I’ve had a longstanding interest in gender and sexuality, and the proliferation of new terms to describe gender and sexual orientation I think is a wonderful thing. I first heard the term demisexuality a few years ago on-line, as someone who does not feel sexual attraction without the presence of an emotional bond. The definition resonated with me, but from what I saw, there was also a lot of pushback from people saying, “What, just like everyone else?” So while I identified with the term, it was in a loose sense, and more of a way for me to understand myself rather than a way for me to explain myself to others.
Lately, as I have reflected further and done more research, I do believe there is a marked difference between demisexuals and allosexuals, the term the asexual community uses to refer to those on the sexual side of the asexual to sexual spectrum. But exactly what that difference is has felt difficult to articulate.
I’ve long known I have no interest in casual sex or NSA arrangements. In college and graduate school, well-meaning friends would offer to help me find someone to hook up with at a bar, but I was never interested. How could I ever begin to know whether or not I was attracted to a stranger? I understood that I was different from a lot of people I knew in this way. I also knew that I had a tendency to develop crushes on my closest friends. But for a long time, I chalked it up to inexperience, a conservative upbringing, possible repression of my own sexuality, or the fear of getting hurt.
But over the years I’ve done a lot of work to become a sex positive feminist. I truly believe that sex can be a force for good in the world and that adults should be able to engage in whatever consensual activities they wish without shame or reproach from the culture at large. But just as being feminist doesn’t mean one can’t be a stay at home mom or ascribe to traditional gender roles, I’ve come to understand that I don’t have to have an interest in hook up culture in order to be sex positive.
I think lot of people hear demisexual and think it means someone who is sex negative or who judges others for having sex with someone without establishing an emotional bond, like in the case of a one night stand. But that’s not true. It just means that particular person doesn’t feel sexual attraction without some level of emotional connection first, though the depth of emotional bond necessary can vary. Just because I will never want to engage in casual sex doesn’t mean I think others are morally bankrupt for doing so. I’m just not interested myself.
Trying to make sense of all of this, I posted in a Facebook group to get advice about how to explain demisexuality to allosexual people. One of the people who commented provided me with a wonderful metaphor, which I will share here.
First, however, note there is a difference between sexual attraction or desire and behavior. In the same way that sexual behavior is not tied to sexual orientation (i.e. a virgin can still identify as gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, etc), sexual attraction is not tied to sexual behavior. Someone can feel sexual attraction and not engage in sex, and someone can engage in sex without feeling sexual attraction. Further, libido is not sexual attraction. Arousal is a biological response, but it isn’t tied to an individual or directed anywhere in particular. Which is why someone can masturbate and still be asexual – they might have sexual feelings, but don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone else or the desire to engage in partnered sex. There is a difference between being turned on in general, and being turned on by someone else. There is also a difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction. For allosexual people, I believe these things are linked majority of the time. For me they are not. I have had platonic, romantic friendships throughout my life, which I struggled to reconcile.
Now, imagine that sexual attraction is a flower that grows and eventually blossoms. Some people are dandelions or sunflowers. They bloom easily and all over the place. They even bloom in the cracks in the sidewalk. You don’t have to have a flower garden to get them. They just show up in your yard. This would be the most sexual end of the spectrum. People who feel sexual attraction freely and easily. On the most asexual end of the spectrum would be something like a fern, which grows and is healthy but never blossoms.
But in the middle there is so much variation. You have petunias or geraniums, which take a bit of work in the sense that if you want them in your garden you have to grow them from seed (or buy them from a garden store that did the work for you) annually. Then there are peonies or daffodils – if you grow them once, they will come back on their own year after year. Some flowers might like full sun best, and others partial. Some need watered daily, and others you can forget about for weeks and they will be just fine.
Some flowers are easier to take care of than others. Some people have more of a green thumb than others. There are people who will take whatever flowers just happen to grow naturally in their yard because they don’t have the time, energy, or interest to put much effort into it. There are people who get a plant as a gift and either manage to keep it alive or not. There are gardeners who like having both annual and perennial flowers in their garden beds so they don’t have to start from scratch every spring.
And then there are people who really enjoy gardening. Who have the time, interest, and skill to cultivate more difficult flowers like begonias or orchids. There are flowers which require a specific temperature, soil ph, watering schedule, and amount of sunlight in order to bloom. There are poinsettias which have to have a specific schedule of light and darkness in order to turn from green to red. These types flowers are not better than dandelions or daffodils – unless you just happen to really love orchids best. No one would say that someone without an interest in gardening is a bad person. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy the dandelions which spring up in your yard.
But I’m not a dandelion. I’m an orchid. So I need a gardener. Because if you give someone with no interest in gardening an orchid as a gift, they might manage to keep it alive for a while, but ultimately, it will likely prove to be too much work, and the orchid will eventually wither. Or perhaps the stalk will stay alive, but it won’t blossom again after the initial petals fade. It’s much better for the orchid if the person taking care of it just really loves orchids and finds them beautiful. Because then the work it takes to get them to bloom will be joyful, rather than frustrating. (It’s also worth noting that a gardener can do everything right and an orchid still might not bloom. And that isn’t a failure on the part of either the gardener or the plant. It’s just a reality which must be taken into consideration when growing orchids.)
All plants are beautiful in their own way. But they don’t all need the same treatment to be at their best and happiest. So it’s advisable to know what kind of plant you’re dealing with so it doesn’t get over or under watered or wither from too little sun. Bees need the dandelions. Dandelions are wonderful. But not all flowers grow so easily.