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I need more than looks to know if I find someone attractive: what does that mean in terms of my orientation?

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Holly asks:

I've noticed that I never really feel sexually attracted to anyone solely on the basis of how they look. I can find people aesthetically attractive. I'm not asexual, though-- I CAN be sexually attracted to people, it's just that I can't be particularly attracted to anyone unless I know what their personalities are like. So, my question is whether I should be considering myself bi, gay, pan, or... what. I realize that this may not be entirely the right forum for this question, but I seriously don't know anywhere else to ask.

Heather Corinna replies:

This is as fine a place to ask as any. :)

You know, this is the case with most people with any kind of emotional maturity who knows that people are more than two-dimensional and sex is about people, not appearances or our ideas about people based on appearance.

Of course, we can look at someone in a photograph only and figure out if we find that person aesthetically appealing -- if we like how they look -- and may even have a sexual response (though that often also has to do with how that person is posed, what kind of a vibe we get from them in that image, or what fantasies we have that that image plays into). People strongly sexually attracted to someone ONLY based on looks are usually bringing some kind of projection to the table about what they presume that person to be like.

But when it comes to interpersonal chemistry and attraction to real people, what someone is like, and how we interact together tends to rule all. In fact, it'll probably happen to everyone at least once -- and usually far more than once -- where they like how someone looks, then interact with them and find they either don't have any kind of chemistry, or where that person's personality makes an attraction that seemed like it would happen, based on how they look only, dissipate. When we really dislike someone we once found attractive just by looking, they can even start to look less attractive than they did before we knew them.

In terms of what that means when it comes to sexual orientation, you've got to remember that biological sex and gender are far bigger than appearances. I can tell you from personal experience that as someone primarily attracted to butch women, way more than once I have found my head turned by someone I see down the street, only to get close and realize that nope -- that's a guy. Certainly, some people are very gendernormative in terms of how they present when it comes to what many people expect when it comes to gender, but most of us are more in the middle, and plenty of people can be mistaken for being of a different sex very easily. Our biological sex is about our chromosomes as well as our gonads: that usually creates other markers of biological sex, but they're not always clearly distinguishable with everyone. And our gender identity is about cultural roles and status, but also -- and really, more importantly to us as people -- how WE identify ourselves in terms of gender: how that plays out in appearance is seriously variable, and what about our gender that matters to our partner doesn't always start and end with how we look and what gender we look like.

If you're trying to suss out your sexual orientation, the thing to do is just pay attention to who you find yourself sexually and emotionally attracted to, and by no means would it be sensible to base that only on appearances. Is it just men? Then you're likely heterosexual. Just women? Then you're likely homosexual. Or is it a mix of men and women, or men and women as well as those who are intersex or transgender? Then you're likely bisexual or pansexual.

But you know, without a bunch of homophobia and ideas about who people should be attracted to or partner with, far more people are attracted to some mix of people of all genders -- even if it's mostly one gender, but occasionally another (and really, even our ideas and norms about gender and sex as binary are flawed, since we know for a fact there are more than two sexes as well as more than two genders). And when it all comes down to it what matters is if if and when you partner with people, they're who you want to be with (and vice-versa) and you both have attraction to and interest in one another.

If it's too soon for you to have any real history of relationships to look at and draw patterns from, that's okay. We all get to not know or be questioning what our orientation is, and that will happen to some people more than once in life. All you need to know for yourself is who you DO find attractive and who you DO want to pursue sexual relationships with -- based on whatever criteria you choose and is important to you -- and act based on those feelings.

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