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.