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What's it called when you're a straight girl who finds other women beautiful?

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Thyromanes asks:

What do you call it when you're sexually attracted to men (I'm a girl), but you can also appreciate female beauty? I'm straight and would not want a woman as a sexual partner. However, it's not unusual when I see a beautiful woman to think "damn, she's smokin'" the same way I might think "wow, he's a hunk" when I see an attractive guy. I also realize I have the capacity for 'girl crushes'--usually when I find another women admirable, not even in a sexual way or anything. I might admire her for her skill, personality, or expertise, as well as her physical beauty. What's up with that?

Heather Corinna replies:

Here's the short answer: personally, what I call it is just being alive.

The world can be a really beautiful place, and so can all of the people in it. When we're observant, open, and not feeling horribly bitter or distraught about ourselves or our world, we tend to notice and appreciate beauty.

What else I call someone feeling and perceiving what you are is a person who uses their senses, someone who has the capacity to appreciate beauty and humanity, period, and a person with a sense of self healthy enough to acknowledge and admire others, rather than seeing them as competition or as somehow off-limits to admire because of fear about what that appreciation might mean.

But you probably want a longer answer, too.

When you're finding someone or something beautiful, whether it's about what you see or any other way we can perceive beauty, we're often talking about aesthetics: about our collective or individual sense and appreciation of beauty, which can and often does include the beauty of people. What we find aesthetically appealing can also have sexual or romantic appeal. But sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, and that's certainly not all there is to sexual or romantic feelings even if, for some people (or cultures) finding someone or something aesthetically pleasing always or often is part of those feelings or is or seems like a requirement for those feelings to exist, or when the aesthetic appeal of something seems to really fire up our sexual feelings.

There are so many people and things we can or do find have aesthetic appeal that often are not about sexual or romantic desires. That's probably obvious when we're talking about a painting, a sunset, a panther, a beautifully presented meal, a flower or a pair of shoes (even though some people do have sexual feelings or desires about those things), but it's just as true about people. As well, we can have sexual feelings or desires that have nothing to do with our aesthetics, or even when we don't find something or someone has aesthetic appeal at all.

When you're talking about admiring or appreciating other people, of whatever gender, for the whole people they are, or for what they have done with their lives, not just how they look, you're just talking about being a person who doesn't happen to be a narcissist or have something else going on with them which makes it difficult or impossible to appreciate the value of others.

In other words, you're describing an emotionally healthy person who lives in the world with other people and values them. It's also totally possible to have an appreciation for the way someone is or seems to be presenting or expressing their sexuality without having sexual feelings for or about them. We can have non-sexual feelings about sex or other people's sexualities.

One of my favorite things about your question is that it's such a great illustration of how often the tiny boxes we or others try and put our feelings and sexualities in are often way, way too small. It's also a really good example of how much more than sex or romance people are and our relationships to them are about. The way we can or do feel about people is usually a whole lot more complex and multi-dimensional than either being sexual or not-sexual.

You clearly already know that there's more than one way to feel about people and to relate with people than sexually or romantically. Those are just two broad kinds of feelings and ways to perceive others and relate to and with them. And even those feelings are neither simple nor do they exist in a vacuum, excluding all other ways of feeling and relating. We can admire the person someone is and have sexual feelings for them at the same time. We can have sexual or romantic feelings for someone and also have feelings of friendship, for instance,, or want to create a family relationship with someone we have those feelings for. How someone looks can arouse or inspire sexual feelings in us, but so can how they sound or feel or smell, how they remind us of someone else, how they express themselves to us, how they care for other people, can write a killer paper, play the clarinet expertly or hit a softball out of the park. Sex and sexuality are about way, way more than just eyeballs.

Sexual orientation is about more than eyeballs, too, and isn't just about sex and sexual feelings. It's kind of a pity it's called sexual orientation, because that makes it sound like it's just about sex, but it's not.

When we talk about sexual orientation, we're talking about sexual and romantic or otherwise affectionate feelings, in some combination OR about one or the other. And all of those feelings also aren't things everyone experiences the same way or only in the ways many people present them. You can probably see how once we include emotional feelings that involve something besides sex or very limited ideas of what romance is, and include the vast diversity of how billions of people experience any or all of those feelings, that's another way where might have seemed very pat and easy to put into small, separate compartments can become a lot more murky and much tougher to easily classify.

On top of all that, we live in a world in which most people are or have been very, very strongly socialized, from as far back as most of us can remember -- and probably further back than that -- to only see people of an opposite or different sex or gender as the people we are supposed to have certain kinds of feelings for; supposed to want, only, certain kinds of relationships with. That impacts all of us, even those of us who aren't heterosexual.

