TW: mentions of suicide and depression
It’s our fifth issue of All The Feels, and we’ve yet to talk about The Feels. You know what I’m talking about; crushes, sexuality, love, attraction - all that fun stuff that usually has our heads spinning. These are arguably the kinds of emotions teens struggle with most, or at least, that’s what YA novels would have us believe. In this issue, we’ll look at different types of attraction, what it does to our brains, and some of the issues and identities surrounding sexuality for young people. Let’s jump right in!
In spite of centuries of songs, poems and movies on the topic, love turns out to be pretty difficult to define, so let’s stick with attraction - although, even that isn’t actually as straightforward as you might think.
People experience many types of attraction. We used to describe human attraction pretty dualistically, in terms of love versus lust. Nowadays, we have a way more developed vocabulary to describe various kinds of attraction.
Of course, there’s your classic romantic attraction - the kind you feel towards someone you’d want to be in a romantic relationship with - as well as sexual attraction, and well, I’m sure I don’t need to explain that one. But did you know there’s also platonic attraction, which is the draw you feel towards someone’s personality that compels you to become friends with them. There’s aesthetic attraction, that you might feel for a celebrity who you just really like looking at. A more lesser known one is sensual attraction, which is what you might feel for someone you want to hug or hold hands with, basically anything touchy feels that’s not necessarily intended in a sexual way.
And there you have it, the five kinds of attraction. More complicated than meets the eye, isn’t it?
The neuroscience of love and attraction is far less concrete in its conclusions than that of other emotions - a lot of it is still currently based in theory as opposed to accepted scientific fact. A current model states that just as there are different kinds of attraction, there are different cognitive and physical systems dedicated to sexual attraction, romantic attraction and emotional attachment.
Sexual attraction is probably the most straightforward: the testes or ovaries produce hormones like oestrogen and testosterone - you’ve probably heard this all already in a health class, or the dreaded parental Talk. What we consider to be “love”, though, is far more in the head.
When we spend time with someone we are romantically attracted to, the hypothalamus (which you may remember as the memory center) produced dopamine - the happy hormone - as well asnorepinephrine, a.k.a noradrenaline, which is also a core factor of the fight or flight response. This hormonal cocktail is what makes us feel giddy and energetic, but it can also create loss of appetite and insomnia. So, if you’ve ever heard of love so strong that you can’t eat or sleep, blame the hypothalamus.
Meanwhile, this is all feeding back through a process known as the brain’s ‘reward center’, such as the caudate nucleus, which is why we feel so drawn to whoever we may be attracted to; seeing them essentially creates the same reaction as a mild drug.
Finally, there’s attachment, or emotional intimacy. In this case, the primary hormones produced by the hypothalamus are oxytocin and vasopressin. You may recall that oxytocin is the bonding hormone we mentioned in the first issue on happiness, as it’s the basis for the formation of long-term emotional attachment, which encompasses romantic, platonic and familial affection.
THE TEEN EXPERIENCE
After the onset of puberty, attraction suddenly becomes a far greater occupation of our thoughts than it once was - our brains and bodies are essentially telling us to wake up and smell the pheromones. These kinds feelings are confusing for anyone, but especially for those who fall outside of the almost exclusively heterosexual image of attraction that’s traditionally normalised in our society.
In a political climate that often seems so polarised, it can definitely be scary to be different, so it’s really no surprise that the victimisation of the LGBT+ community has taken its toll on the mental health of young people today. Australian LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) young people aged 16-27 are nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, and five times more likely to attempt suicide.
The good news is, things are starting to get better. With same sex marriage being legalised in Australia late last year (woot!) it seems that public opinion is finally becoming more accepting of love outside of heteronormative standards.
Now more than ever before, teens have access to the resources to explore their own experiences of attraction and sexuality. The important thing to remember is that there is no “normal” - everyone exists on a spectrum. This is both in terms of gender/s they may be attracted to (girls, boys, both, neither, anything in between), and to what extent they experience attraction at all. There are those who do not experience romantic or sexual attraction, who may define themselves as asexual or a romantic. There are people who experience only low levels of attraction (Greyromantic/greysexual) or only after developing an emotional bond (Demiromantic/demisexual). Point being, human attraction and sexuality is super complicated and kind of wonderful. If you feel like you don’t fit in the specific category of heterosexuality, the most important thing is to accept your own feelings.
So, once you’ve recognised certain feelings, how can you make sense of them? There’s so many online resources to explore. ReachOut and KidsHelpline have articles for LGBT+ youth, as well as forums and counsellors you can contact if you have questions on these topics. There’s also some great LGBT+ Youtubers who talk about their experiences and spread awareness of their communities. In particular, Ash Hardell’s video series ‘ABC’s of LGBT” (recently published as a book) provides a great overview of the many identities and labels under the LGBT umbrella.
My last piece of advice is be willing to change, and forgive yourself for changing. This isn’t to say that your current identity is just a phase, but don’t feel ashamed if you do discover that a certain label no longer fits you. Sexuality and identity are complex and fluid things. In the end, we define the labels we use, not the other way around.
(Disclaimer: If you have questions about attraction or sexuality, or feel unsafe as a result of an aspect of your identity, talk to a trusted adult or councillor, contact KidsHelpline, or utilise the Queensland Government resources at the link below:
Links to resources:
https://lgbtihealth.org.au/stativ.au/youth/family-social-support/support-lgbti-young-pwoplwpeopleh is why we feel so drawnthe same reaction as a mild drug.Finally, there’s atary hormones produced bythe hypothalamus are oxytocin and vasopressin. You may recall that oxytocin is the bondinghormone we mentioned in the first issue on happiness, as it’s the basis for the formation of long-term em