In the months leading up to my 30th birthday earlier this year, I looked back on my sex life.
First, there was Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, the collective lust object of the entire freshman class. I was 14, needed a C-cup bra, and still preferred Nintendo 64 to boys.
Then there was my first boyfriend, picked — more or less at random — from the horde of horny teenage boys interested in said C-cup. After two weeks of dating, we went to a party. With a drink one hand and the other hand pointing at me, he lip-synched “You’re the One That I Want,” from Grease. (I don’t know, it was a thing.) I stared back in horror. When he kissed another girl, I felt relief: I could break up with him, no explanations necessary.
There was the left-wing lawyer I dated in college. His affection made me the envy of my classmates, but his defined abs did nothing for me. Sitting on the floor of his grungy-hip apartment, Blue Velvet on, he started the telltale scoot toward me. All I could think was, I’m supposed to have sex now.
There was also a tall mathematician. Not just a boyfriend, but also a man I agreed to marry. Never mind that we'd had sex only a dozen or so times. Never mind that every single time we did, I eventually grew tired of faking it and asked him to finish himself off in the bathroom, so I could turn around, sleep, and forget all the ugliness of sex.
Since I broke off my engagement — two months before the wedding — there have been a handful of others. Unremarkable, boring encounters I endured because I was somebody’s girlfriend and I believed it was my duty. I knew what to do from magazines and friends: Don’t just lie there, clutch his back, get creative, say sweet and naughty things in a raspy, deep voice. I don’t know if I managed to fool these men. I never quite managed to fool myself.
And now, at 30 years of age, I finally know why. It’s time for me to come out of the closet: I’m demisexual. That means I can feel sexual attraction only if there’s a deep, emotional bond (and not even that guarantees it). My exes — decent people and competent lovers though they may have been — didn’t totally make the cut.
I’m aware that 30 is a little old to come out. But when I was going through puberty, the internet as we know it didn’t exist.
Yes, I discovered my sexuality on Tumblr.
The blogging platform known for GIFs and feelings has created a new language for talking about sexuality and, laugh if you will, it has changed my life. Not feeling sexual desire in the absence of love is a time-honored romantic tradition. I think even Pope Francis would approve. But to this young community — steeped in the valorization of hookup culture — my sexuality is considered marginalized, a form of asexuality. And, agree or disagree, it’s these people who have given me the vocabulary to explore my sexuality without pressure or shame.
In news media, sexuality is mostly talked about in terms of what gender (or genders) you prefer as sexual partners. But online, people are raising awareness about asexuality and pointing to the existence of an asexuality spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, in this new language, there are conventionally horny people, called allosexuals. On the other, there are asexual people (or aces), who experience no sexual attraction at all.
Demisexuals like me are somewhere in the middle. I swipe right because of what a profile bio says; I don’t even look at the pictures. I have never spotted a guy in a bar and wondered what he smelled like. I have never hooked up with a friend just because he was there, and I definitely don’t have contacts in my phone just in case I get horny at 1 a.m. When I watch Game of Thrones, it’s the sex — not the violence — that makes me squeamish. Once, when Dany and Drogo started to get it on, I involuntarily yelped and covered my eyes. Like a 9-year-old.
It was also on Tumblr and other online communities that I learned about secondary sexual attraction. According to the the Rabger model (named for a popular asexual message board user whose avatar was half rabbit, half tiger), there are two levels of attraction. Primary sexual attraction is the instinctive horniness that makes you want to get close to that symmetrical human across the nightclub. Secondary sexual attraction is the feeling of closeness that heightens a sexual encounter. That’s the one — the only one — I can experience.
I felt it for the first time, briefly, in high school. After years of keeping sex at bay by dating boys too timid to pressure me, I started dating a longtime friend. I already loved this artsy, intelligent, affectionate soccer player. But when he started dropping by my house to leave tulips with little notes on my pillow, I felt like being all over him. Every single time I saw him something inside me said, Oh my god, I really want to touch him. For all this, he was rewarded with a trip to second base, which I enjoyed too.
I know you may be thinking, right now, that this is all bullshit. Lots of people don’t like casual sex — why do I need to call it an “asexuality spectrum”? Maybe you think I’m just another millennial searching for her special-snowflake victim saga. Your typical passive, clingy straight girl — a run-of the-mill prude.
