Up until last October, I didn't know my sexual orientation. I didn't even know the term for it, demisexuality, existed until about a year ago. And while I realize it takes many people decades to discover their true selves, this not-knowing on my part has not been for a lack of trying. At different points over the past thirty-two years, I have identified as gay, bisexual, and queer, with an implied question market generally hanging in the air each time I've stated my sexual identity. "Queer" always felt the most true in its rejection of heteronormativity, but it still failed to capture some essential aspect about myself that I lacked the conceptual framework to articulate.
And it wasn't just me who was confused. I'll never forget walking with my best friend and an acquaintance one day as he jokingly listed our respective sexualities, saying "I'm straight, so-and-so is gay, and Zurko is...well, no one's quite sure what Zurko is" in a loving chuckle. Another close friend would respond to the inevitable questions about my sexuality with the simple "Nicky is just Nicky." Though it was reassuring to not have my sexuality prescribed for me, the fact that my secret "not-knowing" was as plain as day to those who were closest to me only amplified my own frustration with not really knowing who I was.
So you can imagine my shock when I "came out" in the middle of a lazy Sunday morning text conversation with a friend. As our conversation veered, as it tended to, towards the topic of sex--which is to say, my friend regaling me with stories about her sex life--I asked my friend if she was familiar with the term demisexuality. When she responded no, I copied and pasted the definition provided by the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) that came up in my Google search. Although I had read it before and the concept had been rattling around my head for the past year, it was upon rereading it at that moment that something finally clicked. For the first time in my life, I identified with a sexual orientation that actually made sense to me not just in my mind, but in my heart.
And What is Demisexuality, Exactly?
A demisexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone. It's more commonly seen in but by no means confined to romantic relationships. The term demisexual comes from the orientation being "halfway between" sexual and asexual. Nevertheless, this term does not mean that demisexuals have an incomplete or half-sexuality, nor does it mean that sexual attraction without emotional connection is required for a complete sexuality. In general, demisexuals are not sexually attracted to anyone of any gender; however, when a demisexual is emotionally connected to someone else (whether the feelings are romantic love or deep friendship), the demisexual experiences sexual attraction and desire, but only towards the specific partner or partners. - AVEN
Though the above might seem like a lot to take in at first blush, it really boils down to the following: I don't tend to find myself feeling sexually attracted to another person until after I've formed some type of meaningful emotional bond with them. The fact that an "emotional bond" is such a nebulous and particular thing means that demisexuality is inherently different for each person, with some being somewhat sexually active and others barely ever dating over the course of their lives. In terms of a "sexual attraction," I'm referring to the response most people feel when they see an attractive stranger and quickly develop a sexual desire to sleep with that person. Now, for someone like myself, there is a significant different between recognizing physical attractiveness in a person and developing sexual attraction or desire for that same person. Just because I think both Mahershala Ali and Emma Stone are physically attractive doesn't mean I am sexually attracted to them. And if I was given the chance to have no-strings-attached sex with either of them, I'd almost certainly turn down the opportunity as trying to have sex without that emotional bond is extremely hard for me, and seems to get harder the older I become. Of course, when you say such things as the above, people start to presume an arrogance on your part, as if you're choosing to abstain from sex so as to be able to judge those around you and pat yourself on the back for having such a noble sexuality. It's not a choice, believe me. I often wish it was.
And while this fundamental distinction between aesthetic attraction and sexual desire might seem like common sense to most people, it's only been through months of unflinching self-examination that I've come to understand how rare the feeling of genuine sexual attraction is for me. Rather, I've always been drawn to the aesthetics, or the idea, of being with another person. I routinely developed "crushes" for classmates pretty much from kindergarten on, but they always remained just that: schoolboy crushes. Being a bit of a late bloomer, it wasn't until my senior year of high school where some of these crushes ceased to be one-sided and I was then confronted with a serious gap between theory and practice. Basically, I became super uncomfortable whenever I'd realize someone had a crush on me. But why? After all, I had spent almost all of my time in school desiring to date someone and now that I feasibly could, I didn't want to for some reason. It wasn't until I was in my first relationship with a woman four years my senior that I found myself making up for "lost" time and became sexually active. And even then, my primary motivation for having sex was to try (and boy, did I try) and please my partner as I generally didn't get the same gratification through sex that seemingly everyone else did. Oh, and it typically took a considerable amount of intoxication on my part to even get "in the mood."
