To grasp the full meaning of being sapiosexual, it's key to first understand the difference between a sexual orientation and a sexual identity. Sexual orientations consider culture, sex, and gender presentation, whereas sexual identity focuses on how we move through our sexuality, says Roger Kuhn, PhD, an Indigenous (Poarch Creek) AASECT-certified sex therapist. (Note that in the split attraction model, romantic orientation is also conceived as different from sexual orientation, referring to the kinds of gender(s) with whom you’re interested in sharing love, romance, and emotional intimacy, as opposed to sexual intimacy.)
"There are a lot of similarities across [sexual orientations and identities], and there are a lot of differences, too," says Dr. Kuhn, adding that how a person of any orientation identifies is highly personal. When it comes to sapiosexuality, for instance, "whether you identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bi, pan, or demisexual...[members of] those groups can be sapiosexual," says Dr. Kuhn. "[Sexual identity] is more a recognition of who I'm attracted to within the orientation." (Importantly, neither sexual orientation nor identity should be called a “sexual preference,” which wrongfully implies that holding an LGBTQ+ orientation is voluntary or a choice.)
The meaning of being sapiosexual, according to relationship and sex experts
“‘Sapiosexual’ is a term that refers to an individual being attracted to another individual based on their intellect,” says relationship and dating expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for the dating apps Tinder and Bumble. “This attraction to intellect supersedes their preferences for physical attraction and other characteristics that are deemed important among individuals when evaluating potential romantic partners.”
According to Shamyra Howard, LCSW, a sexologist with sexual-health brand Lovehoney, the meaning of being sapiosexual implies valuing intellect over other traits because that intellect is deemed the most alluring trait. “A sapiosexual is someone who finds intelligence erotic, sexy, and attractive,” she says.
"'Sapiosexual' is a term that refers to an individual being attracted to another individual based on their intellect."—Jess Carbino, PhD, relationship expert
That said, it’s important to point out that intelligence doesn’t have one definition—and a strong intellect can mean plenty more than having high test scores or knowing all the Jeopardy questions, for just a couple of examples. A 2018 study published in the scientific journal Intelligence found that sapiosexuality "appears to be influenced by non-intellective factors," too. Essentially, this means that there’s more to intelligence than IQ. For example, the way that a person deals with their problems and how they treat others may also point to emotional intelligence, which may matter to a sapiosexual person as much as (if not more than) cultural or academic intelligence.
“There are so many different forms of intelligence, [so a sapiosexual] could be attracted to something different in terms of intellect from what we tend to conceptualize in a more academic sense,” says Dr. Carbino.
What it looks like when someone identifies as sapiosexual
“The primary and defining characteristic of being considered a sapiosexual person is related to being attracted to individuals whom they deem intelligent,” says Dr. Carbino. “This attraction to intelligence among sapiosexuals is considered to be the primary and most critical criterion in romantic partner selection.” (Read: If you think someone isn’t intelligent, you’re probably not going to pursue a romantic relationship with that person.)
Again, it's important to point out that the meaning of being sapiosexual rests in the sapiosexual person's subjective measure of intelligence. For instance, let’s say a sapiosexual person is a huge movie buff. If they meet someone who is also a cinephile and enjoys long conversations about film, they may be turned on by this person's cinematic intelligence.
"People who consider themselves sapiosexual determine what intelligence is, and whether that's attractive to them," says Howard. For example, movies might not be something you particularly care about. Instead, you might find it arousing that someone can solve an algebraic equation—and someone else might be attracted to someone who also enjoys their favorite book.
What to know about dating a sapiosexual person
If you’re dating a sapiosexual, chances are, they will be most interested in spending their quality time with you engaged in intellectual endeavors or activities that otherwise stimulate their mind—such as learning a new skill together, watching an informative documentary, or strolling through a museum exhibit on a topic that piques their curiosity.
Demonstrating your interest in these kinds of activities and planning dates around them will go a long way toward gaining a sapiosexual’s affection, as will sparking conversations on topics that warrant debate.
A word of caution? If you’re less interested in connecting intellectually, avoid putting up a faux intellectual front—whether intentionally or subconsciously—just to try to stimulate your sapiosexual partner, says Howard. Because it's likely that your partner will sense the lack of authenticity, overcompensating might damage the intellectual intimacy you've worked to establish, she says. (Furthermore, not presenting yourself authentically does a disservice to you in the relationship, too; in any healthy relationship, you should feel comfortable being yourself.)