Plenty of people who know that they're lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, questioning or something else that's not hetero can and do have a hard time visualizing themselves in sexual or romantic relationships with the people they have those feelings for because of so many strong and pervasive heterosexist messages. It can be awfully hard to visualize something that was or remains largely hidden from us; which we aren't allowed to see or see as much of as something else or which is presented as wrong, unacceptable or off-limits.

I'm not questioning your orientation: I'm always going to assume that however we know and identify ourselves at a given time is something to be accepted and respected. I'm just saying that sometimes it's not always easy with this stuff to have a clear picture of what we want or don't want when so many of us have only been shown a very limited menu or been given the message that some things on the menu aren't as tasty as others, regardless of what our own tastes may be.

What you're asking about can also be tricky to sort out in a world that is so focused on looks-as-sexual-appeal, where many people have gone so far as to accept without question that it's reasonable or sound to assign a 1-10 numerical value to people based only on how they look and how their looks do or don't arouse sexual feelings. But again, sexual attraction and sexuality aren't usually just about our visual sense: they're about all of our senses and more than just our senses. So, just because we like how something or someone looks, that doesn't mean that's automatically about sex. And just because we're having sexual feelings or our sexuality is engaged doesn't mean that automatically has anything to do with what we may see with our eyes or is only about what we can or do see with our eyes.

A whole lot of time, trying to suss out, with absolutely no doubt, who we have sexual feelings for and romantic feelings for, to the exclusion of all other feelings, and who we don't is very tough, and may even be an exercise in futility. Those feelings don't tend to live in a vacuum or have nothing to do with other feelings, like wanting to be friends with someone or aesthetically appreciating someone's beauty.

Some things I've said here might sound less than comforting to someone who's really freaked out about the possibility of having romantic or sexual feelings for someone of an opposite or different sex or gender. You sound pretty relaxed about this, so hopefully I'm not inadvertently making you feel uncomfortable. But in the case I had that kind of impact and you now feel freaky, I want to tell you one last thing I think is super-important to remember, something I think makes all of this really easy to be chill about.

No one has to know with certainty what exactly their feelings about someone else are. Not only will we not always be able to clearly know that, if we're not choosing to take any action around those feelings, we really don't have to know, and a given feeling about someone can just be one of the gazillion other things in the world that we aren't experts about at a given time.

Feelings aren't actions. We can have all the feelings we want and they can't make most of us take any actions around them that we don't choose. The same goes with thoughts. We can let feelings and thoughts happen however they do, and be whatever they are, and just let them flow in and out and around without having to worry about what they might mean or what someone else might think about them. We can share them with others if we want; we can choose to keep them to ourselves if we want. We can give them names or leave them nameless; we can give them one name and change that name later if it ever doesn't feel right or true. We can take actions around them, like say, asking someone we have feelings about if they want to hang out with us, be our boyfriend or girlfriend or best friend, or teach us how to hit a home run the way that they do. We can also choose not to take any action around them. How much weight or importance we give to our feelings and perceptions is also optional.

As well, who we are is a whole lot bigger than our sexuality, something you obviously already know based on the way you clearly see other people through more than just that one lens.

Who knows, maybe someday you might discover that you're not heterosexual, and that some of these feelings are or have been sexual or romantic. Or, you might discover that you do still feel and identify as heterosexual, but do have sexual or romantic feelings for a woman. Human sexuality, including orientation, is often somewhat fluid when people just go with the flow without trying to force themselves or others into a sexuality they think they should have. Sexual orientation or our sense of it can shift on us during our lives.

That's okay, because there's nothing wrong or right about being straight or not being straight, about having whatever kind of feelings you have for someone who is this gender or for someone who is that one. Just like with the diversity in how we all look, how our bodies function and what we want to be when we grow up, these are all equally valid, real, acceptable and healthy ways of feeling and being, even though some people in the world still refuse to recognize that. We're also not required to sign on to one sexual orientation or identity for life, just like we don't have to do that with things like our ethics, values, intellectual ideas or hairdos.

If and when you ever do find you have feelings like this that are sexual or romantic, it's going to be completely up to you what, if anything, you do with those feelings, including how and if you express them, and what, if anything, you call those feelings or call yourself in relationship to them.

Whatever it is you do or don't choose to do in that regard, what you call it is always going to have more weight and meaning than what I or anyone else may call it, because they're your feelings and you get to name or otherwise identify them however you want, something I think is one of those things in the world that is really freaking beautiful.

written 22 Jun 2011 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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