Recently on Twitter, a response to a Tiktok video about asexuality went viral. In the TikTok, user Mikaela Happas did a dance with some text, a popular format on the app for sharing ideas and content. The text explained to the viewer that Mikaela is demisexual, meaning she only has sexual attraction after an emotional bond is formed.
This is not the part that started trending, however; what started trending was a response to her video in which, Twitter user eighthgrade said, “I’m never forgiving tumblr for creating an entire sexuality for people who simply don’t do hookups.”
The debate exploded, with many agreeing with this user, saying that asexuality is just about not liking sex or being depressed, that demisexuals aren’t real, that demisexuals aren’t queer but asexuals are, that demisexual is another word for straight, and so on.
Demisexuality is not just a term for people who don’t like hookups or one night stands. It is a real sexuality.
First, I would like to address the criticism that demisexual was “created” on tumblr.
The term demisexual began as the term semisexual in 2003 on the forums for the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, or AVEN. If you are unaware, asexuality is a sexuality in which someone does not experience sexual attraction. In the early 2000s, an online community for asexuals was a revolutionary thing, as this was one of the first ways for asexuals to communicate on a wide scale.
There were some on the forums, however, who experienced rare sexual attraction, or who felt confused about their sexual attraction not matching up with their romantic crushes. This became a topic of discussion in 2003, when the word semisexual was coined.
According to the blog Critique of Popular Reason, the word came from a desire to give a name to individuals who did not identify as fully asexual but also felt that they were a part of the community. As one user said,
“It occurs to me that we’ve got a spectrum of sexual intensity, but we don’t yet have a word for those who are halfway in between asexual and full-force sexual. I’d say that this is extremely important: right now we don’t have a way to talk about people who are asexual but maybe feel like being sexual once a year, or sexual people who are just relatively uninterested and don’t know what to do about it.”
Three years later in 2006 the word demisexual, or sexual attraction that occurs only after a close bond is formed, would be coined and adopted by the asexual community at large. Asexuality is commonly referred to as a spectrum identity, meaning that there are people who identify with asexuality who may rarely experience sexual attraction and even those who never experience it who may enjoy sex, just as there are those who may experience attraction but want nothing to do with sex or even feel a disconnection from their sexual identity.
It’s important to note that AVEN was really the only forum where asexuals could discuss their experiences openly like that and get educated for a very, very long time. AVEN forums were all people had in the early 2000s. It was a very important place and still is for aspecs (a word for asexual and aromantic spectrum people). Tumblr didn’t actually coin the term “demisexual”, and even if it had, that would probably have been for the same reason it was coined on AVEN — because there weren’t safe spaces to talk about asexuality online for a long, long time. It can still be very scary; many aspecs are still excluded from queer spaces, in spite of our inclusion from queer activism organizations like GLAAD and The Trevor Project.
This is also why so many people on tumblr may have profiles where they’re out as LGBTQIAP+ but might not be out anywhere else, hiding behind a generic profile picture. It’s an attempt to protect ourselves from homophobia and transphobia. It is not at all uncommon for marginalized communities to find solace in online spaces and form communities where they couldn’t find their own community before. It is no wonder to me, therefore, that online communities like AVEN and Tumblr have been instrumental in helping asexuals and aromantics figure ourselves out.
The term demisexual originating from a forum on AVEN does not make it less real, valid, or a another word for “straight” — instead it gave a population of people a word and thereby community to rally around and feel validated in our experiences.
Now I would like to address asexuality and demisexuality, and the myths that surround it that perpetuate ideas like “demisexuality is just for people who don’t like hookups.”
One of the biggest myths about asexuality and identities that fit under its umbrella is that it’s about not liking sex. That’s actually not the case at all. It’s about not experiencing or rarely experiencing sexual attraction. A person’s actions may not equivocate with what you think their orientation is, but this does not mean they’re lying about their experiences. Action does not equal orientation.
One thing aspecs hear a lot from people who think we aren’t truly queer is that we are “all virgins” or “just can’t get laid”, as if the word virgin is an insult. This is a misconception for a few reasons, first being that asexuals who haven’t had sex don’t know what they want. Think of it this way if you’re allo (someone who is not asexual) — it’s likely no one had to tell you who you were attracted to or what you wanted with them for you to know. You just knew. Well, asexuals who don’t want sex feel the same way; they know what they want out of a relationship, and sex isn’t on the table.