Up until recently, I considered all of this relatively normal behavior on my part, inasmuch that I've never been the type to really worry too much about being "normal." And I don't recount any of this with some tinge of regret darkening the memory. In fact, at that point I felt like I was finally beginning to get a hold on things and kicked off one of the best years in my life. I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the fortunate circumstances that have given me the room with which to "play around" with my sense of self in order to earnestly arrive at this point of genuine understanding. Having a family that unconditionally loves me alongside the financial and emotional support they've provided at different points in my life has absolutely allowed me a certain latitude to defer from what is often expected from a red-blooded American male. But even within my own unbelievably accepting family behind me, coming out as something most people have never heard of was met with some frustrating responses. As I naively turned to the world at large to declare my newfound sense of self, I was soon besieged by condescending questions about what this vague sexuality of mine actually meant. So what, do I think I'm better than everyone else? After all, don't women tend to require an emotional connection to feel sexual attraction? And for that matter, isn't anyone in a committed relationship a demisexual as an emotional bond is often what keeps couples together?
Regardless of just how many times I've let out an exasperated "No!" to the above questions, their sheer ubiquity in my own coming out process has signaled to me that these are questions many people identifying as demisexual have and will encounter. Additionally, as the term has gained currency amongst millennial women in particular, a number of prominent women's sites have published a slew of first-hand accounts and overviews of varying quality that often seem to reduce the orientation to a series of quiz-ready axioms like "I often become attracted to my friends" or "You put more pressure on first dates than your friends." And while statements these no doubt apply to a number of people who may or may not identify as demi, they're also often dangerously prescriptive about a sexual orientation whose very strength comes from its vast variance in personal preferences. They're also all written by women, which means that there are a gender's worth of stories being left out of the equation.
But let's take a step back for a moment....
Things are changing fast. I don't think it's hackneyed to acknowledge that. We've reached a velocity as a society that long left "escape" as we collectively struggle with the increasing burden to be "woke." For as conceptually confusing as the notion of wokeness is for so much of the population, its mere existence and endurance in the cultural lexicon signals an exhaustion in a large number of individuals at having to exist behind a wall of qualifiers often foisted upon us by an overstretched and harmful white patriarchy. And so this "second wave of political correctness" is turning out to, for better and worse, be primarily identified with identity politics. Whether we'll make much progress is questionable since so many people still lack the conceptual toolbox with which to interrogate the self that exists largely inside one's being and the self which society can see and ultimately reconcile the two. It also doesn't help when there is a marked backlash again "snowflake" culture, which views real sexual orientations like demisexuality as an invention of coddled millennials desperate to feel unique, like a snowflake.
Hell, as I began to immerse myself in all the literature and studies related to demisexuality that I could find, I would at times feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of qualifiers and concepts that didn't exist when I was a teenager way back in the year 2000. At such moments it was hard not to feel some understanding for the condescending term "Tumblr sexualities," coined to refer to sexualities birthed on Tumblr and thus are of dubious standing. But when I typed "demisexuality" into Google one day and found that the third and fourth most popular autosuggest searches were "isn't real" and "is bullshit," I felt something I never really feel: Offended. These searches signified real responses to asexuals and demisexuals, painting them as confused individuals who are seeking to marginalize themselves, and thus demand special rights as a result. And while I would love to believe that this strain of incredulous responses is confined to sites like Breitbart and other sinkholes of the alt-right, I experienced them first-hand from seemingly "woke" individuals whose response to learning of a sexuality they are unfamiliar with is to disprove or discredit it. And then there were just those people who would forget that I came out to them all together.
Naturally as a result of this pushback (or indifference) being felt both online and IRL, my confidence in my demisexuality turned into defensiveness. Faced with so many infuriating questions that I didn't necessarily have the "right" answer to, I found myself digging deeper to better understand just how demisexuality as a concept came to be and why demisexuality is so closely associated with asexuality. After all, though I have certainly wondered it at one point or another, I know I'm not 100% asexual because I feel sexual attraction and desire, just not in the same way most other people tend to. But to better understand demisexuality in order to shut down anyone who might challenge me, I had to challenge a lot of my own assumptions to better understand what forms my own relationship with asexuality takes.
