What Causes Sexual Attraction?

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. In order to do so, we must begin in the only place possible to us, the brute fact of sexual attraction.

Let us say, for example, 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 attraction? What if instead of having a deadly disease this woman was the mother of three children; would you be more or less attracted to her than you were initially? Has anything changed about the woman?

Let us say that now you see a rather nondescript man and you feel no attraction to him. Would your attraction to him change 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 misrepresented 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 connection, but one that has historically been vehemently denied. 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.

The judgments underlying attraction 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 considered either values or disvalues to the judge: consequently, they are either pursued or avoided. Thus, attraction is the product of a special kind of judgment: evaluation.

Evaluation, as etymology would suggest, is the particular type of judgment that deals with values. 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. Indeed, evaluation is so important in life that it is a major focus of Ethics.

Evaluation can be performed either consciously or sub-consciously. 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. However, in our fast-paced lives we do not always have the time to analyze every situation sufficiently to render a conscious judgment. Consequently, by the time that we are adults, we become adept at quick sub-conscious value judgments so that we rarely evaluate consciously.

Subconscious evaluation is based entirely on prior conscious value judgments. As we grow and mature, we make many conscious judgments and choices: both great and small. If there is any truth in the myth of a great judge who records everything, it is to be found in our subconscious, which records all of our choices and judgments. Our sub-conscious then uses this information to form the basis for subconscious evaluation. Our subconscious does not, itself, have the power of judgment per se (which is a conscious faculty). Rather, our subconscious compares our current situation with all of the information it has gathered in the past to see if any of these past judgments are relevant. By making a comparison to relevant past judgments, our subconscious can give us an immediate evaluation of the situation at hand. The existential experience of this process of subconscious evaluation is known as emotions.

Emotions are a class of existential experience. Specifically: emotions are the existential experience of our antecedent value judgments. When we experience an emotion, we are experiencing an instantaneous response to prior value judgments. In terms of the emotion being experienced, there is no conscious control. I cannot cause myself to feel a particular emotion at a particular time, nor can I stop myself from feeling an emotion. Even in the case of emotional repression, I can merely deny that I should be having an emotion and try to force it away: I cannot cause it to stop by an act of will.

Emotions can range from very particular emotions with a definite object like Love, to broader emotions without a direct object like Joy, to emotions that sum up the entirety of our view of ourselves and existence itself like Sense of Life. In general, the broader the emotion, the more complex its operation; however, even simple emotions can be quite complex in their underlying operation. Because of the immediacy of our emotions, it is easy to think of them as unanalyzable primaries and just accept them as they come to us. However, it is important to remember that our emotions are based on prior value judgments and since they are the results of antecedent value judgments, we can analyze them in terms of these judgments.

Now, we digressed into emotions and their operation in order to better understand sexual attraction, since sexual attraction is in the genus of emotions. Sexual attraction is properly classified as an emotion because it shares the same underlying operation. However, sexual attraction is differentiated from other emotions given its very specific object and its close connection to sexual arousal. It is important to note here that attraction and arousal are two different things: attraction creates a desire for a specific person or activity, whereas arousal is a physiological response that puts one’s body into a state necessary for sexual activity.

We also must distinguish sexual attraction from more general forms of desire. In general, desire operates with a value judgment giving rise to a strong inclination to attain the object of the judgment. One can desire any object that one thinks will be a value in one’s life: that is, it operates on perceived value and not on objective value. Conversely, one cannot desire that which one thinks would be detrimental to one’s life. This is not to say that one cannot be mistaken about whether a thing is or is not detrimental to one’s life, but to point out that value judgments operate on one’s evaluation and not the facts of the matter. While general desire can be for any object that can be valued, sexual attraction is limited to people and actions.

Sexual attraction, along with love, forms the foundation of intimate relationships. When looking for someone for a relationship, a person usually operates through his explicit ideas about what he wants in a lover. Most people, in order to do this create for themselves a mental list of traits that they want a person to have. The list could be long or short, detailed or general. Regardless of its specificity, everyone is looking for certain characteristics. In order to make the process easier, most people look for a certain “type” of person instead trying to hold a complete mental list. So, for example, a man may be looking for the type of girl who is intelligent and witty, but leaves open issues of her physical appearance, or his type could be “buxom brunettes who are into skiing.”

Now, the other major component of finding a lover is what is now called “chemistry,” or that indefinable feeling of: this is the right person for me. In order to do full justice to the issue of chemistry, we would have to delve into the subject of sense of life, which is rather outside the scope of our current endeavor. However, in the realm of chemistry between lovers, we are in a position to understand it: chemistry is sexual attraction. When one feels that sudden rush of desire, the quickening of pulse, one’s mind racing with possibilities, one is feeling attraction. (Remember, sexual attraction is not only sexual arousal.)

Sexual attraction is a desire to be with someone, to have them as part of your life in a very specific way. Sexual attraction is the desire to unify with a lover: to become one with each other. The spiritual manifestation of this is romantic love and a shared identity; the existential reality of this is sex. Thus, sexual attraction has two primary components: love and sex.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, was the first to identify and elaborate the idea of unity with another person and the resulting shared identity. When two lovers open themselves completely to each other and internalize each other’s ends as their own, the good for one becomes the good of both. These lovers will constantly strive for perfection in order to be the best they can for their lover and will push their lover to be better as well. They will see the reflections of their actions in their lover’s and will be better able to judge their own actions through the eyes of their lover.

