Sex, Desire and Self-Critical Analysis

The idea that beauty has any kind of objective meaning is rubbish. The cliché says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s partly right – the eye, mind, culture, taste and social conditioning of the beholder are all at play when it comes to determining whether or not something is beautiful. Even beyond the variations of individual preference, even “mainstream” beauty ideals are culturally and historically specific, and socially constructed.

I know what you’re thinking. But Sarah! What about hip-to-waist ratios and symmetry and the biological imperative to produce healthy babies! To you I say that the visual measures of health and fertility that some scientists claim determine what most people find attractive only go so far in explaining who is attractive to us as individuals and why. Such scientific measures of attractiveness may have some basis in human evolutionary history, but they prop up compulsory heterosexuality and exclude a whole host of people as just “naturally” unattractive including people with disabilities, intersex people, trans* and genderqueer people and people with infertility. They don’t explain same-sex attraction, or how people who don’t want to procreate experience attraction either, nor do they adequately explain why people recognise and praise beauty in others they are not attracted to. To claim that the sole function and meaning of physical attraction and the concept of human beauty is the selection of an appropriate mate for procreation is to ignore thousands of years of human social history in favour of biology. Attraction and beauty are far more complex and culturally mediated than just determining who has whose babies.

It strikes me as somewhat odd that we’re perfectly happy to accept personal taste when it comes to being a dog person or a cat person, or preferring The Rolling Stones over The Beatles, but we’re determined to get physical attraction between people down to a science. The reason, I think, is that if we can point to a scientific study and say “but I can’t help preferring thin people/young people/currently able bodied people/cisgendered people/etc. etc.” then we get a free pass on leaving one area of our internalised biases unexamined. And I think that if you are invested in intersectional social justice, you have a responsibility to examine all your biases as often as you can.

What I’m not saying here is that people are obliged to find everyone attractive, obliged to date everyone or obliged to be sexually intimate with everyone. Nobody is entitled access to anybody else’s body. If I received incontrovertible proof (if there is such a thing) tomorrow that people will die if they do not have a minimum amount of sex with another person, I would still believe this. The right to personal bodily autonomy is at the core of quite a lot of my beliefs!


I think we could all benefit from a self-critical perspective on the issue of attraction and desire. There’s a great post about this topic on gudbuy t’jane from back in 2011 that partly inspired my own post. Here’s a quote:

“Understandably, who we are attracted to is a very sensitive topic for most of us. We want to believe our desires are our own, unshaped by the media, patriarchy, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, or other oppressive systems. This is even more challenging when one’s identity is based in ideas of activism, social justice and equality; We don’t want to feel like we’re upholding oppressive standards, or engaging in systems which sometimes violently desexualize marginalized identities.”

So when I say I think it’s odd that we’re so much more invested in rationalising our biases when it comes to dating and sexual desire, I guess what I really mean is that I think it’s unfortunate, because I can certainly understand why people are quick to defend their desires as something innate and beyond their control. Desire is so intimate and personal, it feels natural to get defensive when your desires are challenged, and may feel comparable to being asked to check your privilege for the first time. People – especially people who identify themselves as activist in some way – don’t like the implication that they are prejudiced. But just as it is worse to experience racism than it is to be called racist, it is worse to be unthinkingly dismissed as a potential lover solely because of your membership of a marginalised social group than it is to be (or feel like you are being) called shallow.

Because it’s not about being shallow, not really. There’s the danger in this discussion to stray into areas of the Nice Guy (TM) and the ridiculous concept of the Friend Zone – I do not wish to associate my argument here with the feeling of entitlement certain men seem to have to sex from their female friends and acquaintances. As I said before, you’re never under obligation to have sex with ANYONE, and as the above article says, we can’t “simply reprogram our desires for the sake of a more egalitarian community”. But this claim that attraction is innate and beyond our control seems pretty empty to me when you consider the changing face of beauty across time and cultures, and even within the same culture. As a frivolous example, let’s compare my lust for Jason Segal (he’s big and huggable and funny, and he can sing) with many of my friends’ fancy for Tom Hiddleston (who’s very cool and a great actor, but doesn’t spark any sexy-type feelings in me at all). If attraction can differentiate that far, why not further?

