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Untangling a Gender, Attraction and Relationships Tangle

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Unidentified_72 asks:

Can you be attracted to one gender sexually and the other mentally? How can that work with having a relationship?

Heather Corinna replies:

The way you framed this is tricky, because our sexuality isn't separate from our minds and can't be separated from our minds, just like our bodies can't be separated from our minds. In fact, our mind is where most of sexuality really is and is what drives it the most. We can't say something is sexual and not also psychological and emotional, because the psychological and the emotional are huge parts of our sexuality. Without our brains, we would have very few sexual responses and sexual feelings, if any. We certainly couldn't be attracted to other people without our minds. Even the parts of our sexuality that are chemical are mostly about our brains. The idea that something can be "only sexual" and have nothing to do with our heads and hearts is seriously flawed for those reasons.

That said, that doesn't mean I can't talk about your question or provide some answers I think might help you out with this. We're just going to need to frame it very differently.

I presume what you're describing is finding your feelings so far for people of one gender are more about physical attraction and/or a desire to have sex of some kind while for another, you're either not really experiencing those feelings, or finding that your feelings for another group are more about romance or love, or just aren't sexual. Maybe when it comes to relationships, you're thinking that, so far, with one gender, you're more interested or even only interested in a sexual relationship, while with another, you feel you're more interested or only interested in a non-sexual relationship, which may include a romantic relationship that doesn't involve sex. Or maybe -- or additionally -- you're finding that you can only picture yourself in one kind of relationship or exchange with a given gender and in another kind with another gender, and can't picture any crossover.

Here's the simple answer: any kind of relationship can be beneficial if the people in it are treating one another with care, kindness and respect. But it helps a whole lot when people also feel similar ways about each other and want the same things. While sometimes it can take a lot of time to find who those people are, not matter what we feel or want, there are billions of people in the world, and chances are, in time, we're going to all find folks we have that kind of alignment with. So, if you're worried about this? You don't need to be worried about this.

If you want to dig a lot deeper into this, I think I should first go over a few different terms to make sure we understand them the same way.

Sex is a biggie. Click here to see how we define sex and what it can be. Sexuality, or what's sexual, is even bigger. Our sexuality is made up of a whole bunch of the parts of who we are: it's mental -- neurological, psychological and emotional, but also about our ideas and our cumulative life experiences -- and also sensory and physical (even when we aren't having any kind of sex), not one or the other. There's no one kind of sexuality because, like people and our lives, sexuality is diverse. If we have sexual feelings for someone, we usually mean that something about them, maybe everything about them, makes us feel sexual in some way, makes us kind of want to crawl inside them physically and emotionally (to varying degrees) and/or into the space in ourselves we consider, or have so far experienced to be, sexual for us.

One of the things you may be talking about here is sexual orientation. The way sexual orientation is typically defined is about if someone does or doesn't have, or has or hasn't experienced sexual feelings for a given gender, on the whole. For instance, the way most people tend to define someone who is heterosexual is as someone who's mostly or only sexually and/or romantically attracted to people of a different (some say opposite) gender than them. That doesn't mean that person is going to feel those attractions for everyone of that gender, just that they can or have for some of that gender, whereas with another gender, they either usually don't or never have. Homosexuality is defined that way about those feelings towards people of the same or a similar gender. Orientations like bisexuality or pansexuality are about people having the experience or ability to have those feelings for people of more than one gender or any gender. Asexuality is a term used by people to identify an orientation where they have not yet or do not experience sexual attraction to anyone, or any gender (or, alternately, may feel it, but don't feel the desire to put those feelings into action).

It may be that the issue here is about your orientation. If you find you don't have sexual feelings for one gender, but do, only, for another, then that could be because you're homosexual (only or mostly attracted to people of the same or a similar gender as you) or heterosexual (only or mostly attracted to people of a different gender than you), rather than an orientation where you have no sexual feelings for anyone or where you're more fluid, potentially attracted to a wider net of people when it comes to gender. Ideally, our relationships, whatever kind they are, should be optional, so if you don't want to have a sexual relationship with anyone, whether that's about gender or anything else, that shouldn't be a problem, because you shouldn't have to. If you don't want to have a romantic or otherwise emotional relationship with anyone, whether that's about gender or anything else, that shouldn't be a problem, because you shouldn't have to. Instead, you should be able to choose to engage in the kinds of relationships you want only with the folks you want to have them with.

