What is arousal?
What is attraction?
What is libido?
What is desire?
And how do you tell the difference?
They’re all different things, but can be awfully similar at times. It really doesn’t help that they can be swirled and mixed together in ways that can be almost impossible to pull apart.
First, the basics.
Arousal is a physical response. When aroused, the genitals get into a heightened state. “Getting wet”, getting an erection, that sort of thing. Sometimes other areas like the nipples join the party. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes it’s a feeling of fullness, heaviness, or warmth. It’s a physical change in the state of your body.
Attraction is an emotional response. It’s a pull towards someone. It’s an externally focused sensation.
Libido is a sense that your genitals would like to be used in some way. Sex, masturbation, whatever. They want your attention and, like a hyperactive puppy that wants your attention, they may not calm down until you do something with them and tire them out. It’s an internally focused sensation, an urge to act.
Desire is your interest in doing something sexual. Maybe with someone else, maybe not, and for whatever reason. It’s a thought, and not really a sensation at all.
Separately, they all seem easy to contain and describe and understand. Arousal is a physical thing, attraction is an emotional thing, libido is downstairs making a phone call, and desire is upstairs making plans.
But then they start joining forces and interacting with each other, and that’s where things get weird.
Attraction can cause arousal. The thought of someone you like in that way makes your nether regions get tingly.
Libido can cause arousal, too. The bits in the no-no zone are all “Notice me notice me notice me! And look here, I’m even getting ready for something! Don’t leave me hanging!”
Desire can cause arousal, too. The thought “Y’know, I think I might be interested in doing a sexual thing” is often enough for the lower realms to say “Well, if you’re interested in doing a sexual thing, that may mean we’re about to do a sexual thing, so I’d better get ready, just in case.”
Arousal can cause arousal, too. Or arousal can just happen on its own. Or arousal can happen because you or someone else has touched or jostled or woken the bits below, intentionally or unintentionally. Or arousal can happen because you’ve seen or read or heard or thought something of a sexual nature, regardless of your interest taking part. Many people, ace or not, experience arousal that is completely unconnected to attraction, libido, or desire. It’s just there.
Arousal can activate libido. What begins as just a physical thing can sometimes turn into a call to action.
Attraction can activate libido, too. For a lot of people who experience attraction, one of the side effects is that their forbidden zone starts wanting attention more often than before.
Desire can activate libido, too. “Hey, that sexual thing seems like a good idea”, your head says. “Ooh, yeah, I agree”, your genitals respond. “Wanna do something? Now? NOW NOW?”
Libido can activate libido, too. Or libido can just happen on its own. Or libido can turn up because it’s that time of the month or because it’s been a few days or because it’s Tuesday. Many people, ace or not, experience libido that’s completely unconnected to attraction, arousal, or desire.
Arousal can activate desire. If someone notices their genitals have woken up, “I might as well put them to use” is a common thought.
Attraction can activate desire, too. “I would like to do a sexual thing with that specific person” is a very common thought for people who are experiencing sexual attraction.
Libido can activate desire, too. When the lower decks start calling out for attention, the captain on the bridge can say “Hmmm… Yup, that sounds like a plan.”
Desire can activate desire, too. Or desire can happen on its own. Or desire can be a deliberate decision. Many people, ace or not, experience desire that’s completely unconnected to attraction, arousal, or libido.
Attraction can happen on its own, too. It’s possible for someone to experience sexual attraction, without becoming aroused, without their private parts begging for attention, and without any thoughts about the best way to get that person into bed.
Arousal, attraction, libido, and desire can all appear together. Someone feeling attraction may end up getting aroused, and that arousal can trigger desire and libido. Or desire can lead to attraction and arousal. Or libido leads to desire leads to attraction… Simply put, it’s complicated.
So, how can you tell if it’s attraction? One way is to ask the reverse: Is it not attraction?
Arousal is physical. Arousal can be seen or felt. Attraction is not physical and won’t cause any change in your genital region on its own.
Libido is internal. Libido is often accompanied by a sense that it requires genital attention. Attraction is external, focusing on someone outside yourself.
Desire is plan for action. It’s an “I want to do this thing” thought. Attraction is a feeling, a pull toward another.
All of these are completely possible without attraction, even when another person is involved. Arousal can happen with someone else in the absence of attraction because you’re in or you’re observing a sexual situation, or because your genitals are being stimulated in some way, or for a number of other reasons. Libido can happen with someone else in the absence of attraction because you’re in or you’re observing a sexual situation, or because some stray thought woke the beast, or for a number of other reasons. Desire can happen with someone else in the absence of attraction because “I would like the sexy times with that person” is a thought that can have many origins, including, but not limited to, “This person is my partner”, “I would like an orgasm now”, “I want to try something”, or “Well, I guess they’re here, so…”
Attraction is external and directed. It’s specific. There is something about a specific someone that triggers a response. It may be unclear what that something is and it may even be unclear what the response is.
Think of it like magnetic attraction. Say you have a magnet, and you want to lift that magnet off the ground. There are many ways you can do that. You can pick it up with your hand, lift it with a string, slide something under the magnet and raise it that way. None of those are attraction. But when you wave another magnet over the one on the floor, it will leap skyward on its own.
The complicated swirl of thoughts and sensations are different for everyone and for every situation. For one person, being “turned on” means strictly physical arousal, and being “horny” is synonymous with libido. For another, turned on means a combination of attraction and arousal, while horny is desire and libido. For someone else, horny and turned on are equivalent synonyms for any and all of those feelings.
Hell, even the basic definitions presented here aren’t the same definitions that everyone else will use. Most people don’t bother pinning down the nuances and separating out what’s what, so they’ll flag desire as libido, connect attraction and arousal as one thing, and so on. This can cause a lot of confusion, especially for ace people. When other people talk about attraction, they may be describing the combination of varying levels of arousal, libido, or desire, because, for them, arousal, libido, or desire are all components of what they call attraction. But for an ace trying to figure out what attraction specifically is to figure out if they feel it? That conflation doesn’t help.
In the end, only you can determine what it is that you’re feeling.