In fact, I’ve noticed something in the last few years. Ever since I started being involved in Fat Acceptance, reading blogs and looking at pictures of fat people (mostly women), I have started to find more fat people attractive. In a book on self-image in teenage girls I once read about the idea of visual languages, and that the images we are frequently exposed to (as well as their positive or negative context) shape our ability to think in certain ways. In that study the author was exploring how the limited range of female bodies that are visible to young women in media images affects their ability to accept deviation from the media ideal in their own bodies, and promotes bad self esteem. In turn, that theory can be extended to talk about how we think about bodies in general, the ones we find attractive as well as our own. It has certainly been the case for me; expanding my visual vocabulary to include images of fat women – in the context of them being attractive, stylish and sexy – has enabled an expansion of what is desirable to me. Not just fat women but fat people in general, including fat men and genderqueer fat people (both of whom need more visible/visual representation online).

When I was younger – not that much younger, I guess, but we’re talking ten years ago – I was a fashion design student. We did not learn how to design for fat bodies, or how to draw clothes on fat bodies (although weirdly we did have a fat life drawing model who was always nude – when we drew clothed life models they were always thin) and the vast majority of the teachers and other students were thin. We designed for thin models and used designers who exclusively made clothes for thin people as inspiration and research. I sketched people, particularly women, all the time even outside class, and they were always long and thin and catwalk-model-shaped. At the time, I was rather more attracted to women than men, and would you believe it, all the women I found myself attracted to were likewise long and thin and catwalk-model-shaped.

Needless to say that since I was not a long, thin, catwalk-model-shaped woman myself, internalising this idea that only those sorts of women were attractive really hurt my self-image. There is a lot more to self-worth than attractiveness, and more to internalised fat-hatred than feeling unattractive, but that was a big part of it for me at that time, and precipitated my initial descent into an eating disorder. It also led me into some awful abusive situations where I felt like I should be “grateful” for any (sexual) attention I got even when I didn’t want it, because I was so undesirable it wasn’t guaranteed to come around again. I still live with the baggage of that – while I now find other women who resemble me attractive, and even like the way I look a lot of the time, I don’t think of myself as a “desirable” person. I tend to be dismissive of anyone who tells me otherwise, and even got angry at a friend once when he counted me among women he found attractive, because I felt he was just trying to humour me or something. I even feel weird and embarrassed writing that down, because surely people will scoff at the idea anyone would find me desirable!

It’s pernicious stuff. It hurts us to not be self-critical about attraction and desire, because what we find attractive affects how we feel about ourselves, too. Before I thought about desirability as something socially constructed, it was completely impossible for me to try and counteract this learned idea that I was an innately unattractive person, and with that came a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. Of course, someone not finding you attractive is not something you should ever feel ashamed of, and I would like to dismantle the idea that worth is connoted by attractiveness, too, because not everyone is interested in sex and sexual relationships, and there’s more to all of us than sex. But I do think that analysing our own prejudices should include those that are imbedded in the idea of beauty and desire, and that we will be better, happier, more egalitarian communities for it.

When you find yourself wanting to reply to this post with something like “I’m not racist, I just don’t tend to find Asian guys attractive”, pause a moment and ask yourself why you are willing to dismiss an entire (and enormous!) group from ever being potentially desirable. Are you sure internalised racist ideas, assumptions or connotations are not lurking behind that thought? When you think “I just don’t find fat bodies beautiful”, follow that up with a question. Why not? Are you assuming anything about fat people when you think that?

Hell, I even think straight people should critically analyse their straightness instead of assuming humans are heterosexual by default.  That may sound radical, but I don’t mean you need to “experiment” with your sexuality or that you’re a bad person if you identify as straight.  I mean that compulsory heterosexuality is a received idea that most of us never challenge.  It’s perfectly okay to think about it and decide that you are, in fact, straight.  But thinking about it is a good thing!

