of it. But I really hate flapping my hands and going “You just know!” because I dislike sounding like Supreme Court judges discussing pornography. Also, I didn’t know, personally, not right away. With Girlfriend, I had a long stretch of time when I was struggling to figure out if I had just found a new best friend or fallen in love. It wasn’t something I realized immediately.

    Comment by ace eccentric — April 2, 2011 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

    • I found the queer secret! I like it.

      Comment by Siggy — April 2, 2011 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

    • Well, and I think we have defined most forms of attraction by hedging around them with nots–because if all you’ve experienced yourself is “nots,” and you’re trying to define what you’re missing, it’s easier to define it as something in the negative space than it is to define what it actually is.

      I mean, flapping hands and going “you just know!” is what pretty much everyone has given me, including people who are seriously trying, so I assume it’s hard. Especially because I (like Ily, downthread) am prone to going “but I want that but it doesn’t feel romantic HELP.” Not recognizing it immediately is actually kind of interesting to me, actually–most people are so insistent that it’s obvious that I had assumed that it was for everyone.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

      • True. I guess I just hadn’t realized before that I was defining it in a negative space. That’s interesting, and I think you’re right that it’s much easier if you don’t have experience in the area.

        I’ve been trying to cobble a draft up and it has been difficult (granted I’ve been working on a paper, but have managed to finish that). I have seen people not being helped by definitions grounded in “these are the things I want from a romantic relationship”, yeah, so I am attempting not to do that — plus, that didn’t help me so much when I was figuring it out. And yeah, I felt the same way the entire time I was questioning, but it definitely took a while for me to pin it down and label it.

        Comment by ace eccentric — April 4, 2011 @ 1:50 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m going to be revisiting the issue of communication in my next blog, which kind of dovetails with this. How do you communicate when each side has no knowledge of the other’s experience?

    I do think it’s fairly ridiculous to answer questions with “you just know”. I’m hovering between aromantic and romantic, personally. For me I get a very deeply felt sensation of “I want to get to know this person better.” followed by “Maybe s/he’s somebody I want to be more than friends with.” I imagine for sexual people there would be arousal and desire to engage in physical contact, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

    Comment by Stephanie Silberstein — April 2, 2011 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

    • Ooooh, communication. That’s always an interesting topic–how do you translate totally different experiences to one another?

      Honestly, “you just know” as a response has always filled me with paranoia rather than actually clarifying things for me. I’m not always the most in touch with my emotions on my own and I’m prone to spending a lot of time analyzing them and my interactions with people anyway because I have to compensate for sometimes missing social cues. So telling me that it’s SO OBVIOUS just makes me think, well, I miss lots of other things that are obvious to people around me so what if I’m just missing this too? What does it look like so I can tell for sure if I’m missing it or not?

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  3. Let me see if I can help you out here. I’m a romantic asexual. I’ve asked people on a few occasions before what sexual attraction feels like, and honestly, the answer I got was more or less: “I look at the person and want to do sexual things with them.” Or at the very least, make out. Maybe it’s more than that and I haven’t been asking the right folks but…. For right now, that’s all I got. I’m thinking, sexual fantasies and the urge to erotically touch the person, etc. If a sexual person masturbates, they would masturbate to the image of the person they’re sexually attracted to. (Sorry if that’s TMI.)

    Now, as for romance, in my experience that’s a lot more tricky to define. I personally experience romance on a spectrum. I know a lot of asexuals (and obviously sexual people) experience romance as a black-and-white thing: you either have romantic feelings for someone you wanna date or you don’t, which separates the people in your life into clearly defined categories of “friends” (nonromantic), “family” (nonromantic), and “boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse” (romantic). I think that’s crap, though. I think romance can be experienced in multiple different contexts, inside and outside of a “couple” relationship. I’ve had traditional romantic feelings for males with whom I felt especially attracted and emotionally connected and wanted for my life partner, but I also have romantic feelings for my cousins and periodically for my female best friends and my sister. The difference is, I don’t want to necessarily “couple” with my friends/family members. I mean, if I thought I could count on any one of them to commit to me in the long run instead of skipping town for a sexual partner, I would consider it. But the romantic feeling is still slightly different than what I would imagine I’d feel for my ideal asexual male partner. Not more or less (for me) but slightly different.

    And what does romantic feeling entail for me? Emotional intensity, the desire for complete emotional/mental intimacy, the desire to be near the person often, the desire for lots of physical affection, the desire to have that person all to myself (I acknowledge this is impossible and somewhat indicative of immature love, but what can I say) or perhaps it would be better phrased: “a desire for exclusivity in that relationship.” It feels special. And/or I consciously WANT it to be special, for both me and the other person. And again, this isn’t just in a couple scenario. Anyone I have romantic feelings for, friend or sibling or cousin, I experience these desires to varying degrees. Perhaps not all at a “10” as I might with my asexual partner but every relationship has the POTENTIAL to inspire these desires at a “10” level if any particular person were to move into that space of “partner” in my life. Since that hasn’t happened yet, I feel these desires–this romantic feeling–for my friends and family to a lesser degree than a partner’s 10, but it’s no doubt the same kind of feeling.

    Hope that kinda helps.

    Comment by Marie — April 2, 2011 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

    • I think that’s crap, though.

      did you really just say that you think other people’s experience of romantic feelings is crap because they don’t echo yours?

