Dating while demi.

Online dating, or dating at all, is hard enough, but doing it as a demisexual makes it a bit more challenging.

Five years have passed since my last relationship and I’ve spent them all alone, on purpose. Like really alone. I wanted to learn and know who I was without the momentum of my conditioning, external and internal, that kept me repeating habits or patterns. I wanted new results so I needed to take time away to learn what that felt and looked like. And that time has been so wonderful, a part of me questions if I even want it to end.

And in these past five years, I’ve given a lot of thought to my current feelings about dating or relationships and my past motivations. I’ve come to understand I am and always have been, without a doubt, demisexual. And this is what it’s like for me to date, online or otherwise.

Yes, I find people physically attractive. I even have a type, if I really focus on it. But it isn’t what lights my fire, so to speak. And in a society so focused on putting people into categories and prioritizing physical appearance (we haven’t yet evolved beyond procreation as a primary driver by now?), it’s tricky explaining to people why looks aren’t why I’d be interested, necessarily. Or how much money you have or your social status? No way. Is being a ladder climber some measure of your character or just how well you fit into society’s expectations? Does amassing material wealth mean you also provide for emotional needs, too? In that case, awesome!

These common metrics people use aren’t how I measure compatibility. And being demi is also why peoples’ comments about my appearance or a suggestion that we make out before we even know each other makes me roll my eyes. Which sounds immature. I’ll own it. But it’s my innate response to what feels like immature behavior because it’s not grounded in real connection. That’s how I operate.

But our society is still mostly heteronormative and those people make apps for hookup culture based on physical appearance because that’s what the majority of people do, even if their minds or hearts want otherwise, which makes dating, especially online, while being demi pretty darn tough.

But not impossible! And defying desperate sex in exchange for deep connection may soon become the new normal. It’s my normal, anyway. And I’m determined to help others feel better about themselves if they feel like me. It may mean making a whole new app or maybe not meeting my next special person on an app at all. Meeting in person would be my preference but I don’t get out much to make those odds work in my favor. So maybe I’ll just subvert dating app culture as much as I can or publish this article, instead.

It took me a while to realize my orientation was demisexual because we never had terms like this when I was a teenager or even a young adult. I just went along doing the best I could in the relationships I ended up in but I never really felt the way other people describe some of their romantic experiences. Mostly because I was a feminist before I even knew what the word meant, I didn’t (and don’t) gawk or gaze at people walking by and immediately think, “WOW! Do I want to hit/nail/bang/crush THAT!” or something. I feel gross even typing those silly words.

I never had a thought like that, even when I dated above-average looking people who were generally perceived as beautiful. I still haven’t had those thoughts — about those people or anyone else.

To speak about fellow human beings with that kind of language, one could say, is a very socially-conditioned response, and not everyone thinks or talks like that, I know. And it’s very likely the people who talk like that don’t actually even think like that.

But even the feelings of intense physical desire expressed more sensually…and respectfully…nope. I don’t really have those at first glance, either. It only kicks in much later.

My feelings always came from a deeper place, that place that craves comfort and cozy. The feeling of being heard and seen and understood. That feeling of being gotten. The exhilaration of emotional intimacy and feeling precious as a whole person. I’ve known it a few times and THAT is what I feel and crave. That’s what being demisexual means to me.

Even when I felt so confused and sometimes ashamed in my past relationships, I held onto the hope that what I felt and wanted would one day materialize. But it took me making definitive steps away from what felt wrong for me to gain the perspective of what would feel right when it came along. And that’s hard to do in a sea of people who keep a status quo of sexualization and separation spinning, even if they aren’t feeling fulfilled by it.

From as far back as I can remember, I didn’t feel the zing or compulsion to make out with people upon first sight like other people talk about. And if I did feel it, it rarely felt fulfilling for me to act on it like other people described.

