Yes, it's a thing.
The day I discovered demisexuality was quite a surprise. I was 22, browsing the Internet and doing some reading on gender and sexuality, and I discovered the AVEN wiki, run by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Even though I aimed to be an educated LGBT ally, I always thought I was just a classic heterosexual woman. I never thought I'd find a word that fit me better.
I had crushes in high school—but never on celebrities. I liked sex—but I could never find anyone I wanted to have it with. I could think of guys I'd consider decent-looking—but actually attractive? Hot? Sexy? Never. In retrospect, a lot of loose threads about my sexuality were tied up by discovering demisexuality.
I knew about asexuality, that is, the sexual orientation in which you don't find anyone sexually attractive. But most asexuals don't care for sex, and I did, after all—it's just that I could count the people I found sexually attractive on one hand. Demisexuality, as one of the identities under the asexual umbrella, was a word that gave me a place to be in between.
Demisexuality is a sexual orientation in which someone feels sexually attracted only to people with whom they have a close emotional bond. It's not a preference, because demisexuals must have that bond to feel sexual attraction. And when there is a bond, the sexual attraction doesn't always follow. The bond just has to be there for sexual attraction to appear at all.
The first instance of the word demisexual was in a 2006 thread from the AVEN forums, where it was coined and popularized by users. Awareness of the word has risen alongside general asexual awareness, though a lot of people have still never heard of it. When coming out, it's a rare treat when the other person is familiar with the term. Most demisexuals I've spoken with still find that when they come out, they have to spend time explaining, as well as deflect invalidation or invasive questions about their sex lives.
Demisexuals have a wide variety of views about sex. According to the 2014 AVEN Community Census, 16% of demisexuals are sex repulsed, meaning they experience some degree of disgust regarding sex, which can include not only the physical act, but also references to it. Another 30% are favorable towards sex, and about half are indifferent to sex, meaning they can take it or leave it. It's possible for one person to have mixed feelings about sex, too. Similarly, demisexuals have individual preferences about other sexual activities, like masturbation, BDSM, and porn. Just like people of other orientations, demisexuals are diverse in the details of their individual sexualities.
Dating can be difficult for demisexuals, even daunting, because of the sexual expectations and fast pace. For a demisexual, it can be nearly impossible to find a partner through the normative method of dating. It can take a long time to develop feelings of sexual attraction, if it happens at all, and by that point, the other person may have lost interest. Some demisexuals find it more fruitful to try to develop relationships out of friendships.
Even in a relationship, there can be conflicts. While some relationships with non-asexual spectrum people work out, others don't. A demisexual with a lower libido or desire for sex might find that they're sexually incompatible with their partner. Or they may be coerced into having sex to please their partner. Others are fearful about coming out to their partner, because they might face invalidation from the person they hope to trust most in the world.
One of the ways people invalidate demisexuality is by saying it's how people "normally" are. But the difference between demisexuality and "normal" sexuality is the difference between attraction and behavior. Many people choose not to have sex with people they don't know well. But they might still feel sexual attraction initially, even if they don't know or trust the person. Demisexuals are unable to feel that sexual attraction until they form an emotional bond, but like anyone else, they can choose to have sex or not.
Some people think demisexuality is a "hormonal thing"—or that it can be pathologized some other way—while others misunderstand it as a way to seem "special." Young people, especially, get told that they're late bloomers or that they're too young to label themselves. What people don't realize is that a label can be comforting to someone who feels different from the people around them.
For some demisexuals, their identity can be complicated by other identities they hold. Many female demisexuals find that their identity is dismissed as being the "normal" female sexuality. Some demisexuals find that their orientation is written off as being a product of their race or religion, which might be perceived as "prudish." These demisexuals, as well as demisexuals with disabilities, or demisexuals who have experienced sexual abuse, can find it hard to adopt an identity that seems to play into a stereotype.
Activists still have a lot of work to do. For one thing, asexuality is only really known in the western world; awareness is nonexistent in many other countries. But in the three years since I discovered the word, a lot has changed. I see demisexuality popping up more frequently in news and social media. I also created the Demisexuality Resource Center to spread awareness—it's the only website focusing on demisexuality (and not asexuality as a whole) that exists currently. As more people learn about demisexuality, I have hope that more people will discover that they're not alone, and they're not broken.
Text Arf Gray
Photography Sascha Kohlmann via Flickr