A question begged, in asexual and demisexual vis-ed
I have been involved in demisexual visibility work on Tumblr for some time, to the point of making charts to explain it:
I included the note in the corner because when talking about demisexuality, I have frequently had to explain that demisexuality is a different phenomenon from preferring to get to know someone before having sex.* In order to demonstrate this, it is necessary to give examples of situations where a person is experiencing sexual attraction without willingness to have sex, and vice versa.
A person might be sexually attracted to another person but unwilling to have sex with them for any multitude of reasons: sex repulsion, a history of sexual abuse, and medical problems that cause pain during sex (e.g. vaginismus) are only a few. Likewise, it is possible to be willing to have sex in the absense of sexual attraction. Though sex repulsion is very common among asexuals, it is not unheard-of for a non-sex-repulsed asexual person with a non-asexual partner to occasionally be willing to have sex with the partner.** Additionally, it is unrealistic to assume that a person who willingly chooses sex work is sexually attracted to all their clients.
In drawing attention to that sexual attraction refers to something different from willingness to have sex, these conversations about demisexuality beg the question of what sexual attraction actually is. I don’t have an answer to that question. Although asexual-spectrum visiblity and education efforts have made it clearer what sexual attraction is not, the definition of sexual attraction has still eluded us. But I think that pointing out things sexual attraction is not—it’s neither sexual arousal nor willingness to have sex—is a step in the right direction, though indirect. When such things as sexual attraction are often described as “you know it when you feel it,” I think it means we have to be indirect.
* Another way to respond to this argument about demisexuality is to point out that when a non-asexual-spectrum person states such a preference, the person is saying that sexual attraction by itself is not sufficient for them to be willing to have sex with the person, and thus that they are already experiencing sexual attraction, and by definition not demisexual. While this can be a satisfying answer for the purposes of visibility, it still begs the question.
** It is worth noting that this behavior should not be interpreted as common or expected among asexuals without sex repulsion. Expecting sex from an asexual person just because you’ve heard that some asexuals are sometimes willing to have sex is abusive behavior.