Written by Jessie Sage, originally published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
Several years ago, I had a brief, albeit steamy, romance with a man I met on OkCupid. At the time, he was writing a dissertation on religious symbolism in medieval Europe. After several days of texts exclusively about our research interests, I invited him over. When I opened the door, he lifted me onto the nearby kitchen counter where we had sex, without so much as a hello. He didn’t have to ask; we both knew that our nerdy banter was foreplay. And damn, was it good foreplay.
To be real, most of my sexual relationships have started this way. I’m a sucker for people who can talk about their interests with passion and who want to engage mine as well. (While this person happened to be an academic, I’ve had similarly strong connections with folks with wildly different backgrounds.) In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am unlikely to be sexually interested at all unless this dynamic is present. For this reason, when sapiosexuality — a term used to describe people who are sexually attracted to intelligence — started to gain popularity, it made a lot of sense to me.
Yet, sapiosexuality has recently come under attack, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, by those who have argued that choosing to identify as sapiosexual is ableist and classist. After all, isn’t claiming to be drawn to intelligence in a partner just the inverse of saying you reject people on the basis of natural ability (ableism) or educational circumstance (classism)? Isn’t this a form of discrimination?
Such criticisms would be on point if, and this is a big if, those who identify with sapiosexuality understood it to be about characteristics of potential partners as opposed to the kinds of interactions that make them hot. In other words, it assumes that sapiosexuals are dividing up potential partners into two categories: intelligent people and unintelligent people, and that these categories correspond to how desirable someone is.
Rather than assuming that sapiosexuals are looking for partners who clear a certain intellectual bar (as if everyone is turned on by the same kind of intelligence), it seems more fair to say that they are interested in partners who have passions and interests that overlap with their own, thus creating the conditions for engaging conversation and intellectual connection. The sorts of interactions that spark this connection may vary from partner to partner given that partner’s interests, one’s own, and the intersection of the two.
In this sense, sapiosexuality is more about how you want to relate to a partner, what sort of interactions turn you on, and what sort of communication style you find sexy, than a partner’s IQ. Identifying as sapiosexual is more about asserting what turns you on than it is about eliminating partners that don’t measure up. You can, after all, have an intellectual connection with a variety of people, and an Ivy League pedigree doesn’t make someone intrinsically more interesting to talk to or have sex with.
Perhaps what we need to criticize isn’t sapiosexuality itself, but people who (mis-)use the term to justify their own prejudices. There is nothing inherently problematic about the desire to have an intellectual connection with your sexual partners. And terms like sapiosexual, while not necessary, do help many people to better articulate those desires. It is worth pointing out that this term emerged in tandem with dating sites (it is attributed to OKCupid) and, probably more than anything else, is about signaling how you want a date to go. It can serve as a shorthand, for example, to things like, “small talk is boring/alienating to me,” “physical attraction isn’t enough,” and, “I want to talk passionately about something and carry that passion into the bedroom.”
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).