Demisexuality and autism7 min read

Demisexual people have a very specific way of experiencing sexual attraction.  Being demisexual myself, and autistic, I believe there’s a link between the two.

I know that demisexuality sounds like a made up word, but trust me, this is the best description of my own experience of sexuality that I’ve ever come across.  But now I know that I’m autistic, the clear cut identity of myself as demisexual has become a little foggy, because so many parts of it interact with my newfound identity as an autistic woman.

So let’s start by taking a look at what demisexuality actually is.

A demisexual person is someone who doesn’t feel sexual attraction to other people unless some sort of strong bond or emotional connection has been made. With the prefix “demi” meaning “half,” you could think of it as halfway onto the asexual spectrum.

Demisexuality exists within many other sexual preferences, so you could be straight or gay or bi AND demisexual.  It also exists alongside a variety of gender identities, so you can be cis, trans, or non-binary and also be demisexual.  At its core, it is about your own feelings of sexual attractiveness towards the group of people that you ARE attracted to, but it has more to do with the intensity of sexual attraction felt, and the time taken to arrive at that point.

Let me explain.

If I’m walking down the street and an objectively beautiful man walks past, as I’m more or less heterosexual, I could very easily tell you whether I think he’s good looking or attractive or not.  But I can easily make that judgement call about women too.

For me, asking if I think someone’s good looking has nothing to do with my own sexual feelings towards them, but it’s a bit like going to an art gallery and asking “do I like that painting?  Would I like it in my house, hanging on my wall?”

But whether or not I find someone good-looking is not the same as whether I am sexually attracted to them.

I can look at someone and think “hmm, you are objectively symmetrical and/or nice to look at,” but that’s not the same as what I can only assume is the majority of people’s experiences, which seems to me to be living in a permanent state of monkey lust.

My point is, me thinking that someone is good looking or an attractive proposition does not guarantee any sort of sexual feelings about someone, and any feelings I do develop are almost always based on the relationship I have with the person.

So what is this process of “developing” attraction to someone?

The few men I have been attracted to, after I met them and presumably thought nothing further, I always had a period of time where we went through some sort of bonding, either an intense experience together, or there was a sort of switch moment where suddenly I saw the attraction after a certain point in our friendship.

And this doesn’t necessarily have to be a particularly sexy moment, it’s just a moment that triggers something in my brain.  It could even be my rational brain just taking a while to catch up to the small part of my brain reserved for monkey lust.  (Sorry, I can’t stop thinking about the words “monkey lust” now).

When this happened with my husband it was something really small and insignificant:  we were in this empty hotel bar and he was talking to the owner, and making small talk and stuff and I just suddenly thought, “hmm, he’s quite good at that”.  And that was it. 

The funny thing is, he’s not even that good at small talk.

And for all of those people I’ve been attracted to in my life – and that’s probably something I could count on one or two hands, maybe, and that’s including celebrities – I didn’t initially feel attraction when I first met or saw them, it was more like the relationship we developed made them more attractive to me and our psychological chemistry was an integral part of that sexual attractiveness.

But what on earth does this have to do with autism?  It’s a stretch don’t you think?

Well, no.

Obviously, physical contact and touch make up a huge part of your autistic profile, but also your sexual preferences, because how you like or dislike being touched is intrinsically linked to both.  The whole idea of being sexually attracted to someone is somewhat reliant on the idea that eventually they will touch you.

But you know, it’s hard to entangle my preferences for physical contact out of the neurological, cultural, sexual aspects of my life.

By that I mean, the less I know (or like) someone, the less I will want to be touched, and I’m talking everyday touch not specifically sexual here.  So any touch whatsoever, for me, is reliant on some sort of connection having been established.  And the closer someone is to me, the more comfortable I feel being touched, in any way.

But it’s hard to know exactly what to attribute this to.  Is it that I was brought up by a Scandinavian mother, and my maternal family would greet each other with handshakes?  Or is it my autism, my neurological sensitivity to touch, or preference for deep pressure over light tickles?  Or is it just a part of my demisexuality?

Well, probably it’s all of those things.

And it’s not just touch where my autism encroaches on my sexuality.  If an emotional connection needs to be formed to experience attraction, then by definition, an autistic person who struggles with building relationships, making friends and such will almost certainly end up being attracted to far fewer people than a neurotypical demisexual person.  So it almost exaggerates the demisexuality a bit.  You make fewer emotional bonds, you are attracted to fewer people.  It’s sort of… basic mathematics.

Now some of you might have read my previous post on alexithymia.  (If not, I highly recommend you do, because I believe it’s very relevant to demisexuality) Alexithymia, which is an inability to access your own emotions, and feel or know your own feelings, is not unique to autistic people, but we do seem to experience it far more than the neurotypical population.

But I often don’t know how I feel and a lot of the time I don’t know if I like the person or if I like “LIKE” the person.  It takes some time to process the emotional responses within myself, and this can make something like dating very hard, because I just need more time to work it out and today’s dating scene, or even the dating scene of 10 years ago when I was last single, is very fast paced and you don’t get much of a chance before you are expected to discard or be discarded.

Plus, a lot of people might be offended by you saying “I don’t know if I’m attracted to you or not”.

And finally, the last place where my autism and demisexuality intersects is with regards to theory of mind.  I don’t necessarily believe the narrative that all autistic people lack a theory of mind, but I think we all assume (autistic and non-autistic alike) that people think roughly the same way we do.  And this is the crux of the autistic/neurotypical communication issues, because we’re expecting different things from people than we’re getting.

But if you’re demisexual and don’t realise that not everyone else is, AND you’re autistic and maybe a bit socially naive (like I was as a young adult), you can easily end up in dangerous situations where you don’t realise what’s happened or what’s expected of you until it’s too late.

For me, I couldn’t fathom how someone could meet me once and be attracted to me, the thought kind of makes me uncomfortable actually.  So what I assume is happening, is based on that – even though I know theoretically that people experience instant attraction, I almost have to be consciously on my guard for it, because if I’m not actively thinking about it, I’ve ended up in situations where I’ve been with a person who expects sex, when that was actually the last thing on my mind.

So it’s not exactly a theory of mind deficiency, but rather based on heuristics – in this case your expectations on what people want from you based on how you think.  Because if you don’t know you’re autistic and don’t know about demisexuality, then the easiest assumption is that most people think like you because to think otherwise is an incredibly alienating way of living.

And I don’t believe neurotypicals are any better at theory of mind when it comes to understanding autistic people, so this is really a case of it’s not a deficiency of ours just because there are more non-autistic than autistic people. 

Just because one side shouts louder doesn’t make the other side wrong, just different.

Yo Samdy Sam

Sam is a Brit living in the Netherlands, who was diagnosed with autism in 2019. She has a YouTube channel ("Yo Samdy Sam") where she posts videos about autism and neurodiversity.

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