7 Things about Attraction

This article sets the scene for what the "Attraction" section is all about. It is longer than the usual article, and is like an extension to the "About" page. It gives an overview of the kinds of things that will be developed further as we go along.

1. Attraction is about friendship

Before we ever experience sexual attraction we have learned what it is to be friends with others. In childhood most people have one or two 'best friends'. We already recognise something that makes another person, usually of the same sex, someone we spontaneously want to spend time with. This requires no reflection or deliberation – we simply gravitate to some rather than others, and give little thought to why.

This phenomenon continues through life. Naturally the nature of friendship changes as people mature. Part of this maturing involves becoming sexually aware, which opens up the possibility of a qualitatively different kind of relationship. Nevertheless non-sexual friendship still continues as a vital dimension of our life and an indispensable source of happiness.

Friendship usually begins with a spontaneous recognition of something in the other person that evokes a response within yourself. We could call this friendship-attraction. However, we don't commonly use the language of attraction about friendship. For example, you might say 'I'd like to learn more about how to make friends', or 'I'd like to learn how to become more popular', but you probably wouldn't say 'I want to become more attractive to people'.

However, there are those who do deliberately try to make themselves more 'attractive personalities' for some particular reason, like wanting to be popular, wanting to get into a field of work like television, or simply to overcome social awkwardness.

Although we don't express it this way you could call this 'developing one's friendship-type attractiveness'. It doesn't mean that you literally want to be everyone's friend. It means that you would like to develop those potentials within yourself that people generally find attractive, and which people perceive as qualities that would be desirable in a friend. You would like to be perceived as a friendly type of person.

So developing 'friendship-attraction' means learning how to have a light and easy manner, an ability to establish a personal connection, showing empathy, being pleasant in speech, being able to draw others in so they feel comfortable, treating everyone as special, and so on. Now although only some people seem to be spontaneously like that, most people have some capacity to develop these attributes.

In any field of life there are people we call 'naturals'. Whatever the attribute, for some small percentage of people it just comes naturally. For example, you can probably think of one or two people who just exude bonhomie, the 'hale and hearty' type to whom everyone just gravitates at a social function. They effortlessly hold the floor with anecdotes and witty banter, they have the 'gift of the gab', and they put everyone at ease. They take the pressure off others, because even if you don't have that kind of social confidence yourself it seems enough just to be there. They create an aura of sociability that opens up a warm space for everyone.

There is another kind of well developed 'friendship-attraction' suited more to one-to-one situations or small groups. Some people are not 'larger than life personalities' like those mentioned above, but they achieve a similar effect on a smaller scale and in a quieter way. They are able to help everyone feel welcome and connected. They make each person feel like the centre of attention.

So when we talk about the whole phenomenon of attraction it is worth identifying 'friendship-attraction' as its basic form. It becomes important especially in its relation to sexual-attraction. Those who feel sexually attracted to someone commonly recognise a certain deficit in their 'friendship attractiveness' which they then try to develop because they now have a more compelling motive to do so.

2. Attraction is about sexual attraction

When we say someone is 'attractive' we commonly mean 'good looking'. This is certainly an important aspect of sexual attraction, though not necessarily the most important. But since this type of connection is usually made first at a distance, we need to consider how appearance communicates sexual attractiveness.

Before you've even met someone you often see them around, perhaps for a fair while before you even talk to them. You've probably already had some kind of spontaneous reaction that gives you an initial feeling of whether they are sexually attractive to you or not. Indeed, the catalyst for taking that next step to talk to someone is often because you already feel such attraction.

It's worth mentioning here that we often don't think of this attraction as 'sexual', because it is not about the more obviously sexual features of attraction. In fact we might not even know what to call it, because it's not really friendship-attraction either.

Now there is something else going on here than friendship-attraction, because someone might be perceived as sexually attractive without having shown any of the signs of friendship-attractiveness. For example, a woman might simply be very good looking, and this is enough to have men approach her hoping to make a connection. It might turn out she is a bit shy and awkward, and not appear in that context as having obvious friendship-attraction. Nevertheless she attracts attention.

