Posted by Sappho on August 13th, 2012 filed in Sexuality
Olivia Davis defends demisexuality on the Good Men Project. You may or may not have heard of demisexuality, so I’ll let her define 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.
Davis is reacting to this post by Shae McDonovan at Thought Catalog, which criticizes demisexuals, and a bunch of other people, for pretending they’re oppressed when they’re not. So I want to say, from the start, that it strikes me that Shae McDonovan’s various categories combine two different sets of things: self-definitions that in themselves seem to include some sort of claim to oppression (“transabled” and “transethnic”), and self-definitions that in themselves don’t include any particular claim to oppression (however many people who use that label may or may not see themselves as more oppressed than they are): Christian fundamentalist, kinky, demisexual.
The “kinky/vanilla” distinction, for instance, seems to mean either the difference between being within whatever sexual boundaries are considered “normal” in your time and place and outside those boundaries, or having a greater or lesser attraction to dominance/submission in your sex life. The fact that it gets used to mean both those things makes for some confusion, and personally I find the “sex with dominance/submission” vs “sex without so much dominance/submission” a more useful set of categories than the other way of slicing the terms. But there’s definitely a use for the terms that has nothing to do with whether you believe there’s such a thing as “vanilla privilege.”
Anyway, like Olivia Davis, I’m more interested in demisexuality as a word for describing a particular way of experiencing (or not experiencing) sexual desire than in whether demisexuals are oppressed (I don’t particularly think they are). But I want to look at what both McDonovan and Davis have to say about what they think the word means. Here’s McDonovan:
Demisexuality is when people only feel sexual desire for those whose personality they like, or to whom they are emotionally attracted. In other words, they make up most of the population.
And here’s Davis:
… 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….
Now, on the one hand, I agree with McDonovan that “people who want to have sex only with people they actually like” probably makes up most of the population. On the other hand, I agree with Davis that people vary widely in how easily they are attracted to strangers, and how much emotional connection they need to charge their sexual fantasies. So, for the purposes of this post, let me split “demisexuality” into two concepts: I’ll call “demisexual” people who see themselves as Davis does (e.g., “I’ve only ever been sexually attracted to three people in my whole life”). And I’ll use “demisexualish” for people who are, let’s say, not all that given to fantasizing about strangers or watching porn, and who would have trouble finding anyone sexually attractive on an average busride, but who aren’t as far on the continuum as Davis.
I do not consider myself demisexual. But I am demisexualish in the following ways:
- I don’t tend to have sexual fantasies about people I haven’t actually talked to.
- In fact, I can pretty much remember by name, and other personal details, everone I’ve ever pictured hot and sweaty and naked.
- I find visual porn generally unappealing, because a lot of it seems emotionally disconnected.
On the other hand, I’m not altogether demisexual (as I take the word to mean from Davis’ description), in the following ways:
- I can manage a satisfactory sexual fantasy about a completely imaginary person, as long as that completely imaginary person is female (sorry, men only work for me in sexual fantasy if I actually know them and feel some emotional connection with them), and if I imagine a setting in which I’m in some sort of ongoing relationship with the imaginary woman.
- I’ve been attracted to more than three people in my life. I’d set that number somewhere in the low double digits, if by “attracted” we mean “capable of sustaining a sexual fantasy about this person.” If by “attracted” we mean “having any sexual thought at all, however fleeting,” then the number is higher.
- Davis says that she has never been aroused in the slightest by porn or erotica. That isn’t true of me. I can be aroused by written stories or by scenes in Hollywood style movies; I just need sexy characters to go with the sex. A storyline of stranger sex doesn’t appeal, even as fantasy.
- The way I hear demisexuality described, it sometimes sounds as if you need a long time getting to know someone before sexual attraction can occur. That’s not true of me. I need to have actually talked to you, and have some idea, however limited, of what you’re like as a person. And you need to be someone I’d actually want to be close to emotionally. I don’t need to already be best friends and have known you for months.
I don’t think that “In other words, they make up most of the population” really fits the bill, here, even for my own, more demisexualish than fully demisexual, state. Because clearly many, many people in the general population like watching porn, enjoy fantasies about sexy strangers, and have all kinds of naked, sexy thoughts about people they don’t know. Some even prefer, given the opportunity, to have sex with people on much shorter acquaintance than I’d prefer (though generally with people they actually like, on however short an acquaintance), and with much less prospect of any ongoing emotional connection. And the usual available alternatives for describing the divide seem to be
- Monogamous vs. polyamorous: Not the same thing. Lots of people readily fantasize about strangers (“I’m married, not dead”) and still choose to be monogamous. And requiring a greater degree of emotional connection with your desire than some other people isn’t the same as only being attracted to one person, ever, at a time.