      Comment by tree — April 2, 2011 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

      • No, that’s not what I meant. I think the concept of there being, by nature, clearly and strictly defined relationship categories of “romantic” and “nonromantic” is crap. I think all humans have the potential to experience it on a spectrum. Now, whether they actually allow themselves or not is another story. It seems there are far more (usually sexual) people who never even consider the spectrum or, not even a spectrum but the possibility of nonsexual or non-couple romance. I believe that’s because they’ve been conditioned to see romance as contained in a particular box; they don’t actually lack the ability to experience it outside the box. Maybe they don’t feel the need to see what it’s like out of that box, which is their choice. But it’s crap to say, “No, these feelings can only ever exist in this box, anything else is absolutely impossible.” Nobody’s born with a pre-wired way of experiencing emotions; we’re told how we should process what we feel and how we should interpret by our environment. We individually develop a pattern of interpreting our own emotional experience but on occasion, something breaks the pattern and a person may discover they’re capable of feeling a certain way they didn’t think was possible. If such a thing can happen to a sexual person with romantic feelings, i.e. feeling romantically for someone they aren’t sexually attracted to even though they never would’ve believed that possible, then I think all humans have the potential feeling along a spectrum rather than in categories.

        Comment by Marie — April 3, 2011 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

        • Can we not say that the ways in which people experience things are crap in this space? Or tell people that they’re only experiencing things in certain ways because they’ve been conditioned into doing that? I am very uncomfortable with philosophies that explain away people’s experiences as external conditioning, without acknowledging those experiences as real. I am similarly very uncomfortable with invalidating people’s experiences for any reason, including the fact that they don’t rebel against mainstream conceptions of relationships.

          I am reading you as saying that “people claim to feel this way, and this is because they have been brainwashed by mainstream culture.” And the thing is, when you tell people that their feelings aren’t real? You’re doing exactly the same thing that people who tell asexuals or aromantics that they can’t exist that way, something external must have happened to them to make them that way. You’ve just substituted “mainstream brainwashing” for “trauma” or “hormones” or whatever. These arguments are very reminiscent to me of bisexual people who claim that, under all the repression of heteronormativity, everyone is secretly bisexual. And you know, as someone who’s ace, that kind of thing gets really annoying really fast.

          There are a whole lot of things to criticize about the way mainstream culture conceptualizes relationships. But the way to handle that is not to tell the people who fit into the mainstream that their experiences are invalid or a symptom of brainwashing.

          Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

          • I think what she or he might be trying to say is that it’s crap that these feelings can ONLY exist within these societal constructs, not that they’re invalid within the construct. Just that they aren’t invalid outside the construct, and you don’t have to go through the construct for them to be valid.

            Comment by S — April 10, 2011 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

            • Honestly, all I can go off is the text on the screen, and given the implications I was reading I thought I would make my position on that kind of discussion clear. If you look downthread, at least one person (Norah) was hurt by the contention that her experience was unreal.

              If Marie meant something different than what I read–that this type of experience is a symptom of cultural indoctrination and therefore invalid–they’re quite welcome to correct me and explain, which they have not done. In lieu of that, my first goal is to make this space safe for all asexual people, and that does include traditional romantics whose experiences fit neatly into that construct. Statements like “they can feel emotions outside of the construct but have been conditioned not to” imply that the experiences of these people are not real.

              Comment by Sciatrix — April 10, 2011 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

    • I mean, that’s more or less the definition of sexual attraction I use, so. If it’s not accurate, I want things to be explained, but it’s what seems to make the most sense to me, also.

      Exclusivity is actually a recurring theme in descriptions of romantic love I’ve been able to suss out, even in polyamorous people (though to a lesser extent), which is something I find very interesting.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

      • OK, I know it’s a year later, but I followed a link from a discussion elsewhere, and found your post interesting, and you said you wanted to know, so: I am sexual, and that is not at all my experience or definition of sexual attraction.

        My definition of sexual attraction is more like: When I see (or hear) someone to whom I am attracted, I get a warm (and sometimes tingly) sensation in my vulva and surrounding areas, and the muscles there contract. I most definitely do not want to have sex with, or even touch, everyone to whom I am attracted. I see, say, Shemar Moore on tv, shirtless, and I get warm and tingly and my bits contract a bit, but I don’t know him and am never going to know him, and if I met him and got to know him there’s a really good chance I wouldn’t like him personally, and I don’t want to have sex with people I do not know and like.

        When I masturbate, I do not think about people I’m attracted to, unless I’m specifically thinking about someone who is already a sexual partner (generally remembering something really hot we’ve done together). Instead, I think about scenarios that turn me on, about actions, not about specifically people, and I think of no specific features for any partner or partners the scenario might require.

        I experience sexual attraction as a physiological reaction, and as a very different thing from either sexual or emotional desire or lust.

        I would attempt to define romantic attraction or feelings for you, because I understand the need for operational definitions, but I don’t think English contains the vocabulary to do so accurately and denotatively, and in order to create a connotative description, we’d need to spend quite a while discussing terms and finding common ground. But to give a description of my reaction when I have a romantic attraction, I guess I’d say that I blush and make high-pitched “squee!” noises when I talk or think about the person.

        Comment by MadGastronomer — February 10, 2012 @ 1:45 am | Reply

        • Huh. Thanks for writing this; it’s definitely interesting, and something I’ll have to think more upon.

          Comment by Sciatrix — February 10, 2012 @ 8:13 am | Reply

          • You’re welcome. I subscribed to the comments, so if you have any questions for me, I’ll try to come back and answer them.

            Comment by MadGastronomer — February 10, 2012 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

  4. As a sexual, I’ve actually found the asexual discussions of sexuality rather enlightening. I suspect most sexuals not only don’t know how to talk about their sexuality, but actually believe incorrect things about it, because they haven’t had to think about it before.

    That said, in the months since I discovered the asexual community, I’ve tried to pay a little closer attention to what actually goes on in my brain. I still feel like I haven’t figured much of it out, but if it would be useful for me to answer questions or to info-dump the disorganized things I’ve observed, I would be glad to.

    Comment by semiel — April 2, 2011 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

    • That… yeah, that would make all too much sense. If you do want to info-dump at some point, or just describe what sexual attraction feels like to you, that would be very interesting to see.

      Thinking about things makes them so interestingly complicated!

