Welcome to All This Nothing, a new column on Gawker Review of Books that explores how we talk, text, and write about love, loss, and desire in the digital age.
The first time I’d ever seen the word “sapiosexual” was on Tinder. It had become quite popular as a descriptor on many women’s profile pages—not quite as ubiquitous as the vaguely suggestive yoga pose photo or the guess-which-one-I-am group shot but common enough for me to notice and wonder if I was it. The word was often accompanied by an intimidating reading list, a double-digit tally of exotic countries visited, or as many deeply-held political beliefs as can be enunciated in five hundred characters. Turns out, it is widely deployed by both men and women. Over five thousand OKCupid users list “sapiosexuality” among their interests. Search the popular kink community website Fetlife, and you’ll find a half dozen groups with names like “Sapiosexual Vampires” and “Sapiosexuals of New England (a.k.a. Brains are Hot!).”
In parsing this trending term, I figured I first had to distinguish it from—or place it among—all the other Latin-based and clinical-sounding divisions along the sexuality spectrum. So, I started calling around. “There’s no such thing as a bisexual act,” said Dr. Shara Sands, an associate professor and practicing psychologist in New York City. “You’re either having sex with someone of this gender or that gender, but sex acts are sex acts.” It was at about this moment in the telephone conversation that I began to feel like my curiosity had gotten me in over my head. When I pitched this column, it was with the intention of investigating and writing about how we write, chat, and post about relationships. I hadn’t even completed researching my first installment on sapiosexuals and already I was running into trouble with the language.
Merriam-Webster’s has yet to acknowledge the neologism at all. But Wiktionary defines a sapiosexual as a “person sexually attracted to intelligence or the human mind.” My first reaction to reading this was that it was essentially pointless and redundant rhetoric if not complete horse shit. Collins’ online dictionary offers a slightly more flexible definition of the word: “One who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature.”
In this case, I suppose, the most strident and devoted boob man might insist on being excluded from the categorization. But other than such a purist, who among us, given the chance to petition Santa for any romantic partner under the sun, isn’t a sapiosexual at heart? At the risk of sounding like a snob, don’t we all want to connect with someone at least as smart as us, someone who can keep up? Certainly, there are those sincerely hoping to saddle up with one of 30 Rock’s infamous sex idiots. But I would think DTF as a craving is the relative anomaly, not Someone I Can Talk To (SICTT).
I set out to uncover why so many swipers and likers suddenly felt the urge to declare their desire so explicitly and was pleased to immediately find those in the scientific community supportive of my cynicism.
“It’s sort of the hip profile term,” said Dr. Wendy Walsh, Psy.D, “But it’s mostly designed to showcase the intelligence of the owner.” Walsh, a popular television personality and published author on the subject of relationships, had to remind me of the obvious: A dating profile, intentionally or otherwise, speaks more about what a person wants people to believe about that person than what they themselves want.
It’s true, I suppose. My own OKCupid profile, under the heading “You should message me if,” it reads “you make things.” (Sometimes my own pretension makes me wince.) “If people use big words,” said Walsh, “We think they’re smart, right? So, they use a word that nobody understands. In fact, one person wrote in his Tinder profile, ‘I’m a sapiosexual,’ and then he writes, ‘Look it up.’ It’s like saying, I’m smarter than you.”
Traditionally, historically, anthropologically, men, in particular, have always tried to showcase their intelligence as a way of demonstrating to women their value as a provider. “If it is a harsh winter,” says Walsh, “If there are no wooly mammoths, if the stock market crashes, this guy better be smart enough to figure out how we can all survive.”
Sex therapist Chris Donaghue maintains that labeling yourself a sapiosexual is a lazy, limiting, and potentially detrimental marketing ploy. “Attraction and chemistry happen on psychological and physical levels,” he said. “It’s just not realistic to think that one is going to ignore physical attraction or lack thereof due to an intensive psychological attraction—as though that intellectual interest overpowers everything else. At some point, [couples] end up in my office: Great conversation. No physical attraction. No sexual chemistry.”
There are those who find the notion of sapiosexuality not only shortsighted but discriminatory—particularly ableist. The argument goes like this: By desiring only the, um, intellectually well-endowed, so-called sapiosexuals are somehow rejecting the intellectually and developmentally disabled. This logic is, at best, flawed if not deeply problematic in its own right since it implies that the developmentally disabled possess no form of classifiable or viable intelligence—or that there is any such thing as universally understood intelligence.
“I have a partner who is learning disabled and gets certain concepts confused,” Dr. Sands told me. “I’m much more intellectual than she is, but she’s so smart and funny and creative and thoughtful. She’s incredibly intelligent. She just presents with a different kind of intelligence than my intelligence. I’m sure If we took IQ tests, I’d outrank her greatly, but that’s not actually what matters.”
Here’s where it gets murky: Dr. Sands, who was recommended to me by a representative of The American Psychological Association, believes sapiosexual to be a sexual identity like bisexual or transgender, not a sexual orientation. “I think of sexual orientation as activity,” she explained, “’This is who I like to have sex with.’ And I think of identity as ‘This is who I am in the world.’” Chuckling on the end of the line she adds, “You can’t really have a sapiosexual act. I mean, what would that look like?”
But according to the APA website, bisexuality is one of the three-ish sexual orientations recognized by the organization: heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality and sometimes y(asexuality). Furthermore, the site describes sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes,” which is sort of the opposite of how Dr. Sands defines it.
I don’t point this out to highlight dissension in the ranks of the medical establishment so much as to acknowledge this: The more open and accepting we become of differing sexualities, the more complicated the permutations become and the more the language around them becomes fluid. As a writer, I love words and specificity, and—sorry Tinder-ers—I don’t believe “sapiosexuality” merits the distinction of either sexual identity or sexual orientation. It seems like more of a preference—an impractical and narrow one at that. But, so what? In setting out to discredit the term, I was needlessly denying a method by which people find compatibility and each other. One can always choose his or her words more carefully, but maybe the lesson here is: whatever works.
My good friend Matt is a film producer, married eleven years, and jointly in possession of two mind-numbingly adorable children. Back in the day, though, he was an aspiring novelist, and I’m still waiting for a peek at the unfinished manuscript that he obsessed over in his twenties. I told him I was trying to write about sapiosexuality, and he laughed. “That’s the only reason I have a pretty wife,” he said, in his typically self-effacing Matt kind of way. “I like books and she found that out.”
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]
“The odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something. But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.” —from You’ve Got Mail