Friday, June 21, 2013

On demisexuality, marginalization, and privilege

I wanted to share some musings on demisexuality.  

People who identify as demisexual fall between the sexually-oriented and the asexual (as you can see in this graphic courtesy of AVENwiki.)   Asexual people are marginalized in contemporary American society, which views sexual attraction as the basis of couplehood, domestically-partnered couples as the basic building block of a stable society, and being in an aspirationally permanent sexual relationship as the marker of maturity and mental health. (Note that this wasn't the case in the Victorian era, in which asexuality or at least demisexuality were considered normative for "women of quality," i.e. white middle-class women. Sexual attraction was viewed as completely unnecessary to a woman's marriage.)

Demisexually-identified people occupy a social position analogous to bisexual/pansexual people in the LGB community, and to genderqueer people in the trans* community. And like bi/pan folks or genderqueer folks, sometimes they experience a good deal of social marginalization, and other times they do not. For example, a person could identify as a genderqueer biromantic demisexual, but live as a typical-appearing woman married to a man, and experience lots of social privilege. Or ze could live as a lifelong singleton, mainly romantically interested in women, presenting very androgynously in a buzz cut with a bound chest, who is highly socially marginalized in a social world built around coupledom and sexual attraction, heteronormativity and gender policing.

Sometimes people with liminal identitites--the ones who break down the binaries of male/female gender identity, gay/straight sexual orientation, and asexuality vs. sexuality--are doubly marginalized, both by the "mainstream," and by the marginalized umbrella group to which they ostensibly belong. This is sad and reprehensible. Yet at other times, people who assert liminal identities really do come across as dabblers who want to play with the cool kids, and then go home to their lives of privilege.

All of this is introduction to the following anecdote: a cis woman college student asserted to me that she was demisexual because she didn't enjoy hookups. She wanted to get to know someone, feel safe with him, date him, and have her romantic interest fanned by his doing caring things like giving her little gifts before she wanted to have sex.

To me, that sounds exactly like the description of normative female sexuality as presented in a zillion (socially-conservative) critiques of hookup culture.

The central issue that socially isolates people on the asexual side of the spectrum is not feeling any sexual interest in other people, and in a demi person's case, feeling sexual attraction under limited circumstances. I can see how saying "I'm demisexual" rather than, "I don't do casual sex" could be quite useful in starting a conversation about one's limits without seeming prudish. But this woman wasn't experiencing isolation or marginalization due to demisexuality--she has a boyfriend, and from her description, seems to have had an active social and sexual history.

Really, the impression I received is that this woman hangs out in a feminist crowd that contains LGB folks and trans* folks, and as a cis woman who dates men, found that the language of demisexuality increased her coolness factor. And that felt appropriative to me.

But I'm not a person from the asexual side of the spectrum, so maybe I'm off-base here. Feedback is appreciated!