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

  5. I like the elephant analogy. Sometimes, based on the different descriptions I hear, I suspect that people are actually describing very different elephants. It seems like people fail to recognize this diversity because they think it’s all too damn obvious to ever have to talk about, or they don’t care, or something. It’s kind of aggravating to have to tell sexuals that, no, based on what I’ve heard that’s not how all sexuals experience it. Why do they need an asexual person to tell them that? Shouldn’t the flow of information be in the other direction?

    Comment by Siggy — April 2, 2011 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

    • This seems very true to me, based on my attempts to talk about this sort of thing with other sexuals over the past few months. I would not be surprised if there was a ton of variation in how sexuals experience sexual attraction, or even if there were multiple distinguishable things that were getting conflated.

      Comment by semiel — April 2, 2011 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

    • I actually often suspect something similar, because people’s descriptions are often so different. But because they all have “elephant” as a shorthand to lean on, they don’t bother to go into detail enough to notice how different they all are.

      And really!

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

  6. So this elephant is sitting on a therapist’s couch, saying “I’m right there in the room, but no one will acknowledge me!” :-D Seriously though, I agree with your metaphor (and general point); the onus should not be entirely on us to define these things, although it’s difficult when the people who need the definitions most are the ones who don’t experience the feelings. As far as romantic attraction, I feel like I’ve read some pretty straightforward accounts of it, but I often find that my own experience (however limited) is different from the one being described. For example, someone told me once that if I was hanging out with someone and never wanted to go home, then that was probably romantic attraction. But I was like…wait! I feel that way all the time about friends, and I still think my feelings are platonic. I kind of feel like I have a Victorian-era view of friendship, when most other people have moved on to something else, like this idea of friendship as “romance-lite”.

    Comment by Ily — April 2, 2011 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

    • I am with you so much on my experience not being the same as the one described. Which is I think what makes it hard for me to get this–people keep explaining it in terms of things they want out of romantic partners, and I scratch my head and go “but I want that out of some of my friends. But I’m still pretty sure I don’t want to date them!”

      I suppose if you’re defining friendship as “relationships involving lesser emotions than romantic relationships” then it’s easy, but then in that case wouldn’t romantic relationships be the same basic thing as friendships only stronger emotions, and in that case where’s the gender specificity? Is this a facet of sexuality at all? Where does the line get drawn? People who are sure of their romantic orientation tell me that there obviously is one, but it seems to me that explanations often get hung up on quantity of emotion rather than quality–and if it’s quantity we’re talking about, the two kinds of thing ought to be the same basic thing, shouldn’t they?

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

      • I actually just thought of something. For me, romantic attraction is something different entirely to friendship. I can feel it for people I don’t actually like in the friendship-way, or for people I do like already. I haven’t had that many romantic relationships, but it may be that whether or not I like someone anyway makes the big difference in whether or not a long-term relationship works out for me. Because romantic feelings change rather much for me with time (and from what I gather, for many other people too). The in-love feeling I get in the beginning wears off, and then sometimes I’m left with just nothing much of feeling for someone at all: this happened when I was in love with someone I didn’t like. When I fell in love with someone I did like (we didn’t know each other long, so I’m not talking about actual established friendships, just someone I could be friends with), when the in-love wore off, it changed to a different kind of romantic feeling. It’s still not the same as what I feel for friends, but it might very well influence each other. But with a sample size of… 2, that’s well inside the borders of anecdata, and I don’t know how reliable it is.

        I tried feeling all the ‘romantic stuff’ for my best friends ever, and wanting all the stuff I want to do with romantic partners, but it’s just not there.

        Also, I call myself hetero-romantic, but I’m not actually convinced that what I get is *romance for males* so much as *not/romance for females*, so I’m not sure where I’d stand with people who aren’t female and aren’t male (or are both), since… I really don’t know many people in meatspace at all and the group doesn’t have anyone who isn’t on the binary. I know lots of people… online. But I don’t really get romantic feelings for people online. Do get friendship though. Maybe it needs… I dunno, breathable stuff.

        Comment by Norah — April 11, 2011 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  7. I like your analogy. It reminds me of ‘His Dark Materials’. And I’m loving this discussion you’re provoking, I think it’s a really helpful one (I’d particularly like to echo Siggy’s points that everyone has different elephants http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html , but they don’t talk about it, so they don’t even realise)

    In terms of actually being helpful, I can’t. For romantic attraction, I’m just as in the dark as you. I tend to assume it means ‘the ability and desire to be in traditional romantic relationships’ for the sake of day-to-day practicality. For gender, I really have no idea. For sexual attraction, I think that Marie’s definition is the best, again, in terms of practicality of use. Except that I’ve often had attraction that I’ve categorised as sexual that hasn’t had anything to do with me wanting to have sex with the person. It’s more, I dunno, accepting and liking the sexuality of the person, and finding their sexuality a pleasing and relatable notion? Something subtler, that would fall apart if sex got involved.

    Comment by slightlymetaphysical — April 3, 2011 @ 7:23 am | Reply

    • Well, I knew where you were on romantic attraction to start with! I also use “looking at someone and wanting to have sex with them solely because you think it would be fun” for sexual attraction, but if I’m wrong, I want someone to explain how, you know? And hm… that’s an interesting thing to describe, on finding someone else’s sexuality a pleasing and relatable notion, and also completely foreign to the way my mind works. I will consider that.

      I actually do have a reasonably good idea on how I define gender identity and used to explain it to people who asked back when I was on AVEN. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do–but then, in my case that’s a topic I do have the elephant on, because I’m not agender. Although… most cis people don’t seem to have had to think about it, which makes me think: is it just that people in grey areas in some way tend to be better at coming up with explanations for these things? Not because of any intrinsic quality on the part of being greyish, but because if you’re on the outskirts but not firmly in one category or the other you’ve had to think about it a lot more.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 3, 2011 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

      • Gender is the one that really gets me, because I cannot explain this elephant for the life of me and I’m genderqueer. (Not for lack of trying.) Which has the side effect of not being able to come out in anything but very very friendly nonbinary-friendly spaces where I won’t need to explain. *sighs*

        And I think cis people not being able to explain gender is a bit like fish not being able to explain water. I hear SO MANY cis people essentially denying that they have a gender and I honestly don’t think they’re all genderless, you know?

