Categories are Complicated, or: What Tomatoes have to tell us about Demisexuality

So recently I’ve been thinking a bit about the debate that often goes around about whether or not demisexuality should be considered a “sexual orientation” per se. And while this post isn’t meant to try and settle that debate in one way or another, I want to address something that I think has been missing from the ‘debate’, which is the idea that there can be different categorical systems for different purposes, and that how a a thing is categorized can change depending on what you are using the categorization for – and that as such there maybe doesn’t need to be a debate at all.

A common example of different categorization for different purposes comes from the categories of fruits and vegetables. There are actually two different of systems for categorizing these. First, there are the biological definitions of fruits and vegetables: fruits are the seed-containing parts of a plant, vegetables are the other parts of the plant, like leaves and stems. Second, there are the culinary definitions: fruits are generally sweeter and used in things like deserts and jams and fruit salads and are almost always edible raw; vegetables are not very sweet and used in things like soups or roasts and are usually cooked. Biological fruit/vegetable categorization tends to be fairly strict, based on clearly defined definitions and innate, quantifiable traits; they’re based on trying to make a clear, objective, logical model of the fruit/vegetable distinction. On the other hand, culinary definitions are determined not by innate characteristics but by subjective social factors (for example, the popular definition of “if you wouldn’t put it in a fruit salad, it’s not a fruit”). It’s based not so much on the innate properties of the items but around how they are used in everyday life.

For the most part, culinary and biological definitions of fruits and vegetables overlap. Both agree that apples, blueberries, oranges, and mangos are fruits, and that  lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and celery are vegetables. On the other hand, there are other places where they differ: for example, things like cucumbers and zucchini and pumpkins and tomatoes are commonly considered culinary vegetables because they are used in cooking more like other vegetables than other fruits, even though biologically speaking they would be fruits. And things like mushrooms are culinary vegetables despite biologically being fungi and thus not even belonging in the fruit-vegetable distinction at all.

So, what does this have to do with demisexuality debates? Well, one of the problems with some demisexuality debates is that arguers are often using two very different categorical approaches: one the one hand, there’s the ‘theoretical scientific model’ approach which attempts to categorize aspects of sexuality in logical ways, categorizing things based on their underlying similarities or differences to build a general model for how sexuality works. On the other hand, there is the ‘social identity’ approach, which is based not necessarily on the underlying workings of a persons sexuality but on their personal identity and on the social implications of their sexuality. People using these approaches tend to come to different conclusions about whether demisexuality should be a “sexual orientation” because they have different operational goals underlying their categorical systems:

From a theoretical perspective, it’s true that demisexuality doesn’t really fit in with other “sexual orientations” which are based solely around the gender of the target of sexual attraction.  Demisexuality is primarily about what contexts sexual attraction can develop in, not what genders it can develop towards. Furthermore, some demisexual people do report also having an underlying sexual orietnation/gendered patterns of attraction, which again indicates that it can be useful to consider these two different factors from a theoretical perspective. From a theoretical perspective, what matters most is whether the mode is accurate to the underlying functions of sexuality. Thus, when constructing models or theories of human sexuality it makes the most sense to think of demisexuality (or not demisexuality) as a separate factor from sexual orientation.

On the other hand, from a social perspective, it makes perfect sense to place demisexuality as a sexual orientation. First, in a popular context there is usually very little distinction between a persons sexual orientation, sexuality, and sexual identity, and the three concepts are usually collapsed together*. In a popular (non-academic) context, sexual identity is all about what the most socially salient aspects of your sexuality are – for most people, it’s patterns based on gender, but for others (as in demisexual), it’s patterns based on familiarity, emotional connection, etc. Furthermore, even if you assume a demisexual person might theoretically have an underlying sexual orientation as well, they will likely never have enough “data points” to know what it is, so that knowledge is socially useless – their demisexuality is much more salient. From a social perspective, what matters most is validating a persons sexual identity. Thus, from a social perspective, it makes sense to include demisexuality in the same category alongside more “gendered orientation”-based sexual identities.

(Note: this relationship between “sexuality” , “sexual orientation”, and “sexual identity” is important. If you consider “sexual orientation” to be merely one small aspect of a greater sexuality/sexual identity, then saying that demisexuality is not a sexual orientation just means it’s a different underlying aspect, and just suggests a terminology change without implying any invalidation. However, when one assumes that “sexual orientation” is the same as “sexual identity” or “sexuality” -as is typically done by most people – then saying that demisexuality isn’t a sexual orientation is seen as invalidating the entire concept of demisexuality, even if that wasn’t what was intended. Because of this, I think it can be usefully to speak of “sexual identity” rather than “sexual orientation” in a social context. Personally, I tend to prefer using “sexual orientation” to refer to the theoretical category and “sexual identity” to refer to the social category to keep things clearer)

However, in asexuality debates, people usually don’t realize that there can be two different ways of looking at things: those who start from a more theoretical perspective get frustrated because they see the social model types seemingly blatantly ignoring how sexual orientation is historically used for specifically for gendered attractions. Those who start from a social perspective get angry because they think the theoretical types are trying to invalidate demisexual identity. However, a more useful solution might be to distinguish between the theoretical and social ways of categorizing demisexuality for different purposes. For example, if proposing an academic model for understanding sexuality, then it would be appropriate to consider demisexuality something in addition to rather than instead of another sexual orientation. But if asking about a persons sexual identity for community demographics, or for asking about anyone’s sexual identity in general, it makes more sense to use a social model and consider demisexuality alongside other sexual orientations. And, much like with culinary vegetable categorizations, while socially including demisexuality as a sexual orientation may seem “illogical” or “inconsistent”, from a social perspective being “right” doesn’t matter – being “useful” matters. And considering demisexuality as a sexual identity for social purposes is indeed useful. Just as a tomato can be both a fruit and not a fruit, demisexuality can be both a sexual orientation and not a sexual orientation.

So basically, it isn’t logically inconsistent to say “Demisexuality is not, theoretically speaking, a sexual orientation like heterosexuality or bisexuality, but it is, socially speaking, a sexual orientation like heterosexuality or bisexuality”. Understanding that scientifically considering demisexuality to be say, a mode of sexuality rather than a sexual orientation per se does not mean invalidating demisexual identity, and that considering demisexuality a sexual identity doesn’t mean ignoring the history of sexual orientations, would help people to actually have productive conversations instead of talking past each other as often happens now.

Just as a tomato can be both a vegetable or a fruit, demisexuality can be both a sexual orientation and not a sexual orientation depending on the purpose and definition.


About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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3 Responses to Categories are Complicated, or: What Tomatoes have to tell us about Demisexuality

  1. Pingback: Linkspam: May 16th, 2014 | The Asexual Agenda

  2. Katter says:

    I know this wasn’t a demisexuality 101 course, but seeing it put in these terms helped me finally feel like I understand what demisexuality is. While I do my best to respect the ways in which people describe their own experiences (just because I don’t always get it doesn’t mean it’s not a real thing), I will admit having felt confusion as to where it fit in discussions and definitions of sexual orientation. This post has really clarified a lot of things for me, so thank you for that.

  3. luvtheheaven says:

    I really like this post. I read it a long time ago but it is still relevant to helping understand the nuances of where demisexuality maybe does or doesn’t fit into discussions of either “How one experiences their sexual attraction” vs. “a sexual orientation in its own right” and how demisexuality, if sort of fitting both, is not the only thing in the world that is complicated to categorize in a very similar manner.

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