As a Freshman in high school, I ended up at some party with some friends who each paired up with some guy (I went to an all-girls school, so this was a heteronormative experience for me). And it was…fine. Actually, it was horrible. Not because they guy I ended up with was ugly or messy or mean but because I didn’t even know him as a person! We left that party and I just felt like I maybe I needed to give it more time.

And so it happened again a few more times in high school. I even got a chance to make out with a guy I had a crush on and it felt…flat. Not exhilarating in the least! I felt like I had done something wrong. And it wasn’t because we attended a Catholic school (don’t tell the nuns!) it was because it felt superficial and hollow. Empty and meaningless. But everyone else seemed to enjoy it so much!

That’s when this started to feel like it was a “problem”, at least according to society, when I really realized the way my sexual orientation works. It doesn’t discriminate based on appearances or anatomy. It focuses on a feeling.

While trying to force sexual feelings my friends seemed to feel so freely, I kept my deepest emotional feelings for one of my best friends a secret. She was a girl. And we went everywhere together. I worshiped the ground she walked on and she protected me.

But I kept my feelings to myself because being queer was wrong and bad in much bigger ways than it is today. And maybe she didn’t feel the same way.

At any rate, we got into a fight when I came slightly close to expressing how I felt about her and things suddenly changed in a way that felt…well, like internalized homophobia, once I understood that as a concept.

She’s married now, to a guy, and ignored my friend request on social media a few years back. So it sometimes goes.

Then in college, when I tried to share the flatness I felt compared to my (seemingly) horny peers, my best friend kept saying, “you just need to make out with people! Let go and have fun!”

And I immediately felt annoyed. Because it wasn’t fun for me. And he made it sound like I was broken or weird in some way. Admittedly, I did feel broken or weird every time a peer talked about hooking up with randoms and my insides seized up. I just never understood. I wondered then, as I do now, how much of what they said was genuine compared to socially-acceptable jargon.

So I tried to do it, too. I tried having hookups a few times in college. I tried talking the talk. And then again in my early 20s. And it always felt the same. Weirdly unfulfilling.

Only when I had my first real relationship did I have a reference for comparison. And it’s when I realized I wasn’t weird or broken! I had feelings! I got excited! I even enjoyed physical intimacy.

But it happened very differently than other people described.

I met my first partner of any real consequence my last summer of college. I was earning money to send myself to South Africa and turned 21 while serving up prime rib specials at a family-owned Irish pub. I worked day and night, racking up the money I needed to send myself abroad.

And this very tall, very lanky cute guy came in almost every day to sit in the same seat at the bar. One sarcastic comment after another led to us making plans to meet up outside of work. And I immediately liked this guy. He was quiet and sweet and gentle. I still remember his chuckle that sounded like a quiet gasp because it wasn’t like him to be loud at all.

We went to movies and talked in our cars afterwards and one night laid out in a park and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I really liked being near him. I never felt scared or uncomfortable. I felt safe. We were in our early 20s and we never made it past first base. Maybe because we were both so shy or simply because we didn’t need or want to. We just enjoyed each others’ company and conversation.

The summer ended and I went back to college and his anxiety eventually got the best of him. He came to visit me a few times and saw how many people were milling about my dorm and said, “you have so many guys here. Why are you hanging out with me?”

He didn’t listen to me when I said I had no interest in other people. As in, literally no interest. So he ended things and I felt sad. Years later, I reached out to him and we met up and I told him about my new relationship because it was significant. I was dating a girl now. He had a hard time digesting it and I understood. Back then, before bisexuality or any other orientation along the spectrum was more universally known or accepted, it was still some kind of measurement of his manhood that he had dated someone that now dated a girl.

And did dating that girl ever change my life!

It was another slow burn experience. We were summer camp counselors and spent weeks goofing around with the kids and our fellow counselor peers before the lightning bolt of sexual feelings sent me reeling.

This was 2001 when things were different. Some people would say things still haven’t changed much. And because she was a girl, I had a hard time admitting my feelings to myself, let alone other people.

