Unwinding the ribbon that conceals my own attractions and intimate desires is a daunting task. Expressing my identity as an aro ace, a human with low or absent sexual and romantic attraction, seems to always come with the silent assumption that I am unable to be attracted to others and am simply devoid of a desire for intimacy with others. The misconceptions of asexuality, which is often misunderstood as being literally “without sex,” and aromanticism, often misunderstood as being literally “without romance,” uphold and reinforce the commonly held idea that people like myself lack the ability to engage in any behavior or experience regarding attraction or intimacy. Because sex and romance are perceived as wholly constituting what it means to experience attraction and intimacy, the assumption that ace, aro, and aro ace people cannot experience such forms of connection exists as implicit.
Even for those of us who do not identify on the ace or aro spectrum, it is crucial to recognize how attraction and intimacy are able to exist without sex or romance in order to begin to unearth the inner and outer complexities of how they may function differently in our lives. Although I personally lack sexual and romantic attraction, I still derive pleasure and yearn for intimacy with others as a result of how I experience sensual attraction. Sensual attraction is attraction that is predicated on an inclination or passion to engage with another person in a manner that could be described as physical, tactile, or intersecting with any and all of the senses. Sensual attraction may include the desire to hug, kiss, cuddle, hold another’s hand, while also existing without desire for sexual activity or romantic engagement. Sensual attraction is one of many other forms of attraction that may exist apart from the sexual and romantic, such as emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual.
The pleasure someone may receive from engaging in or imagining a sensual scenario may generate sexual arousal or even be satisfied via sexual stimulation, yet still exist without any sexual attraction directed towards the eye of their desire. Personally, the intimacy that I yearn for is not in the desire to engage in sexual acts with a person who I may be attracted to, but to engage with them in a sensual dynamic that involves touch, sound, and even the sight of what I find pleasuring to witness. The gratification I may gain from a wholly nonsexual, yet deeply sensual experience, is satisfying in itself, especially as someone who never finds themselves yearning for sexual or romantic engagement. While society seems to understand sensuality as deeply tied to sexuality, sensual attraction and intimacy do not have to be related to sexual desire or attraction. Yes, sometimes people really do “just want to cuddle” (or do anything else non-sexual, for that matter). And sometimes, that is all some of us would like to do.
However, even in briefly invoking this colloquialism, we must recognize that the popular relationship-oriented phrase “I just want to cuddle” still holds a looming sexual assumption that so often comes with expressing any form or desire for attraction and intimacy, resting discreetly behind the veil of “just.” Its usage here implies that the sender of this message does not currently want to go any further than cuddling, as they “just want to cuddle.” This positions sex as the assumed or implied “furthest” one could intimately go, linguistically coding sensual intimacy, which in this case is being physically close with another person via cuddling, as either a step to obtaining sex or an expression which does not exist as far as sex itself. In doing so, the sensual is positioned beneath the sexual on the hierarchy of how humans may or may not express intimacy and attraction.
The reason for this stratification in value between sexual and sensual attraction may be attributed to the widespread understanding of “attraction” itself as, without question, a sexual endeavor, and frequently also a romantic one. We live in a society in which sex and ideas of what constitutes romantic gestures have been marked as the most meaningful or “deepest” manners to express attraction and be passionately intimate with one another. Other forms of expressing human attraction and intimacy beyond sex, such as sensuality, are frequently already socially marked as precursors to sex or otherwise dependent on an expected “deeper” presence of sexual attraction or desire to obtain sex. If one is to communicate their sensual interest towards another human being, such as by kissing or even holding another’s hand, their sexual interest is often automatically assumed to exist, whether it does or not.
Expressing one’s sensual attraction towards another person thus carries a sexual assumption that they, either overtly or covertly, desire to “go further.” Within the paradigm of attraction, sex is recognized as dominant — positioned at the apex of how a human can most passionately and meaningfully articulate their desire, interest, or “love” towards another. Without first understanding attraction as multi-layered, in which forms of attraction may exist as independent from one another, sensual intimacy is unable to become disentangled from these sexual expectations. When sensuality rests in the shadow of sexuality, each touch, look, taste, smell, and sound becomes imbued with an assumed sexual meaning. Sensual attraction and intimacy may be deeply emotional, passionate, and/or involve dynamics of power and play, such as in the case of varying subcultures under the umbrella of kink or BDSM, without sex or romance ever being present.
Gaining sensual gratification or being aroused by another human through sensory experiences of attraction and intimacy can exist independently from sex. This does not mean that they always will or do. In fact, many humans enjoy sensual intimacy as a precursor to sex or as a way to bring further meaning to their sexual relationships, which is fine. However, while sex can possess meaning for many of us, classifying it as the most meaningful, passionate, or “highest form” of attraction, intimacy, or even love one human can express towards another flattens the ways in which humans can express these forms of connection. It is important to recognize how sensuality can function separately from sex, especially for those of us who do not desire sex, lack sexual attraction, are sex-repulsed, or simply would like to experience sensual gratification without a sexual assumption or demand from society, peer groups, or our potential partners. Sometimes we really do “just want to cuddle,” and that is just as meaningful.