So, What Is The Relationship Between Asexuality and Demisexuality?
The term demisexuality, which crudely translates to "half sexuality," came about via the message boards and communications happening in the asexual community and was coined by a user on February 8, 2006 to describe the feeling of being not 100% asexual. That such conversations were even happening could be traced back to a young Wesleyan College student by the name of David Jay who founded and serves as webmaster for the Asexual Visibility and Education Network in 2001, an online organization that had around 70,000 members as of 2013. Asexuality is an identity and sexual orientation in which one does not feel any sexual attraction towards people of any gender. Unlike celibacy, which is the decision to refrain from sexual behavior, asexuality is not a choice. And asexual individuals may still masturbate and even have sex, but for reasons other than sexual attraction, such as to relieve stress. I mention this fact because it's important to understand that behavior isn't always a clear-cut indicator of a person's sexuality, just as much as one's identity does not solely dictate what types of relationships or behaviors that a person might seek out. In terms of how prevalent asexuality is, a 2004 study conducted in Great Britain found that roughly one percent of the population could be characterized as asexual.
With the asexual community growing and gaining awareness both of itself and by mainstream culture--for example, Jughead was recently declared as being asexual within the Archie comics--a "gray area" began to appear between the two poles of asexuality and sexuality. Within this gray area, also known as the Ace Umbrella, there exist two primary sexual orientations: gray-sexual and demisexual. Gray-sexuals are people who feel that their sexuality exists somewhere between the two poles. And while demisexuals require that all-important emotional connection to experience secondary sexual attraction, there exist many other forms of attraction, such as emotional or intellectual. Similarly, there are numerous romantic orientations, including romantic, heteroromantic, and gray-romantic. The terms housed under romantic orientation are used to describe the pattern of an individual's sexual attraction.
And what is sexual attraction for a demisexual? One helpful way of explaining this is through the primary vs. secondary attraction model, which subdivides sexual attraction and desire into primary and secondary forms. While primary attraction refers to "sexual attraction to people based on instantly available information (such as their appearance or smell)," secondary attraction signifies "a sexual attraction that develops over time based on a person's relationship and emotional connection with another person." In essence, it establishes demisexuality as an orientation distinct from from both asexuals and sexuals. While this model of sexual attraction felt overly axiomatic to me at first, it also touched a nerve when I moved on to its definitions of primary and secondary sexual desire. Where primary sexual desire refers to "the desire to engage in sexual activity for the purposes of personal pleasure whether physical, emotional, or both," secondary sexual desire is "the desire to engage in sexual activity for the purposes other than personal pleasure, such as the happiness of the other person involved or the conception of children."
Now hold up a second. As you might recall my mentioning earlier, "the happiness of the other person" was always my primary motivator for having sex as I rarely felt comfortable or confident enough to even experience pleasure in the traditional sense. And while I am still skeptical about the above model, it does establish a framework that clearly and easily distinguishes demisexuality from both sexuality and asexuality.
This model has also been helpful in assessing my own personal history and enabling me to confront some long-held assumptions I've held about myself. I can't deny the frustration and irritation I felt when I realized that the sex positivity I have long advocated that posits the act of sex as one of pure possibility that can occur at any moment came. The only problem is that I'm sex positive about everyone but myself. For as much as I've always fancied myself care-free and easygoing when it comes to sex, I absolutely have to feel some kind of emotional connection, and that does develop over time. But it could also develop over the course of several hours and result in a one-night stand. And while realizing that gave me back what little sense of normalcy I found myself fast losing hold of, when I'm being truly honest with myself, I know the chances of such an overnight affair happening are really quite rare. To be frank, this connection with asexuality initially turned me off demisexuality as of course I felt sexual attraction, right? I mean, coming of age, I looked at pornography, masturbated, all that stuff. Sure, when it actually came to being with a girl or guy, I would tend to get cold feet, but hopefully I was drunk and/or high enough at the time for that not to really matter. Except, when looking back at my sexual history, I soon realized I had only twice been in a situation when I had actually enjoyed sex: the first time being with an extremely close female friend and the second time occurring throughout the first year of the only relationship I had ever been in where I had truly fallen in love.