- Being “able to have sex like a man” or not. While I think it’s true that women on average tend to be more demisexualish than men on average, making “not being able to have sex like a man” the actual definition of the thing doesn’t appeal to me.
- “I can only have sex with someone I’m in love with” vs. “casual sex.” There’s a huge range of emotional connection or lack thereof that isn’t adequately covered by this dichotomy.
Since “demisexual” is a word that comes out of the asexual community, I get the impression that most people who actually identify as demisexual see themselves as at least similar to those who identify as asexual, as lower libido than most. There was a time, when I was in college, when I also saw myself as being relatively low libido. Relative to a large majority of the men I knew, I found many fewer people sexually attractive, and wanted much more acquaintance and emotional connection before I would see sex as a viable option. At least some of the men who would have liked to have sex with me saw this preference on my part as inhibition, a succumbing to social pressure that I could simply lose if I went ahead and just did it. I tried making out both with guys I found sexually attractive and with guys I didn’t. And, frogs don’t actually turn into princes, in my experience, if I kiss them.
I’ve since concluded, though, that being lower than, apparently, the average man in the “will do anyone, or at least fantasize about doing anyone” sexual tendency isn’t the same as being low libido. Once I was actually sexually involved with someone, on an ongoing basis, I’ve never had the experience of wanting less in the way of frequency than my lover (or, eventually, my husband). Right now, to be sure, cancer and cancer treatments have nearly killed my libido, but till then, I’ve never been the woman described in the Why Your Wife Won’t Have Sex With You blog (a blog which I’ll still recommend if your wife is that woman).
Whether I’m normal or other than normal for a woman in my position on the “how much connection you need before sexual attraction” spectrum is less clear.
When I was involved with the GLBT dating scene, I found a scene closer to my natural preferences in that regard than the straight scene. (The gay men’s dating scene, on the other hand, was even further from my natural preferences than the straight scene.) Though I don’t like “able to have sex like a man/not able to have sex like a man” as the definition of the continuum I’m thinking about, I do think there’s some truth in that way of describing things. I think that gay men, on average, aren’t so much different from straight men in their desires; rather, they have, on average, the sex lives that straight men would have, if women would just cooperate. (But that sex life includes falling in love, and forming stable couples, and getting married where that’s a legal option, and includes some gay men being a good deal more into casual hookups than others, and similarly, lesbians, when they get the sex lives that women would have, if men would just cooperate, don’t prove all to be monogamous swans.)
Now, years later, with me decades married and sexual norms regarding slut shaming having shifted some, though perhaps less dramatically than talk about “hookup culture” would suggest (for I went to college in the late 70s and early 80s, and we had our own “hookup culture” by then), what I see, regarding how demisexual the average woman actually is, I find complicated. Many women, like me, look at ads for porn videos with distaste, and have no desire to watch the actual product. But many other women do watch porn. Many women, evidently less demisexualish and more quickly visually stimulated than me, will freely talk about which celebrity they find a sexy douchebag (I need the celebrity to at least be playing someone I’d find emotionally attractive in a movie, however much of a douchebag he may be in real life, for me to find him hot). And I see some social circles where women will all agree that women in general need lots of emotional connection up front, and the woman who will be happy with “no strings” sex is a rare bird, and others where women will all agree that in general, anyone can have any degree of casual sex, women just as much as men, and the woman who feels she needs more emotional connection up front than “hookup culture” would allow for needs to describe that preference as her own personal kink, not by any means something she’d expect most people, men or women, to require. There are even some circles (particularly very religious ones) that push their accounts of how demisexual women in general are to a point where I feel by their standards I’m a freak slut. (Yes, I did get something out of having sex before marriage besides just pleasing the guys in question. I got sex, which is no small something.)
I think some of the pushback that the term “demisexual” gets probably comes from this conflict over how demisexualish the average woman actually is. I do think it’s useful, though, to have some word for describing this tendency (possibly more than one word, since I’m not sure “demisexual” is the best word for people who lean more in this direction than some, but who aren’t all that close to where Olivia Davis is, on this spectrum).