What does sexual attraction consist of?


I attend a Catholic college and recently sat in on the Moral Theology class of a friend of mine. The professor lectured on the seven capital sins. In regards to lust, he commented that in society the word is often used as a synonym for sexual attraction but that these are not the same. He made a distinction between sexual attraction (not evil) and lust (evil): What is evil about lust, he said, is that it reduces a person to his or her sexual value and loses sight who the person is.

The distinction was not new to me and is precisely what I would have answered to anyone who came to be with the accusation the the Church is anti-sex and thinks sex is evil.

Yet, there are moments when I myself wonder whether sexual attraction and lust are not the same. Allow me to explain.

I can grasp that there is a difference between:

(1) Attraction

There are many things which we find beautiful and are, in a visual or other sensory way, drawn to, e.g. a sunset, a newborn baby, a puppy, a garden, jewelry, etc. Yet, we don’t want to have sex with them (with the exception of persons who have some kind of disorder).

In fact, it is even possible to be attracted to an adult person of the opposite sex in an exclusively non-sexual way, say for example, to that person’s artistic ability (e.g. singing performance) or intelligence.
By that being the reason for which you are drawn to the person, are you thereby reducing him or her to their artistic or intellectual value? I don’t know…

(2) Reducing a person to an object

This too extends beyond the domain of human sexuality. I would say that materialists who deny the existence of God/the supernatural and believe that reality is entirely compromised of the physical world, are reductionists. They reduce, for example, the human mind to matter. The objectify the human person, who is a union of soul and body, a biological and spiritual reality.

(3) Sexual Attraction (Desire?)

I noted earlier that there are moments where I wonder if there is really a difference between sexual attraction and lust. Why?

Well, isn’t the whole purpose of qualifying the word “attraction” with the word “sexual” to indicate that the focus of your attraction is the aspect of sexuality? And isn’t the problem with lust that you reduce the person to his or her sexual value?

So it seems that in both sexual attraction and lust, the object of your attraction is something sexual.

(I am using the term *object *here in a sense analogous to when we say “color is the proper object of sight” or “flavor is the proper object of taste”).

I remember that in an episode of Catholic Answers Live on the topic of contraception, in which Dr. Janet Smith was the guest on the show, she said that there is a big difference between a man thinking to himself, I want to have sex with her, and him thinking, I want her to be the mother of my children. Dr. Smith said, there are lots of people we would like to have sex with, but very few people we would like to be parents with.

My question is — What is sexual attraction? Is it the desire to have sex? With someone in particular?

Is the difference between sexual attraction and lust, the difference between “I want to have sex.” and “I want to have sex with _____________.” (where the blank is someone specific)?

The Catechism defines what lust is. I want to know how to define sexual attraction/sexual desire.


All this talk in modern times about not objectifying the opposite sex is very strange and in my opinion misleading. I look at members of the opposite sex as gorgeous objects all the time. THe only thing the Church really teaches about lusting is that someone is not supposed to consent to the physical sexual pleasure side of sex before he or she takes her vows of marriage. Once married, the couple can “lust” for each other all they want. The Church also teaches people are to avoid occasions of arousal outside of marriage when they have no sufficient reason (example: horseback riding is a sufficient reason to let arousal take place, as long as there is no near occasion of sin)


Appetite his hunger for a specific satisfaction. (present in all animals)
Attraction is viewing an object as a speculated satisfier of the appetite. (present in all animals)
Reason is the rational evaluator of whether an appetite and a speculated attraction are intelligibly good, or only satisfaction with no intelligible meaning to the satisfaction (present in rational human animals).

The appetite and attractions people speculate are in every person, but the intelligence of the sexual act is in its social use - the procreation of a good citizen for the society. The human can either act as an individual animal, or use reason to understand himself as social, and can choose behavior beneficial to society (or unwillingly at times live within the constraints of the society upon him). As humans we are free, not bound to react to stimulus as other animals with no choice. We can understand what we do and why we do. And we are, then, our own causes of action rather than our actions being caused by the things we see and our nature’s instincts about what we see.


Why is there such confusion about this? People usually know when the attraction for someone is innocent or impure, sexual desire and a matter to confess.


There are many ways to answer that. Are you talking biologically? Intellectually? Emotionally? Sexual attraction is normal and rather unavoidable. When it becomes a problem, like anything, is when we dwell on and entertain it with someone who is not our spouse.


Sexual attraction is about desiring to unite with someone, to be with someone, not necessarily sexually.

While lust and sexual attraction both have an object in their explanation, the type of object is different, the former reduces the person to an object (i.e. objectification) whereas for the latter the person is an object being acted upon. They are two different definitions of object with the former stripping the person of personhood whereas the latter doesn’t.


At the risk of plugging my blog, I’ve answered just this question in a blog post…



I think the distinction is very simple. (Perhaps that is why it is not easy to find in the Catechism.)

