Usually when we hear ‘orientation’, we think of sexuality. If someone says that they’re attracted to women, people often assume that this means being sexually and romantically attracted to women, but this isn’t always true! There are lots of different ways to experience attraction, and being sexually attracted to people of a certain gender doesn’t always mean being romantically attracted to them to, or vice versa.
So what’s the difference?
Sexual attraction is about, well, sex! To be sexually attracted to someone means to experience some level of desire or interest around sexual acts or thoughts involving that person. Some people experience it as feeling horny or aroused when they think about or see certain people, intentionally or unintentionally fantasising about sexual acts, or wanting to engage in sexual acts with them.
None of those things automatically determine your sexuality, and being sexually attracted to someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually want to have sex with them, but these are all things that a lot of people who do experience sexual attraction think of as part of that experience.
Romantic attraction is, unsurprisingly, about romance! To be romantically attracted to someone is to have some level of desire or interest in a romantic relationship with that person. Some people experience it as wanting to date someone and call them their partner, wanting to spend a lot of time with them, caring about them a lot, or getting butterflies thinking about them.
Just like with sexual attraction, this experience isn’t the same for everyone. You might want to spend a lot of time around your friends too, or not really care about how you label the person you date. But again, these are all things that many people who experience romantic attraction often think of as part of that experience.
Does everyone experience romantic and sexual attraction?
Nope! Some people don’t experience sexual attraction, and might identify as asexual. Some people don’t experience romantic attraction, and might identify as aromantic. It’s possible to experience just sexual attraction but not romantic, just romantic attraction but not sexual, both, or neither!
What forms of attraction, if any, someone experiences can also change over time. It might be that the way you experience attraction changes, or it might be that your experience stays largely the same, but the way you understand it and the terms you use to describe it change. Either way, your identity is still completely valid. Having identified a certain way in the past isn’t an obligation to keep identifying that way forever, and trying out different terms can be a great way to figure out what labels work best for you.
What if I don’t relate to this description of attraction?
That’s totally fine too! Making a clear distinction between sexual and romantic attraction is called the ‘split attraction model’, and it’s really useful for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. This is just a framework for describing our experiences, and there are as many different experiences of attraction (or lack thereof) as there are people! Some people are sexually attracted to the same genders that they are romantically attracted to, and their experiences of romantic and sexual attraction might be really closely intertwined.
The split-attraction model describes some people’s experience, but not everyone’s, and it’s really important to respect what terms people prefer for themselves. A woman who is sexually and romantically attracted exclusively to women might describe herself as a lesbian, or as homosexual and homoromantic, or queer, or sapphic, or not use any particular label. The important thing is to respect how she identifies.
How does this all work, anyway?
However you like! These are some examples, but any romantic orientation can be paired with any sexual orientation.
A woman who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, and is romantically attracted to women might identify as an asexual lesbian.
A man who is sexually attracted to multiple genders and romantically attracted to women might identify as bisexual and heteroromantic.
A non-binary person who is sexually attracted to multiple genders and doesn’t experience romantic attraction could identify as pansexual and aromantic.
Why is this important?
Because having frameworks to explain our identities helps us to understand them for ourselves, and communicate them to other people.
For a lot of young queer people, figuring out how they identify is difficult because there’s so little representation. When everyone in the books you read, the movies you see, and the conversations you have makes it sould like being sexually attracted to a particular gender always means also being romantically attracted to them too, it can be hard to realise that it’s possible to exist outside of that lense.
This kind of constant erasure is a big part of why queer people who do relate to the split attraction model often take a long time to realise that they have a place in the queer community and to understand their experiences of attraction, and it’s just one of many reasons why representation is so important!