New words with the suffix “-sexual” are like catnip for trendy straight people.
In the late ’90s and early aughts, we collectively endured the “metrosexual,” a completely unnecessary term for a man who shaves and dares to have a few pastels in his wardrobe. And in the past year, we have watched the rise and fall of the “lumbersexual,” a completely unnecessary term for a man who doesn’t shave and wears flannel.
Enter the “sapiosexual,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “one who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature.” Can we please skip this one?
Unfortunately, we might not get that lucky. What was once a quirky piece of Internet lingo is starting to gain legitimate cultural traction. Most recently, “sapiosexual”—from “sapiens,” the Latin word for wise—received the official imprimatur of OKCupid, which added a new set of gender and sexual orientation options late last year.
NPR reports that it has since become one of the site’s “most popular new terms.” God help us all, the sapiosexual could be here to stay.
The history of “sapiosexuality” is as unclear as its legitimacy. LiveJournal user wolfieboy claims to have invented the term “while on too little sleep driving up from SF in the summer of ’98.” For wolfieboy, being a sapiosexual means that he wants “an incisive, inquisitive, insightful, irreverent mind” irrespective of gender but he notes that the term is open to wider interpretation.
Apparently “bisexual guy who’s into smart people” was too many syllables for him to not invent a bogus sexual orientation instead.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes.” These patterns of attraction, they further note, are cross-cultural, exist on a “continuum” and can give rise to a “sense of identity” or “community.”
In every scientific and sociological sense of the term, sapiosexuality is not a sexual orientation. A person who likes writers is not a scribosexual, a person who likes lawyers is not a jurosexual, and a person who loudly proclaims that they only date smart people might be dangerously full of themselves, but they’re not a “sapiosexual.”
Almost all of OKCupid’s new options fall in line with the APA’s notion of a continuum of orientations except for the lone “sapiosexual.” “Heteroflexible” and “homoflexible” cater to straight and gay people who might be open to some same-sex and opposite-sex action, respectively. “Pansexual”—from the Greek term for “all”—is for those attracted to people of any gender.
Even asexuality has given rise to a shared sense of identity or community on the Asexuality Visibility & Education Network (AVEN) and other Internet message boards although its status as a sexual orientation is still under debate in psychological circles.
But sapiosexuality neither describes the gender(s) to which you are attracted to nor does it form the basis of any meaningful community—unless you count a Facebook group that posts lots of grammar memes.
Instead, “sapiosexual” seems to circulate primarily as a layer of pretension on top of a more traditional sexual identity. It’s a sexual orientation for people who think that they’re too smart to have a sexual orientation.
While some users who list “sapiosexual” as their orientation on OKCupid say that they are looking for “everyone,” for example, most specify a preferred gender or select an additional sexual orientation option. Many are simply straight. In other words, it would be just as easy to write “... you are smart” under the standard “You should message me if ...” profile question as it would be to self-label as sapiosexual.
At worst, “sapiosexual” reinforces damaging traditional notions of what it means to be intelligent at a time when advocacy around neurodiversity is reaching the mainstream. In fact, the Tumblr community—so renowned for its sexual diversity that the White House selected it for an LGBT Q&A—is largely hostile to the notion of sapiosexuality, saying that it promotes discrimination on the basis of ability and class.
When even Tumblr doesn’t recognize your sexual orientation, you’ve got a problem.
Critics on women’s sites like xoJane and Bustle are less concerned with the politically problematic aspects of the label than they are with its obnoxiousness as a new dating buzzword.
“My cynical suspicion is that most sapiosexuals are generally defining intelligence as owning a copy of Infinite Jest, not owning a television, and generally feeling just a little bit superior to the rest of the world,” writes Emily McCombs at xoJane.
But the worst thing about sapiosexuality might be that it is redundant when smart is already considered sexy. Idioms like “the brain is the largest sex organ” aren’t aspirational or baseless—intelligence already enjoys a privileged place in our erotic economy.
Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that men and women place a premium intelligence when seeking a partner. In one review, three sociologists review the results of a mate selection survey that has been in use since the 1930s and conclude that “[t]he conjoined characteristics of ‘education and intelligence’ ... rank highly among men and women” across its history.
We don’t need a special word—especially one modeled after minority identity labels like “homosexual” and “bisexual”—to describe a completely normative facet of human attraction. In the modern world, identifying as sapiosexual has about as much semantic utility as claiming that you are kind-sexual, dependable-sexual, or rich-sexual.
But the people who use the term obviously intend it to have some sort of communicative value. A quick browse through OKCupid users who identify as sapiosexual in the New York area, for example, reveals some common themes: they’re young, they’re atheists, they live in Brooklyn, they list philosophical and theoretical texts as their favorite books. If you didn’t know what “sapiosexual” meant before browsing their profiles, you might conclude that it’s a term for the sort of educated millenial that you’d find in a coffee shop on a weekday afternoon.
But even if it accurately describes a type of person, “sapiosexual” has no place being listed as a sexual orientation on one of the world’s premier dating websites. As we did with the metrosexual and the lumbersexual, it’s time to throw the sapiosexual in the bin.
For a sexual preference defined by attraction to intelligence, sapiosexuality sure is stupid.