In Defense of Demisexuality

Obviously, I am obsessed with sex and the politics of sex. I spend large chunks of my day staring at arguments about sex, kink, and gender. Equally immoderate chunks of my night are spent writing about those things. Sometimes, I even have sex. I think it’s serious business. But I have a dark, secret heart hiding under my patriarchy-smashin’ words and thoughts. For reasons I don’t understand and can’t explain, I’m very seriously disposed to long-term, committed monogamy. Recently, and even more depressingly, that monogamy has been with hetereosexual cis men. I am the worst and most boring sexual revolutionary.

Thankfully, even this identification is something that can still get you into fights as long as you call it “demisexuality.” Haven’t heard of it? It’s the orientation that’s sweeping the nation! Or, rather, the social justice blogosphere, Tumblrverse and other non-locations. It’s sexy! It’s exciting! It’s controversial and people are angry about it!

Demisexuals are those who “do not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone,” and it is “more commonly seen in but by no means confined to romantic relationships.” This is the definition I’ve heard most often, and it’s the definition I’m going to use. In fact, it’s the definition I do use. I identify pretty strongly as demisexual which is where my problems begin.

Charles wrote a post about the internet giving us new words and identifications. That post is partially about me, because within the last year, I came across the term and immediately saw myself in it. I’d been trying to explain my experience of desire to Charles for months, and there it was, written in someone else’s hand. It was a  revelation. I was finally able to actually succinctly explain who I am and what I feel. It’s important to me and it’s a term that makes my history and behavior make sense.

So, I care about demisexuality and want to defend it from detractors for myself and for other demisexuals, but also because I think the arguments being leveled against it are bad and wrong. So let’s look at some of those, shall we?

Demisexuality Is Fake
The common anti-demisexual argument is that demisexuality is not a real “thing,” is not a special or interesting enough to be worthy of distinction, or is just an attempt to “queer the straights.” This queering would allow heteros and normies access to the sweet, delicious queerness that is so coveted in feministy and social justice circles, despite those hets being unsexy, normative lamers.

This post from Thought Catalog does a pretty good job of phrasing these arguments if you’d like to read them from the horse’s mouth. I think they’re pretty wrongity-wrong.

McDonovan comments that “demisexual people are confused” about what “demisexual” means and use many conflicting definitions. Zie seems to suggest that demisexuality isn’t a thing worth talking about because it’s an identity that lacks a consistent definition. Ignoring the fact that terms like “genderfluid” don’t have consistent definitions almost on purpose, this is still a pretty vacuous argument. Because there sure do exist standard definitions of the word. And if people are using conflicting definitions it says nothing about the veracity of the identification and everything about the lifecycle of a term that is still under discussion. Also, this shouldn’t be news but sometimes people on the internet play fast and loose with their words. Maybe they’re confused, maybe they’re inarticulate, maybe they’re not actually demisexuals, maybe they’re part of a vast cabal that’s trying to discredit demisexuality. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter because none of that means there’s no such thing as a demisexual.

The next issue McDonovan finds with demisexuality is that “most of the population” fits the fairly accurate definition zie has managed to scrounge from the conflicting ones. This notion that demisexuality is broad enough that everyone fits betrays a serious misunderstanding about the kind of feelings demisexuality describes. There is, or can be, a difference between being sexually attracted to a person and actually wanting or being willing to have sex with them. You can say “I’m attracted to you but I wouldn’t actually want to have sex with you,” and demisexuality lives inside this distinction.

I think it’s likely that many, even most Americans would only have sex with people they feel emotionally connected to. I think that’s a fair assessment. But it isn’t a description of demisexuality. Demisexuality is about desire and arousal, not just sex and who you do it with. It’s not merely that I’m only interested in having sex with people that I love, it’s also that I feel a complete absence of desire or sexual feelings toward everyone else. Ever. What makes me demisexual is that absence. What makes me demisexual is that I’ve only ever been sexually attracted to three people in my whole life. My partner is sexually attracted to that many people during particularly sexy bus rides. And you can tell me that most of the population is like me, but I just don’t think you’re right.

