Here’s What It Means When Your Romantic and Sexual Orientations Are Different

Two people, smiling and looking at one another, pose for a selfie.

Two people, smiling and looking at one another, pose for a selfie.

Ever felt like you’re sexually attracted to someone, but you have no romantic feelings for them – or vice versa?

Ever felt that way about an entire gender or group of genders?

You could be cross-oriented.

Cross orientation, also known as “mixed orientation,” is a term given to describe a situation where someone experiences romantic attraction to a different gender group to who they’re sexually attracted to.

So, a cross orientation can describe a situation where there’s a difference between the people you’re sexually attracted to, and the people you’re romantically attracted to. 

This concept of cross orientation was formed by the asexual community to describe someone who feels romantically attracted to one or more genders without necessarily feeling sexually attracted to them.

By “romantic attraction,” I mean a deep desire to have a committed, romantic relationship with someone, and by “sexual attraction,” I mean a desire to have sexual contact with someone.

An example of someone with a cross-orientation is a woman who is homosexual, but heteroromantic. She would feel sexually attracted to other women, but she’d only experience romantic attraction to people of another gender.

Another example could be someone who is pansexual but aromantic. This means they could be sexually attracted to people of any gender, but experience little to no romantic attraction to others.

Someone might also be heterosexual and biromantic, homosexual and panromantic, homoromantic and heterosexual, and so on. For some people, their romantic and sexual orientations might change every day, which means they’re sexually and/or romantically fluid. The possibilities are endless.

Personally, I’ve always identified as both pansexual and panromantic, but that’s changing now. My orientation is really fluid and changes often, but I generally identify as pansexual and biromantic.

This is because I could be sexually attracted to people of any gender, while I’m romantically attracted to only women and non-binary people. The prefix “pan-” here means “all.” The bisexual community uses “bi-” to indicate attraction to two or more genders, but not necessarily all genders.

Why Labels Matter

Whenever I write about different kinds of orientations, I get a common response: Why do we need labels? Aren’t labels divisive? Aren’t we all simply human?

I understand those concerns, and I want to address them before we get any further.

Plenty of people don’t enjoy labeling their sexuality or their orientation. And that’s totally okay!

However, other folks might find it empowering, and it’s important for everyone else to respect that.

You may hesitate to identify with cross-orientation because other people might call your labels “too complicated” – and that hesitation makes sense. It can be challenging to fit into a society that has such limited ideas about attraction.

But you’re not alone. A great number of people believe labels help them find a community. For some, being able to describe a feeling or identity they couldn’t describe before is empowering and comforting.

Prior to learning about cross-orientations, I didn’t know it was a thing – despite the fact that I was very much cross-oriented myself. Learning about this “label” gave me the vocabulary to understand and describe my complicated, difficult feelings, and I will always be grateful for that.

On this note, it’s important to remember that labels are meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive. In other words, they’re meant to explain and describe our feelings and behavior, but they shouldn’t limit our feelings and behavior.

I spoke to a friend of mine who is cross-oriented. He’s a cisgender man who is homosexual, but panromantic. This means he’s only sexually attracted to men, but he can be romantically attracted to anyone, no matter their gender identity.

While he isn’t sexually attracted to women, for example, he might still sleep with women despite the lack of attraction.

“People often think I never have sex at all, but that’s not true. If my romantic partner is a woman and she wants me to sleep with her, I might do that. I just don’t have the same overwhelming sexual attraction to her as what she has to me,” he explained.

This is an example of how someone’s “label” doesn’t necessarily determine their behavior. It’s totally valid if that’s your experience, too.

What Difficulties Do Cross-Oriented People Face?

Heteronormativity tells us that true romantic attraction and true sexual attraction go together. 

For cross-oriented people, that’s naturally a problem. Sometimes we’re unable to be sexually attracted to someone because of their gender, even if we’re romantically attracted to them – and vice versa.

Even those who aren’t cross-oriented might have face a similar issue. For example, a heterosexual woman might find herself sexually attracted to a certain man, without being romantically attracted to him.

Heteronormative thinking invisibilizes cross-orientation. It tells us that we don’t exist, which is an issue that many queer people face in general.

Because of this, we might have to deal with many incorrect assumptions and expectations. This can lead to us dealing with a number of difficult situations, including:

  • Being expected to enter a romantic relationship with a sexual partner who you’re not romantically attracted to.
  • A romantic partner feeling inadequate because you’re not sexually attracted to them.
  • People assuming that you’re in a sexual relationship with your romantic partner.
  • Being unable to find cross-oriented people represented in the media.

Ultimately, learning about the complexity of attraction will help us challenge these assumptions and affirm the feelings and experiences of cross-oriented people.

And it’s really important that we do – because it feels awful to be surrounded by heteronormative thinking when you’re cross-oriented.

You might feel like you’re “supposed” to have a certain type of relationship – one that includes both sex and romance. Society sends the message that you’re “too promiscuous,” “commitment-phobic,” or a “bad partner” if you have one without the other.

But many people feel just like you do. It’s okay to unlearn and heal from those judgments and figure things out for yourself.

There Are More Kinds of Attraction Than Sexual and Romantic Attraction

Up until this point, I’ve spoken about attraction mostly in terms of sexual attraction and romantic attraction.

But attraction can be infinitely more complicated than that.

Here are a few examples of different kinds of attraction:

Sensual attraction is a deep desire to touch someone, to hold them, hug them, and/or cuddle them.

Aesthetic attraction is an appreciation for the way someone looks.

Platonic attraction is an attraction to someone that isn’t romantic. This often manifests as a desire to be friends.

As you can see, attraction can be so much more complex than romance and sex. When we remember this truth, we hold space for those of us who have complicated and fluid feelings around attraction and orientation.

We also hold space for ourselves to explore those complex feelings. Despite what society says, we’re allowed to explore the way we feel. We should be given the space to (ethically!) conduct our relationships as we and our partners choose without judgment.

There Are an Infinite Number of Ways to Experience Attraction

When I learned about cross orientation a few years ago, I was bowled over by one thought: There are an infinite number of different ways to experience attraction.

Some people experience attraction in a very simple way. For others, attraction is a really complicated topic.

Despite the fact that society will try to shove you into certain heteronormative boxes, you’re allowed to be yourself. You’re allowed to feel what you feel.

If you feel like your orientation is complicated, please remember that complicated feelings are still valid feelings. Your confusion is natural, and you’re not alone – there’s a big community out there of folks who are similarly confused!

No matter what you feel, it’s entirely okay and it’s valid.

The bottom line is, you do you.

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Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and a queer, polyamorous, South African feminist who is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Anthropology. Originally from Cape Town, she now studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she works as vice-chair of the Gender Action Project. She has been featured as a guest writer on websites such as Women24 and Foxy Box, while also writing for her personal blog. Follow her on Twitter @sianfergs. Read her articles here.