The take home message of this post should not be “if you are marginalised, people owe you sex”. Nobody owes anybody sex. But I do hope that people will consider looking at and thinking about different kinds of bodies and thinking critically about where their own desires – or lack thereof – come from.

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10 thoughts on “Sex, Desire and Self-Critical Analysis

  1. leanneveitch says:

    I think a lot of the time we really underestimate how much society’s norms and models affect us. As you say, we’re told to be a certain shape, look a certain way, and find certain body shapes desirable.

    But what I’ve learned, or am learning, is that being sexy has a lot more to do with what goes on in the mind than what a person’s body shape is. If a person isn’t creative, fun and inventive, they’re never going to be much go as a lover, no matter what they look like.

    As for the fat side of things, it’s one of the most damaging things society has thrown at women yet. As we, on average, get larger and rounder, the models we’re provided with become more an more skinny. Every woman I know practically has experiences of going shopping, only to return home upset because she couldn’t – literally – find anything that fit and would look good. And then we see articles in the news that claim to be clueless about why women are not as happy these days as we were in the 70s!

    I’m no expert in all this stuff. But I do believe that a good start to making people a whole lot happier would be for us to fight, en masse, against the proclivity to put people in boxes, judge people on looks and size, rate people on 1-10 scales, and claim that there are basic standards of beauty.

    Because I’m damn sure I don’t find attractive what you do (!!), and I’m pretty sure you don’t find what I find attractive either (!!). And that’s enough proof for me that the “beauty standards” thing certain doesn’t come from inside of us, and it isn’t the same for everyone.

    • Sarah says:

      Yup, I agree. We should judge people – as potential lovers, or for any purpose really – as individuals, not as members of whatever umbrella group we think they should be categorised in, be that body type or race or so on.

      Honestly, I think “being sexy” means as many different things as there are people! Inventiveness, creativity and fun is a priority for you, but not necessarily for everyone 🙂 Those who are more conservative (or even uncertain or nervous) in bed are not necessarily terrible lovers!

  2. Hel says:

    Great blog M-Ra! I’ve always found attraction to be highly confusing, and I do wonder how much choice I have in who I am attracted to. And whether it would be a real choice or trying to be ok with something that doesn’t feel right. I suspect both could be true so I try to be careful. I don’t want to talk myself into false attraction, nor talk myself out of potential attraction. I can certainly see where having an open mind is a good start though.

    I do have a qualm about Leanne’s reply above. I’m sure you didn’t intend it that way but Leanne, your statement that “if a person isn’t creative, fun and inventive, they’re never going to be much good as a lover” is a judgemental comment about people who are less creative & intentive in their love/sex lives. This blog is (partly) about not putting judgements on what people “should” look like, and what type of person we “should” be attracted to, so be careful about stating how people “should” behave and what sort of personality traits they “should” have aswell. 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, I don’t think talking oneself into a “false attraction” as you say is good for anyone involved – being with someone because you feel like you “should” find them attractive is not what I want to encourage at all! People who are typically marginalised as “undesirable” deserve *real* desire from people who really do find them attractive, not just pity sex (or pity dates, or pity relationships). But I do think we might find more things attractive if we even began to consider different possibilities. An open mind is definitely what I want to encourage!

  3. Varia says:

    I think I’m open-minded? I mean, I’m not attracted to fat people but I don’t think of it that way; I’ve just never actually been attracted to someone who is fat. That said, I don’t know that many fat guys, so maybe that’s a factor. I think it might be because I find being overweight so unappealing as a trait in myself… I personally like the greater mobility of being thin, and by thin I mean what I deem a healthy weight, which is whatever weight I happen to end up when I eat what I deem to be a healthy diet of food. And that’s whatever I end up eating if I focus on never over-eating and trying to have a good balance of food groups and whatnot, and also eating when I’m actually hungry and not when I’m not hungry. This also ties into my significant dislike of all sorts of waste – specifically here my dislike of wasting food (on myself) by eating when not even hungry. So I’d be interested to hear your take on how socially motivated this might be… Because although I know I don’t consciously have major socially-motivated reasons for staying somewhat thin/not being attracted to non-thin people, I couldn’t say for sure that there wasn’t any underlying factor I’m not aware of…

    I guess a non-practical, shallow factor in how thin I want to be is that I find it to be a cool/nice look that I want to apply to myself. In the same way that I’ll dye my hair purple ‘cos I like it, or I’ll dress unlike people around me because I like how it looks and feels. And there are easily many beautiful looks that I don’t apply to myself, like when I see a nice dress that simply doesn’t suit my figure, or someone wearing cool colours that just wouldn’t suit my complexion.