And, luckily, I have evidence backing my belief. Namely, porn. If most of the population were demisexual, there would not be pornography, at least not like there is now. One of the reasons why I knew I was demisexual is that I have never been aroused, in the slightest, by pornography or erotica, even if the porn was high quality and/or of stuff I like. I can’t think of strangers sexually in a way that affects me. It just doesn’t work. But porn wouldn’t exist if people weren’t stimulated by images of strange people doing naked things. Not to mention the tremendous number of images of sex and sexuality in the media. If everyone were demisexual, sex wouldn’t sell. But it does. As such, not only is demisexuality an orientation, but it’s an orientation distinct from the way most people experience sex and desire.

But, let’s take a step back for a moment and let’s imagine that the confusion is true. Let’s imagine that the word “demisexual” really does mean “a person who experiences desire the same way as almost everyone in the world.” That doesn’t actually invalidate the word in any way. In fact, I argue that we’d still need and use it. We need it like we need “heterosexual” and “cisgendered.” We need words that precisely describe the norm just as much as we need precise descriptions of deviations from that norm. If we accept this, then claims of demisexuality are safe from labels of “queering the straights” or “special snowflaking.” Even in its most debased form, the word remains valid and a useful identification. Again, I do think that the word is more clear and specific than that debased definition, but the point is it’s never not useful.

Being Demisexual is Not Being LGBT
I’ve seen some folks get angry at notions that demisexuals might try to claim LGBT/queer identities for themselves, and even might invade and “invalidate” LGBT/queer spaces.

There are things that I agree with in this argument, and things that I don’t. I want to be careful. First of all, asexuals and people on the asexuality spectrum are literally not necessarily LGBT. You can be a straight (or heteroromantic) asexual. This isn’t particularly controversial. But I do think that LGBT organizations and movements and sex-pos organizations and movements should strive to better include asexuals and people on the asexuality spectrum. So, that means demisexuals should be included, too. This is doubly true because one can very easily be a demisexual queer. Like Your Humble Editor.

It’s also true that demisexuality has to do with how and when you desire, while being queer often has to do with who you desire. And those are two different things. And maybe sometimes two different things get to have two different spaces. Maybe queer spaces, depending on what they’re trying to accomplish, shouldn’t necessarily feel pressure to include heterosexual or heteroromantic demisexuals. I think that might actually be okay. What isn’t okay is the anger with which these demisexuals are excluded and the derision that accompanies it. Demisexuals also have few spaces of their own, which is unfortunate. But these are problems that can be solved. For now, though, I will merely state that the relationship between LGBT people and asexual spectrum people is one that’s fraught and could stand to be improved.

Demisexuals Are Not Oppressed
The last common complaint about demisexuals and demisexuality is that demisexuals claim that their sexuality is an axis of oppression. McDonovan’s post and this Womanist Musings post angrily, but pretty effectively, make this argument.

And, perhaps shockingly, I agree. I do not experience “demisexual oppression.” No one has ever reacted to it with hatred or disgust. In the four years I’ve been demisexual, I have not even had it get in the way of my finding fulfilling and happy sexual relationships. I’d be very interested to hear other demisexuals explain why they feel their sexuality causes them oppression, but I find it absent in my own life. The mistake demisexuality’s detractors make
is that they take wrong or mistaken claims of demisexual oppression and transform them into notions that demisexuality is itself somehow bad, stupid, useless, or fake.

The fact that demisexuals aren’t oppressed doesn’t mean demisexuality is uncomplicated, though. It’s strange, and sometimes actually difficult to be a demisexual in a more-sexual world. For example, I wonder what it’s like to be a demisexual searching for a partner. Does OkCupid even work for demisexuals? Will people think you’re leading them on, being a bitch, or a cocktease, or that your standards are just too high? I don’t know, but it seems like a tight spot to be in.

These difficulties multiply in feminist and sex positive spaces. I intend to talk about this in much greater detail later. For now, though, I’ll leave off with an example: demisexuality made it easy for me to slip into sex-negativity and slut-shaming. It took me a long time to understand that casual sex can be a morally okay and emotionally safe thing for people to do. Sex outside of a committed relationship sounds very unappealing and possibly dangerous to me. I had to learn that just because that sort of sex would probably be bad for me didn’t mean that it was bad for everyone who had it or that people having it were messed up. Even now, it can be hard for me to understand why, for example, my partner might be interested in fostering a sexual relationship with someone he likes, but who is emotionally distant. To me, it seems so awful and bad. I have to remind myself that he’s not like me, step back, and trust him.