It is the complete openness to each other and the internalization of each other’s ends that comprises unity. In this kind of relationship, one’s self-identity necessarily involves his lover and her ends. That is, I cannot define who I am as a person without reference to my fiancée and her ends. In a very real sense, in this kind of unity there ceases to be a “me and you” and there becomes an “us.” This is not to say that there ceases to be two distinct persons, but rather that each of these persons incorporates the other into their identity and that this description of identity would be fundamentally incomplete without reference to their lover.

Let us conclude by noting that this sense of unity or completeness fulfills a real human need that is well illustrated in an ancient allegory. In Plato’s Symposium, the character Aristophanes tells the story of how humans of old, complete beings in themselves possessing four legs, four arms, and two heads, attacked Mt. Olympus through their hubris and how Zeus split them in half. The result is human in its present state: two legs, two arms, one head, and a longing to rejoin with the other half of itself in order to be complete again. Now, while we can obviously discard the mythology, let us not deny the truth that it seeks to express: there is a fundamental yearning in people to find another with whom to share their life and spend their time.

Thus, we can now explain what causes sexual attraction in two different senses: sexual attraction operates through unconscious antecedent value judgments in order achieve human completion through the unification with a good lover.

9 Responses to “What Causes Sexual Attraction?”

  1. Contra Peikoff on Swinging – A More Intimate Love of Wisdom

    […] it.  (For a more thorough account of sexual attraction as a response to values, see my essay “Sexual Attraction.”)  It should also be noted that sexual attraction is distinct from, but directly related to, […]

  2. Wayne Heather

    Hi Jason
    Good article. I would have to disagree with some of your arguments though. Sexual attraction is indeed physical attraction. The fact that as a male I was sexually attracted to a “beautiful woman” would not be diminished by her having a lethal sexually transmittable disease. Whether I would actually engage in a sexual encounter with her or not would be beside the point. The sexual attraction would still be there.
    The other attributes that you discuss are really culturally driven and derived. Not that they play any less of a role in the human condition but it is an important distinction.
    Emotions and evaluations play almost no part in engaging with a prostitute for sex. A good example can be found within the pornographic industry (there does not even have to be sexual attraction there)
    Sexual gratification is physically driven. Once we have a better chemical map of the roles that anatomy and physiology play in sexual attraction then the better we will understand the cultural aspects of human relations.

  3. naomi

    Im not so versed on the topic but i do understand that sexual desire and sexual attraction are two different emotions in that sexual desire is shot termed while sexual attraction is long termed…it is a myriad of values thay keep you hooked to an individual whereas sexual desire can be triggered by a strong need at a point in time….

  4. Erosophia

    […] physical beauty, although obviously physical beauty can be very important here.  See my essay “What Causes Sexual Attraction?” for a more detailed explanation of how I think sexual attraction […]

  5. Anonymous

    This was pretty interesting, thanks it helped understand the reasons we feel these ways. But it didn’t explain why feelings dull over time etc. Could it be to do with natural selection? That if our mate doesn’t provide offspring our instincts tell our emotions to dull? I wish all relationships could always stay in the ‘honeymoon period’.

  6. Erosophia

    […] 1. What Causes Sexual Attraction […]

  7. Erosophia

    […] to what we think is good and find it pleasant.  I imagine this is the case, as I have argued elsewhere that our moral judgments can override the value of physical beauty and that if we know a physically […]

  8. thirstyforknowledge

    I would like to say that this article was extremely well written. In fact I would go so far as to say that it deserves a glass case in the center of the largest philosophy knowledge base. I agree with every single aspect and it makes absolutely perfect sense with both logical and emotional faculties and does not contradict itself once. (a very important fact) the guy above who had to spout something negative didn’t understand the difference between sexual arousal and the attraction part of the article as you very specifically specified. how that happened I do not know. but seriously I think this deserves publication and should be shown and talked about with couples worldwide. my girlfriend and I are very young I am only 21 and she is only 17 and I’m (not trying to be egotistical) a bit more rational and understanding not to mention open minded but this ties in perfect with mine and hers relationship. the trick with things such as the knowledge in this article is finding a way to communicate it in such a thorough way as you did and still finding a way to keep the other who may be less intelligent from 1. getting upset by a misinterpretation of the very clear knowledge you are portraying or 2. simply being to bored with what you are saying and them thinking that its just a perspective on something that has no real answer to it. I however think that you have hit the nail on the head so precisely you should be ashamed if you cant see it. I thank you very much for allowing me the privelage of seeing this article. you should write one on how to communicate to people who have difficult times understanding concepts without quote unquote talking to them like they are 5 or retarded. or in other words patronizing or condescending. that would be extremely helpful and I would be extremely interested in hearing that. you certainly have my gratitude either way. thanks again

  9. serenity

    Interesting article.However, it leaves a question in my mind.If the purpose of sexual attraction is to aid us in our quest to ‘achieve human completion through unification with a good lover’, why do happy married persons still feel sexually attracted to persons not their mate?