Of course, that usual definition of orientation kind of suggests or implies that romantic feelings and sexual feelings always go hand in hand for people, and that's a problem, because while they often do, they don't always. So, it can help to just figure romantic/sexual can mean both those feelings or one of those feelings, and is distinguishing between not having any sexual feelings at all, or other kinds of emotional feelings towards or about someone that aren't romantic, like how we might feel about a platonic friend or a kid we parent, or about people who we have neither romantic nor sexual feelings for. We also want to always remember that just because we or someone else has certain feelings doesn't mean we have to, want to or should enter a certain kind of relationship with them: feelings alone don't make every relationship sound or make us want to have one at a given time.

Let's move onto the R-word. When some people say "relationship," they mean one specific kind or model of relationship, like an exclusive romantic and sexual relationship. But it's much more broad. When I say relationship, I mean any ongoing, interpersonal interaction we have with someone else. For instance, I have a relationship with my dog, with my mother, father and sister, with my best friend, with my live-in partner, with my ex-partner, with an ongoing lover, with my neighbor down the road, with my co-workers, with my nephew, and with the family who runs the farmer's market stand I talk to each week when I'm buying their vegetables.

Obviously, those are not all the same kinds of relationships in a bunch of different ways. The ways they're different are about the different ways we all feel about each other, but also about the ways that we choose to interact based on what relationship we want to have with each other based on more than just feelings, but also about what feels appropriate and right and what we want and need in our lives.

Even when I have one "kind" of relationship, like a sexual relationship, the sexual relationship I'm having with one person now can be very different than one I've had in the past with someone else. My feelings may not be exactly the same (and probably aren't, especially since each partner is a different person), the ways we interact can vary, the ways we define and enact that relationship can be different, including aspects of it: one sexual relationship I have may feel more intense than another, or be more about friendship than another. It's kind of like how ice cream is a food, sure, and it's all ice cream, but it comes in a zillion different flavors, and I'm probably not always in the mood for all of them. (Gender is like that too.)

People can and do have affectional, emotional, romantic, interfamilial and/or intimate relationships with others that do not involve sexual feelings or any kind of sex; even if they can have sexual feelings for members of a given group doesn't mean they do, or do for every member of that group. I don't know about you, but some of the closest, most important relationships in my life don't involve sex or sexual feelings. And some have or do, too. People can and do have sexual relationships or experiences without expressly romantic feelings, or without doing things like being someone's boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse or other kind of committed partner, romantically or otherwise. People can and do have romantic relationships without expressly sexual feelings or exchanges.

I'd say it's going to be exceptionally rare for any given person to find that they only EVER want one very specific kind of relationship with a whole gender for a whole lifetime -- with billions of people who have incredible diversity among them, both with gender and with everything else that makes us all different -- and another with a whole other gender. It might help to also just remember that gender itself is hella diverse, often far more diverse than it seems like it is when we're young, when we've lived in the same place or community for a long time or when we've only been otherwise exposed to only one part of the big picture gender is. Even our own gender identity can limit how we see gender as a whole spectrum. We don't all do, experience, enact or present any one gender the same way. I identify as a woman, but the way that I'm a woman, feel like a woman, present myself as a woman, even what my body or its parts look like can be radically different than all of that of another woman, and that doesn't make either one of us not women, just like the fact that you and I are probably very different people doesn't make one of us not a person because the other one is.

I do want to mention that sometimes we are just in a space where we're not meeting, or haven't yet met, anyone for whom we have sexual feelings, but would also like to be very emotionally close to, or engage in a relationship that's both sexual and otherwise intimate. Or, you just may not yet have had all of these kinds of feelings for more than a couple of people to know your own range. More times than not, when someone asks something like you do and we hear from them again even just a few years down the road, the way they think about gender and relationships, and their experiences with them, have expanded, so that what once felt really segregated or separate doesn't feel so much that way in time.

But you know, whether it's about gender, or the way you do or don't particularly click with or feel about another individual in any area, if you did find that you only wanted X kind of relationship with this gender, and Y kind of relationship with another, it's not like that isn't okay. Whatever you want or don't want right now, it's okay to want those things and okay not to want them so long as you're honest with others about whatever they are who you get involved with and may want or not want those things, too.