        Comment by Kaz — April 4, 2011 @ 3:59 am | Reply

        • Okay, since I’ve been asked, the definition in my mind boils down to this: there’s a difference between gender identity and gender presentation. Gender identity is the important bit; gender presentation is just the way you present yourself and how you appear (or don’t appear) to other people. I’m not particularly femme and happen to present in a way that many people often don’t seem to identify as female, but that’s not the same thing as not having a female gender identity.

          I tend to define gender identity as the social category that you feel most comfortable identifying with. I don’t mean “identifying” in the sense of taking on a public label, I mean it in the sense of automatically classifying yourself within a particular gender category. So that if I was to imagine a Sciatrix in an alternate universe, I always default to female; a male version of me, or a genderqueer one, generally feels quite strange. Or if I am being asked to think in terms of gendered categories, I will automatically identify with the box marked “women”, not boxes marked “neutrois” or “male” or “agender” or anything else.

          Comment by Sciatrix — April 5, 2011 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

      • Any chance you can point me to that gender identity definition? I (think) I’m a cis straight guy, and I still have no idea how I might define gender.

        Comment by semiel — April 4, 2011 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  8. I am wondering if I should throw my own experience in here, since I’m not likely to ever explain it on my own blog. Well, why not.

    What I like about friends, though this sounds bad, is quantity over quality. I like that individual friendships are not important. I like that I can have a nice chat with friends and not talk to them for weeks or months. I like that this makes friendships more stable and relatively drama-free. I like friends for support in going to social functions. I like running into them at random.

    There are some friends that I consider closer than others, but it’s just a smooth spectrum from distant to close, with no sharp distinctions. But there’s no such spectrum from friendships to romantic relationships; they are distinct. Sex and touch are involved, for one thing. For another, I want to see them frequently or I miss them. I want them to be there to hug them (I am prone to PDA), and to share feelings that are too inexpressible to be able to share with anyone else. I prefer to be pursued, so that they offer to be there without my asking. There’s also a strong element of commitment, a drive to build a relationship that is strong enough to last a lifetime, and good enough that you’d want it to last a lifetime. This drive makes relationships far more unstable than friendships. Incidentally, I don’t experience jealousy, so I don’t care about exclusivity except insofar as it’s necessary for stability.

    I actually feel a little uncomfortable with relationships that are neither friendships nor romantic. If a relationship involves too much commitment, or involves touch or sex, I feel like I want more, I want a proper relationship. I am currently in a non-romantic relationship. Unlike a friendship, I see him very often, miss him when he’s gone, and we flirt all the time. But there’s only a small amount of commitment, and we both agree that we are irreconcilably incompatible for the long-term. Something about this relationship feels unnatural to me, like I’ve simply designated it as non-romantic. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped us… yet.

    Note that I identify as neither romantic nor aromantic. I’ve interpreted these experiences as friends, romantic relationships, and non-romantic relationships, but how can I really know? My last boyfriend thought that I didn’t seem very romantically interested in him, which I take to mean that I don’t experience it the same way as most people.

    Comment by Siggy — April 4, 2011 @ 3:32 am | Reply

    • See, I am very, very different to that–when I make friendships, I make a few of them at a time and I make strong ones. People tend to be either not particularly important to me or very important to me. I don’t have much middle ground there, which tends to mean that the model of having a lot of not-so-close friendships doesn’t work very well for me. (I’ve noted that people either tend to have a few close friendships or a lot of looser ones, actually–possibly this is just a personal difference?) If I think that a relationship isn’t going to last into the long term, I tend to just give up on maintaining contact with that person and not invest energy into that relationship, and I tend to have a very long view of things.

      So my friendship patterns consist almost entirely of sharp distinctions. Which is I think one of the interesting things about the way it works for me, because most of what you’re describing minus the sex can apply to the way I conceptualize my friendships (vs. acquaintances, who I generally won’t go much out of my way to see), minus the sex and some of the touching in general and the bit about who offers to be there. But building relationships that last? Yeah. There’s a large part of me that just doesn’t see the point of making a relationship that I don’t expect to be around a while for.

      So your description of where you are strikes me as very interesting. I should mention, I’ve considered switching around interpretations to see how they fit (and probably would, except that I’m not the right gender for that to work with most of my close friends, who seem to interpret “very close friendship” much better), but worry that if there is an obvious distinction that I might be muddying the waters by doing so. It’s hard to tell sometimes exactly what we mean by these terms, and a lot of me just wants to figure them out so I can tell whether I should be using them.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 6, 2011 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  9. I always feel like this issimilar to autism in a way: there’s who knows how many autistic people, but I highly doubt we’re all similarly autistic. Sometimes you meet someone and they seem to experience many things similarly (from what they describe anyway), but half the time you meet someone with the same diagnosis and I’m going “WTH are we even doing walking around with the same label.”
    I’m mostly fine with this. I’m also mostly fine with different kinds of love and attraction being only vaguely defined and very broad.
    If I read what people thought about romantic and sexual attraction 200 years back I nearly fall off my chair.

    When I read most other people’s definitions of romantic (or sexual) attraction, it’s just a list of stuff they want to do with someone they’re attracted to. I never really got that. Also, like with autism, 9 times out of 10 it only has partial overlap with mine (if I were to make one), if any. I suspect actually wanting to define the feeling is why so many people come up with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘you just know’. We have a word for that feeling: romantic (or sexual, especially for people for who that is mixed up), so then you could just get a circle: romantic attraction is romantic attraction.
    I could describe a list of stuff I like doing with *this* romantic partner (because I think that not only does it vary per person, but it might very well vary per partner) that I wouldn’t want to do with anyone else, but I don’t really see the use. If you’d really find it useful, though…
    I think maybe the most useful analogy I could come up with is “that feeling of needing to pee” (Yeah…). It’s just there, it feels kinda weird and urgent. Some people do never get or recognise it (like with everything). Or thirst, that’s the one I don’t really get (it’s trouble). Only these are not things you get in relation to another person.