Sexual attraction is simply the tendency that God gave us for union with a member of the opposite sex. This union takes place on many levels, not just in the sexual act: the sexual act is, if you will, the consummation or fulfillment of that tendency, but the sexual tendency is a much greater reality. As such, both the tendency and the act are good and holy, and desired by God.

A lustful act is simply a disordered actuation of that tendency: namely, one that seeks (even if only on the level of desire) to perform a prohibited sexual act, one that harms the persons involved.

If one performs many lustful acts, one will eventually acquire the bad habit (vice) called lust.

The opposite to lust is chastity, the virtue that helps one to make a good use of one’s sexual tendency.


This can’t be quite right, because I lusted after people before knowing what sex was.


Attraction is like “I really like that person and everything about them and want to be around them all the time.” Attraction may develop into love, which is like “I like that person so much I want us to live our entire lives together, I want to help them get to heaven and I think they are so admirable that I want to fill the world with people like them by making more children with them”.


actuation of that tendency: namely, one that seeks (even if only on the level of desire) to perform a prohibited sexual act, one that harms the persons involved.
This can’t be quite right, because I lusted after people before knowing what sex was.

OK, I suppose my definition was of lust in the strict sense. That is essentially how the Catechism defines it:

2351 Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.

(I would like to stress that the important words here are disordered and inordinate. The sexual tendency and the pleasure associated with it, as such, are good and holy.)

There is also, so to speak, lust in the broad sense: for example, if a married man flirts with or keeps company with a woman he is not married to, even if he is not at the moment desiring a sexual act, he is still doing something immoral.

However, the experience of falling in love, when one experiences a desire to be in the company of someone (someone who is available, naturally), is not lust at all. It is part of God’s plan for us.


If sexual attraction and lust were the same, what conclusions would that lead you to in respect of, say, a married couple? Would you be comfortable with those conclusions, or would you arrive at a nonsensical conclusion and be forced to revisit the premise?

My question is — What is sexual attraction? Is it the desire to have sex? With someone in particular?

Is the difference between sexual attraction and lust, the difference between “I want to have sex.” and “I want to have sex with _____________.” (where the blank is someone specific)?

I think adequate definitions of sexual attraction can be found in dictionaries, encyclopaedia and the like. I don’t view it as a theological concept. Lust on the other hand is viewed in the dictionary as simply a “stronger” form of sexual desire, and the moral element is absent.

Certainly one can be attracted to the “idea” of sex, absent any particular person as the object of that attraction. I think that can flow from our sexuality. When that idea begins to control us, to be something we indulge inordinately, that perhaps is lustful.

A particular person may also trigger a sexual attraction directed at that person. When that attraction dominates our relationship, it becomes lustful.



I read your article and it certainly makes sense. It is true that desire means many things in the English language. I think another way of describing passive desire is inclination (and I suppose attraction also since the OP made this distinction from what is considered lust).

So, I can passively be sexually attracted to another person (e.g., a person of the same sex) which if actively desired would be sinful, whether through a deliberate act or thought. In the case of lustful thoughts, the key in knowing whether one has willfully consented is whether one has chosen to continue to dwell on the thought as opposed to actively resisting it and turning to God or another morally neutral thought instead. A rule of thumb for me is there is no sin where the struggle continues. Rather, this is a temptation.

As for occasions of sin, in my experience, I know that when I allow my imagination to start to run away with thoughts that open me to temptations toward lust (e.g., hypothetical scenarios that evolve into ones of a sexual nature with another person who is not my husband), I consider my allowing my imagination to wander a willfully sinful act on my part. This is because through experience I know that this is an occasion of sin for me. That is why keeping a vigilant guard on one’s imagination is critical to avoiding sin.

As a practical matter, I believe that God can use our attractions, including our sexual ones, to other otherwise “prohibited” persons to accomplish His will. He can use our strong desires (i.e., passive ones) to incentivize us to work in areas that we would otherwise have no interest. That is why one can maintain peace of mind amidst strong sexual attractions to “prohibited” persons so long as all one’s actions and thoughts are not inherently sinful. Prudence, of course, is necessary which can be gained through prayer, experience, and counsel. One should not by one’s actions, although morally neutral, confuse or mislead another by them. For example, a married man should not spend significant time with another woman who is not his wife unless there is an identifiable, morally good purpose for doing so. And, even in that case, the married man should keep guard on his manner in dealing with this woman lest he divulge his sexual attraction to her.

Lastly, all of us are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). So, a practical way to keep a prayerful mindset is to make it a habit of taking all our thoughts to God, i.e., as the thoughts come in . . . . bring them to God.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this. If my analysis is incorrect, please let me know.



Let’s ask a slightly different questions.

Can one lust after one’s spouse?

Why or why not?


The “fact” of being spouse, says nothing about the character of the relationship. So certainly the answer is yes.

And even in the circumstance of a good relationship, one’s motivations may become entirely selfish, or self-obsessed. In a good relationship, this is hopefully not common.

Experiencing sexual attraction to one’s spouse and desiring a sexual encounter, is not lust. It is human.


Yes, you can treat your spouse as a sex object, an object to be used for your sexual gratification.


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