See, I have dozens of circles of people I interact with on social media who––while there might be one or two examples of cross-pollination––do not generally interact with each other. There are social issues conscious circles and OTHER social justice issues conscious circles and friends and people who follow me as a writer and people I game with and people I used to work with or went to high school with (you know, who didn't turn out to be total unrepentant racists). So I see a lot of conversations evolve among one group that AREN'T EVEN HAPPENING in others.
Like the conversation about "sapiosexual."
Among one group of friends, this word has been the focus of considerable scrutiny and criticism for about the last five years. They have unpacked and deconstructed it extensively. It starts as a lovely thought: that one is attracted only to people's minds and not their bodies. But interrogating that "I like brains" impulse often turns up some underlying biases, many that are probably unintended.
- These folks have considered the ways in which we often talk not really about intelligence itself, but what our culture considers to be valuable. Howard Gardner describes eight types of intelligence (Naturalist, Musical, Logical-mathematical, Interpersonal, Bodily-kinesthetic, Linguistic, Intra-personal, Spatial*) of which two, perhaps three get counted within our culture as counting towards the label of "smart." Probably athletes with phenomenal, near-preternatural levels of spatial and kinesthetic and intrapersonal intelligence are not who gets deemed "smart" even though those folks have JUST as many neurons firing upstairs as someone with a sophisticated vocabulary and a working understanding of computer programming languages. [*Note: Some sources add a ninth––Existential––but Gardner stops at eight.]
- They point out that the way we test for intelligence is ethnocentric and assumes a white cultural background. This has been shown in several studies of its pervasive methodological flaws. To this day, IQ tests privilege white people of higher wealth backgrounds.
- They consider why we place such a high premium on linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligence. Essentially verbal and mathematical are the only "aptitudes" early education is interested in, and even by college there's not much difference.
- Beyond that, they consider the ways in which the ways the outward expressions of said "intelligence" is far more often linked to education, which makes it a little bit classist, and a formal academic dialect of the language, which often makes it racist as well.
- At this point these folks see "intelligence" (as usually valued by a self-identified sapiosexual) as looking a lot more like a middle-class or higher upbringing and a set of cultural values that matches up with whiteness.
- And these folks point out that even if intelligence were better measured and understood and disproportionate values not placed on linguistic and logical/mathematical by academia, bragging about how one's attraction would not be inclusive of folks with processing or learning disorders that affect performance in these areas wouldn't be, in a manner of speaking, cool. Sort of like the intellectual equivalent of announcing proudly that you'll never date someone with a BMI over 22.
- So it kind of lands as usually classist, often racist, and definitely ableist.
For five years this group has been kicking around this discussion, crystallizing their thoughts, solidifying their resolve around how problematic the word is, and calcifying their initial reactions to seeing or hearing it in the wild. Though a few at the outset were like "wait, but what if we like brains?" and we talked about it gently (way back then), in the ensuing five years, the hegemonic view has been to take a pretty dim view of people who use the word unironically to describe themselves.
"He's a 'sapiosexual'," one friend says.
We all know what they mean and begin to shake our heads. "Damn shame."
Most of my other circles of friends have not even been exposed to this discussion, and certainly not over five years. They find "sapiosexual" a good word to describe how they are romantically/sexually attracted to people's minds irrespective of their body shape. They like the word. They cheerfully say "It me!" when they read about it. You can pick it as a sexuality on OKCupid. The Guardian just did a big article all about it. Some folks even want to be recognized under the GSM umbrella.
These are also folks who write and discuss social issues and care about unpacking privilege and calling out bigotry. They go to the mat with bigots of every stripe. They are also people who care about social hierarchies. They call out unexamined privilege. They are also intersectional feminists. They are also people who consider ableism and its harm without dismissing it outright. They just.....didn't get that memo.
When the groups cross-pollinate in some way, and "sapiosexual" comes up, there are usually a lot of hurt feelings. Mostly because it's human nature to assume everyone is starting from the same core assumptions. One group is frustrated at having the same conversation for five years running and having to start completely over (again), and if they can't blow through the entire five years of dialogue in a snippy comment or two, clearly the other party just doesn't care about the impact. The other is trying to handle the fact that they've been told they're being terrible (possibly in a pretty combative way) about something they consider utterly innocuous, and not given more than a single interaction to digest five years worth of introspection. (Even my super condensed summation was six bullet points.) A lot of shortcuts get taken in the explanations that in the thick of an argument can make it sound a lot more like it's not okay to be attracted to who one is attracted to––which of course stands in stark opposition to an entire system of values when it comes to anti-bigotry around sexuality. Sometimes intentions are assumed and the best faith is abandoned.
It's not that one group cares and the other doesn't. It's just a case of divergent linguistic evolution. One group had a five-year conversation. They learned to see "sapiosexual" as a watchword. The other group wasn't there. They were off getting gelato at the local freezery They don't see the problem. And while they might not need five years to be convinced to just use "not that into looks," probably wouldn't get it in one flame war and will at least think the first couple of people they run into are being oversensitive. Plus, sometimes, even people who are trying to be social advocates for other groups don't always tap their patience, take the time, slow down, and explain even the highlight reel before going on the attack.
And of course it would be unfair to not acknowledge that this swings the other way too. Sometimes people won't listen no matter how gently they are told. No amount of patience is enough. Being in any way problematic is bad, and they aren't "bad," so this is clearly a case of oversensitivity donchaknow. Sometimes people won't listen UNTIL someone gets angry and they realize that social censure is going to be the consequence for their behavior. They are mixed in with the people who care, and there are no special glasses to tell one group from the other. Life is a spectrum and "total inconsiderate asshole" IS at one end––always.
So it gets pretty messy. And I don't have the answers. But it's exactly the sort of shit I stare at the ceiling and think of at night.
I don't have some didactic take home for this. Or for the the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of situations like it ranging from some on-the-edge case of cultural appropriation, the understanding that a word or phrase is AAVE, to a particular manifestation of casual ableism, to some celebrity's canceled status. I'm more a "better safe than sorry" type myself, but who even knows what memos I haven't gotten.
If I did have a take home, it would be entirely too finger-waggy for some and too mealy-mouthed for others. (Personally, I do a lot of sliding into people's inboxes with a "Danger, Will Robinson!" routine about what they're about to step in.) But it strikes me that sometimes the subcultures and even social circles we are in create "shibboleths" with which we can sometimes be the very gatekeepers we hope to see fewer of in the world.
And so, I think about the word "sapiosexual" a lot.