Dimensions of Desire Part 2: Familiarity

Oct 23, 2015
Image: Black and white picture of a restaurant with a variety of people including two men close to each other at a table

Image: Black and white picture of a restaurant with a variety of people including two men close to each other at a table

Last week, I talked about sluts and how those with high desire, no desire, and everything in between are all totally normal and expected variations in expression of sexual desire. After that post, I had some men approach me separately to talk about their new thoughts that they might be demisexual to some degree.  One man expressed that he does not generally have crushes on celebrities or people he doesn't know anything about.  In the past, I've had others come to me with concerns that they cannot do certain sexual acts without knowing a person and feeling some level of connection with them. When these men came to me to talk about their identification, I validated their ability to identify however they please (since that’s a basic right of every person) but neither of them seemed to fit the definition of demisexuality as I understood it. I wondered if maybe there might be something else going on that was leading to these questions.

According to the Demisexuality Resource Center

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. (emphasis added)

Understanding this next distinction can get a bit sticky, so let me also share their section distinguishing between demisexuals and those who choose not to have sex without an emotional bond (emphasis added):

Isn’t it normal to only want sex after getting to know someone?

There’s a difference between feeling sexually attracted to someone and wanting to have sex with them. Sexual attraction isn’t something you can control—either you have sexual feelings for someone or not. You can’t force it to happen and you can’t force it to go away, so you don’t have a choice in the matter. Sexual behavior, on the other hand, is something you can choose to participate in, or not.

Most people on the non-asexual side of the spectrum feel sexual attraction regardless of whether or not they have a close emotional bond with someone. They may have sexual feelings for attractive people on the street, classmates or coworkers they’ve barely spoken to, or celebrities. However, they may choose to wait to have sex for a variety of reasons: it might not be feasible or appropriate, they want to make sure the person is respectful and kind, it’s against their religious beliefs, they only want to have sex in a romantic relationship, etc. The difference is that demisexuals don’t start out with these sexual feelings at all.

Lots of people who I know do not feel comfortable having sex with someone they don’t really know. I also know plenty of men who have difficulty getting or keeping an erection with a new partner even when they want to have sex. There are also a lot of women who have difficulty really connecting sexually with someone unless they have an emotional bond. In my opinion, none of these are examples of demisexuality. Instead, these are manifestations of what I realized is yet another spectrum in sexual desire that has to do with familiarity.

When engaging in or becoming interested in sex with someone, people have a variety from low to high needs for familiarity. For a megasexual, for instance, sex is one of the first steps for building familiarity so they do not need a high level of familiarity before sex. There are some people for whom too much familiarity is actually an impediment to desire and Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity talks at length about how too much closeness can kill the sexual spark for many people. For a demisexual, they have no sexual attraction to anyone until the have a high level of familiarity. Men who have erectile issues when engaging in sex with a new partner may need higher levels of familiarity than they have with that partner but the presence of sexual desire indicates that they are unlikely to be demisexual.

The Demisexuality Resource Center also offers this information:

According to the 2014 AVEN Census, two thirds of demisexuals are uninterested in and/or repulsed by sex.

The men who came to me about demisexuality after my last blog would probably not meet that description. That in and of itself does not mean they aren’t demisexuals, but does make it less likely. I noticed however that the ways they were describing their reactions didn’t sound at all atypical to me, especially when compared to a middle-of-the-bell-curve experience for a woman. It the occurred to me that our messages about sexual desire may be making the issue of familiarity more confusing depending on gender.

Almost no one would say that there’s something wrong with a woman who has trouble getting turned on in a sexual experience with someone she doesn’t really know. Most people would refer back to highly gendered (and often inaccurate) stereotypes about women needing love to get turned on or being turned on only in relationships. However, we tell men that they are ALWAYS turned on. That they are always ready to go, interested in sex, and up for putting their penis into any willing hole.

For men who have both high desire and a low need for familiarity, this stereotype works out fine. They feel seen and validated by it and don’t necessarily seek out a term to justify their sexual desire constellation. For women with high desire and low need for familiarity, the term “slut” is probably thrust upon them with impunity, stigmatizing them for their desire constellation.

On the flipside, women who have a high need for familiarity are welcomed as fitting into the expected mold. “Of COURSE you want to know them first, you’re not a slut.” But for men who need more familiarity, they don’t fit into our expectations in the same way. They may feel shame or guilt or disappointment at not fitting the stereotype. Due to these feelings, they may begin to wonder what is “wrong” with them, especially since we exist in a culture that offers so few “normal” examples of sexual desire.

Separating out the need for familiarity from the level of desire for sex, the preferred gender(s) with which to have sex, drive for romantic interest, variety in partners, and structure of relationship helps us to see more clearly that each of these factors are intersecting but not necessarily directly correlated. Or, in short, just because you need to know someone first that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re demisexual (not that there’s anything wrong with being demi either).

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