    And then there’s the even more practical reason of not wanting to grow out of any clothes I currently have (including skinny jeans), because I’m far too poor to restock my wardrobe.

    • Sarah says:

      I actually find it kind of unlikely that you don’t know many fat guys, or at least encounter many fat guys. I know some guys that you know who are on the larger end of the body size spectrum – while I have no desire to single anyone out since attraction to any particular individuals isn’t really the point, I wonder if you *do* encounter fat men and just don’t think of them as romantic prospects. If you would like to explore the possibility of fat guys being attractive – which they may or may not be, that’s cool – you might find the tumblr Fuck Yeah Chubby Guys ( interesting 🙂

      As for the rest of your comment, talking about how much you like being thin on a fat acceptance blog is a little bit tacky, and talking about thinness as if it is an outfit you can try on at will by eating in a certain way is verging on diet talk to my mind, which is banned here. Bear in mind that there is no such thing as a “healthy weight”, even if you tend to settle into a particular size when you eat in a way that makes you feel good. That set point might change over your lifetime!

      I appreciate that you’re trying to explore your own motivations here, and that’s a good thing, but as decisions go “being thin” is not really the same as dying your hair. There’s no strong social pressure to have purple hair, and you haven’t been brought up from childhood – as have we all – being taught (whether subtly or overtly) by everything in the world around you that purple hair is good and natural hair colour is bad, unlike thinness and fatness.

  4. Ollie NcLean says:

    The maxim is “there’s no accounting for taste”. You say:

    “Attraction and beauty are far more complex and culturally mediated than just determining who has whose babies…It strikes me as somewhat odd that … we’re determined to get physical attraction between people down to a science”

    But take food taste as an analogy – Symmetry and waist-to-hip ratios are about as informative to sexual preference as the knowledge that we have sweet and salty taste buds. You can’t capture the difference between a 3-Michelin star meal and burnt coco pops by the sugar and salt content alone. It is interesting to see that there is a genetic corelation for some people’s preference for cilantro (coriander), just as it’s interesting to see that many people partner up with people with complimentary (different) immune systems, but no-one in their right mind is saying that there is nothing more to sexy-relationship preference than making healthy babies.

    Well, OK, some people are saying that, but that’s daft. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Confucius had a good line about overshooting the mark being as wrong as undershooting.

    • Sarah says:

      But see, if you go to the post on Gudbuy T’Jane that I linked, you’ll see that MANY of the commenters were bringing up scientific measures of attractiveness and by extension invoking the idea that sexuality is about procreation. I was trying to head that kind of response off by going into it as I did. You might be surprised by just how many people are saying exactly that, that symmetry and hip-to-waist ratios and so on are at the core of all sexuality (and we can’t help who we are attracted to) BECAUSE SCIENCE!

      • Ollie NcLean says:

        And again, overshooting the mark is missing it.

        Commenters on a blog can’t really be treated as the benchmark for a scientific field’s measured assessment of how comprehensive its research has been, or how reductively the field can be analysed. Happily, the commenters on this blog are a fair standard above “URGAY! LoLZ”, but I really don’t expect to be looking at comments when referred to an article.

        • Sarah says:

          I think you are misunderstanding why I invoked the topic of scientific analysis of attractiveness in my post. It was to head off any attempts by commenters here – following in the footsteps of commenters in other similar blog posts – to use such research to dismiss the idea of image-based prejudice. Not to make any judgement on the comprehensiveness of a scientific field.

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