Being demisexual amongst people whose sexuality is closer to normal can be tricky. It can be hard to figure out exactly what and where your differences are and how to deal with them when they arise. But what matters most is that those differences do exist. It’s not always easy to be demisexual, but it is a real way to be. Even if it’s not an axis of oppression, even if can be difficult to define, demisexuality remains legitimate, valid, and worthy of respect as an orientation and identity.

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Comments

  1. Anonymoose says:

    Hi, on your point about Demisexual opression, is it possible for those who identify as demisexual because outside of after being in a commited relationship for a few months, they are pretty much identical to a sex-repulsed asexual to experience asexual oppression?

  2. Demisexualitry is just a word to explain how some people are driven and or turned on. Its basically our ability to want to screw someone. Some folks are easily attracted to many women or men, depending. I know a lot of men who are pick up artists and they are all basically very attracted for sexual purposes to just about any woman they meet. I however am not. Have you ever seen a woman, say a beautiful woman, walk by a dozen men–their heads turn. I’ve learned to mimic that behavior in a crowd. I just don’t feel it. However, I love sex with someone I love. If in a situation where I have sex with someone I don’t have feelings for, I really do not enjoy it.

  3. Demisexual...or Asexual says:

    Hi, this post is pretty old, but I wanted to comment, anyhow, specifically on the “demisexual oppression”. I both agree and disagree with you that it does not exist. On one hand, it’s true that most people do not react with the anger or violence that the LGBT community receives. It’s also much easier to live as a demisexual or as an asexual without hiding or sharing the fact that you are demisexual/asexual – after all, it refers specifically to intimacy/sex, which is something only discussed with potential or current partners and perhaps very close friends/family members.

    On the other hand, while I haven’t felt “oppressed”, per se, when I discuss my intimacy choices (which I do very rarely), I do feel ostracized. My mother, in particular, has absolutely no understanding for my lack of sex drive. She’s the type of woman who is incredibly comfortable with her own sexuality, and who previous to being in a long-term, committed marriage had no problem sleeping with multiple men. She even still jokes about sleeping with “sexy” famous men (which, of course, she would never actually do – she loves my father and would never seek intimacy outside their marriage). She has kindly (I’m not being sarcastic, she really did say it in a kind way) told me that I have a problem because I don’t want to jump every cute guy I see. Even friends (including some who have never had a sexual relationship) who do not necessarily “sleep around” but who have an immediate sexual attraction to their “type” (even if they do not act upon it) think that my lack of sex drive/desires for complete strangers is odd.

    Few people are particularly cruel or mean about it, but do make it clear that they think my sexuality (or lack thereof) indicates that there is something wrong with me, and that I need to have it fixed. Unfortunately, a few men *are* cruel about it, to the point where they believe that I am simply playing “hard to get”, and simply need to be convinced or forced to have sex with them. However, I believe this is not due to my demisexuality (or asexuality), but because they look for reasons to wield sexual power over others, and my lack of sex drive makes me an easy target. After all, no amount of cajoling or foreplay will ever convince me to sleep with someone I have no emotional attachment to – in fact, it will probably just completely turn me off both emotionally and sexually – so the only option to get me to have sex is by force. For these particular men, I think my lack of sexuality is actually a turn on.

    Overall, while I have not felt necessarily oppressed, for a long time I did not understand why I wasn’t “normal” like everyone else. I was sure there was something wrong with me because everyone else seemed to be sexually active and/or wanted to be sexually active. For instance, while my friends would giggle about celebs that they would want to bang, the most I could say was that I thought so-and-so was attractive. When I was younger, this usually resulted in others simply thinking I was a “prude”. Heck, even my “sex is only for marriage” religious friends had discussed their wild desires for sex, saying how difficult it was to abstain. The only people who had ever reacted as though my lack of sexual desire was normal was another demisexual (she was the one who actually introduced me to the term), and the girls who pretended to have no sex drive because sex was a sin (I’m still in touch with two of those girls, and, ironically, both of them ended up pregnant outside of a relationship).