Others attract attention, not so much by a diffuse attractiveness, or just 'something', but for easily recognisable sexual attributes. Perhaps the first thing that catches a man's eye is a particular shapeliness, or she projects a kind of 'sexy attitude'. This makes it easier to clarify the difference between friendship-attraction and sexual-attraction at all. Mind you, trying to clarify what 'sexy attitude' means adds a further challenge, because it is not necessarily obvious either.

We can see then that sexual attraction introduces a new principle into the social dynamic. It is a new principle that draws people together. We don't only gravitate to others due to friendliness. In fact it is not uncommon that two people are not initially attracted to each other as potential friends, and the man is sexually attracted to the woman but not vice versa. But with persistence they begin to see the possibility of friendship, and this can be the path by which the woman comes to recognise sexual attractiveness in the man.

3. Attraction involves ambiguity

It is instructive that we often don't know initially what our feelings are, or might become. Friendship-attraction and sexual-attraction are distinctly different yet blend into each other. You might find someone attractive but cannot clarify what the basis of the attraction is. It might be hard to work out whether the friendship or the sexual aspect is the strongest.

In fact it can be hard when it comes down to it to even say what sexual attraction is. It is easy to identify in cases where the markers of sex appeal are obvious. But this is often not the case. Quite often there is some kind of fusion where you wouldn't even choose to call it sexual attraction, but it seems more like an elevated, idealised kind of friendship that also seeks bodily closeness.

In the field of dating advice there is a very common question – how do I know if he/she is 'the one'? Now obviously there are many other practical and substantive questions when deciding to marry someone, but here we are talking about the role of attraction in the discernment process. And this is often the hardest to resolve, precisely because emotion carries a lot of 'felt meaningfulness', and is often trying to tell us things too subtle to be easily clarified.

This ambiguity is nevertheless valuable because it slows us down. Instead of presuming that my feelings are telling me 'this is the one' I hesitate and wonder whether my feelings are steering me in the right direction or the wrong one. And the very process of trying to work this out is part of one's preparation for marriage, even if it ends up being to someone else.

This is because marriage is not the end of the story, but the real beginning. You really need to work out whether you can be friends with this person during times when passion is low or sexual relations are not possible for a time, and you need to work out whether there is sufficient sexual attraction to help bring you together when you don't even like each other very much.

This is why it is so valuable that there are these two quite different grounds for attraction. They provide two different sources of emotional energy and connection.

4. Attraction is emotional

It is obvious that friendship-attraction involves emotional connection, though sometimes this might begin as 'interest' rather than clearly recognised emotion. On the other hand, people often think of sexual-attraction as something mainly physical, especially for men. However, even for men sexual-attraction is primarily emotional. This is not as easily recognised because men's kind of emotion is often not recognised clearly for what it is. It is important to recognise this because emotion carries 'meaningfulness'.

We can clarify the role of emotion in attraction by contrasting it with the physical and the intellectual. There are elements of sexual-attraction that have a notably physical aspect. This stands out more clearly in men's sexual-attraction towards women from a distance. This is an important aspect of the complementarity of the sexes. Men's more heightened appreciation of women's visual sex appeal is a catalyst that gets things moving. It is an attractive force that draws men and women together into close proximity when they might otherwise not do so. It is a specialisation of roles that gives form to social relations.

We could compare this to the intellectual. There is a type of attraction that occurs between people of either sex based on perception of common interests. You discover that some people are just a lot more interesting to talk to. Partly this is based on common interests. It is easier and more pleasant to talk with someone who has similar interests to your own. Partly it can be about detecting an intellectual vibrancy in someone that attracts by reason of novelty or creativity.

Physical attraction and intellectual attraction are the two 'ends', and emotional attraction is in between. Neither physical nor intellectual attraction on its own is likely to last, unless it has an emotional dimension. The initial attraction needs to become connected to the emotional dimension to be something you would go to the trouble to foster and preserve. For example, you might initially find someone fascinating by virtue of his ideas, but then discover he is basically arrogant and self-centred. You might still respect his ideas and continue seeking them out, but him – not so much. A similar thing can happen with physical attraction. Through vanity and self-centredness such attraction can lose its emotional hold, even while you still recognise the attractiveness of the person's physical attributes.

