In the mid-2010s, a new word started showing up on dating profiles. Sapiosexuals defined themselves as being attracted or not attracted to another person based on their intelligence rather than any physical attributes. While the word was originally coined in 1998, it was dating platform OKCupid’s decision to add it as a sexual orientation option that shot it into mainstream use.
In 2015, excellent-surnamed Tinder CEO Sean Rad got mixed up in an interview and had trouble remembering the word. Talking to London’s Evening Standard, he said, “Apparently there’s a term for someone who gets turned on by intellectual stuff. You know, just talking. What’s the word? I want to say ‘sodomy’?” It seems reasonable to assume this didn’t lead to a queue of horny sapiosexuals knocking at his door.
As a concept, sapiosexuality raises unanswerable, existential questions about where intelligence begins and ends. Can you be attracted to someone’s personality without their intelligence playing any part in that, or is it so key to every facet of behavior that it is impossible to detach from the rest of a person? Intelligence is about a lot more than just throwing six-dollar words around – someone making you laugh takes intelligence, someone treating you how they think you want to be treated is exercising emotional intelligence. It’s such an enormous, inherent part of who a person is, and conflating the idea of intelligence to “talks about books” is reductive.
What sapiosexuality, or declaring oneself to be sapiosexual, might be more like is simply finding demonstrations of intelligence to be a turn-on. Confidence is fairly universally agreed upon as an attractive trait in a partner, and in evolutionary terms, people have always been drawn towards intelligent partners – intelligence is one of the ways humans have adapted to survive. Hunting and foraging required intelligence, as did building alliances and communities, finding shelter, and avoiding danger. Every culture has celebrated wisdom in one way or another.
There are plenty of people out there for whom the ability to hold an intelligent conversation is priority Z, and identifying as sapiosexual is a way of differentiating oneself from that. But the word suggests a sexual orientation rather than, well, something you’re into, which is fairly offensive to people who have been persecuted or marginalized for their sexual identities. There is a world of difference between “Connecting with a partner on an intellectual level is really important to me and enhances my attraction to them” and “I am a member of a minority group”. Mark Ronson once “came out” as sapiosexual, then took it back and apologized to any marginalized communities he might have offended.
The Guardian jokingly called it “a pretentious excuse for having an ugly boyfriend with no sense of humor”, while Vice pointed out the iffiness of proclaiming you could never find someone without a college degree attractive and how that is potentially elevating a class preference with sexual orientation. The term has also been criticized as ableist.
A huge part of the appeal of sapiosexuality is surely the self-aggrandizing element inherent in it. It’s a proclamation that you exist on a more profound, meaningful level than those simple people around you obsessed with the contents of each other’s underwear rather than the contents of their minds.
But for the vast majority of people, being attracted to someone is a combination of a whole load of factors that interact and enhance one another – one or two of those factors might just edge the others in terms of importance. And that’s great, knowing your priorities in what you find attractive. But we need a better term for it, one that doesn’t reduce other groups’ struggles by equating itself with them or treat one priority as more worthy than another. Because, ultimately, it’s a turn-on – the brain equivalent of being “an ass man”.