Sitting in a pizzeria one night, I told my friend how my feelings for this person felt like infatuation. I could NOT stop thinking about her or wanting to be around her.

“You don’t think about…like…kissing her though, right?” this friend asked.

“NO WAY!” I said, recoiling back into the booth.

But a week later, as I drove toward the exit on the campus where the summer camp was hosted, this counselor was running along the trail and intercepted me.

She was tall, fit and her camp shirt was tucked into the waistband of her shorts. She was wearing a sports bra and my stomach plummeted to my feet. I felt like kissing her. No doubt about it.

The hours of telling jokes and teasing each other and gossiping about the kids or the other counselors had led to a real connection that now led to actual sexual attraction. And I felt like I was on fire! And when we became a couple, I outed myself and didn’t care what people thought. I felt elated. Then when we broke up, I felt devastated.

And this is how I learned I was demisexual.

Through twenty more years of experiences and experiments with many people of all identities and orientations, I realized I needed to feel emotionally connected to a person, no matter their external packaging, before I felt any sense of romantic connection or sexual longing. This has remained my unchanging truth since puberty hit and I’m finding a lot of freedom in feeling it since finding a word for it. Labels can be lovely when we claim them in empowering ways.

But it is very hard, in the face of such a fierce socialized norm to feel differently, to maintain confidence and conviction in my feelings as valid.

When it seems like everyone else just feels…differently. And because I’ve seen how many people repress themselves, often settling for something safe or marrying the first beard that comes along at the steep cost of fitting into society, I tried and tried and tried once more, so I could truly know beyond the shadow of a doubt who I was and what made me tick.

When I tried one-night stands or feel sexualized or objectified, I feel an undeniable NO run through my body.

When my relationships begin with a friendship first and safety and kindness are present, my feelings run deep and fierce.

When I transitioned my gender identity at the age of 34 and became increasingly more sexualized and objectified, especially by white heterosexual and cisgender women, I embraced what felt like trauma and eventually became even more sure of my orientation. I felt scared by the stunning clarity as I drifted apart from the person I had loved when I finally admitted to myself the truth about our sexual and emotional incompatibility. Her need for sex trumped my need for emotional safety, especially during an incredibly vulnerable time for me. For that reason alone, we weren’t a good fit.

Even before that relationship, it’s been interesting to me how women and men behave with one another and with me. I try to remain curious but I still feel fierce frustration at being treated like a piece of meat, especially by white women who chastise men with such an intense double-standard for the same behavior. I thought men would be worse with me. They, by FAR, are not. I don’t think a lot of people feel great about how things work online and in-person but it’s hard to feel like you aren’t the one with the problem when everyone else is posting topless selfies or those weird animal face filters. I can only assume some people find that attractive.

Some say demisexuality is on the spectrum with asexuality, which is the lack of sexual attraction altogether. I think everyone, if they’re willing to admit it, is somewhere along a long, winding spectrum of sexual identity and expression. The more we speak about it, the less stigmatized it becomes. Every person should do what feels best with the body they inhabit. I just know I felt like curling into a fetal position when someone flew across the country thinking she’d be able to stick the “trans” feather in her cap of sexual conquests. I may have laughed out loud when she propositioned me. I never felt guilt or regret about it, either.

Parts aren’t as interesting to me as a heart connection which may be why being single for so long hasn’t felt hard for me. I miss having a trust-worthy confidant or cheerleader for a support system, but have instead learned to be that for myself which means I’m never dependent on another person for comfort, maybe with an extreme independence that may be challenging to compromise. From my experience as a coach, I know how many people avoid learning this emotional self-reliance and use other people as crutches for confidence and validation. Ideally, in the self-actualized and integrated adult, these work in synergy: we NEED to validate and affirm ourselves AND we NEED other people to thrive as social creatures.