A big part of what draws men to physically attractive women is the hope for an emotional connection. Men want to discover that a beautiful woman is also a good person. Men's attraction to the beauty of women is by no means merely a physical thing. The hope to gain the love of a beautiful, and hence good, woman is in the core of masculine self-identity. It involves a strong component of attraction to the ideal.

For women, friendship-attraction and sexual-attraction tend to be a more diffuse blend. Men's more demarcated sense of the physically attractive functions to get men to move closer to women. Women need more of this closeness to clarify their own feelings towards men. This doesn't mean that women don't make quick initial judgements about the attractiveness of different men, but when it comes down to it they put less weight on it.

A society would have a problem if men stopped being attracted towards women. The whole thing would grind to a halt. This can happen if men lose hope. They would then tend to become more superficial in their relations to women, not believing that sexual-attraction will lead them to real beauty and goodness, but still wanting that sexual connection.

5. Attraction is cultural

Masculine-feminine attraction is not only something that occurs between individuals. There is also a force of attraction between men-in-general and women-in-general. There is a cultural form of masculine-feminine attraction. This works through the symbolic realm. There are expressions of masculinity and femininity that exemplify what are felt to be their attractive features. People tend to be affected by others such that individual preferences are not merely innate, free-standing options, but are shaped to some extent by the preferences of others. A culture takes on typical expressions of masculinity and femininity and these affect the emotional responses of individuals.

To take just one example, in some cultures women's breasts are treated as highly symbolic of sexual-attraction. Yet in other cultures they are not, but perceived essentially as a symbol of maternity. Being symbolic does not make this merely abstract. It affects men's physical-sexual response. So in one culture men don't pay any particular attention to women's breasts and do not feel aroused at the sight of them. In another culture men can feel palpable sexual arousal occasioned by the sight of breasts.

So this symbolic realm shapes men's preferences such that what remained in principle only potential has been shaped into a 'cultivated spontaneity'. It is not as though any individual man says, "Oh, I don't know, I think maybe I'll take up an interest in women's breasts. That sounds like fun." On the contrary, he simply grows up in a particular cultural setting and finds that he has a spontaneous sexual attraction towards breasts. The strength of this varies between individual men, as does the particular weighting of attraction they feel towards the different potentially sexually attractive features of women. The key point is, these preferences are shaped and strengthened by the culture.

This is not to say that all this is merely arbitrary. There is a propensity in some men to develop unusual preferences, and so we have the phenomenon of fetishes. Things that others see as having no sexual significance at all become for them a matter of strong attraction. The fact that this is possible does not make it likely. There is a broad predominant tendency in men to feel attraction towards those attributes that are most plausibly and notably linked with sexual difference. Similarly, the differences between cultures are not merely arbitrary but show a strong convergence on this dominant tendency.

As well as these more obviously sexual aspects of attraction cultures also commonly develop social customs, expressions of courtesy, and styles of dress and manners that are demarcated so as to accentuate and clarify masculine-feminine attraction.

A culture that has a higher degree of form and consistency in these matters provides a clearer framework within which the 'dance of the sexes' can occur. It enables a clearer attraction between the men and the women in the society as a whole.

In our times the relations between the sexes have been shaped by a major readjustment in the practical social roles of men and women. This process downplays the differences between men and women insofar as they affect choice of occupation and participation in social affairs.

In my view we need to get a clearer understanding of this realm of practical social roles as something distinct from the cultural realm of attraction between the sexes. What has happened is that legitimate changes brought about to enable women to participate equally in social and economic life have had a crossover effect on the cultural dimension that shapes masculine-feminine attraction.