And while the nitty gritty of my personal sexual history and how it led to my realizing I am demisexual will be fodder for a future piece, realizing that there had only ever been two situations in which you could enjoy sex left me reeling. For as much as I believed I had subverted traditional masculinity in how I lived my life, when it came to my own sexual enjoyment I was rather obstinate in trying to present myself as sexually free and, ultimately, virile. This tension is just one of many that you begin to confront in assessing what it means to be a demisexual dude in a country where the myths of machismo and the importance of having "big hands" are still very much alive.
On Being A Demi Dude
One of the more vexing responses I've gotten in sharing my demisexual identity is when the person I am talking to will begin to fret over the past trauma I must have surely endured at the hands of my classmates and peers for not engaging in hella sex. After all, one of the essential aspects of "being a man" is our virility and willingness to engage in sex no matter what. And from what I've seen throughout my life, guys do tend to think with their dicks first in many situations and that's totally cool, except when it's not. I'll be the first to admit that I've very much wished I could think with my dick at different points in my life or at least shut my brain off long enough to have a one-stand. Part of what's been tough about reading so much of the readily available literature on the topic is that it's written by people who felt some peer and social pressure to be sexually active, but none of it really has captured the hot and bothered frenzy that a group of two or more high school boys can work themselves into, be it seeking outlets in blowing stuff up (guilty), partying (guilty), or boning (take a guess).
To say it's a hormonal vibe doesn't even begin to capture the mania of adolescence. And I hope that in writing this, I can open a dialogue with other demi males as there are definitely plenty of conversations to be had. Just scanning this thread on Reddit brought a rare kind of smile to my face as I encountered both familiar and foreign scenarios that can shape entire childhoods. This video from YouTube star and eternal drama kid Evan Edinger offers up the lad's charming origin story before he recounts what for many people is likely a common story. Describing demisexuality as working backwards when compared to a typical relationship, he describes asking a friend of several years if she would ever date him. In his account, she expressed concern over risking their friendship, which for Evan really twisted that dagger to the heart as friendship can often turn out to be an extended courtship for some demi's, though they rarely begin as such. But being a demisexual also doesn't mean you're doomed to fall in love with your friends. What I've found is that I do share a greater degree of emotional intimacy and show considerable physical affection for my friends in a way some might find odd.
I will admit that I always envisioned myself really enjoying sex and to that extent lied to myself for a long time about what I was really getting from the odd short- or long- term relationship that would pop up out of the blue after an extended period of being "single." And in looking back at my time in high school, I realize that the general absence of primary sexual attraction and desire does create an uncanny sense of distance between yourself and the drama going on all around. And even then, I still dragged myself into a few lukewarm courtships in which I would obsess over the idea of dating a girl, but when that interest was met, my burning passion was suddenly a puddle. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, it really was fortunate that the person who I shared most of my seminal sexual experiences with happened to be of drinking age so I was always well lubricated via Carlo Rossi jug wine to ease my natural discomfort and just kind of roll with the punches.
It's hard not to feel some fundamental difference when all of your peers seem equally fixated by the goal of getting laid when you know that if put in the situation, you'll likely play the coy boy until the other person loses interest. In fact, it's not unlikely that you or your friends have made fun of you before for being "too in your head." From what I've experienced, demisexuality presents almost as many questions as it does potential answers, to the point that I jokingly refer to it as "the thinking person's sexuality" due to our inclination to lose ourselves in our thoughts. At the same time, I don't really believe that men and women feel sexual attraction in different amounts. I do believe, however, that they experience sexual attraction via different routes, with women often developing secondary attraction based on one's personality, or intelligence, or something else, arguably at a more frequent rate than men. I also believe that this conversation, amongst with everything else I've touched on in this essay bears far greater consideration. With demisexuality just starting to pick up speed and gain cultural cache, it's really going to be in the coming years that we see certain life narratives concretize as archetypical within demisexual culture. Speaking of demisexual culture, that's also something that will likely take on a more confident pose. But if there's one demographic group with demisexuality that I believe is going to be particularly powerful, it's young folk twenty-five and under.
The Kids Are Alright?!
Amongst all the crap that you have to navigate when coming out as demisexual, I did notice one generational trend I found particularly heartening. Basically, whenever I found myself talking to a person around the age of twenty-five or younger and my sexuality would come up, they almost always handled the situation perfectly, whether they were familiar with the concept or not. Of all the other age groups that I've come out to, the vast majority of people under twenty-five were already familiar with the concept of demisexuality and asexuality studies and many knew a friend of a friend who was demi or an aromantic gray-sexual.