Instead, Howard suggests sticking to conversations focused on your mutual interests and showing genuine curiosity in at least some of the activities your sapiosexual partner enjoys. This won’t just serve to turn them on, sexually; it will demonstrate that you’re willing to connect and share your affection with them in the way that they most want to receive it.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Meaning of Being Sapiosexual
How do you know if you’re attracted to intelligence?
If you think you might identify as sapiosexual, Howard suggests you introspect on a few questions: Does your body tingle all over at the thought of having a stimulating conversation with someone? Are you turned on when someone eloquently teaches you something new? Do you find it's easier for you to be sexual with someone who is highly intelligent? If the answer to any (or all) of these questions is “yes,” Howard says you may indeed identify as a sapiosexual person who is sexually attracted to intelligence.
What are the signs of sapiosexuality?
While plenty of people seek out and are attracted to intelligence in a romantic partner, Dr. Carbino says that people who identify as sapiosexual require someone to meet their measure of intelligence to be sexually attracted to them at all. That is, the physical appearance of a person wouldn’t ever be adequate for establishing sexual attraction in someone who is sapiosexual, she says.
Those who are sapiosexual also typically can’t form sexual attraction to a person whose intelligence level they do not know, adds Dr. Carbino. For example, if a sapiosexual person saw someone on the street, they wouldn’t feel any immediate lust for them and would only become sexually attracted to them if they learned that this person had a strong intellect by their standards.
How does sapiosexual differ from demisexual and graysexual?
Because sapiosexuality involves having a requirement for sexual attraction beyond the typical physical or personality-related turn-ons, it’s often grouped with sexual identities that fall along the asexuality spectrum, including graysexuality and demisexuality—but it’s not the same as either.
While sapiosexuals feel exclusively (or primarily) intelligence-based attraction, graysexuals experience very limited sexual attraction at all, with the name referring to the gray area between being fully asexual and fully allosexual (aka experiencing sexual desire).
Demisexuals, by contrast, need to feel a deep emotional bond with someone before either feeling romantic or sexual attraction. “Essentially, people who are demisexual only feel like they’re actually attracted to somebody after they’ve developed a really significant emotional attachment to them, whereas people who are not can feel very sexually attracted to somebody upon first meeting,” says Dr. Carbino. “Sapiosexual, on the other hand, means that you’re only attracted to a person’s intellect, whereas in demisexuality, intellect might not play any part, and it could be a feeling of closeness or intimacy on some other basis [that is the source of attraction].”
Why is calling yourself sapiosexual controversial?
The fact that definitions of intelligence can vary widely has garnered sapiosexuality significant criticism. In some circles, sapiosexuality is considered elitist and ableist because of its perceived reliance on particular Euro-centric intellectual achievements, which may be less accessible to people of different cognitive abilities and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
The aforementioned study on sapiosexuality also found that of those sampled, sapiosexuals tended to be most attracted to people with high IQ scores; intelligence tests have a long and controversial history of being weaponized against racial and ethnic minorities, and have been questioned as an accurate way to assess intelligence in a diverse society because of built-in cultural and racial biases. Thus, any form of sexual attraction rooted in someone’s ability to score well on such an assessment would be ethically murky, too.
That said, Dr. Carbino points out that intelligence can have a more inclusive, expansive definition as it relates to sapiosexuality. “I do think that if you conceive of intelligence in this traditional Euro-centric lens, that would be highly problematic,” she says. “But I also think that sapiosexuality has not been studied widely enough for us to understand the kinds of intelligence metrics that sapiosexuals are using in order to make that generalization.”
After all, the term “sapiosexual” is a relatively recent addition to the cultural zeitgeist, adds Dr. Carbino, noting that she first encountered it in 2014. That was the same year dating platform OkCupid added sapiosexual to its list of personal identifications from which to choose. As sexuality researchers gain a better understanding of how this identity functions, we’ll also be able to further unpack when and how it might manifest in an ethically questionable way.
- Gignac, Gilles E., et al. “Some People Are Attracted Sexually to Intelligence: A Psychometric Evaluation of Sapiosexuality.” Intelligence, vol. 66, no. January-February, 2018, pp. 98-111, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2017.11.009. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023.
- Hudson, J. Blaine. “Scientific Racism: The Politics of Tests, Race and Genetics.” The Black Scholar, vol. 25, no. 1, 1995, pp. 3–10. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41068539. Accessed 13 Sept. 2023.
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