We all want to feel love and be loved, to connect, to be someone’s person and to have someone be our person. This need can manifest and function in an infinite number of forms and complexions. None are more ‘right’ or ‘wrong than the other, they all simply are. Figuring out how you work is an important first step in seeking fulfillment and happiness in your connections on all levels, not just the sexual or romantic.
When a major aspect of your core self functions differently than those around you, when you are on the outside of a general societal norm, even the most casual conversation can feel isolating. Not just because it acts as a reminder of your outsider status but because it also illustrates and reiterates the way in which your difference disqualifies you. Demisexuals, and others along the asexual spectrum, often struggle a great deal with this throughout their lives.
The asexual spectrum refers to varying capacities for sexual and romantic attraction ranging from the more common and familiar ‘sexual’, those able to experience all forms of attraction, to the less common and potentially confusing ‘asexual’, those who don’t feel any attractions in any context or circumstance. Demisexuals, smack in the middle of that range, are able to feel sexual attraction but only after a strong emotional bond has been formed.
The asexual spectrum can be a confusing concept right out of the gate. For most the sexual drive is such a strong and instinctive impulse the idea of someone not feeling it at all seems mystifying. In a culture increasingly casual about sexual activity the idea of sexual attraction without deeper romantic motivations makes sense easily enough, after all it’s the primary operating ideology of most dating apps. Most people are also quite comfortable with the idea of differing levels of libido but the lower the sex drive the more assumptions start being made that something is ‘wrong’. And the idea of someone never feeling any sexual attraction or arousal at all can seem near impossible to relate to.
Thanks to the infinite variety of the human animal there are no absolute or universal definitions for our natures or behaviors. Themes, trends, norms, absolutely. Conclusive, mathematical definitions, afraid not. The more closely we look at aspects of ourselves and others the clearer it becomes that no two things are ever truly identical. Not even when it comes to the instinctive sexual impulse. Our expanding and diversifying cultural awareness has us awash in spectrums, some of which are easier to wrap our minds around than others. In order to untangle some of the confusion around the asexual spectrum there are four main threads which are important to have a firm grasp of.
The prefix ‘A’ means ‘absence of’ not ‘averse to’
One of the earliest and most familiar versions of this inaccurate trope being applied to sexuality is the reductive assumption homosexuals hate members of the opposite sex or gender and are turning to relationships with members of their own gender simply to hide. Psychological damage or hatred are viewed as more logical than the absence of something assumed to be universal. The asexual spectrum is not about the varying degrees to which people are against sex, that would be an ‘antisexual spectrum’, it is about the partial to complete absence of feelings of sexual attraction.
Sexual Attraction vs. Romantic Attraction
This is the one area of common ground the current general culture has with the asexual spectrum, the separation of sexual and romantic interests. While the cultural push towards the casualizing of sexual interactions does divest sex from guaranteed necessities of romantic connection for those on the asexual spectrum this distinction is even more important. In fact many on the asexual spectrum speak just as dedicatedly about an aromantic spectrum as they do about the asexual one. Some people on the asexual spectrum are capable of both forms of attraction, some of neither, some of only one form, some when only both are present, some as long as only one is present, the kaleidoscope of conditional combinations can easily become a bit of a rabbit hole. The key thread is that for those on the asexual spectrum sexual attraction and romantic attraction are very distinct and different forces and can have very different levels of presence.
Attraction vs. Arousal
At first glance these may seem to be pretty much the same thing but for those on the asexual spectrum they represent very different impulses. In the context of asexuality attraction refers reactive feelings, either sexual or romantic, inspired by and targeted at a specific and actual physical person. Arousal refers to the experiencing of sexual or romantic feelings apart from any literal or particular target, the simple raw instinctive sensations. Where it can start to get really confusing is that some on the asexual spectrum have strong and fully functioning libidos it’s just that those feelings just never attach or target an actual physical person.
Primary Attraction vs. Secondary Attraction
This distinction refers to attraction, either sexual or romantic, which is felt pretty much immediately upon encountering someone, primary attraction, as opposed to the attraction which develops over time as the mental and emotional bond strengthens and deepens, secondary attraction. The idea of falling in love with a friend may seem like a storied and idealized notion but for some on the asexual spectrum they are not capable of and never experience primary attraction and are only capable of secondary attractions. This is the territory of demisexuals.
Demisexuals often get dismissed as simply being ‘picky’ or ‘hopeless romantics’ because they are capable of attraction and have the active desire for sexual and romantic connection but appear to be holding back either out of fear or idealism. The truth is they aren’t holding back their attraction, they simply aren’t able to feel it until a deeper emotional bond has formed. Many demisexuals do date but they struggle to navigate the dating world because of how quickly sexual involvement is assumed or pushed into the process. Dating apps are pretty much the opposite of how demisexuals function which makes the entire notion more and more daunting as our culture grows more and more dependent on them as our primary form of courtship.
I describe myself as being ‘demisexual by practice’. I am fully capable of feeling primary attractions, though my romantic attractions take a fair bit longer to build. I have an active and healthy libido, I rubber-neck as much as the next person, but I am not able to take any actions based on those feelings unless I have a very serious and soulful connection with the person.
My inability to act on my capacities for primary attractions has three interrelated sources. One, I take touch and the access to someone’s body very seriously. I see it as a serious privilege and treat it with profound respect in any context. Two, my only experiences with attempting to act on sexual and romantic attractions have been ones of complete rejection which has only acted to exacerbate how seriously I take that kind of connection or access. And three, thanks to the previous two all of my firsts are still waiting and only getting more daunting with the passage of time.
I would love to have that kind of relationship and connection and the images and topics of dating and couplehood are certainly everywhere in our culture but to hear no trace of yourself in all the conversations around you can be immensely disheartening. To constantly be given the message that ‘if only you worked differently than the way you do, if only you were someone other than who you are, you could have all of those things you want’ can get corrosive on the soul and make it incredibly hard to foster any sense of optimism. The message is almost always sent unintentionally either by unaware casual conversation and expression or well-intentioned loved ones who are only trying to help but that doesn’t make it any less isolating. Being unique is all well and good until no one around you is able to offer any guidance or answers compatible with how you work.
Romantic and sexual connections are not simple for anyone. Humans are complex animals, so too are their interactions. The more our understanding and perceptions of one another expand and diversify the more space there will be for difference and variety. There will always be general norms, there is no evil in that, and making room for difference does not mean trying to engineer our thoughts and language to try and erase those norms. We just have to remember that as much as there will always be general norms there will always be those who do not fit within them.
So the next time someone describes themselves as the type that doesn’t date but falls in love with a friend perhaps hold off on the chiding comments about being naïve or old fashioned or the cautionary admonishments about making things difficult for themselves. Just because the path is different or potentially more challenging doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and feeling like you are constantly having to defend feeling the way you feel can get morbidly exhausting.