What Is The Split Attraction Model?

Updated November 19, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

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While it may feel like a simple and basic urge, attraction is actually comprised of many elements. First, individuals can experience two distinct kinds of attraction to potential partners: romantic and sexual. While these are similar and may seem to overlap, they are not the same. Attraction falls into even smaller and more precise divisions when gender identity and sexual orientation are incorporated into the discussion: people can experience romantic and/or sexual attraction to their opposite gender, their same gender, multiple genders, or no gender at all.

For many people, attraction is a black-or-white concept: either we feel attracted to someone, or we don't. But for many others, feelings of attraction are influenced by parts of our identity that make it very gray. A classic example of this "gray area" is demonstrated by something called the "split attraction model. "This theory was developed within the asexual community to describe the idea that romantic and sexual attraction are two different concepts that may at times even be in opposition to one another.

Some individuals find the split attraction model empowering because it gives them the vocabulary to express and claim their unique sexual identity. Others feel that it overanalyzes attraction and creates additional divisions and boundaries that may not be necessary.

Let's take a detailed look at the split attraction model as it relates to different groups of people and evaluate some of the nuances of this complex theory.

A Little History

The idea that romantic and sexual attraction are two separate phenomena has been around for a long time…but there hasn't always been a name for it.

The roots of the split attraction model can be found in the work of a 19th-century German writer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Long before words like "bisexual," "transgender" or "asexual" entered mainstream discourse, Ulrichs had been exploring and defending these concepts and ideas in his writings.

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Ulrich defined himself as Urning: his term for a man who feels a natural sexual desire for other men. In a sense, he "came out" before anyone had any idea what "coming out" even meant.

But his writings went far deeper than self-disclosure. Ulrich pondered the nature of love itself, systematically deconstructing the simplistic Victorian views of his time. One of his many important contributions was his distinction between "tender" or "sentimental" love as opposed to "sensual" love. He believed that it was possible for men to feel such sentimental love for women, but at the same time have feelings of sensual love for other men.

Ulrich was ostracized for those views at the time, but he never backed down from them. He is often cited by gay rights activists as one of the earliest architects of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. LGBTQ+ refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and other orientations and identities, including but not limited to Questioning, Asexual, Intersex, Gender Fluid, Non-Binary, and Pansexual. Ulrich's work has specific implications for the asexual community.

In the 1990s, with the emergence of the Internet and growing awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, the concept of asexuality became to develop in the public consciousness. During that time, it became clear that further distinctions within the asexual community were necessary. Like the larger LGBTQ+ community, which cannot be all lumped under the umbrella of “the gay community,” individuals also have different ways of identifying as asexual, which is defined broadly as the lack of sexual attraction or desire for other people.

Some individuals have no interest in sexuality in any form and choose to practice abstinence. Others may enjoy sex but do not form romantic attachments to their partners, while still others can develop strong romantic feelings of attachment to a person of the opposite or same gender but do not experience much or any sexual desire.

Lumping all these identities and experiences under the umbrella of "asexuality" can lead to deeper feelings of confusion. Therefore, further distinctions are necessary to help members of this marginalized group feel a greater sense of belonging and self.

The split attraction model developed from this discord, mostly as a result of comments and discussion held in online asexual communities. The split attraction model as we know it became part of the mainstream discussion around 2005.

Here is how the split attraction model plays out among different groups:

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Asexual And Aromantic Experiences

Designations of "asexual" and "aromantic" appear to be pretty clear-cut. An asexual person experiences little or no sexual attraction or desire, while an aromantic experiences little or no romantic attachment. Sometimes, these categories can overlap—someone who is asexual may also be aromantic—but one does not equate to the other, and describing these two identities as the same is inaccurate and potentially harmful.

It is important to note that asexual and aromantic people alike experience desires for love and connection, just like any person who is not asexual or aromantic. Some asexual people find that their needs for love and connection are fulfilled through friends and family, as well as through emotionally intimate relationships with long-term partners. Aromantic people also enjoy deep friendships and close connections with others, but they do not desire monogamous, long-term romantic relationships.

There are also those who experience very slight or infrequent sexual or romantic attraction. They are not asexual or aromantic, but the level of attraction they feel is significantly less than the norm. Some people who identify with this description have embraced the terms "graysexual" or "gray-romantic," to indicate that they are somewhere in that gray area between asexual/aromantic and mainstream feelings of attraction. Additionally, some individuals use the term “demisexual” to describe an identity that only experiences sexual attraction once a deep emotional connection has been formed.

