I have a vivid memory of being over at my friend Bethany’s house, back when she was still alive. One of her sisters, Amanda*, was watching a movie starring Jennifer Lopez.
As I was walking by, I turned and glanced at the screen. “I don’t get what so many guys see in her,” I said. “She’s not my idea of attractive.”
“Okay, Boze,” said Amanda in a tone that was both amused and condescending. “Who’s someone you consider attractive?”
“Bethany!!” I yelled, as though this should have been obvious.
It was a running joke among everyone who knew me that my attractions weren’t like those of other guys. In high school my best guy friends would tease me because I squirmed uncomfortably whenever they talked about hot girls they liked. “Boze, I ran into Leann!” they would say. “She was in the gym, she leaned over and her boobs were right in my face!” And I would be like, “I don’t care, and this is awkward.”
For a long time I thought it was because I had grown up in a controlling, hyper-repressed religious environment and my sexual instinct had been stifled. But I began to notice I was peculiar in other ways. Every time I had ever fallen in love, it was with a best friend. And I had never known love at first sight: whenever I felt attracted to someone, it was after we had already become friends.
Then a couple of years ago when I was trying to explain to a girl why I wasn’t interested, she suggested that maybe I was demisexual. I had never heard of it, but I began looking into it, and that was when all the pieces fell into place.
What Is Demisexuality?
Put simply, demisexuals are people who only experience sexual attraction in an emotional context. For us, bonding and relationship, or the perception of bonding and relationship, precedes libido. Although the degree to which this is true varies from person to person, many of us are basically asexual until we connect with another person emotionally. At that point we may experience feelings, both emotional and sexual, that are vivid and powerful.
Why Is This Controversial?
I’ve experienced a certain amount of pushback on Twitter and in the comments over at Slacktivist’s blog because some (no doubt well-intentioned) people insist that “demisexuality” isn’t a real thing. They say it’s just a trendy label that millennials made up to describe the way the majority of people experience sexuality. Or they might say that we’re trying to claim an “oppressed status” in order to coopt the narratives of LGBTs who have actually suffered and been oppressed because of their sexualities. (However, most of the people I’ve talked to have been empathetic and respectful).
How Does Demisexuality Differ from Most People’s Experience?
I can only laugh when people say demisexuality is the “normative” experience of sex, because that’s never been my experience. Growing up, long before I had a word to explain why I felt the way I did, I felt isolated from other guys my age because our sexualities diverged so radically. Pornography never interested me because I felt no attachment to the people having sex on the screen in front of me. I told my best friend, “Maybe if they made a pornography where the couple was shown to be in an intimate, loving relationship, it might interest me, but why would I want to watch two strangers having sex?”
Likewise, dating sites have always been wasted on me, and I’m not alone in this. Occasionally I might message someone who seems reasonably cute and bookish, but even if they respond I’m guaranteed to stop writing after a few messages because I lose interest. Twitter actually has become the “dating site” of choice for many demis because it’s a place where we can cultivate friendships in a safe space before embarking on any perilous romantic adventures.
Let’s Not Erase Each Other
Another complaint, and one I can understand, is that demis are chasing the “LGBT bandwagon” and trying to claim special status as an oppressed people. In reality, there’s disagreement in the demi community over whether we should adopt the “queer” label. Some demis accept it for themselves while others choose not to. Personally I choose not to, because I don’t want to trample on people who may feel they have a more legitimate claim to that label.
Another important thing to understand, though, is that demisexuality exists on the “sexuality / asexuality” spectrum, not on the LGBT spectrum. Again, it’s a variation of asexuality: when we’re not in a relationship, we tend to lose interest in romance and sex altogether. So people who try to conflate it with homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality are conflating two different things. And it’s not the intention of most self-identified demisexuals to erase anyone else.
But because our sexuality isn’t widely understood, we sometimes experience erasure from people who have a poor understanding of what it means to be demisexual. So I want to reiterate: it’s a real thing that millions of people really experience. It’s distinct from “normative” sexuality in a number of ways, ways that are keenly felt by those of us who identify as demis, but that can be hard to see for anyone who isn’t. If you tell us that we’re perfectly normal and need to get over it, if you tell us that our chosen way of identifying and understanding ourselves is made up, you’re erasing something that has given context and guidance to our lives, that has helped us navigate the incredibly confusing waters of sex and romance. We would still be “different” and still experience the world in this way even if we didn’t have a label for it, but the label gives us a community. The label gives us understanding and power.
So as I’ve said so many times before on this blog, and on Twitter, never tell someone that how they identify themselves isn’t “real,” that you know better than they do who they are and have more authority to make decisions about their lives than they do. Saying, “You’re not this, no matter what you think,” is a subtle form of aggression, but it is still hateful and it is aggressive, and it is perceived keenly and deeply by those with sensitive hearts. Be gentle, kind, and empathetic. Actually listen to people and let them reveal to you their perceptions and experience.