    I’ve never understood people using current dominant relationship forms and descriptions (or what is currently the approved relationship form) as a definition for romantic attraction, because (duh) mine is different, and my relationship is different, and so was my parents’ (and they succesfully countered culture influence to a large degree not just in our experience of relationships but also our ideas and expressions of gender, for example). Just like I get confused by people who are asked what a woman is and then drone up a list of currently dominant feminine traits. Sure, there are couples out there who fit that mold, but that doesn’t make it a definition. Just like there are women out there who fit that mold (and they’re not just deluded by mass culture, thanks), but that doesn’t mean I’m not female.
    Also it goes right back to describing things you *do or want to do or think you should do* when people ask you the question of “what is this”.

    I think maybe by now you know I have a *thing* about people assigning me feelings or thoughts, or saying I don’t really feel the way I think I do, or whatever. This probably relates to meatspace, where my whole life people have been telling me a lot of stuff is either imaginary or due to stress or due to thinking about it too much, because I’m disabled. Going so far as not being able to get proper medical treatment because my symptoms are not taken seriously. So when I see something in that direction I just tend to get *RED HAZE OF RAGE* and go into incoherent-raging-mode. Which is why I took time before commenting. I’m going to ignore that comment now, because the only thing I can get out of my fingers are things you really don’t want to see (I really don’t want to see, even on my own blog let alone commenting on someone else’s) and they’d probably violate all commenting rules everywhere.

    Comment by Norah — April 4, 2011 @ 3:57 am | Reply

    • I am sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you!

      Yeah, actually I find the historical differences between modern conceptions of romantic love and past ones really interesting and fascinating to read! There’s some pretty interesting histories of family and marriage in particular out there. And I mean, there’s definitely a cultural component to attraction in general; the concept of sexual orientation to begin with is only a couple of centuries old and very Western. A whole lot of cultures have got by with very different views on how sexuality and romantic relationships should work.

      (And I have to confess, if I happened to have been born into a culture that placed most of its intimacy weight on birth family, or on friendships, or something besides romantic love and attraction, I don’t think I’d be as bothered by trying to suss these things out as I am. It’s just that this culture seems to think that all close intimacy ought to come from this one type of relationship, which doesn’t seem to fit very well for me, so I have a vested interest in sort of poking at it and trying to make space for a relationship that does work for me.)

      Yeah, its… upthread, there’s a discussion going on that maybe most people have different “elephants” or different forms of sexual/romantic attraction (or conceptions thereof) but don’t talk about it enough to define it, because they can just fall back on the shared concept and assume that everyone knows what they’re talking about. So when someone says “help, I fall in the grey lines, what do you mean exactly?” out come the funny looks.

      I have got no patience with people who respond to “define gender” with a list of presentation traits or culture-specific traits or that sort of thing. I’ve had my gender invalidated way too many times on that count to be fond of it.

      I don’t hold with people assigning anyone their thoughts or telling anyone what they are or are not feeling, and I’ve had similar experiences being told what my emotions are and are not. It universally sucks to be told “you’re feeling this way” or “you’re not feeling the right way, you should be feeling this way” and not have people listen to you about your own experiences. That kind of thing is not okay in this space, and I’m really sorry it upset you here.

      Comment by Sciatrix — April 5, 2011 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

    • For myself, the similarity to autism comes in because “well, pretty much everyone has an elephant”/”But how would I know whether I have one or not?” comes up in areas of my life that have nothing to do with sex; it’s just really hard to infer enough about other people’s lives to know whether my experiences are typical. And I can’t even assume that I’m “different and not just unobservant” (hence not identifying as asexual, but seeing in these discussions one small facet of my broader issues).

      Comment by anonymous — April 6, 2011 @ 12:44 am | Reply

  10. So, I don’t know if I might be able to help at all with this. It is interesting, because I am, effectively, the opposite of you. I can be attracted to anyone, of any gender, cis or trans or gender neutral(This does not mean I have sex with everyone, or have no standards-sorry, but that comes up a lot). I am also rather obsessively introspective, so I have thought about the way sexual and romantic attraction affects me. I cannot speak for anyone else. But I think I can break my perspective down pretty clearly.

    I sit on the couch. Reading, writing, or watching TV. I am not, at that moment, thinking at all about sex in the slightest. If it was mentioned as a possibility (by a significant other), in fact, I would be displeased (or even a little dismayed/annoyed). I am without hormones at that moment. The idea of having sex just then is almost mystifying to me.

    Sitting on the couch, I see an image/hear a sound/feel a sensation. This is sexy. It’s a trigger. It triggers a bucket of hormones to dump over my head. The trigger is like the kind of fear trigger a phobic person can get when they see a snake or something they’re scared of, only it makes me horny instead of fearful. It makes sense to have a trigger like this built in- my body wants me to have sex, and have many babies (Ha! I will fool it).

    Now this is a little weird. Once I have a bucketload of hormones running through me, I am not-exactly-the same person anymore. The difference is, sex sounds GREAT. All of it. Some natural inhibitions go out the window, and while I can still think rationally and make good decisions, it’s a lot harder. It’s like when you’ve been sitting working on something for a long time, distracted, and you suddenly realize all of a sudden you are starving, but you just didn’t notice. You were working, rational, totally okay-and then your stomach growls and OMYGODINEEDPASTANOW.

    But, I don’t get a bucketload every time (That, I find, usually comes when two people are comfortable with each other and care). Sometimes, I just get a little hole poked in the bottom of the bucket, so the hormones kind of come at me in a steady little drip-drip.

