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Split Attraction: Sexual and Romantic Orientations Don’t Always Align

To acknowledge the difference in sexual and romantic attraction—and the existence of attractions outside of them—is to know ourselves better than we did before.

Asexual and aromantic spectrum folks have had to ask ourselves, “What even is attraction? And what does it feel like?” to even begin to determine whether or not we have ever felt it before, let alone distinguish whether or not that attraction varies by gender. It’s through the work of a-spec scholars and thinkers that we have a better understanding of attraction as a whole spectrum of experiences that cannot be encompassed by the socially accepted binary of sexual and romantic. Through continuing to ask questions about attraction and people’s varying capacity to feel or not feel a multitude of attraction types, we are understanding more about ourselves—and, in that understanding, we find validation and community that we would otherwise never have. 

Though they certainly are not a binary, sexual and romantic attractions are the Big Two that most people use to understand how we all maneuver through the world and to determine their own orientation. But sexual and romantic orientations don’t always neatly align, and this fact can create friction and internal discord for a lot of people—particularly for those who have not had to think deeply about attraction in order to understand themselves and the world around them. Not only do a lot of people tend to think of sexual and romantic attractions as the only two forms of attraction that exist outside of platonic, but they also assume that the two are perpetually intertwined and can never be divorced from one another. But this is not how attraction works for all of us, and we would be much better off if more people understood this. 

Attraction is not a universal experience. It varies widely among us in terms of whether or not we feel it, which people it draws us to, and how it draws us to them, as well as in terms of its intensity, depth, and longevity. This means that we can experience multiple attractions at once, for the same person or for multiple people, and in different ways. Because attraction is so varied, it’s possible and normal to experience them divergently. The denial of this truth is what gives way to biphobia and aphobia—discrimination, invalidation, and erasure of bisexual/biromantic and asexual/aromantic orientations, respectively. 

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Despite the insistence of gatekeepers and exclusionists, just as it is possible to experience sexual and romantic attractions to multiple genders, it is also possible to experience sexual and romantic attractions separately. Many asexuals can and do feel romantic attraction. Likewise, many aromantics can and do feel sexual attraction. The two identities are distinctive from each other based on which type of attraction is or is not felt. This is not an indicator of which gender(s) they may or may not feel attraction to; it only denotes which form of attraction they do or not feel. 

We need to distinguish between these two forms of attraction—in addition to acknowledging and embracing other forms of attraction we might feel outside of them—in order to understand where we fall on the a-spectrums. In our community, there are aromantic asexuals, but there are also many self-identified biromantic asexuals, aromantic pansexuals, homoromantic demisexuals, demiromantic asexuals, and a host of other folks who have done the work to understand how attraction works for them as individuals. They are able to confidently settle into these identities and accept their truth because they recognize the various ways that we can experience attractions. 

These possibilities exist for allosexuals and alloromantics, too. They may experience sexual attraction to a certain gender without feeling romantic attraction for them. Likewise, they may experience romantic attraction to a particular gender, but not sexual attraction. This is why it’s possible for someone to be bisexual, but not biromantic; or biromantic, but not bisexual. 

I know—this is the point where some people tend to feel confusion and discomfort, and then allow that to push them fully into denial and refusal because they find it too difficult to fathom. That confusion and discomfort can be alleviated when we think about attraction with the understanding that sexual and romantic orientations are two distinctly different things. Regarding them as separate entities makes it easier to understand how we can be sexually oriented towards one gender and romantically oriented towards another.

For some, sexual and romantic attractions are inherently linked. They have only ever experienced the two together, harmoniously and without question. This is what is considered the norm because it is the experience that has always had the most representation in literature, scholarship, media, and other cultural artifacts. There is an assumption that this is how we all operate and those of us who don’t operate in this way often become silenced, erased, and harmed when our existence challenges this deeply-held notion. But, thankfully, attraction is not a universal experience. 

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When I wrote about the possibility of Langston Hughes’ homoromantic asexuality, I ruminated on the promise that embracing split attraction offers us:

“Split attraction does not limit or obscure us, it does not make us into liars, cryptics, or enigmas. It creates more possibilities for us to better understand ourselves, our own needs and desires, and the multifarious ways we are able to make connections with each other—even and especially beyond sexual and romantic connections.”

To acknowledge the difference in sexual and romantic attraction—and the existence of attractions outside of them—is to know ourselves better than we did before. It means that we have looked inward, taken stock of our feelings, and worked intently to understand them. We owe it to ourselves to do this work. Refusal to acknowledge that we all experience attractions differently is not only a practice of narrow-mindedness, but also laziness. It’s not “too much” to learn, it’s not “too confusing” to understand, it’s not “too complicated” to grasp. It’s only uncomfortable for those who are unwilling to do the work necessary to make much-needed and deserved room for the experiences of others. 

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Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.

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