Here's what matters: you feeling happy in the relationships you have, whatever they are, and the people you're in them with feeling happy. Your needs being met in those relationships and the needs of others in them being met. There are people out and about in the world who want a relationship with someone else that's mostly about being sexual together. There are people in the world that want a relationship with someone else that isn't about sex at all and doesn't involve anyone having sex. There are people in the world who want both a romantic and sexual relationship: some want those things with one person in one relationship, some want them with more than one person in more than one relationship. It's okay for us to want any of those relationships so long as we all do our best to be sure that whoever we're seeking them out with or having them with knows what we want, and wants the same or similar things.

When you ask how having the kinds of feelings you are, or wanting the kinds of relationship with different people you do, works, that's how. It works -- like any kind of relationship does -- by pursuing the things we want with others who also want the same things. How it doesn't work is if, say, we try and have a mostly-having-sex-only relationship with someone who doesn't want that at all, or wants a relationship that includes more than that. Or try to have a relationship with someone who wants sex to be part of their relationship with us when sex with them, or sex, period, isn't what we want.

It might help to remember there's no one kind of relationship everyone wants. It's also not healthy for any one person to have only one interpersonal relationship in their life in which they're expecting that one person and that one relationship to fit every bill and need they have. No one person can do all of that for someone else. Wanting different kinds of relationships with different people is typical, not atypical, and not problematic, since we'll all tend to have a range of relationships in our life that don't all fill the same needs. Our criteria may not always be the same, just like our needs won't, because we're all so different, and that's okay.

In terms of the way you may be thinking about gender, I'd say you just want to check that you're not assigning a given gender very limited and exclusive roles or qualities. For instance, I'd make sure that you're not conceptualizing or treating women as a whole group as only for sex or men as a whole group as only for family. Sometimes we'll hear people say things like "Women are better in bed than men," or "Only men are emotionally stable." What people usually mean when they say those things is that so far, in their personal experience, or in the experience of people around them, they've thought that or found that to be true. But we can know that isn't true just hearing the input of someone else who comes in and says that men are better in bed and only women are emotionally stable, because those have been their experiences or ideas. When it comes its to those people's experiences, both those people will be right. When it comes to what's really true about all men and all women, both of them will be very wrong. What our experiences are with gender or people of a given gender, or what our own ideas are about gender rarely accurately define all people of every gender. They define us way more than others, really.

Approaches or ideas like that, where we really segregate gender, are probably going to limit other people, your relationships with them, and it will also probably limit you in how much you really benefit from and grow in the relationships in your life as well as your own gender identity. So, if you find you are thinking and feeling that gender makes people very easy to separate in those kinds of ways, that probably means you could stand to try and unpack whatever has got you thinking that way, since chances are, it's not about that being true or real since...well, it isn't. Know you'd hardly be the only person who had to work on unpacking limited ideas about gender: I think it's safe to say it's something we all usually need to do at one point or another, if not as a constant part of our growth.

I can't help but wonder if what you're asking isn't coming from a place where you're concerned about what's "normal" or what kind of relationships you're supposed to want, or how you're supposed to feel in a relationship, or what's supposed to be part of a relationship. If you are, then I think the best place to leave this is with what I know from my own life and tend to observe about other people's lives when it comes to relationship, and that is this: there is no normal. There is only what people perceive as normal and then, if they're way worried about being normal, try and conform to, which is typically a recipe to either wind up unhappy or to not be as happy as we could be. Relationships are unique because they're made of people who are unique. Good relationships, happy relationships, healthy relationships, in which everyone in them feels good and happy, and where people relate in healthy ways, tend to be about the unique people involved, treating one another as unique people, and the unique wants they share and ways they connect.

Maybe that'll sometimes look like someone else's relationship. Maybe sometimes it won't. So what? All that matters is if everyone involved is feeling good and getting what they need, which is most likely to happen when we stop caring about what's normal and put who we know we are and what we know we want up front. Whoever that person you are is, and whatever it is that you want -- so long as it isn't about hurting yourself or anyone else -- it's good.

Once more with feeling: whatever you do or don't want, whatever you do or don't feel, you can have relationships that work and are great for you and everyone in them if you just seek out what you want and feel and others who want and feel similarly. Whether we're talking about someone we want to have sex with, someone we want to call a boyfriend/girlfriend -- or both -- if you're just true to yourself and about yourself, and you're giving them room to be the same and they're doing the same, it's all going to be okay, whatever it is, and whatever you call it.

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