One of the most interesting things about language — particularly queer language — is that it is constantly evolving and changing. Within the last few years I have learned many new terms for experiences that are housed within other experiences, or that specify an experience that maybe didn’t have a word before. Humans are incredibly creative, after all. Most people I know who don’t consider themselves creative are actually great problem solvers — they just don’t put a brush to canvas, so they don’t think of themselves as creative. But they are — the evidence is all around us.
Asexuality and discussions around it began online with Haven For the Human Amoeba in 2000, but are more well known nowadays for being on the Asexuality Visbility and Education Network (AVEN) forums, which began in 2001. Among these discussions about the asexual experience and the spectrum within it, a discussion was had in February of 2006 in which user sonofzeal coined a term that has caused a lot of controversy even as it rises in popularity — “demisexual”.
Demisexuality is defined as not having sexual attraction towards others unless a close emotional bond is formed. I have put a lot of effort into understanding it after being compared to it by people who knew me well, and after adopting the word for myself. It’s not been easy; demisexuality gets a lot of criticism because it’s not well understood. The most common criticism I hear when I try to explain it is “Isn’t that how everyone is?”
That is what I want to address today. Because the answer to that question is no, dear reader. Not everyone is demisexual.
The Spectrum of Sexual Attraction — Where ‘Demisexual’ Came From
If being asexual is having no sexual attraction towards anyone, and being allosexual is having sexual attraction, then demisexual would be part of the space in between. Think of it like a color gradient. If you have pink on one side and blue on the other, the area in between of purple would house, among other things, demisexuality. Where someone is on it can vary, making them more towards one color than another. It’s a wide and varied experience from person to person, and where someone is within the gradient may fluctuate with time.
The word ‘demisexual’ arose from people trying to understand their own experience in between. Why were there people who were living almost asexual lives — but not quite? What about the people who found themselves attracted to a long term boyfriend or their wife, but who had not had sexual attraction before knowing this person? This was the experience in between.
I often see it misunderstood as simply not wanting to have casual sex. I have even seen it be argued that the entire point of demisexuality is to “slut shame” people — as if demisexuals do not have varied sex lives and are just looking for a word that says “ew, no hookups for me!” I’ve seen it referred to erroneously as “temporary asexuality”. These misconceptions rely on allonormativity to enforce the idea that 1) everyone wants sex and 2)waiting to have sex is being misconstrued as a sexuality. But that is not what demisexuality is at all; there is a difference between waiting and not having attraction.
The Difference Between Waiting to Have Sex and Demisexuality
Allonormativity is the expectation for everyone to be allosexual — that is, not asexual, or having any kind of experience within the asexuality spectrum. It is considered abnormal in a negative way to not experience sexual attraction, or to label not experiencing it unless certain conditions arise. Think of it like heteronormativity — but specifically for sexual attraction. Amanormativity is the expectation for everyone to have romantic attraction. These concepts surround our lives so much that often times, people don’t even recognize that there is a word for this in our culture.
The key thing that people misunderstand about demisexuality — and other sexualities within the asexuality spectrum — is sexual attraction itself. The idea behind saying that “demisexuality is just being normal” (which it is normal, it just isn’t recognized as normal to give it a name, there is nothing wrong with being demisexual — this is just an argument I often see word for word) is that it’s perfectly healthy to wait until a certain point in a relationship to be ready for sex, but not healthy to give it a special name as if it is its own sexuality. At a surface level, this makes sense — why put a name on something that so many people do? After all, hookup culture isn’t really like what we see in movies; it is common to wait to be ready for sex. It is completely fine to wait until your relationship is serious to have sex — but again, this idea being an explanation for dismissing demisexuality completely misunderstands what the idea of being demisexual is getting at.
The thing about being demisexual that makes it a part of the asexuality spectrum is that it involves limited, conditional sexual attraction. The sexual attraction felt by someone who is demisexual doesn’t suddenly turn us allosexual — it is still only being experienced towards the one person we are sharing a close bond with. Our attraction towards other people may be aesthetic, or platonic, or even romantic, but the sexual attraction itself only loads towards one person — typically, a partner or very close friend. We aren’t abstaining from sex with people because we don’t like hookup culture — some of us even have casual sex because we like how it feels! we still have nerve endings! — we literally aren’t experiencing sexual attraction towards anyone, at all, unless a close emotional bond is formed — and perhaps not even then. Every demisexual is different, but we all share in common how we form sexual attraction.
We are putting a name on a very real sexuality, but we are being ignored. It’s very frustrating to live in an allonormative world knowing that I have an ace experience and being told that what I’m experiencing isn’t ace at all. The evidence is all around us. Let me give some examples.
Allonormativity — Or The Expectation for Everyone to Have Sexual Attraction
Here’s the thing: demisexuality is named because it is a specific experience, not because it’s “just being normal” with a special snowflake twist. That’s misunderstanding demisexuality — and on a practical level with how we experience our world it’s also illogical.
If demisexuality was “just being normal”, a lot of our culture in the west would be different.
If demisexuality was just another word for abstinence, sex wouldn’t sell perfume or lingere.
“Sex sells” wouldn’t even be a phrase because there wouldn’t be tons of people who find those they don’t know sexually attractive, and therefore there would be no reason to advertise with sex appeal.
If demisexuality was just a way to say that you’re “waiting for a serious relationship to have sex”, demisexuals who don’t know they’re demi wouldn’t experience confusion when their friends expressed sexual attraction to first dates or to strangers on tinder.
If demisexuality were “just being like everyone else”, then we wouldn’t worry about telling our doctors our sexuality for fear that they’ll take us off of life saving medication — all because they’re fearful that we’re suffering from a low sex drive, not experiencing conditional sexual attraction. As if a low sex drive would be the worst possible thing out there, and as if there aren’t demis with a high libido.
If demisexuality was just about celibacy or abstinence, there wouldn’t be people who have decided to be celibate or abstinent who talk about a temptation to have sex, even with people they are not close to.
If demisexuality wasn’t real, if it wasn’t its own thing, there wouldn’t be so many people constantly insisting that we are demisexual and asking to be listened to. There wouldn’t be so many people connecting with a term, who had perhaps wondered all their life if everyone else was pretending too, finally feeling like they’d found a home for themselves.
There is a difference between being demisexual and waiting to have sex. There is a difference between slut-shaming and just not wanting to partake yourself in hookup culture, and there is a difference between not having sexual attraction at all until a bond is formed with one person and waiting even though that sexual attraction is already present and having it also be present towards others. Demisexuality has nothing to do with how many people you do or don’t sleep with. It is very literally about how sexual attraction is formed; not action, not abstinence, not celibacy, not looking for a label to say that we aren’t ready for sex yet. It is the formation of sexual attraction under a specific circumstance, and putting a word on it doesn’t hurt anybody. Instead, it helps people feel normal instead of alienated from an allonormative world. And that’s a good, healing thing.
Demisexuality is normal — there is nothing wrong with it — but it is not a universal experience. Not everyone is demisexual. If you are reading this and you do find yourself strongly relating to the concept, however, I highly recommend doing some more research. There are more demisexuals than we currently know — who knows? You might be demisexual too.
Elle Rose, also known online as secretladyspider, is a freelance writer and demisexuality advocate specializing in LGBTQIAP+ education and issues. She also creates YouTube videos about the intersection between pop culture and mental health. Help her advocate by becoming a patron today.