In late high school, I identified as demisexual. This was really valuable to me at the time, for two key reasons. One, it assured me that there was nothing wrong with me. Two, it helped me be less judgy of my peers who were so much more compelled by sex than I was.
I hadn’t really thought about it recently, until I read Kate Sloan’s “So… I’m Demisexual!” and that brought me back to the question. Do I still think “demisexual” describes me?
I have now come to realize that I’m not actually demisexual (and I never was). I’m somebody who experiences primarily responsive sexual desire, and whose sexual “parking brake” was stuck on for many years thanks to evangelical christian purity culture. More on that part in a minute.
First, I want to share what I’ve learned about sexual attraction and desire, how this relates to demisexuality, and what it means for anyone exploring their sexual orientation.
What is demisexuality?
Demisexuality is a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond. Most demisexuals feel sexual attraction rarely compared to the general population, and some have little to no interest in sexual activity. (Source: Demisexuality Resource Center via Web Archive.)
Related to demisexuality is the asexual spectrum, which includes demisexuality, asexuality, and other related identities. The term allosexual refers to people who do not identify as being on the asexual spectrum.
What is sexual attraction?
So the definition relies on the idea of sexual attraction, but what exactly is that? Sexual attraction is physical attraction evoking a desire for sexual interaction with someone in particular (vs. general libido), but I find the boundary of “wanting sex in general” and “wanting sex with that particular person” to be pretty squishy.
In fact, sexual attraction and desire are multi-faceted in many ways. As Emily Nagoski brilliantly lays out in her book Come as You Are, sexual desire in general comprises both spontaneous and responsive desire, and sexual attraction and sexual inhibition are separate and each important.
Spontaneous desire and responsive desire
Both spontaneous desire and responsive desire are types of sexual attraction. Oftentimes, when people are trying to understand whether they experience “sexual attraction” to someone, they are thinking only of “spontaneous desire”. However, “responsive desire” is another type of sexual attraction that should be considered.
Spontaneous desire is the kind that’s commonly portrayed. The epitome of sexual attraction based on spontaneous desire is seeing someone across the room and getting an “I want to have sex with them right now” kinda feeling.
Responsive desire arises only in situations that are already sexual. Perhaps you’re not feeling in the mood until you watch a sexy scene in a movie, or after some cuddling, or agree that your partner should masturbate without you and then realize, “oh hey, I want sex now”. You may only feel specific, sexual attraction to someone after you are already in a (consensual) erotic context with them.
The gas and breaks of sexual response
The amount of net sexual attraction we feel is the net of whatever is sexually exciting us and what is sexually inhibiting us.
The sexual excitation system (SES) is the “gas” of the sexual response system. It says, “Sexy stuff is happening! Let’s GO!”
The sexual inhibition system (SIS) is the “brakes” of the sexual response system. It says, “Hey, now is NOT a good time to be horny, mkay?! STOP!”
You may be feeling neutral when neither system is activating, and you may feel neutral (or unsettled) when both systems are activating. The gas and the break can individually be sensitive or insensitive, which gives four archetypes of sexual response: sensitive gas and sensitive brakes, insensitive gas and sensitive brakes, sensitive gas and insensitive brakes, insensitive gas and insensitive brakes.
What does this have to do with demisexuality?
Demisexuality is not the same as choosing to only have sex with people you know well. Sexual attraction and sexual behavior are independent. For demisexual people, strong emotional connection is a prerequisite for sexual attraction.
For some, deep emotional connection is one of the few things that hits their gas. For others, they may find that the parking brake is just stuck on unless they have a deep emotional connection, at which point the parking brake is released and all sorts of things can hit the gas. Etcetera.
However, to make matters complicated, if an allosexual person experiences primarily responsive desire, they will also have the experience of not being aroused by random strangers!
Another common example is that demisexual people don’t like porn. However, an allosexual person may also not like porn because the acting or style or ethical issues with how porn is produced hit their brakes.
This distinction matters, because if you’re looking to enjoy some sexual arousal, the way to go about it may be very different for a demisexual person vs. an allosexual person with primarily responsive desire. A demisexual person is unlikely to be aroused by any kind of porn. An allosexual person worried about porn ethics might find themselves easily turned on by artsy, ethical porn like Erika Lust’s or by pleasure-centric amateur porn like at Make Love Not Porn. (Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience. 😉)
A bit of my story
I definitely had the flickers and glimmers of blossoming sexuality at developmentally appropriate times, though I didn’t quite know how to name them.
This was because I was very bought in to evangelical christianity at the time and purity culture was in full force. Crushes were “normal and acceptable”, but sexual attraction was “dangerous”. So, I didn’t feel comfortable to classify how I felt as “sexual attraction” even though, in retrospect, it clearly was.
One thing that made it easier for me to put everything under the “crushes” category is that what I felt wasn’t quite as strong as what my peers seemed to be feeling. Since I was going out of my way to avoid sexually relevant situations, there was nothing to trigger my responsive desire. At the time, I concluded “I just don’t get sexually aroused” when what was actually happening was “I’m not in any situations that evoke my responsive desire”.
Furthermore, despite thinking that I wanted to be in a relationship, I unconsciously didn’t actually want to be, because it was easier to avoid the issue than to risk the judgement of purity culture. And so despite the fact that I was paying quite a lot of attention to the boys around me, I never believed myself to be attracted enough to them, or if I was, there was always some other “insurmountable” obstacle to dating. (This realization came to me courtesy of Existential Kink by Caroyln Elliott.)
And on top of that, purity culture had taught me that my own body was the enemy, so anything explicitly sexual hit the brakes for me. I demurely closed my eyes during the sex scenes in movies. It was easier than feeling the bizarre discomfort of flooring the gas and the brake at the same time.
So in late highschool and early college, I would have identified as demisexual. If nothing else, it helped me feel less judgy of my peers, whose behavior was at times incomprehensible to me.
However, demisexuality was not what I was experiencing.
In retrospect, I can see the many flashes of sexual desire and interest for people I didn’t know very well at all. And then I would judge those feelings and react negatively towards them, suppressing them more deeply.
By college, I’d had these little sparks with other women, and I figured “everybody’s a little bit bi, right?”. (Nope, just my pansexual ass trying to navigate the heteronormative patriarchy.)
Ultimately, I do have a lot in common with demisexual people. I don’t feel sexual attraction towards random people on the street. I’m picky about my porn. I frequently experience and deeply appreciate aesthetic and sensual attraction as separate from sexual attraction. Though emotional connection isn’t necessary for me to be excited, I am excited by it and it’s a core aspect of my erotica.
If you’re looking for more resources to help you understand demisexuality and the asexuality spectrum, the Am I demi? Links and Resources Master Post over on r/Demisexuality is very helpful.
In conclusion: demisexual is a great way to be, it just isn’t me!