When I was eleven years old and newly-pubescent, I found teenage boys to be totally sexually irresistible, especially the religious ones complete with their sunnah beards (bonus if it was a fist-length hanafi one). Sometimes, a man who didn’t have the hallmarks of religiosity as I understood them (which were lowered gaze, longer facial hair, short-to-no mustache, long and loose clothing) would catch my eye, but that was fairly rare. The more “Muslim”-looking a young man was, the more likely I was to both look once and then snap my gaze quickly away so as to avoid sinning.
A decade and a half later and, well, that’s not quite the case anymore. I pat my teenage brothers’ religious friends on the head; they’re kids to me, not crush-worthy peers. As for the adult men who sport enough aspects of that pious look, they remind me of family and my religious past rather than make my blood run hot. I look away from them with a slight sense of panic rather than shyness at my own audacity of attraction.
Meta Time: Stop for a moment and consider whether you doubted anything about what I said in the previous paragraph, especially the part where I talk about the connection between who I was as a person and my sexual tastes.
Now ask yourself about your own sexual preferences.
There is an intuitive sense that many people have that human sexual preferences are innate. No one likes to think that their sexuality (or anything about their likes and dislikes, for that matter) was somehow influenced by the circumstances surrounding them. We like to think that we are rational, independently-minded human beings who have desires based on some intrinsic sense of what we want and don’t want, and that said intrinsic set of desires, while as independent as our thinking, is both irrational and non-negotiable.
Yet desires and preferences clearly change with time. I went from lusting after to dismissing visually-“Muslim” men in the short span of a year. Religion also factored into the way I dealt with my far less hetero side. Although I’ve always had crushes on girls and women, I thought more about the male than the female types that I found attractive because that’s who I knew I could grow up to become engaged to and then marry. For the longest time, I didn’t even realize that the feelings I had for DFAB folks were anything out of the ordinary, since female-socialized people tend to be affectionate and use terms like “girlfriend” with each other without anyone blinking an eyelash at us. These days, I find myself noticing non-men far more than men for various reasons.
— Heina Dadabhoy (@heinousdealings) February 6, 2015
Less personally, the societal views of what is and isn’t attractive in a partner have changed dramatically over time for people of any gender but especially in the case of those caught in the crossfire of the heterosexual male gaze. My ample flesh, especially the part of it concentrated around my hips, would have garnered me many a proposal just a century ago in the cultural context in which I exist. Today, people express surprise when I tell them that someone with a body like mine has ever had a man attracted to me, let alone has had sex or relationships.
What changed? There is absolutely no scientific evidence that, around 100 years ago, there was a sudden shift in the Western heterosexual male genetic code that made them innately more attracted to skinnier rather than larger women. What did change was the way by which wealth was marked in society. Being rich was once associated with being indolent and consuming copious amounts of calories, thus leading to weight gain, while being poor was associated with emaciation and starvation. In a post-industrial society, that script has flipped: the wealthy are the ones with the leisure time necessary to exercise and eat higher-quality (and lower-calorie-density) foods, while the less-wealthy eat more convenient (and calorically-rich) foods and work more hours at mostly-sedentary jobs. Classism (and frankly snobbery) plays a distinct role in what people find appealing and unappealing in sexual partners.
The answer to where sexual preferences (or a lack of them) is far more complex than simply “nature”, “nurture”, or “neither” for at least one person on this planet. I suspect that the same is true for others as well.