Now, the younger millennials' grasp relation to identity politics has been one of the primary pressure point in the current culture wars, earning the ire of both the right and from older members of the left. And I'll be the first one to click his tongue when I see yet another young person mistaking feelings and personal choices for a given identity. Because let me be clear: It is not my choice not to feel random sexual attraction. I genuinely wish I could bone strangers and enjoy it, I really, really do. But this is the life I've been given, believe it or not, and there is no point in whining about it or expecting others to modify their lifestyles so I never feel an ounce of discomfort.
But putting aside those reservations and generalizations, this feeling of there being a very real generational divide came into focus as I moved from my initial research, which was all textual, to the visual realm of video and in particular, video diaries, which have become way more popular than I ever would have expected. Just a click away is this little site called YouTube, a platform perfect for individuals to state who they are and explain their sexuality. As I began watching these videos, I started to understand possible reasons as to why my exchanges with young people were so rewarding. Here was young person after young person explaining what demisexuality is with a degree of confidence and self-assuredness that I could only hope to achieve IRL one day. Sure, they're basically performing a Google search for the camera, but this is how so many people now learn about new permutations in the social fabric.
And these YouTubers' reasons for serving as volunteer Public Service Announcements seem largely in line with my own. With the media not providing much information on the topic currently, it's up to those of us who for whatever reason feel confident enough to try and answer the questions we face on a daily basis through a public platform with the hope of those annoying question becoming less commonplace. There is no template for coming out as a demisexual and I'm not proposing to create one. Rather, I hope by simply relaying past and present situations of my own and other people who wish to share theirs with us, different folk can find different points of entry where they read something that applies to their own life, something that maybe even offers forth a possible explanation for that thing in their life that don't quite understand yet. One of the things that has really endeared me to demisexuality is the fact that I've never seen so much qualifying language in a set of cultural and sexual definitions before, as every definition is offered forth with the assumption that it can't possibly cover all of its differing and somewhat paradoxical manifestations, nor should it try to.
It may have taken a few millennia, but we seem to have reached a phase in our evolution as a human society where we allow for difference in the very definitions we prescribe. Demisexuality doesn't describe one mode of being, but rather provides the framework for an infinite set of becomings. And it is in becoming that we become a more refined, a more true version of ourselves. For all the maddening questions I've described and alluded to in this piece, I'll finish it with one that literally brought tears to my eyes. Speaking to a friend who was especially well-versed in sexual identities, she was the first person to reassure me that there were indeed plenty of demisexual males alive and well in the world. She then asked me how it felt to have a better idea of who I am. For all the time spent fussing over definitions and pushing myself to reveal my inner truth, to actually feel some sense of clarity in an area that always been too cloudy to see is one of the greatest feelings I've ever experienced. It's in finding and claiming a title for myself that I am able to expand on my understanding of who I am while gaining greater insight into the world at large. And as ironic (and funny) as I find myself discovering so much freedom in a label, I think that's because terms like straight, gay, or demisexual transcend superficial labels as those words encompass so much, like subcultures and minor languages.
One's orientation is not dictated by a haircut, their clothes, or even their superficial behavior. It's not something you can just try on for a while and toss aside, something I'm guilty of inasmuch as I dealt with my not-knowing by trying on a variety of different orientations in an attempt to figure out who I am. So when I say that I feel a confidence and clarity that I never have before, I'm not being hyperbolic or dramatic. Instead, I've been doing something quite out of character our there IRL. Part of the reason I've experienced such a wide range of reactions to coming out as demisexual is because I've come out more times than likely needed. Sometimes I start talking about it without even planning on it, so eager am I these days to share this newly discovered "me" with people.
So read this as something of a discharged flare gun. A beacon signal out to all my demi's and demi buddies who simply want to learn more and even start talking to one another outside of the main forums like AVEN and Demisexuality.org. I often feel like I come from a different viewpoint, but believe in the same thing, so have been hesitant to join in on those platforms...but hey, maybe this means I need to do just do it. And if you are so inclined, please leave your thoughts in the comments if you are moved to do so and start finding a new community. It's a thought....