The second is the idea that virginity is some sacred thing that makes you more pure and simultaneously shames you if you haven’t “lost” it by a certain age. The tie between virginity and worth is a construction of abstinence first type sex education which falsely equivocates virginity with virtue and thereby with worthiness, especially for women and AFABs (assigned female at birth trans and nonbinary people). The truth is having sex before marriage doesn’t make someone worthless, tainted, or dirty, and should be a choice made by each person, not a cultural idea of worthiness masking objectification. Similiary, abstinence is a personal choice everyone should be free to make if they want to. There is no shame in either decision, nor should there be.
Or, maybe you’re the other kind of ace (a shortened word for asexual spectrum people) who does want sex under specific circumstances. Maybe you found yourself curious about sex, and have even enjoyed it, but found your attraction didn’t align with what was going on. Maybe you were sexually attracted to one person in college but find yourself falling in love often, feeling confused when they wanted sex but you didn’t. Or maybe you felt culturally pressured into sex because that’s just what you thought you were supposed to do, and maybe even enjoyed it, but didn’t find yourself craving it. What is going on?
Arousal Does Not Equal Attraction
The thing is arousal does not equal attraction. Some aces are positive towards sex, or favorable because we experience arousal. Others are neutral, we might do it for our partners. Then there are those who want absolutely nothing to do with it. These are all ways to be ace.
There is a misconception that sexual attraction and arousal go hand in hand, but this isn’t actually always the case. Arousal is a response to presently happening stimuli. One way to think of sexual attraction is to think of it as arousal or desire for the arousal that’s directed towards another person or persons. An ace person getting aroused might not tie in with sexual attraction for them; it depends on the individual and where they lie on the asexual spectrum.
For someone who is allo these things tend to often go hand in hand. For someone who is not aspec, they don’t, and it can take us a long time to work out what’s happening in our brains and bodies. This is related to sex drive, or libido, because someone may experience little to no sexual attraction, but still seek sexual pleasure. The difference is if that drive for sexual pleasure is directed. If your desire for sexual pleasure is not directed towards any kind of sexual attraction, you may be asexual. If it’s rare, you may be gray ace or demisexual.
This is what I mean by “action =/= orientation”. Someone who does not experience sexual attraction may have sex for their partner or may even enjoy sex, but this does not make them someone who suddenly experiences sexual attraction with regularity. Sexual attraction, arousal, and libido can all be separate things for anyone, but this is especially true of aspecs, and important to keep in mind when discussing any asexual spectrum identities.
Framing Asexual Spectrum Identities if You’re Allo
If you aren’t ace, it may help to frame things around your own sexuality. For example, if you are heterosexual, you are sexually attracted to the opposite gender and not to the same gender. Just imagine that “not” being towards everyone all the time. That’s essentially what asexuality is. Asexuals may or may not want romantic relationships, and may or may not have sex for different reasons, but what makes asexuals asexual is that there is no sexual attraction.
Demisexuals have attraction sometimes. We aren’t just abstaining from sex because we don’t want to have one night stands. We are literally not experiencing sexual attraction towards anyone at all unless a close bond is formed, and sometimes even then we don’t have it. We may think people are pretty, or like how they look, and want to look at them, much like taking in a sunset (this is known as aesthetic attraction) but the attraction itself just isn’t there.
The hardest thing for people to understand about demisexuality and gray asexuality is that no, we aren’t exaggerating when we tell you we barely have sexual attraction. When we tell you demisexuality is formed only under a strong bond, we mean it’s only then.
The idea that demisexuality is just a term for people who don’t like hookups or casual sex is based on the misconception that staying abstinent towards sex before a serious relationship is formed is the same thing, so why have a special word for it?
It’s understandable to have this confusion if you are unfamiliar with demisexuality, but this isn’t what demisexuality is. While many demisexuals may abstain from sex until they are in a serious relationship, we literally do not experience sexual attraction under other circumstances. This means that we don’t have sexual attraction towards strangers, or actors, or models, or, sometimes, even towards our own partners.
Demisexuality isn’t about not liking one night stands or thinking everyone else is obsessed with sex. It’s about rare sexual attraction formed under the specific condition of a strong emotional bond. Just as asexuality isn’t another word for abstinence, demisexuality is not another word meant to distinguish us as better than those who do have sex more often. It has nothing to do with “not liking one night stands” and everything to do with when and how a person experiences sexual attraction.
Demisexuals are in fact an important part of the asexual and queer community, and I hope this helped explain why that is. We aren’t looking down on people who have sex more often. We’re asking you to understand that our sexual attraction is rare, conditional, and there’s nothing wrong with us for naming it.
Elle Rose, also known online as secretladyspider, is a freelance writer and demisexuality advocate specializing in LGBTQIAP+ education and issues. She also creates YouTube videos about the intersection between pop culture and mental health. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how she can work to advocate for you.