    I think, actually, this might be where the “you just know” thing comes in. I don’t want to have sex all the time. I don’t, in fact, want to have sex with most people I meet. However, when I was single, and I did meet someone that I was attracted to, I knew it because I was suddenly thinking about sex. Because when I was around them sex suddenly sounded GREAT. And it usually doesn’t.

    Part of the problem is the process of mate selection is at least half subconscious. I myself have never gotten into a relationship with anyone without being friends with them first. I just start building something with someone. Anyone I would be friends with I would be willing to date. I am friends with them-they are wonderful people. It usually starts with a dangerous desire to see them happy. They are unhappy, for one reason or another, and I think, could I make him/her/other happy? Happier than they are? Would they like me to try? Usually, once this thought enters my head, all is pretty much lost.

    I can say that I don’t, at those times, think about my own feelings (do I like them? Is this love/romance?) I think about my friend’s feelings. Do THEY like me? Will they want love/romance with me? Will this hurt them? (Most important question). My empathy for them at this point pretty much goes off the chart. I get a feel-good rush anytime I’m around them. I want to touch them-I want to do favors for them-I want to get a smile from them. This part isn’t really sex, it’s mate-bonding. The romance part, I suppose. That person makes everything better, and everything is worse when they are not there. An unkind word from them is devastating. A loving one can leave me floating through the whole day.

    *Whew* This went long. I’d better go…

    Comment by Jack — April 10, 2011 @ 5:21 am | Reply

    • That was interesting although it does not distinguish between attraction and libido, in fact in confuses the 2, as most othersexuals do.

      @Sciatrix – your analogy is simply epic!

      Comment by interMent — April 17, 2011 @ 11:43 pm | Reply

  11. [...] Sam posted a piece last week about the limits of "sexual attraction" as a term, and I've been feeling confused and ranty ever since. It's a good piece, and you should read it, but mostly what it's done is remind me why I get frustrated a lot by discussions like this. See, I'm one of those really analytical people who likes to quantify things. I like to have certainty. I like to have operational definitions for my terms so I'm sure what we're all … Read More [...]

    Pingback by If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It (via Writing From Factor X) « FIND (Y)OUR WAY — April 11, 2011 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  12. Perhaps romantic attraction is liking a person, but not liking, or wanting to interact with, their elephant?

    /hasn’t got time just now to read all the above, far better developed, comments

    Comment by strangledduck — April 13, 2011 @ 4:56 am | Reply

  13. I just linked to your post in my very first blog post on sexuality. I think your post is incredibly valuable!

    Comment by thecarnalasexual — April 14, 2011 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

  14. Hi, I find the invisible elephant metaphor extremely interesting, and I would be interested in translating this post in French.
    I’ve already translated articles about asexuality, they’re posted on my . For now, they’re mostly from David Jay, but I would like to translate posts that especially touched me, from various authors.
    So I’m asking for your permission to publish a translation of this. You would of course be credited as the author, and I would link back to your post.
    Thanks!

    Comment by Wonktnodi — May 1, 2011 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

    • Thank you very much for the compliment! Feel free to translate the post, just please credit me when you do so. :)

      Comment by Sciatrix — May 1, 2011 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

  15. [...] ace blogs, I’ve been reading them with a passion. I remember seeing Sciatrix’s invisible elephants metaphor – my first ace blog post, actually – and being struck at how well it described [...]

    Pingback by A Love Letter from the Sidelines | The Veerblog — August 14, 2011 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  16. [...] someone? How would I know? What does it feel like? Why does no-one talk about that? Is this another invisible elephant? Well, [...]

    Pingback by Waiting for the One… or One of the Many « Wicked Ace — August 16, 2011 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  17. [...] If You Can See The Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It, the blog post that got me into activism in the first place [...]

    Pingback by Asexuality 101 « The Veerblog — February 15, 2012 @ 1:27 am | Reply

  18. It seems to me that you are describing mind blindness. If you are on the asperger/autistic spectrum then, of course, romantic feelings are not something you would understand or experience. It would explain your analytical approach.

    Comment by Mary — May 3, 2012 @ 1:08 am | Reply

    • Except that many autistic people experience romantic attraction, including one person who identifies herself as such and discusses her experience in these very comments. In addition, many of the people who have commented describing how this post resonates with their experiences are not autistic.

      Thanks for the condescension, though!

      Comment by Sciatrix — May 3, 2012 @ 7:58 am | Reply

      • Just wondering, are you an INTP, Sciatrix? You sound like my good friend who is very analytical =)

        Comment by Julie Drohan — April 29, 2014 @ 11:05 am | Reply

        • I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about MBTI profiles–are those making some sort of resurgence? I test reasonably consistently as an INTJ, but I’m aware for many people MBTI results aren’t necessarily replicable over time, and I know the MBTI has been out of favor among psychometric researchers for about twenty years for this (among other) reasons. There are also some inconsistencies between the theory underlying the test and the distributions you get on test scores–for example, if you’re going to divide the population into Es and Is, you should see distributions where the majority of tested people fit either comfortably within E or comfortably within I, and this isn’t the case. And there are some inconsistencies in the way it views personality dimensions–the MBTI tends to think of things as either/or, while these days psychometric researchers think of things in terms of a sliding scale or a spectrum.

          Basically, I think the test is fun, but I don’t take it particularly seriously. :) I test as extremely analytical on just about every personality inventory I’ve ever encountered, so I’m not particularly surprised that that aspect of my personality comes out in the blog. Thanks for the compliment, by the way! It’s always nice to be compared to friends.

          Comment by Sciatrix — April 29, 2014 @ 3:41 pm | Reply

  19. [...] [...]

    Pingback by Sexual vs. Asexual - Page 2 — May 13, 2012 @ 10:20 am | Reply

  20. [...] you’ve read any of my previous work, a lot of it is about trying to come up with operational definitions for things like sexual attraction, romantic [...]