This is where I now find myself, thanks to a stellar therapist, multiple meditation retreats and personal development courses. Self-actualized and still seeking.

Friendship. That’s what I seek in a future partner first and foremost: a reliable and trustworthy friend. A friend who is safe and supportive. A friend who feels able to give and take, vulnerably.

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” ―Aristotle.

But it’s not what everyone is looking for or willing and able to do. Nurturing one’s emotional intelligence and vocabulary isn’t something most people think to prioritize over compatibility that’s often curated by cuteness. Imagine where we’d be if comprehensive sexuality education was mandatory in school and we learned more about what matters to us and why and how many options we have when we give ourselves the chance?! I feel lucky that I once taught it to teens in my former career and I obviously benefitted from my own instruction.

I’ve tried and failed in the online dating area more than a few times in the past five years, probably because I was still battling myself to embrace and accept my demisexuality as valid. I thought maybe it was normal breakup grief. And for a time I was definitely battling body dysmorphia because I’m trans* and then there’s just the horrendous behavior of ghosting and avoidance that is part of social media culture today. It is hard being from a generation that engaged with people more directly. Assimilating into this online, keep-you-at-arm’s-length way of interacting has been…challenging.

But through supporting my clients and friends who are cisgender and tell me they feel the same way about their minds and bodies, and experience most of the same questions and struggles in their relationships, I realize my feelings are because I am just a demisexual who craves deep connection in a society that thrives on superficiality in all forms. So swiping left or right feels like anything but fun for me.

And that old friend from college who told me to just have fun? He recently admitted I was more right than wrong to crave connection over casual sex. I was just ahead of the curve, I guess. Twenty years later, as we find ourselves feeling our way through a broken social dating scene, we’re still having deep wonderful conversations like we did as friends years ago.

I spoiled myself with friendships like this in my formative years, I think. My standards are perhaps unrealistically high.

So what happens now?

I felt pretty strong feelings for someone recently but she’s figuring out how to remove herself from the wrong relationship. Which is important for her to do. And I’m interested in someone who’s available now, not later. That’s important, based on lessons I’ve learned from my own dating history. We knew each other for many months before the feelings knocked me sideways. And then BAM! I was hooked and it felt great to be reassured that I’m not dead inside forever. I’m not numbed out, never to feel again. It feels nice to see my demisexual trend is still stable.

So I’m making another (feeble) attempt at dating online and I’m reminded how hard it is to be dating while demi. People reach out based on a physical response to my appearance. It’s normal. I’d do it, too, if I was them. They may or may not read the identity labels I’ve selected:

Demisexual, heteroflexible. And “other” for the gender category.

Because soon the comments land in my inbox, “hey sexy” or “where r u?”

Or like when I told a gay man I envied his mustache, he replied, “you should kiss me then.”

Nope. I just envy your ability to grow facial hair. And told you. That was it.

Or the messages just stop once they go back and reread my profile. Or they just stop because people disappear for whatever reason. It’s a great lesson in practicing not taking things personally. I love noticing how much progress I’ve made with this since my mid-20s. If they don’t reply to a message, they save me imagining about who they’d be as a partner.

From this place of self-awareness and clarity, it’s hard to not come across as terse or arrogant or rude. I’m just not wired for the parlay most people presume is “normal”. I have no interest in it.

Dating should be a process of discovering what works for the people involved, pairs or trios or what have you. But since demisexuality is still relatively unknown or misunderstood, on more than one occasion people have tried to talk me out of how I felt based on their own experience or preference.

“You just need to put yourself out there more.”

“You’re being too picky.”

“You just need to hookup and get over yourself.”

It’s not that I think people shouldn’t express their own preferences but not at the expense of ignoring or invalidating mine. I can claim how and when my attraction arises because it’s just how things work for me.

I’ve done my research. I have enough data.

And I’m trying to date while demi and determined to feel just fine about it.

As long as I stay away from those apps, perhaps.