This has been 'flattened out' along with the social distinctions. Yet the attraction between the sexes requires heightening the distinctions relevant to attraction. Although there is an inter-relation and some crossover between these practical-social and cultural-attractive realms, there is no essential conflict between an equal society and one in which the cultural forms accentuate and celebrate masculine-feminine attraction. But we need to understand clearly how these things work and act to intentionally rebuild a culture of complementarity.

6. Attraction can be accentuated

Owing to its emotional and cultural nature attraction can be accentuated. It is not some quality that simply inheres in the body, nor even in the basic form of personality. These give attraction its basis and essential character, and they also provide the starting point for the cultivated accentuation of attraction. However, we need to recognise that by the time we reach an age to be interested in such things a lot of such cultivation is already likely to have occurred through the effects of culture and upbringing.

So our practical starting point is wherever we happen to have ended up at the time we take an interest in it. This applies to individuals and to cultures. From here we could simply take a piecemeal approach, using whatever ideas come our way – which might be quite limited. Or we could seek a more systematic understanding of the dynamics of attraction. How this understanding is used is a second question. I hope to show how this understanding can be used, not only by individuals, but to help provide guidance for communal action to foster a culture of attractive complementarity.

It was noted earlier that the symbolic realm is integral to the phenomenon of attraction. We go on now to look more closely at how this works.

I think everyone is familiar with the notion of 'idealisation'. An example is 'hero worship'. We see someone as exemplifying important values and we focus solely on the person's good points, amplifying them in our own perception so that we see only the good in them. As well as hero worship there is a tendency to 'type-cast' people. Although this can happen in real life, it is probably easier to illustrate from the world of acting. Have you ever really liked a particular movie or TV star who has played only good-guy roles, and then he takes on a role as a bad-guy. You feel disappointed because for you there was a crossover from the characters to the actor. Not only do you like the characters he played, but you want the actor himself to be like that. You can try to tell yourself – it's only acting, or, he doesn't want to get type-cast. But you still feel disappointed, and wish he stuck to good-guy roles. Even when we know clearly about all this we can still be affected emotionally by it.

When people fall in love they typically idealise each other. They see only the good things about each other. As we say, they see each other through rose-coloured glasses. This reinforces their positive feelings and leads to a kind of wilful blindness. I'm sure you've seen movies where a teenage girl falls for a 'bad boy' and everyone warns her about him, but she is blinded to his faults. For reasons like this we can get the idea that idealisation is bad. The proposed cure is 'realism'. We say – "You should see him/her warts and all. That's reality."

So it is common to have this idea that idealisation pivots between two poles – real and ideal. The cure for such 'idealism' is 'realism'. This is true enough, as far as it goes. But it can lead to an opposite problem.

I think it is more helpful to make a further distinction. What is often called 'realism' is actually an exaggeration in the opposite direction. Seeing someone 'warts and all' can lead to seeing only warts. Instead of becoming blind to people's weaknesses we become blind to their strengths.

I want to use the term 'literalising' as the opposite of 'idealising'. This is because it is not so much about seeing bad points rather than good points, but at seeing the empirically observable at the expense of the intangible. So we think we are being realistic because we can point to clearly verifiable things that would make someone unattractive, while overlooking the intangible qualities that make them attractive. We could represent this dynamic like this:


The reality is actually in between the two extremes. Realism is 'looking through' what is literally visible to see the person you are looking at. Attractiveness of soul can shine through the apparently plain appearance.

This is important when considering physical attractiveness. Someone might say, "Isn't she beautiful?" Another might reply, "Not really. Look at that, and that, and that." But a catalogue of imperfections, measured against an ideal of visual beauty is no more real than the dreamy accolades of a besotted admirer. Both the literal and the ideal contribute to the real, which is a balanced interpenetration of both.

A similar thing happens in relation to the symbolic ideals of the masculine and the feminine. For starters, these notions are already ideals in how they affect our feelings. We go beyond even the individually held ideal to a cultural ideal, which in turn points off to infinity, to a perfection we are not capable even of experiencing. This is also not unreal, but is the boundary of possible feeling oriented towards the transcendent.

