What Causes Sexual Attraction? (Revised)

by Jason Stotts

The issue of sexual desire is one of the great mysteries of the ages; it is a phenomenon that has persisted since before the Greeks, a phenomenon as old as sexuality itself. The issue, at first, seems as though it should be painfully obvious: have not all of us experienced sexual desire? Yet, for most, introspection becomes revelation: few can explain why they are attracted to some and not to others. This, then, is our purpose here – to explain the nature of sexual attraction and its causes. We must begin in the only place possible to us, the brute fact of sexual attraction.

Let us say that you see a beautiful woman and you are instantly sexually attracted to her. Now, what if you were told that this same woman had a deadly disease that is easily sexually transmitted, would you feel the same? What if, instead of having a deadly disease, this woman were the mother of three children; would you be more or less attracted to her than you were initially? What has changed about the woman?

Let us say that now you see a rather nondescript man and you feel no attraction to him. Would you suddenly find yourself attracted to him if you found out he was an extremely popular musician? What if you were dying of cancer and found out that this man had just found the cure that would save you and countless others; would you find him arousing then? Did anything change about the man?

What if you meet a person through correspondence, whether by letter or online, and you are very attracted to his intelligence, his wit, and his ability to see the best in every situation, but find out (upon meeting him in person) that he is also hideous in appearance, would this affect your attraction? What if, instead of being hideous, he instead lied about his gender, would this affect your attraction? What changed about the person?

It’s clear that there is something strange going on here: attractions that appear at first to be solely physical are either heightened or destroyed by intellectual judgments, while attractions that appear at first to be solely intellectual are either heightened or destroyed by physical considerations. The issue is not whether, your personal attraction actually changed, but the fact that such change is possible based on different kinds of judgments. Clearly, there is some connection between judgments and sexual attraction.

One should carefully note that I have just shown that there is a connection between judgments and sexual attraction: an obvious, but historically vehemently denied, connection. Perhaps it’s due to the immediacy of the response or perhaps it’s due to poor introspective skills; either way, few people recognize the element of judgment in sexual attraction until it is pointed out for them. Thankfully, once the aspect of judgment is elucidated, most people are able to introspect on their own situations and see that it is indeed operative in their own lives. To say that judgment is operative in sexual attraction is merely to find a starting point – the apparent profundity of the position lasts until one realizes that judgments are not irreducible.

It’s clear that judgments can be based on different things: above we saw judgments based on beauty, on intelligence, on gender, on fame, et cetera. In each judgment, an individual is judged according to his possession, or lack, of certain characteristics. These characteristics are either values or disvalues to the judge – consequently, they are either pursued or avoided. Clearly attraction is based primarily on a specific kind of judgment: value judgments.

A value is that which promotes our lives; a disvalue is that which retards our lives. Given that we are mortal agents, we must identify values and act to acquire and secure them for ourselves; failing in this endeavor is literally deadly. Evaluation is the particular type of judgment that deals with values; it can be performed either consciously (explicitly) or sub-consciously (implicitly). Conscious evaluation is done by identifying an existent or state of existence, judging whether this thing would improve or retard one’s life, and then acting to either pursue it as a value or avoid it as a disvalue. Yet in our fast-paced, dynamic lives, we do not always have the leisure to analyze the situation sufficiently to render a conscious judgment. Consequently, by the time that we are adults, we have become so adept at quick value judgments that we rarely need to perform this process consciously. This subconscious evaluation is based on prior value judgments that we have made and is experienced instantaneously as an emotion.

All emotions are the existential experience of our automatic value judgments. When we experience an emotion, we are experiencing an instantaneous result of prior value judgments. We are judging, albeit implicitly and instantly, that the object of our emotion would either be a value or disvalue in our lives. Because of the immediacy of our emotions, it is easy to think of them as unanalyzable primaries. However, we can analyze them in terms of the antecedent value judgments upon which they are based. For instance, if a dog attacks a child when young and injures him, then the child will fear dogs when he gets older. Clearly this emotion can be changed by rational reflection, i.e. if this person realizes that not all dogs are hostile, but this person will grow up to be afraid of dogs, unless he consciously changes this judgment. While this example is of a simple emotion resulting from the judgment of only one experience, most emotions are more complex than this and have many antecedent judgments. Indeed, even an emotion as complex as sexual attraction can be understood in terms of antecedent judgment.

To whom a particular person is attracted will depend upon his particular antecedent judgments, but we can easily show some general ways in which attraction operates. Let us say that we find a woman who is attracted to the sight of a man’s muscular back. Were we to ask her why she was attracted to this, she might be able to tell us or, more likely, she would not know. This attraction could be based on her thinking that a muscular back means that her lover can protect her. Alternatively, she might think that a strong back reflects a strong work ethic. It could also be that a strong back reminds her of her first lover who was the first male in her life to treat her as a woman and not as a child. The point here is not to determine why our example is attracted to muscular backs, but rather to show that all of us already think about attraction in terms of antecedent judgments. If our friend expresses attraction to a person to whom we do not feel attracted, our first response is always “what do you see in her?” We want an explanation in terms of value judgments.

However, sexual attraction is rarely so simple as to be based on a single feature. Most people have a collection of physical characteristics that they find aesthetically pleasing, certain character traits they desire, and a certain similar way of viewing life. If asked to explain why a particular man is arousing, a woman might not be able to tell us, but with careful questioning we would see that her attraction is based on a very large set of criteria. Indeed, sexual attraction is rarely based on either physical or psychological characteristics alone, but some combination of the two. Of course, a person’s attraction to certain individuals will be entirely based on his past experience and judgments, and we do not have direct access to these things. This, however, does not concern us because we are not trying to understand why person A finds person B arousing, but rather we are seeking to understand the operation of sexual desire itself.

Thus we have seen that sexual desire is the result of a person’s antecedent value judgments and it reflects characteristics that the person judges to be desirable. Yet, we have not come to the limit of inquiry quite yet. Although we cannot make exact claims about who will desire whom, we can make very precise claims about whom certain types of people will desire based on their underlying philosophy.

2 Responses to “What Causes Sexual Attraction? (Revised)”

  1. Anonymous

    Phenomenal insight. Very well explained. Elegant. To the point. Excellent work.

  2. wooty

    EXCELLENT. This is great. I seriously learned from this. Thank you so much.