What is demisexuality really?

What is demisexuality really?
Photo: Shutterstock

Several years ago, I met for a friend date with a woman who’d sent me a message on Okcupid a week or two prior. Her profile said she was looking for friends and activity partners, which I was open to. Though I wanted a romantic relationship with someone, I was also receptive to connecting on a platonic level—especially if the person and I had a lot in common, as it seemed like she and I did. The fact that I wasn’t sure if I was physically attracted to this woman made friendship seem more feasible.

We met for coffee at a cute cafe next to a creek. Like I’d anticipated, I didn’t feel physical attraction— but we did have loads to talk about.

The second time we hung out, at a sound healing session surrounded by redwood trees, followed by tea at her house, I still didn’t feel a spark. But there remained plenty of fodder for conversation.

I continued to learn more about this woman over Thai dinner a couple of weeks later—how we read many of the same books, listened to the same podcasts, and took regular deep dives into content on trauma healing and psychology in general.

My feelings toward her were still lukewarm. And yet, as we spent more time together, I felt an attraction growing. I felt it as we cuddled with baby animals at a pumpkin patch surrounded by bucolic scenery, reading books on top of haystacks.

I felt it as we split salted caramel ice cream in freshly baked waffle cones and bonded over our shared love of treehouses at a bar with a fireplace.

I found myself smitten by her gentleness, her feminine energy, and the way she interacted with her animals. There seemed to be this easy mutual understanding between our two souls. The feelings I was developing for her were different than the ones I’d typically experienced when dating; more like butterflies on weed fluttering gently around my heart in contained circles, as opposed to moths on crack flapping frantically up, down, and around (the former being a whole lot more calm and subtle).

This woman turned out to have feelings for me too—which I discovered one night when her hand lingered longer than usual during one of our parting hugs. We started dating shortly after. And I remember how it felt one night, not long in, when she and I were looking out from the top of a hill onto a glittering night-time view of the Bay Area, all lit up and buzzing with life.

She’d just lifted me into the air for a hug; my legs were wrapped around her back, arms slung over her shoulders while she smiled and laughed. As I smiled back and we kissed, I remember feeling like the moment was even somewhat magical. That this was someone my younger self (who knew nothing about demisexuality) may have never thought to give a second glance.

Ultimately the relationship didn’t work out for reasons unrelated to a lack of physical attraction. But the experience showed me that attraction could grow from barely a seed into a full-fledged unanticipated plant. One that could light you up and expand within you, the way the Bay view did before our eyes that night.

It helped me see that while sometimes I know immediately whether I’m attracted to a person, other times it takes more of a slow simmer—or forming an emotional connection to let the attraction gradually grow.

There’s a term for this latter scenario: demisexuality, which WebMd describes as “being sexually attracted to someone only when you have an emotional bond with them.”

An article in Glamour states that if you’re demisexual, “you want to have sex with and have feelings of sexual attraction only for someone with whom you have an emotional bond. Basically, it means you want to get down only if you feel emotionally attracted to someone. This identity is considered part of the ‘Ace spectrum”’ because asexuality falls on a vast continuum of different makeups.”

Examples of Demisexuality

Generally, demisexuality is framed as a distinct identity or sexual orientation. I acknowledge and validate that identity, but I would also like to expand upon it and propose that it exists along a spectrum (think, for instance, people who are primarily straight yet occasionally have same-sex crushes). Feeling gradually attracted to some people and instantly attracted to others means you fall somewhere on that spectrum, even if, for the most part, you tend to fall very far to the right of it.

In the movie Don Juan, Don (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets a recently widowed woman in a class they’re both taking. The woman doesn’t instantly attract him the way Scarlet Johansen’s character does; in fact, Don initially seems a bit put off and unsure how to respond to her forthright interest in him. Over time though, a genuine and gradual romantic connection forms.

Maybe you’ve been friends with someone for years and suddenly begin to see them in a new light or realize you want to date them. This seems to have happened with Jo Koy and Chelsea Handler, who’d had a friendship for twenty years before they began dating. She describes their relationship as one of her deepest and strongest and says that Jo Koy loved her in a way she’d never realized was possible.

Trust plays a role in attraction with demisexual crushes and relationships. Feelings of comfort and safety can powerfully influence turning on the attraction switch—sometimes when you least expect it. This is what I think people mean when they say, “love happens when you’re not looking for it.” The fact that enough of us fall somewhere on the demi spectrum means it can sneak up on us.

As psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby put it: “There’s a reason why sometimes long-term friends turn into true loves, and that’s because even though the crazy chemistry and spark wasn’t there in the beginning, it formed over time the more they got to know each other.”

How and who might benefit from a “demi” approach to forming new connections?

Embracing your demi side can benefit you by expanding your dating pool, providing you with a greater number of (possibly healthier or higher quality) options. With online dating, we often see only glimpses of a person’s potential in pressurized and limited situations. In my own experiences, I haven’t liked how I often feel pressure to quickly decide whether I’m attracted to a person or not. Because As Delia Owens wrote in Where the Crawdads Sing, “You learn a lot more about something when it’s not in a jar.”

