Sapiosexuality and Heterosexism

Sapiosexual is a new, up-and-coming word describing attraction to intelligence, or to intelligent people. Although, by itself, it is somewhat problematic, it is a great tool against heterosexism.

(Unless otherwise noted, for the purpose of this article, words describing sexual attraction will assume a concording romantic and sensual attraction.)

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First, I do have some reservations with the word “sapiosexual”. Skip at will, but don’t despair: they may even make its strength.

The focus on “intelligence” in “sapiosexual” is problematic. Intelligence is hard to pinpoint. As an upper-middle-class White girl pursuing higher education, I’m fairly prone to qualifying “intelligence” as something that attracts me, because it’s a very valourized attribute in my universe of experiences. However, what I might call “intelligence” is not necessarily a fair assessment of anything, much less cognitive abilities. We attribute intelligence to people based on many discriminatory criteria that don’t actually mean anything. Someone’s accent, their clothes, their overall behaviour, their complexion, the degrees they have all an effect on whether or not we think someone is intelligent. So basically, what the word may imply is “I’m attracted to White people with conventional clothing and prestigious accents, and some other ill-defined traits”, or something of the sort.

And what happens if intelligence is multidimensional? Different aspects of what psychologists outline as “intelligence” are appreciated as such in the popular view (being great at math is more “intelligent” than being a creative painter, for instance), and some, such as emotional or social intelligence, are probably not what is implied in the word “sapiosexual”.

To go even deeper, what sorts of knowledges or abilities qualify as “intelligence” depends on classism, imperialism and ableism. The first two, because Western knowledges and abilities that are deemed useful to the capitalist system are highly valourized — and really, both form a system here. Ableism, because no matter how intelligent they are, people with disabilities tend to be viewed as unintelligent, and not only people with mental disabilities. And no, the positive judgement of Stephen Hawking is not an exception: the enormous public attention he gets as an important and brilliant astrophysicist (which, on all accounts, he totally is) seems at least partly informed by the “inspiration porn” model, judging from how important his disability is to depict him, which is wrong.

So now that I’ve offered my critiques of the word “sapiosexual”, now is why I think it’s a great move forward to say how great it actually is.

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Almost all the other words we have to describe sexual attraction focus on gender — homo-/heterosexual as the relationship between one’s gender and the object of attraction, andro-/gynephilic as the object of attraction in a male/female binary, bi-/pansexual to describe possible attraction to anyone, no matter their gender, and so on. The only one that doesn’t, asexual, expresses lack of any attraction whatsoever, so yeah.

Sapiosexual goes beyond that. Its great originality is that it moves attraction from someone’s gender to someone’s qualities, to who they are. Yes, pan-/bisexual states that gender is a non-issue, but sapiosexual displaces the issue on the person’s qualities. And that’s major.

That’s why I say it’s a beautiful word. Because why should attraction be about gender only? Indeed, we are attracted to people for a host of reasons not really related to gender, such as attractiveness, common beliefs, or indeed intelligence. Even more, some our criteria are things someone must have for attraction to be possible, or at least sustained enough to create a bond. To take an obvious example, if someone is transphobic, it’s an instant deal breaker for me, and I will be completely incompatible with someone who requires any kind sexual intimacy as part of a relationship.

This idea that “sapiosexual” brings to the table may be used to complexify the other words we have. The kind of femininity desired for a gynephilic person can vary. Some people might want female genitals, because sex is important to them and that’s the part they like. Some people are rather attracted to a kind of gender expression or presentation. Some women might be attracted in women because of a common womanhood, whatever the body or expression. Some will want a combination of all these. And so on. All these possibilities are okay as individual experiences, though they might be problematic if any of them were to define gynephilia as a whole. By separating the attributes that constitute our attraction categories, we might better identify what they imply for us. At the same time, it shows that what “heterosexual” means is highly contingent not only on the person’s own gender, but on their understanding of what gender means in someone else.

Basically, the “man” in “I like men” is as problematic as the “intelligent” in “I like intelligent people”.

What if we created more words for attribute-led attraction, beyond intelligence? I don’t care if they are contingent and subjective categories — “being attracted to men” is as contingent as the others. Being sweet is important for you? What about suavosexual? You like taller or shorter people? You might want to identify as altosexual, or parvosexual. Yes, all these words (sweet, tall, short) are not absolutes, they’re depend on one’s conception of “sweetness” or height, and even one’s own height, and yes, some people will not regard “sweetness” or height as a criterion at all. But the trick here is: The same can be said of gender attraction.

As a target of attraction, the gender categories that words like “homosexual” or “heterosexual” assume are hard to pinpoint — and that’s just what we had said about the “intelligence” category of “sapiosexual”. So why do we all use words such as “homosexual” or “heterosexual” as if they were stone-hard and necessary, so much that people who aren’t gay or straight must justify themselves with words, like bi- or pansexual, that really mean they don’t care? After all, we don’t need to say that we’re not sapiosexual. It’s just assumed until proven otherwise.

By displacing the focus from gender to attributes, we not only deproblematize same-sex attraction, but we challenge gender from being the sole signifier of sexual attraction. We fight both homophobia and biphobia.

And that’s why sapiosexual is a great, subversive word.

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