November 8, 2022   5 mins

For the ten years leading up to 2019, I was the author of a teen advice column, and my agony aunt inbox was often an early warning system for whatever youth-driven phenomenon was on its way down the cultural pike. This is why I knew what a “demisexual” was all the way back in 2013.

“I just heard about demisexuality a few days ago,” read the first letter I received on the topic. “When I read the description of it, I thought to myself ‘That is definitely me, wow!’”

For those not in the know, demisexuality refers to the state of not experiencing sexual attraction or desire without a strong emotional bond. The term originated on a role-playing forum back in the early Noughties, where a teenage girl assigned it to one of her fictional characters. But after it migrated onto Tumblr in 2011, it was adopted in earnest by extremely young and terminally online users who collected identity markers like they were baseball cards. Outside Tumblr, the reaction was largely sceptical; as many a snarky commenter pointed out in the moment, the whole idea of demisexuality also described the normal sexual experience of, if not everyone, then an awful lot of people, most of whom never felt the need or desire to append a label to their sexual preferences. The delighted self-discovery of the teen who wrote the aforementioned letter was only slightly tempered by this concern: “[Some] people are saying it’s people trying to be ‘special snowflakes’ by putting a label on this kind of attraction,” she wrote.

But if the whole thing seemed frankly silly and, okay, snowflakey, it also seemed pretty harmless. Gender and sexuality were just the latest lens through which young people were trying to understand their place in the world; “demisexuality” was to 2013 what being a little goth-curious was for a teen in 1995, more or less — except that with so much of life happening online, this identity was less about how you moved through the world than about finding just the right flag to affix to your social media profile. But unlike shopping at Claire’s Accessories, demisexuality didn’t stay a teenage conceit; a combination of creeping identitarianism in mainstream culture plus a general obsession with What The Youths Are Into eventually made the concept irresistible to adult millennial women.

“IT HAPPENED TO ME: I’m A Demisexual,” read the headline on a 2015 essay on the site XOJane, where the author boldly proclaimed that her inability to feel sexual attraction toward strangers made her “not quite heterosexual”.

The essay was met with a fair amount of ridicule, for all the obvious reasons — “they want to be oppressed so bad” was the unkind but not entirely untrue thrust of the critiques — but there was something about the way it lamented “the many struggles of living in such a sexually charged culture” that spoke to the anxieties of digital natives trying to navigate a post-sexual revolution dating scene. Hookup culture, dating apps, the endless sorting and filtering of potential suitors in a manner that resembled online shopping more than human connection: it’s no surprise that people struggling in this system jumped on a term, a hard-wired identity, that offered an explanation as to why. The young women who adopted a “demisexual” label as a means of opting out were less angry than their closest analogue, the young male incel, but both shared a sense that the system was broken. If male incels were made miserable by the spectre of the sex they wanted but could have, the demisexuals were perhaps equally tormented by the pressure to want, full stop.

Seven years after the XOJane essay, demisexuality remains a contested notion but also a far more visible one, in everything from beer marketing to dating guides, as with this recent dispatch from the dating app Hinge. A hypothetical demisexual dater asks, “What’s the best way to set expectations around waiting to get sexual?”, prompting a supportive but altogether unintelligible response from the app’s resident therapist that is short on actionable information and long on inscrutable axioms like: “Boundaries are bridges, not fences.” (Are they, though?)

Demisexual visibility seems to have less to do with a grassroots shift in human sexuality, and more to do with its corporate profitability. In a world of identity-driven marketing, a massive piece of the pie awaited any advertiser who figured out how to make young, male-attracted women (the group that includes most demisexuals) feel special and seen — and, of course, not quite heterosexual, thus saving them from the curse of being just another basic cishet bitch.

At the same time, the allure of demisexuality as a label clearly reveals something about the inadequacies of the contemporary dating landscape, particularly as experienced by young women. Taking it slow, assessing your feelings, and perhaps requiring a commitment before sex enters the picture: the tenets of demisexuality are fundamentally conservative, and more or less indistinguishable from the advice your grandmother would have given you about when and whether to have sex. But affixing the demisexual label dresses up these traditional values as a form of queerness, making them not just more palatable to younger folks but rhetorically unassailable. “I don’t want to have sex unless we’re emotionally connected” is a statement open to criticism; demisexuality is an identity that cannot be questioned.

This was clearly part of the allure for the teens who first gravitated toward the term. Demisexual may have been a snowflakey word but there was safety in it, especially if you were young, inexperienced, and a little afraid of sex. The kids who wrote into my advice column not only constructed elaborate identities around the type of sex they didn’t want to have, but also an elaborate consent framework in which any negotiation of one’s sexual boundaries constituted a violation of consent. The notion of pushing the limits of one’s own comfort in the spirit of experimentation, let alone for the sake of a partner’s pleasure, was horrifying to them, even if that meant (to use a provocative example) letting young men off the hook for being serial non-reciprocators of oral sex. When I suggested in one such scenario that a couple in a committed relationship might revisit and revise their boundaries, and even compromise them in the name of mutual satisfaction, the response was outrage. To these teenagers, a no in one context was meant to be understood as a no forever, and any further discussion or negotiation was, if not rape, then somewhere on the same spectrum.

Identifying as demisexual may offer a coveted membership in the “queer” community (although even this remains a subject of some debate), but it does nothing to forestall the consensual-but-not-desired encounters that so many young women find themselves engaging in, the kind of bad sex that was so vividly and memorably depicted in Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story, “Cat Person”. And more than that, it elides certain truths about when and why and with whom we choose to be intimate, truths that clash with the contemporary notion of sexual desire as a thing that either exists or doesn’t, organically and entirely out of context.

To posit the possibility of seduction, of a no that becomes a yes, is seen as akin to rape apologism. We don’t like to talk about the complex alchemy whereby indifference might give way to fondness, even lust — or how the flattering, exciting sense of one’s own desirability can sometimes stand in so fully for desire itself that it’s impossible to tell the difference. The protagonist of “Cat Person” doesn’t want the man who wants her, but oh, the thrill of being wanted: “Imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her, she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly, as distinct and painful as the snap of an elastic band against her skin.”

Instead, we instruct young people that sexuality is mainly a matter of identity, one in which the main concern is choosing not a partner but a label. Indeed, adopting a term like demisexual is a way to sidestep the question of desire entirely, along with the fraught and frightening process of learning by experience what kind of sex you want (which, inevitably, requires stumbling uncomfortably against the kind you don’t). But the result is less safe than it is strange, a funhouse-mirror version of sexuality that has very little to do with the physical act itself, or the good things associated with it. And what’s under the surface of this label? Not self-knowledge, but fear: of intimacy, of heartbreak, and of being naked.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.