    Pingback by How Important is Terminology? | The Asexual Agenda — December 22, 2012 @ 6:01 am | Reply

  21. I’m just a bored mundane who stumbled onto this article. FWIW, if you feel like emailing me questions about my elephant, I’d be happy to answer….araeshkigal@yahoo.com

    Comment by Vashra Araeshkigal — May 3, 2013 @ 11:42 pm | Reply

  22. Semi-detailed sexual stuff below:

    I didn’t have time to read all the comments above, but I did want to throw my two cents in the pot. First of all, great post, I will be reposting it. It’s important that some asexual viewpoints get out there and people get more familiar with the fact that asexual people are all around and that there’s nothing “wrong” with you.

    Now, I’m sexual. And frequently get asked by my other sexual friends about my sexuality. Because I am really sexual. Initially when I started having sex it was about curiosity, romance, and a desire to have my boyfriend put his dick inside me. I thought that sounded motivating/sexy/hot/something I wanted/like it would feel good. And it was all those things.

    When I got to college, I started having a lot a lot of mostly one night stands. At first I was doing it because I was out drunk at a party and I wanted it. Then it became a way of solidifying my self-esteem. I liked to think that I was a Conqueror. Of virgins, of popular guys, of the cool dudes, of dudes that wouldn’t have looked twice at me in high school. I was one-upping all my high school bullies. And of course I was still doing it because it made my body feel good. I desired it.

    Then I started to realize that some of the sexual encounters that were the most satisfying were the ones with virgins or relative newbies whom I could teach new things to. I relished the teacher role.

    Then someone once asked me straight up, why do you have sex with so many people. And I realized it was because I pretty much wanted to have sex with everyone. Everyone that I couldn’t get to know in a more meaningful way than a one night stand. So mostly I didn’t want to have sex with my girl friends and I didn’t want to have sex with most of my boy friends (though I did both that occasionally). And I didn’t want to have sex with my family members, and I didn’t want to have sex with people I knew really well. I wanted to have sex with everyone I thought was beautiful and I wanted to know more about. Which in reality is Everyone. Every human being is unique and beautiful and I wanted to see how they “ticked.” What are their quirks? I wanted to possess intimate knowledge of everyone. And sex was a quick way to get to know something intimate about a lot of men.

    But then I realized that the knowledge gained from a one or two or 5 night stand is not very accurate or satisfying in the long run. I don’t regret all those one night stands and i still feel like I gained a kind of knowledge and education from every sexual encounter. But I was in a rut. I needed to have different kind of relations with people.

    So I got me a boyfriend, and we only had sex with each other. And I learned some things about him. New knowledge, kiinds of knowledge I had never learned about anyone before. And that’s super cool.

    after that brief monogamous 5 months, I came back to my mother’s house, started OKCupid dating and soon after met my partner of over 8 months. We are polyamorous and open, and I have a handful of other sexual partners. I still wanna have sex with pretty much everyone I don’t know enough about, and still want to have sex with many people that I do know plenty about. It mainly has to do with curiousity and a desire to have their genitals and hands and mouths touch my genitals and hands and mouths. It’s a feeling in my gut. That is driven perhaps by a biological desire to have a baby. And also still driven (though to a much lesser extent than in college) to possess knowledge of a large variety of the human race.

    I enjoy sex. All kinds of sex. Anal, oral, vaginal, manual, tantric (currently in the baby stages of this)
    And I love kissing passionately.

    So I have sex because I enjoy it and I desire people because I WANT TO KNOW ALL THE THINGS.
    If I didn’t want to KNOW ALL THE THINGS, then I would probably still want to have sex with my beautiful vibrator Ina.

    I have been masturbating to orgasm since I was 3 years old.

    Comment by Kelly Marie — May 4, 2013 @ 11:42 am | Reply

  23. […] a group of people who come up with complicated ideas about sex, and then try to explain them with metaphors, charts, graphs, and occasionally even Bayesian models. I really do think it’s a cultural […]

    Pingback by It’s Complicated, Let Me Draw You This Graph: Asexuality and Reductionism | The Asexual Agenda — May 12, 2013 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  24. hey there

    i just stumbled across this post, i know it’s from a long time ago, but as i hope and believe you still read the comments, i’m going to write this anyway.

    first of all, thanks for writing this. i’m a sexual who has only recently started to read about asexuality, and i think this post was really helpful for me to see things out of the perspective of an asexual.

    i would really like to be of use and try to describe the invisible elephant to you, although i have to say that i don’t think i can give a real definition – and i am not sure if it is possible. on the one hand, as a student of comparative religious studies, after learning about at least a hundred different definitions of religion, i don’t believe anymore that there can be one perfect definition of religion. every definition highlights something while omitting other things, and is always unfair to some religions/believers. i guess sexuality is similar to religion in the way that it is something that varies very much culturally, in time and from person to person, so i doubt there can be one single perfect definition that fits everyone. which doesn’t mean that definitions can’t help you to understand it, but still. on the other hand, it’s very hard to describe or define something to a person who doesn’t know this / has never seen it. for instance, how can you define or describe something like, e.g. “colours”, to someone who is blind (not metaphorically this time)?

    i guess the blind example is a bit extreme and anyway, this being said, i still think that you can go a long way with definitions and descriptions and analogies. i guess there must be a lot of definitions of sexuality as i am writing this, and regarding descriptions, i think madgastronomer did a really good job, sexual attraction feels very similar for me. but today i’ve been thinking a lot about this post and i came up with an analogy, that could maybe be helpful, so that’s why i am writing this post, and here it is: sex, and sexual attraction, are a bit like food. (yes, i’m a foodie, i guess that’s obvious by now).

    so: both have some biological ground, although obviously there is a big difference here since you need food to survive while you can lead a perfectly happy and healthy life without sex, but let’s leave that for now. however, most of the time when i am eating, i am not eating because i need to survive, but because i feel hungry and/or for pleasure. with sex, it’s similar but more extreme: i so far have only had sex because i’ve been horny and wanted pleasure, not because i wanted to procreate.