To that reader, I would say that I have been called a prude (and Sandra Dee and Sister Bitty) my entire life. I was called prude when I was 12 and didn’t want to play spin the bottle. And again when I was 20 and did not want to participate in a group viewing of the Paris Hilton sex tape. “Prude” is the reason I had sex when I didn’t want to, sex so bad I’ve totally blocked it out. It’s what my boyfriend called me when he was tired of me being “too tired” for sex. “Manipulating prude” is how he put it, a few minutes before he stormed out of our apartment.
Women can’t win. We’re sluts if we do and prudes if we don’t. But “slut” has been reclaimed by progressive people to connote agency, freedom, and even sexual success. What’s suggested by “prude” remains intellectually devastating. The label implies I am unsophisticated, backward, and dull, which I’m not. I know there’s nothing wrong with having sex. I just don’t want to.
“Demisexuality,” on the other hand — a queer, gender-neutral term — describes my sexuality and avoids this trap. It’s a label that has led me to conversations with open-minded people, which in turn might lead me to one day having mutually gratifying sex again.
A few years after I broke my engagement, I struck up a correspondence with a writer I’d met in another city. I’d never considered dating him, but writing him long emails came naturally. As we became more intimate, I was able to open up to him about my sexual history without shame or disgust. After emailing almost every day for about a month, we made a deal. He would try to turn me on, and as soon we figured out what was up with my sexuality (or lack thereof), we would end things.
This guy turned out to be kind of a genius. He started by sexting me. Not your everyday "Hey, I’m so excited for dessert after dinner" type of thing; they were long, and eloquent, pumped with references to literature, poetry, and philosophy. They always ended with a reminder that we had an emotional and intellectual bond and a mutual goal.
After he moved to my city, he helped me take it from text to action. I would write a poem in my usual sexless style while he watched, and then he would copy it onto my back with an old-fashioned feather pen. We turned the nonsexual into something sensual. Teamwork! We listened to recited poetry together, role-played — all sorts of creative stuff that I love with or without sex. Doing things that I loved, with someone I trusted and who knew “my condition,” made me open up to having comfortable, fully consensual sex. I had never felt that before.
Don’t get me wrong, I can definitely enjoy sex. I might not feel attraction, but I have nerve endings. I’m biased, but I think demisexuals make excellent sex partners. What my elaborate foreplay with the writer taught me is that, for me, sex isn’t just a flickering impulse. It’s a fire I tend — in creative ways — 24/7.
We broke it off, as promised, but he set a new bar for romantic partners. I decided to stop dating until I found someone with the patience to help me further discover my sexuality at a pace I felt comfortable with.
To that end, the demisexual label was a godsend. About a year and a half after I ended things with the writer, a trans friend told me she had always suspected I was queer and recently decided I was demisexual. From the first paragraph of Google’s first hit, I knew she was right.
“Demisexuality is a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexual attraction only to people with whom they have an emotional bond. Most demisexuals feel sexual attraction rarely compared to the general population, and some have little to no interest in sexual activity.”
Suddenly, everything made sense. The soccer player had turned me on by courting me so romantically. I no longer felt it when he looked me up a few years after I graduated because the player attitude he picked up in college was extremely unsexy. I’d never noticed the writer romantically, and he wasn’t conventionally attractive, but our intellectual bond generated physical desire.
There hasn’t been much research done on demisexuality. But online communities have a way of preceding the academy. Last year, a Stanford lecturer called asexuality the “next frontier” in the movement to normalize nonstraight sexual identity. (Remember, homosexuality was once considered a disease.) I was first told I might be asexual by a stranger in a public ICQ chatroom, where I was decidedly not looking for cybersex. That was in 1998.
For many people, these neologisms are the ticket to happy, healthy sexuality. What in high school was a label, on the internet is a hashtag — the keys to the kingdom of community, support, and finding people with similar sexual proclivities to love and bond with.
Now when someone messages me on Tinder or Luxy, I tell them up front that I’m demisexual. If they don’t know what it is I’ll either explain or ask them to Google it — depending on how charming they’ve been so far. Those who are not willing to wait an indefinite period of time to have sex with me don’t write back, and those who are willing write back pretty fast.
I haven’t met someone yet. But I’m hopeful the next relationship I have will be good — if only because I will enter it with so much less weight on my shoulders. Knowing that building a sexual connection with me can be a gratifying, almost artistic process that can’t be forced makes me feel safer and more confident. I’m less stressed about labels, in general. What used to torture me I now use to navigate life with less discomfort. “Prude” feels like an inside joke with myself. Just don’t call me Sister Bitty — only I’m allowed to do that.