Sapiosexuality

I was recently interviewed about sapiosexuality for a Cosmo article on the topic. You can read that article here, and my full interview below.

What is sapiosexuality?

Sapiosexual means being erotically, romantically or otherwise attracted to – or aroused by – intelligence.

Like all sexual identity terms – and pretty much everything else really – it’s useful to ask what the concept of sapiosexuality opens up and what it closes down, assuming that it probably does both.

The more binary questions which often get asked about sapiosexuality, such as whether it is ‘real’ or not, whether it is good or bad, or whether it is down to ‘nature or nurture’ are less helpful. They also echo some of the problematic debates which often happen around sexuality more broadly.


What does sapiosexuality open up?

Along with other relatively recent sexuality and relationship community terms like demisexual, aromantic, pansexual, skoliosexual, biromantic, heteroflexible, fluid, autosexual, etc., the idea of sapiosexuality is most useful in the way it alerts us to the huge cultural misunderstandings we’ve been labouring under about how sexuality works.

For the last century or so it has commonly been assumed in the west that people are a certain sexuality, that that sexuality is based entirely on the gender they are attracted to, that it is binary (gay or straight, with straight being seen as more ‘normal’ or ‘natural’), and that they were ‘born that way’ and it must remain the same throughout their lives.

Academic thought and scientific research findings now challenge all of these assumptions. Sari Van Anders brings the most recent research together in her Sexual Configurations Theory. This points out, among other things, that:

  • People’s attractions and desires can vary between who they are attracted to erotically and who they are attracted to emotionally or romantically.
  • Desires can also vary between what they like solo, and what they like with other people.
  • Gender-of-attraction is one dimension of sexuality, which can be more or less relevant for different people, but even that is multifaceted. For example, does being attracted to masculinity mean that you fancy ‘male bodies’, people who identify as men, and/or stereotypically masculine features on a person of any gender?
  • There are many other dimensions of sexuality including how much attraction/desire you experience, what other features of people – like intelligence, appearance, personality – you find attractive, what kinds of roles or power dynamics you enjoy in sex/relationships, what kind of sensations give you pleasure, and much more.
  • All of these things have been found to be fluid, or changeable over time, and for some people they change more than others.

Our previous cultural understanding of sexuality has limited people massively.

  • It has meant that those who experience high or low attraction or desire have feared there is something wrong with them or tried to conform to the norm with painful results.
  • It has meant that many gay people have remained closeted and bi people felt pressured to ‘pick a side’.
  • It has meant that, as people’s sexualities have changed over time, they’ve felt forced to deny that that is happening and to remain in relationships, identities, and communities that no longer work for them.
  • It has meant that people have assumed that they must get their emotional and sexual needs met by the same person, and struggled when – as Esther Perel puts it – they’ve realised that it’s difficult – if not impossible – to get warmth and heat in the same relationship.

So sapiosexuality helpfully opens up the idea that there may be more to sexuality than the gender we’re attracted to, and that other features of a person may be as – if not more – important than gender.

What does sapiosexuality close down?

Sapiosexuality has rightly been criticised by people in the LGBTQ+ community, as have some of the other recent sexual and relationship categories which have emerged.

Lack of oppression

One reason for these criticisms is that being LGBT or Q carries with it the huge weight of a history of cultural oppression. This includes many – in their lifetimes – having been criminalised, pathologised, or subject to violent physical or emotional attack because of their sexuality.

It is still unlikely, if you are an LGBTQ person, that you will not have been discriminated for your sexuality/gender, and you will certainly have lived through media debates about your existence, as well as lack of positive media representation of people like you. You will know that around the world there are still many countries where you could be at risk of imprisonment or the death penalty. 

None of these things are true for being sapiosexual, unless the way your sapiosexuality works is that you are attracted to intelligence regardless of the gender of a person. If that is the case you may well be subject to the kind of erasure, stigma, and double discrimination (from both straight and gay communities) experienced by many bisexual and pansexual people, which is the reason their rates of mental health problems are even greater than those of lesbian and gay people.

Thinking critically about ‘attractiveness’

However, another criticism of sapiosexuality is that most people who claim this label are not saying they are attracted to intelligence regardless of gender. For example there are men who say they are sapiosexual, but coincidentally all of the people whose intelligence they are attracted to seem to be young women who conform to cultural ideals of attractiveness. In such cases it seems disingenuous to claim a ‘minority’ label (sapiosexual) when really the key feature of your sexuality is still that you are heterosexual, indeed heteronormative.

Another major issue with sapiosexuality is the focus on intelligence. We need to ask some important questions about what we mean by intelligence here:  what kinds of intelligence are valued in our culture, and how that maps onto our attractions if we say we are sapiosexual.

A useful analogy here is to physical appearance. People often say – on dating apps and the like – that they are attracted to a certain physical appearance (e.g. youthful, pale, slim, toned, non-disabled, smooth-skinned). Far from coincidentally this is the appearance that wider culture and mainstream media deem to be attractive, which it is shot through with racist, ageist, ableist, and fatphobic assumptions about what is and is not attractive. 

Intelligence normativity

In a similar way, the kind of intelligence deemed attractive by sapiosexual people may well be what we have been taught by our particular culture to regard as smart (e.g. rational, sharp, quick, intellectual – based on knowledge of western science and philosophy).

It is worth thinking critically about who deems this to be ‘intelligent’, who is excluded from being seen as attractive by such assumptions, and what other forms of intelligence we may be missing with such a narrow definition.

For example, the concept of neurodiversity helps us to see that there are a vast range of cognitive capacities, and that all of us will be stronger on some than others, as well as quicker or slower in different areas.

Concepts of emotional and relational intelligence help us to broaden out what’s regarded as valuable intelligence to have.

Also diverse cultures value diverse forms of knowledge and wisdom, such as spiritual, embodied, ecological, and social forms.

To get more political, it is certainly worth questioning just how intelligent forms of intelligence are which are valued in the countries which have the highest rates of social injustice, have lost most people to the global pandemic, and are most culpable in the global climate crisis.

Conclusions

A more complex understanding of how sexuality operates – like that offered by Sari Van Anders – alerts us to the fact that sexuality is biopsychosocial. It can, and does, change over time. It is certainly influenced by what our culture values, what media and communities we engage with, and whether we relate to all of that critically or not.

It is worth thinking carefully about how our attractions and desires develop, how we articulate them to others, and which ones we want to act upon – and in what ways. We need to embrace the diversity of human sexuality – rather than trying to constrain it to certain normative assumptions – and we need to put consent and ethics at the heart of how we engage with our sexuality and that of others.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Sapiosexuality is a sub-category within a wider category (e.g. a sapiosexual heterosexual, or a sapiosexual bisexual). It basically implies that the person finds intellect/intelligence very attractive, perhaps due to evolution. For instance, Robert Hare explains in his book Snakes in Suits that textbook bureaucrats are less likely to be psychopathic, and this might mean that sapiosexuals are attracted to those capable of understanding complex aspects of life, and those deeply aware of human nature. Although sapiosexuality is quite a raw field of psychological inquiry, and has thus not been explored enough.

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