With online dating, I’ve felt we’re all inside of one to some extent. Boiled down by each other (perhaps unwittingly) to something that’s not quite our true essence. Examined like a specimen, with not altogether accurate conclusions drawn about us. What feels closer to the truth is that some of us have more charismatic and relaxed representatives, self-marketers, or personal brand managers than others.

Removing the expectation to feel instant attraction allows a connection to reveal itself more fully. In addition, judgments, assumptions, and associations with past experiences can influence our level of attraction toward a person. It’s not just how they look, talk, move, or behave but also internal stuff on our end—which can shift with time. Positive associations might begin to replace them.

Embracing your demi side can also benefit people who may have historically found themselves attracted to partners or relationships that ultimately weren’t the healthiest for them or didn’t meet their needs. As a commenter on Quora wrote, “I’m very sure by now that my ‘sparks’ are connected to my triggers. If I have to date again, I will try to ignore them and just give people time to make me like them more and more.”

A relationship with that woman in my opening example didn’t work out. Still, I did feel our connection went far deeper than the ones I’d had with some of the women I’d felt instantly physically attracted to (only for things to fizzle out not long in).

Lust can also, at times, blind us to incompatibility. Another woman and I jumped into a relationship very quickly one summer. I was caught up in the rush of the moment—but when you took away those chemicals, we didn’t have much in common intellectually or on a values level.

De-emphasizing the physical gives you a chance to key into the soul of the person in front of you. This is why a slow burn can sometimes lead to extremely deep and healthy relationships (the people who say “the spark doesn’t grow with time” might be farther to the non-demi side of the spectrum).

“When you rush past people who you don’t feel an immediate connection with, some great matches could slip through the cracks. “So often we cut the dating process short because it doesn’t ‘feel’ right in the beginning,” says Dr. Klapow. “But it’s possible that as you come to know the person, and they come to know you, it may feel right. Time can build connections.”

Two different routes to growing “demi” connections

Let’s say you’ve determined you fall somewhere on the spectrum of demisexuality and are interested in exploring that. You might consider starting from a place of friendship if you’re not entirely sure about your physical attraction toward a person you’re dating.

Sometimes the things we’re not attracted to are circumstantial (for example, behaviors and mannerisms that might be on display only because of nerves). Other times they are static and unchanging such as scent, overall aura, tone of voice, and physical attributes. In this latter case, there may be less space or opportunity for attraction to grow.

Continuing to try to date under these circumstances could feel too much like participating in conversion therapy (yikes and ew)—which I’m not encouraging.  But starting from a place of friendship—and stating that this is what you’re looking for— is a way to form a connection without that pressure. It can keep the dates lower stakes, feeling less like interviews and more like a genuine and dynamic interaction. And if the connection doesn’t turn into a romantic one, you may have at least gained a friend.

On the other hand, maybe you’re still open to dating a person despite them not being your type (particularly if the things you’re not attracted to are potentially circumstantial)—but you may just need to take things slow. If you decide you want this, experts like House recommend being intentional about your communication and intentions. He stresses the importance of being on the same page if slow-burn attraction or love is possible.

Maybe this means you’d like to hold off on getting physical right away, which can be communicated in the context of demisexuality. You can gauge whether it feels comfortable or appropriate to explain what demisexuality is and how it ties into that conversation. You can also weed people out by how they respond to this stated need (such as whether they still push the physical stuff). A healthy and more mature person is likely to understand, much more so than if you say nothing at all.

If you’re dating or talking to someone you’re unsure about as far as attraction goes, I’ve also found it’s best to have boundaries. Do not escalate into texting daily, flirting, or referring to future plans. To not give them the idea that my feelings are anything more than what they currently are. I communicate minimally in between dates. I’ve found that doing this benefits both me and the other person, as well as the future health of the relationship, be that friendship or more.

Slow burn versus instant attraction; one isn’t necessarily better than the other. And in the context of a long-term relationship, it makes little difference if the attraction was there right at the start (present on date one) or took a few dates (or time spent knowing each other as friends first) to materialize.

What I like about dating “demi style” is that it helps me re-envision connection as a co-creation or a cultivation process— rather than a package that arrives instantly. I remember that my attitude, openness, and individual efforts—not just the other person’s—contribute to engendering the feeling and experience I’m looking for. And that with this mindset, love and attraction could very well sneak up on me.

Speaking of it— I love that demisexuality has made its way onto the cultural radar. I love the public conversation we’re currently having about it. New words and terminology continue to give names to previously unexplored experiences or feelings that once felt vague, intangible, and difficult to grasp. They help us to organize our wants and needs into recognizable commonalities or areas for connection and to see that we’re not so alone.

If conceptualizing demisexuality as existing along a spectrum feels right for you, then, by all means, do so. Embracing it can only bring more clarity and direction to your dating life.

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