Men tend to idealise the beauty of women. They would love all women to be perfectly beautiful in every way. This doesn't mean they think it is actually attainable, but it does orient their perception of beauty beyond the visible to the intangible, and in this way beyond a woman's body to her soul, to her as a bodily-spiritual person. If this kind of idealisation is simply reprobated, as being 'unreal', it disconnects men's feelings towards actual women from a source of great strength. Since we struggle to get the balance of things right, it would be better to err on the side of idealising than of literalising. If men err on the side of seeing women's limitations and mere literalness, their positive feelings towards women will weaken, and they will lose some of the motive force to see women as fully personal. They will then tend to treat women in a somewhat impersonal way, disrespecting their full personhood.

A society has a vested interest in building a culture of special respect for women by men. It is not enough only to insist on respect in a generic, disembodied way, being simply respect for all people regardless of distinctions. A special focus is needed to add an additional 'layer' of respect of a specific kind so as to strengthen it. Focusing only on similarity does not tap into deep enough sources of feeling within men to provide the motive force for them to develop a deeply ingrained habit of respect for women. Men's strong feelings of attraction towards women need to be enlisted as part of the solution, and not seen only as the cause of the problem. You need to solve a problem where it exists, not somewhere else. Men's feelings for women is the arena within which this problem needs to be resolved. Men won't change much merely through criticism and making them feel bad about themselves. They will change more deeply by enlisting their positive feelings in support.

Idealising is important because it can help us feel 'better than we feel we're worth'. If someone believes in you, even if that belief is a bit unreal, it can be the catalyst for real improvement. So an ideal can become real. We can improve. That doesn't abolish the ideal, it just moves it another notch out of reach. This is how we grow. We believe we can become more than who we are now. And if my own belief is lacking then someone else's belief in me can make up for it – if I believe them. And what man wouldn't want to believe he could be better if he was being told that by a beautiful woman? And if a woman does tell him that she believes in him she becomes more beautiful to him.

When a woman believes in a man it helps him retain and develop his self respect. A man might become a bit 'hang dog' and let himself go through loss of hope. A woman who sees in him more than he sees in himself can be a great catalyst for good. Even if she is seeing him through rose-coloured glasses, that might be just what he needs. As long as she's not too unreal her belief in him can turn what was unreal into reality.

This is why the ideal is so important. We drift. We tend to fall short of even our own expectations of ourselves. We need an ideal to aim for. Others can inspire us to try afresh to reach higher. A strong, distinctive culture of masculinity that respects women helps to lift all men. A strong, distinctive culture of femininity attracts men to want to be more, and to be more for the sake of women. It can also present a united front to men who show disrespect. Men should hold each other accountable to a standard, and if they fall short in this, women should draw clear boundaries to make clear where it is they are falling short.

And all this, while being the right thing to do, has the happy effect of establishing the right kind of boundaries that preserve and enhance the attraction between the sexes.

7. Attraction is more than skin deep

The previous section on accentuating attraction leads us to a further consideration. Attraction is a force that draws us towards something. What is it drawing us towards? Is it towards sexy appearance, or nice manners, towards beauty and strength? It includes those things but it goes beyond them. Attraction draws us towards other persons.

It is not drawing us towards an aggregate of attractive features. The beauty of a person is more than the sum of its parts. You could make a long list of all the things that attract you towards someone, but in the end you would have to say – it's all that, but it's more than that. And that 'more' might be strong enough to overcome some of the imperfections you might also be able to list.

When people say 'beauty is skin deep' they mean something that we all understand. Outer beauty is indeed beautiful, and seems to have a mysterious power. Yet its greatest power is its link to goodness. We all know that outer beauty fades. We also easily lose sight of the fact that outer beauty is meant to teach us about inner beauty and lead us towards it.

Some might wonder – why all the focus on attraction? Isn't such a topic a bit superficial to be devoting so much to it? No. In fact, at the core of this project is this reality that attraction is between persons. Yes, it includes all sorts of things like hormones and body shapes, workouts and makeup, dress and adornment, strength and beauty. But these are elements of attraction – they are not the thing itself. They are the parts, not the whole.