The Elusive Nature of Attraction

by | January 26, 2014 | General | 3 comments

By Jean Roberta

Animals and children always seem to know what they like, and they show it. Human adults are more complicated, or so they seem.

How is this related to erotic writing? Before anyone’s clothes come off, attraction has to be shown. If the reader is going to be seduced along with one (or more) of the characters, the author has to make the attraction plausible. Since human interaction is the subject of most fiction, sexually-explicit or not, writers in general have to show attraction on various levels so that what follows from the attraction will seem believable. (I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s famous line about female friendship: “Chloe liked Olivia.”)

I recently went to a conference in Santiago, Chile, with my spouse Mirtha, who grew up there. We were thrilled to meet Mirtha’s five-year-old niece for the first time when her father (Mirtha’s half-brother, who is younger than Mirtha’s older son) showed up with her. While Mirtha and her brother hugged each other, Jessie the niece threw her arms around me. To my amazement, she seemed stuck to me for the next three days, whenever we all got together.

To understand my amazement, you need to realize that Mirtha is the only member of her family who is fluent in both Spanish and English. Her brother knows a few words in English, and I know a few more words in Spanish. Little Jessie speaks Portuguese, having been raised in Brazil, where Mirtha’s brother settled in 2004. (Jessie’s mother is Brazilian.)

Communication was a challenge, to say the least. Jessie chattered a lot, presumably about the kinds of things that are important to five-year-olds, then she would look at me. I would laugh, usually because I had no idea what she meant. Jessie would laugh too, and show me what kind of game she wanted me to play with her. (She did very good impressions of several animals.)

Jessie repeated a certain question slowly, several times, until I caught on: she wanted to know why my hair is white. (The Portuguese words for “hair” and “white” are not much different from the Spanish versions.) I told her in Spanish that it’s because I’m old. This amused her as much as everything else I said and did. She seemed especially amused that I held onto her legs whenever she would try to lean halfway out a window on the thirteenth floor to admire the view. “Peligroso!” (Dangerous!) I would warn her. She would giggle, even though all the adults in the room became equally alarmed when they saw her.

I don’t know why Jessie was attracted to the strange, foreign tia (auntie) with pale skin and hair. I found her adorable, of course, but the charm of a child (which even includes nerve-racking recklessness) seems self-evident, at least to me.

As all parents know from experience, children change a lot in short periods of time. Will Jessie remember me as her Tia in years to come? Will we ever have an adult conversation? Time will tell.

Attraction between adults which leads to intimacy in various forms might seem to be more logical than the whims of children, but it isn’t. “I didn’t know what I was doing” is a common way of explaining away a past relationship that has come to seem like an embarrassment.

Deep, visceral attraction (the feeling of a nail drawn irresistibly to a magnet) seems like the hardest aspect of a relationship to remember once it is gone.

As a reader, I find that some descriptions of attraction are convincing, and some simply don’t work. A tall, slim woman with big breasts may swoon over a man with sculpted musculature and a predatory glint in his eyes in a story, but physical descriptions alone (especially if they are cartoonish) don’t convince me that these two people would be equally attracted to each other in the real world.

As a writer, I will sometimes rework a paragraph until I’m tempted to throw the thing away. In most cases, the problem passage is part of the exposition that leads to the sex. Once it becomes clear that sex will happen soon, I’m on more familiar ground. Physical friction in some form turns most people on, so if a reader has stayed with me to that point, I have more confidence that the reader won’t leave during the climax of the plot, which is often a physical climax. During the resolution, the cooling-down part in which loose ends are tied up, I have some faith that an already-hooked reader won’t leave then either. And I like to write conclusions that imply the possibility of a sequel.

Hooking a reader in the first place by describing attraction between two or more characters is a challenge, especially if the writer doesn’t want to depend on stereotypes. How could I explain why the boyfriends of my youth appealed to me? Most of them turned out to be Mr. Wrong, and none of them resembled movie stars or underwear models. And then there was my first woman lover, who had no trace of feminine glamour, but who also lacked the physical fitness or boyish appeal of more conventional butches. She had a short, square, box-like shape. Yet at the time, her energy lured me.

The currents that pull some people together while pushing some others apart are still a mystery to me. Yet as erotic writers, we have a mission to explain what often seems unexplainable. I can only hope that if I bring enough enthusiasm to the job, some of it will be contagious.


Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Anonymous

    How to explain attraction…

    Freudian: He was drawn to her long, silken hair and pale green eyes, so much like those of his mother.

    Jungian: She knew before it ever happened that they would kiss and fall in love, as if the universe were drawing her into some web of predestined tragedy.

    No psychology required: The way she was standing in an Amsterdam window wearing only lingerie suggested that she was sexually available.

  2. Jean Roberta

    Anonymous, you always cut to the chase. 🙂

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    "Her energy lured me". I think you've captured the mystery and the truth here. I've experienced that kind of inexplicable attraction, sometimes to people I didn't even like. It has nothing to do with looks, although someone's essence or aura may be broadcast through the way he or she dresses or moves.

    I've never considered myself to be very pretty. (Don't take my head shot too seriously – I was wearing a lot of makeup and the photo was retouched!) And for many years nobody was attracted to me. Then, around the time I turned 25 something happened. All of a sudden I was attracting men like flies.

    What changed? Something about me physically? Hormonally? Or was it a psychological or spiritual thing. I was going through a lot of growing at that point.

    You're certainly right, though, that making that attraction palpable and believable is key to writing satisfying erotica.

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