The split attraction model helps us grasp the differences between asexuality and aromanticism, as well as other identities and orientations that fall along the spectrum of attraction.

What Split Attraction Means In The Context Of LGBTQ+

Is it possible for someone who fits within another LGBTQ+ category to also identify as asexual? Yes, absolutely!

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It's entirely possible for someone to feel sexual attraction for one gender and romantic attraction for another. It's even possible to feel attracted to both genders sexually, and neither of them romantically, or the other way around.

Here are a few of the many identities you might find within the LGBT community, which demonstrate the complexity of the split attraction model.

  • Asexual homoromantic: a person who does not experience sexual attraction but experiences romantic attraction to people of the same gender.
  • Pansexual gray-romantic: a person who is sexually attracted to all genders and who is somewhere on the spectrum between romantic and aromantic.
  • Heterosexual biromantic: a person who experiences sexual attraction only towards the opposite gender, but the romantic attraction to both men and women.
  • Graysexual heteroromantic: someone who experiences very slight or infrequent sexual attraction but is romantically attracted to the opposite gender.

And these are just a few possibilities.

Why Is The Split Attraction Model Controversial?

While many have found the split attraction model to be helpful in defining different kinds of attraction they experience, there are some problems with it. Some individuals within the LGBTQ+ community are moving away from using it, for several reasons:

  1. Some argue that the split attraction model oversexualizes members of the LGBTQ+ community by emphasizing sexual desire or attraction over everything else, as well as reinforces stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community as overly focused on sexuality.
  2. Attraction can vary so widely for each individual when considering all aspects of it that the terminology can become untenably complex.
  3. In some minds, this model unfairly prioritizes asexuality over other LGBTQ+ identities.
  4. Some have stated that this model makes life even more difficult and confusing for young people who are trying to come to terms with their identity as LGBT.

What's The Solution?

Is it useful to hang onto the split attraction model? Does it enhance our understanding? Or does it just make things unnecessarily confusing?

Some individuals who identify as asexual or aromantic have found this model helpful in making themselves understood within cultures that dramatically emphasize romantic relationships and sex. Like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, asexual people can experience feelings of being misunderstood or disconnected. The split attraction model can help some individuals to frame their experiences and feelings in descriptive ways, which can be healing.

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However, it also has the potential effect of dividing or further complicating the LGBTQ+ community, a larger coalition that needs unity and solidarity in the face of persistent discrimination. Overall, the split attraction model is simply a theory that can be embraced or dismissed. It is one way of understanding attraction, but not the only way. When it comes to accepting or rejecting this model, the choice is ultimately a personal one.

If you are evaluating your gender identity or sexual orientation and find terminology that is helpful to you, take hold of what you consider useful. Recent research has found that people who belong to gender and sexual minority groups are statistically more likely to experience minority stress, such as internalized stigma, rejection sensitivity, and concealment, which can have negative long-term effects on physical and mental health; however, the same study showed that these stress effects can be counteracted by compassionate psychotherapy. Support is available through a variety of national and regional services to help you live the happy, fulfilling life you deserve. A great way to find additional support is through online therapy, like the services provided by BetterHelp.

A licensed therapist at BetterHelp can assist you in exploring aspects of your identity and orientation without judgment, in a confidential safe space. If you feel hesitant to seek help in person or are unsure where to start, online resources like BetterHelp are available to provide flexible, private online counseling and one-on-one support. Online therapy allows you to speak to your therapist in the comfort of your home, creating a secure and private space to discuss anything related to the split attraction model or other identity thoughts you may have. Whether you’d prefer to video chat, talk by phone, or text, you can connect with a therapist on your schedule. Here are some reviews of BetterHelp by people who have found support through times of transition. 

Aparna is the best friend you never knew you had. She listens intently without judgement and makes you feel like you are special. My few weeks with Miss Bell have changed my outlook for the better. I would highly recommend this counsellor.

I’m new to Dr. Gray, but so far it’s been an excellent experience. I’ve been in a decent amount of therapy and don’t often feel this seen/ heard by a therapist this quickly. I also trust Dr. Gray’s expertise and am excited to uncover new insights and understandings of myself and the universe.


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