    then, i think the distinction between being hungry and seeing some mouthwatering food and then thinking, mhhh i want to eat this, also kind of applies. sometimes i am just horny – because of hormones, i guess. it’s something that comes from inside my body. when that happens, i think about sex a lot and everybody around me looks much more sexually appealing than they usually would – like when you’re hungry, every food looks really good.

    but this doesn’t happen that often. more often, i get horny because i am triggered in some way – i guess this is what you call sexual attraction. this could be seeing someone that i think is sexually attractive, or seeing or reading a sexual scene in a movie or book, or somebody touching me in a certain way. and then i get this warm and sometimes tingly and sometimes contracting sensation that madgastronomer described, sometimes in my vulva and the surrounding parts, sometimes also in my stomach. this is more like, when you walk past a shop, and you see this chocolate cupcake that looks sooo good, and then your mouth might start to water or you might feel hungry even if you weren’t hungry before.

    but then again, you probably wouldn’t go into the shop and buy it, because maybe it’s too expensive or you just ate or the shop looks sketchy and you’re afraid you might catch some nasty bacteria there or something. so, with sex, it’s like that but much much more extreme. one reason is that while the chocolate cake cannot chose if it wants to be eaten by you, the person you may want to have sex with does. but another, maybe even more important reason is that because sex is such a powerful thing, you can get hurt a lot if you have sex in the wrong moment or with the wrong person. so usually, even if i’m horny or if i get triggered sexually i do not even think as far as actual sexual acts with the person. and there are a lot more reasons why you don’t have sex even when you’re attracted: too tired, too stressed, no time, … so actually, most of the time i am horny and/or sexually triggered it does not lead to sex, even when i have a steady partner.

    and so this is the last part of the analogy, which i think is also really important. food tastes a lot different when someone who loves you and whom you love makes it for you. like, some of my mom’s favourite recipes will always taste like the best food in the world to me, even though i have been eating in really good restaurants with world class food. “objectively”, or from the point of view of sheer pleasure, the food in the world class restaurant tastes much better, but it’s not the same as something that is cooked for you by your mom, with a lot of love. which doesn’t mean that i don’t enjoy eating at world class restaurants!
    so, it’s kind of similar with sex and love, but again, more extreme. i’ve had sex with very experienced partners whom i was not in love with and from the point of view of sheer pleasure, that was much better sex than the sex i’m having with my boyfriend. but it’s not the same. when love is involved, there’s just an element added to it that makes it really different. and like when someone you love cooks for you, you will always enjoy eating that, even if it doesn’t strictly speaking taste very great. same with sex, but again, more extreme: i think sex with someone you love is always wonderful, even if they aren’t very experienced or don’t know how / don’t want to do the things that you like the best.

    maybe this analogy can also be helpful for asexuals to understand why it’s hard for sexuals to understand asexuality – although probably it only works if you love food as much as i do. imagine someone who doesn’t like to eat. they don’t enjoy any kind of food. they’d still have to eat to survive, and they could, but it would give them no pleasure at all. for me, that’s kind of hard to imagine, like … how can you not enjoy a lasagna or a chocolate cake or stilton cheese or any kind of food at all? and if i didn’t know any better, i might feel sorry for them because for me, it’s so amazing to eat that food, and it makes me really happy, and i would like them to experience that too. now i know that it’s wrong to think that way – of asexuals and people who don’t enjoy food, i mean, it’s not that unlikely that they exist – and personally i don’t, but i understand people who do, and i don’t know, maybe this helps you to understand a little bit why some sexuals feel pity for asexuals, even though that is absolutely wrong and i don’t want to justify it or anything.

    so, to sum it up: to me, sexual attraction is a bit like “attraction to food”, but more extreme, both in the sense of the importance it has in my life, the pleasure it gives me, and the (at least imagined) consequences it has if i make bad choices with regard to it.

    does that help? if you, or anyone reading this, have questions with regard to this post/analogy, or other questions about my sexuality, please don’t hesitate to ask, i’ll try to be as detailed and open as i possibly can. also because i think this is a really interesting topic and i’d love to have more discussions about it :)

    Comment by foodie — July 12, 2013 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  25. […] a coincidence that the most popular piece on asexuality I have ever written by a large margin, If You Can See the Invisible Elephant, Please Describe It, is all about the experience of […]

    Pingback by Switching On Airplane Mode | The Asexual Agenda — July 30, 2013 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  26. […] people run into my old post about the invisible elephant and take it upon themselves to explain to me in great detail what sexual attraction feels like, […]

    Pingback by Question of the Week: February 11, 2014 | The Asexual Agenda — February 11, 2014 @ 12:02 am | Reply

  27. […] people have a different problem describing sexual attraction. Sciatrix famously described it as painting around an invisible elephant, since we can only speak of the experiences we have, not the experiences we lack. But allow me to […]

    Pingback by A jaded look at sexual attraction | The Asexual Agenda — March 17, 2014 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  28. Apparently, I’ve heard “the lack of sexual attraction” (a negative definition, because the definition is based around something we lack), and the definition of sexual attraction is “being attracted to someone and thinking you want to have sex with them.” And yeah, since I’ve never thought this, I define myself as asexual. I just see people and think I want to cuddle them. Since asexuality is such a spectrum anyways (sub-groups including grey-asexuals, etc.) then I understand how it can be more confusing.

    Comment by Julie Drohan — April 29, 2014 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  29. And for aro aces, it’s an invisible elephant with an invisible cheetah riding it. You can tell there are two things, but people are vague about where one ends and the other begins because to them it’s a unit.

    Comment by Paragrin — June 12, 2014 @ 1:14 am | Reply

  30. […] Defining sexuality and romanticism as an asexual is like trying to describe an invisible elephant. […]

    Pingback by Monday Miscellaneous/It Came From the Search Terms | Misplaced Microphone — October 6, 2014 @ 6:02 am | Reply


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