Why More Young Women Are Identifying As Demisexual

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
Do you remember the first pangs of your sexual awakening? Maybe you’d lie in bed pining after the hockey captain in the year above who didn’t even know your name; maybe you made eye contact with a stranger on the train and fantasised about snogging them in the carriage toilet. Or maybe feeling sexual attraction towards a stranger is completely unfathomable for you.
When she was a teenager, Maria*, now 23, could never relate to her friends’ burning desire to ‘pull’ at house parties. “I saw all my friends getting with strangers and I just thought that was... I don’t know,” she tells me. “The idea of touch with someone I didn’t know didn’t feel particularly appealing.”
There’s a label for people who feel this way: demisexual. The term was coined in 2006 by a member of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) to describe their experience of only feeling sexual attraction after establishing an emotional bond with a partner.
The label resonated with many AVEN members, quickly gained traction online and eventually entered the mainstream, with a demisexuality flag created in the early 2010s. While it’s unclear exactly how many demisexual people there are in the UK in 2021, it’s evident that they make up a significant group: the demisexuality subreddit has 50,000 members while #demisexual on Instagram has over 2 million posts. 
Like Maria, 23-year-old Kimi* identifies as demisexual. “I have had casual relationships in the past, I’ve had one-night stands, and I just haven’t got anything out of them,” she says. “It was all very mechanical.”
Kimi realised she was demi towards the end of her first year of university. “I have a few friends who are completely asexual and I was talking to them about it. I kind of knew that [asexuality] wasn’t me, but one of them suggested that I look into demisexuality, and I did. It seemed to fit with how I was feeling and I wanted to approach relationships.”
Zara*, 23, is also demisexual. “I think it’s something I actively labelled myself when I was 17 or so,” she says. “I remember around that age doing research into different levels of sexual attraction and finding the term and thinking, That’s it!

It does seem as though the growing number of young women who relate to the idea of demisexuality is, in part, a reaction against the sloppy, early 2010s attempt to rebrand sex as inherently empowering.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that for Maria, Kimi and Zara, sex and intimacy is something to be approached with caution. All three are Gen Z women who navigated adolescence during the third wave of feminism – a time which doubtless saw great steps forward for gender equality but also a time where supposedly ‘sex positive’ content abounded on Tumblr which framed hypersexuality as empowerment. Many of today’s young women grew up reblogging contextless GIFs of men choking women and singing along to Lana del Rey lyrics like “my pussy tastes like Pepsi cola”, erroneously believing that being a good feminist was synonymous with having lots of sex. There seemed to be very little room on spaces such as Tumblr for suggesting that, sometimes, having agency over your body means choosing not to have sex. 
With this in mind, it’s arguably no surprise that as Gen Z women enter adulthood, they’re pausing to reflect on their formative years and questioning if casual sex was ever right for them. While Zara found that this pressure to have sex only affirmed her demisexuality – “I think I was just too disinterested in that whole area and I’m very stubborn, so more pressure, for me, always leads to more resistance,” she says – Maria feels as though coming of age during this time has actively shaped her sexuality today.
“I basically let myself be used for male validation at a young age,” she says. “I have a 17-year-old brother who is the most innocent person alive and I look at him and cherish his innocence, and wish that happened to me and wish I didn’t feel that pressure to go out and be sexual.”
“I wanted to feel empowered, I wanted sexual experiences – but I didn’t know how to enjoy pleasure by myself the way I do now, and I certainly wanted the male validation. And I think for some people that’s inextricable from the power and agency of going out and having sex,” she explains. “For the time being, celibacy is probably the best way forward [for me] until I meet someone I have a genuine connection with.”
As with any sexual orientation which deviates even slightly from the perceived norm, demisexuality has been publicly ridiculed and criticised. Right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro recently tweeted: “Being a member of the intersectional coalition is now so alluring that we’re making up terms like ‘demisexual’ so that people can join.” Even the usually sex-positive columnist Dan Savage derided demisexuality, calling it “a seven-syllable, clinical-sounding term that prospective partners need to Google.”
But of course, the term ‘demisexual’ was not created for people to score points in the so-called ‘oppression Olympics’, nor to alienate potential partners. “It’s very frustrating when you tell someone that’s how you identify [and] they say, ‘That’s normal!’ because no, it’s not,” Zara says. “For me, demisexuality is a complete asexuality to the world, unless it’s a select person. I think I have experienced genuine sexual attraction to three people in my life. So I think the label captures a specific experience, and it’s important to acknowledge that.”

Genuine emotional connection can't be commodified and repackaged as a 'girlboss slay' in the same way that casual sex was (and often still is).

For other demisexuals like Kimi, the label itself is less important. The emphasis is more on the idea behind the term, which provides demisexuals with a sense of mutual understanding, community and a framework for navigating their sexuality.
“I don’t really mind either way about labels. I mainly use labels for other facets of my sexuality – like my bisexuality,” Kimi says. “I don’t really bring up demisexuality with people unless I’m aware that they already know what that means. Otherwise I just kind of explain it to people, without bothering with labels. But the label can be helpful just as a shorthand.”
Ultimately, it’s unsurprising that this rise of demisexuality is occurring in tandem with Gen Z women coming of age. The label may be new but demisexuality itself is as old as time. But it does seem as though the growing number of young women who relate to the idea of demisexuality is, in part, a reaction against the sloppy, early 2010s attempt to rebrand sex as inherently empowering. Genuine emotional connection can’t be commodified and repackaged as a ‘girlboss slay’ in the same way that casual sex was (and often still is). And as discussions about demisexuality hit the mainstream, it’s clear that this is a community which is ever-expanding.
As Kimi says: “I think there might be more demisexual people out there who don’t realise yet.” 
*Names have been changed to protect identities

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