    I’m very glad, however, that you seem to have not encountered this. It’s not a nice feeling thinking that you’re inherently broken or that the way you’re sexually attracted to people is the “wrong” way. Not oppression, exactly, but more a severe lack of acceptance.

    • This has been my experience as well. Thank you for sharing. I don’t consider myself oppressed, but I do have a similar experience with my mother, who does not understand and thinks I just need to go to the doctor. I never could understand how everyone else seemed to easily just fall into relationships with other people, while I poured so much effort into the only person I had ever been remotely interested in, and failed because he wasn’t as interested in me. I assumed that everyone had that level of difficulty in finding someone that they were attracted to, and that the chances of that one person finding someone who was equally attracted to them had worse odds than winning the lottery. It didn’t make sense to me that so many people had significant others. The math didn’t work out.

      Under a lot of societal pressure to date, because that’s what normal people do, I did eventually find somebody. There was a lot of pressure early on to get physical, which didn’t interest me, but I thought that was what I was supposed to do. We dated for two months before I finally gave in and had sex with him, though I do not remember our first time at all. I remember thinking during that time that consent meant that you wanted to have sex, and that wanting to have sex meant that you had decided to have sex. I had no understanding that wanting to have sex meant enthusiastically wanting to have sex, not just making up your mind to do it even though you really would rather not.

      I married him. I thought that sex was a novelty and he’d eventually not expect it anymore. Again, assuming that he was like me. (At this point, I still had NO clue that my sexuality was not “normal.”) We’ve been married for almost fourteen years. We basically have a sexless marriage, which is fine with me because I don’t enjoy sex. I actually think it’s pretty gross, to be honest. Not so fair to my husband, but it works for me just fine. Our marriage is not great, mainly because I don’t want a husband. I wanted a roommate at the time, but now I make enough money that I don’t need a roommate, so I just put up with him being in my house. We have a child together, or we would have divorced many years ago. I have no motivation for a “happy” marriage, because whenever things improve, he wants more sex, so I sabotage it to avoid the sex.

      Advice I’ve gotten on how to fix our marriage includes having sex even if I don’t feel like it, because once I start, I’ll get in the mood (seems to be good advice for most people, but doesn’t work in my case), or go to a therapist/talk to a doctor because there must be something wrong with me. So yeah, people try to tell me I’m broken, but I honestly don’t believe that. I tell my mother that I hate being married mostly because I hate sex and she just says, “well you need to figure that out!” It’s taken me many years to discover that my sexual identity is not “normal.” And while I do not feel oppressed, I definitely feel misunderstood!

  4. Thank you. I have never come across this term before. I thought I was broken. I was raised in a family that taught you should have lots of sex before marriage. I thought that was what you were suppose to do and so I spent years putting myself out there and not enjoying it. I never felt dirty or ashamed but could not figured out why I did not enjoy it. I felt broken and like a failure . I got married to a man who was intellectually my equal but the sex was not enjoyable and I thought it was just because of me. Years later I am now in a relationship that has only been going on two months and I can not get enough of him. He is always on my mind, I long to be near him, and the sex is amazing. He stimulates my mind and body and until I came across this article I did not understand what was different. That may be TMI but thank you. This makes sense to me now and I am glad to know that others feel the same as me.
    P.S. I met him on OK Cupid. LoL

Trackbacks

  1. […] Davis defends demisexuality on the Good Men Project. You may or may not have heard of demisexuality, so I’ll let her […]

  2. […] A great post about misconceptions about demisexuality. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, but it seems like few things bring out nasty […]

  3. […] on as soon as they see a hot naked lady (as opposed to women, who are, the textbooks assure us, all demisexual). They will cruelly lead women on and deceive them into believing that they’re in a romantic […]

  4. […] Davis defends demisexuality as a legitimate sexual identity, but not an axis of oppression; Renee of Womanist Musings calls out the appropriative tactics of […]

  5. […] of information on demisexuality; the second one goes into it more in-depth. Demisexual – AVENwiki Defending Demisexuality — The Good Men Project The same would also be true of people who are asexual, though to an even greater extent. […]

  6. […] do identify as demisexual, those who don't, and people who are confused of what demisexuality is: Defending Demisexuality. Reply With Quote […]

  7. […] The second strategy was seen in SlightlyMetaphysical’s post earlier, but can be seen in much older articles as […]

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