Sapiosexual Seeks Same: A New Lexicon Enters Online Dating Mainstream | KERA News

Sapiosexual Seeks Same: A New Lexicon Enters Online Dating Mainstream

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on February 4, 2015 11:25 pm

This post was updated at 11:10 a.m. ET for clarity.

How would you — or do you — identify on online dating sites? Gay? Straight? Bisexual? Well you're about to have many more options on OkCupid, one of the most popular sites for people seeking love and connection.

OkCupid has about 4 million users, and within the next few weeks the site will give all of them brand-new options for specifying their gender and sexual orientation — options like androgynous, asexual, genderqueer and questioning.

"Young people like the idea of fluidity," says psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams. He runs Cornell University's Sex and Gender Lab and studies identity and relationships. He says young people are far more likely to look beyond gender binaries and see sexual orientation on a continuum.

"I think the new categories are pretty great," says a 21-year-old TJ. That's the name on his OkCupid profile. TJ has checked off OkCupid's boxes for straight and male because those are closest to how he sees himself. But with the new options, TJ says he'll probably identify as trans man, transsexual and transmasculine, meaning he's a masculine man born biologically female. He also plans to update his sexual orientation to queer and heteroflexible, which means he mostly goes for girls — with exceptions. (Right now, all of those terms are in TJ's written profile. That's been the only space users have had to express more nuanced gender and sexual identity.)

Mike Maxim, chief technology officer at OkCupid, says the dating site wasn't originally designed to handle dozens of terms and hundreds of variables. "The site was definitely constructed around, you know, just men and then women; and, you know, men ... looking for women."

And of course women looking for men. Some of these new identifiers won't appeal to a huge market, but Maxim says why leave people out? And why not add a little cutting-edge cachet by helping to bring a new lexicon into the mainstream? Still, adding so many new terms was a technical challenge.

"That was probably the primary reason we haven't done this earlier," Maxim says. "You know, this has been a feature that's been requested now for, I don't know, years."

And OkCupid isn't alone. Earlier this year, Facebook added more than 50 new terms for selecting gender identity. But terms can fall in and out of fashion. Savin-Williams notes that "bicurious," which used to be a fairly commonplace identifier on dating sites, is now considered uncool. And he hears new vocabulary all the time, like while teaching a gender and identity workshop at a high school.

"One young woman defined herself as 'squiggly,' " he says. "And there was silence and everyone was saying, 'What exactly is that?' And then she said, 'Well, I feel like that's what I am in terms of my gender and sexuality. I'm squiggly.' A lot of people began to shake their heads and said, 'Yeah, that's pretty good. I feel that way too.' "

OkCupid doesn't currently plan to add squiggly to any of its categories, but single NPR fans, please take note: Apparently, sapiosexual, which refers to people who are attracted to intelligence, is one of its most popular new terms.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Online dating means checking boxes, defining who you are and, in turn, whom you hope to attract. And one of the most popular sites for people seeking relationships is about to add many more categories. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: OkCupid has about 4 million users and within the next few weeks the site will give them brand new options for specifying their gender and sexual orientation, including androgynous, asexual, genderqueer and questioning. And why not, says psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams. He studies identity and relationships.

RITCH SAVIN-WILLIAMS: Young people like the idea of fluidity.

ULABY: And they're far more apt, he says, to look beyond gender binaries and see sexual orientation on a continuum.

TJ: I think the new categories are pretty great.

ULABY: This 21-year-old goes by TJ on his OkCupid profile. Right now, he's categorized himself as straight, male and single, but with the new options...

TJ: I would probably say trans man, transsexual and transmasculine.

ULABY: Trans man, transsexual and transmasculine, meaning TJ's a man born biologically female who identifies as masculine. All of these words are part of TJ's written profile, the part where he self-describes, not the boxes he's asked to check. He's also planning to update his sexual orientation when other new options are added.

TJ: I would probably say queer, I guess - heteroflexible.

ULABY: Heteroflexible, meaning he mostly goes for girls, with exceptions. Mike Maxim is OkCupid's chief technology officer. He says the dating site was not originally designed to handle dozens of terms and hundreds of variables.

MIKE MAXIM: The site was definitely constructed around, you know, just men and then women, and, you know, men are looking women.

ULABY: And, of course, women looking for men. Some of these new identifiers would not seem to bring a huge market with them, but, says Maxim, why leave people out? And why not add a little cutting-edge cachet by helping to bring a new lexicon into the mainstream? Still, adding so many new terms, he says, was a technical challenge.

MAXIM: In fact, that was probably the primary reason we haven't done this earlier. You know, this has been a feature that's been requested now for, I don't know, years.

ULABY: The company picked which new terms to add by looking at the most popular ones in people's written profiles. That turned out to be words like pansexual, bigender, even sapiosexual.

MAXIM: And using that data we were actually able to come up with a fairly good list.

ULABY: OK - sapiosexual.

MAXIM: (Laughter) Right, yeah, I mean, I guess there's a lot of comments on that one.

ULABY: Sapiosexuals, it seems, are attracted to smart people. Words go in and out of fashion when it comes to identifying yourself, says Professor Ritch Savin-Williams.

SAVIN-WILLIAMS: I can remember only several years ago a lot of people were identifying as bi-curious.

ULABY: Now a deeply uncool word that, he notes, is not one of the new options. Earlier this year, Facebook added more than 50 new terms for users to select their gender identity, and that might not be enough. Not long ago, Ritch Savin-Williams was teaching a gender and identity workshop at a high school.

SAVIN-WILLIAMS: And one young woman defined herself as squiggly. And there was silence, and everyone was saying what exactly is that? And then she said, well, I feel like that's what I am in terms of my gender and sexuality. I'm squiggly. A lot of people began to shake their heads and said yeah, that's pretty good. I feel that way, too.

ULABY: OkCupid does not currently plan to add squiggly to any of its categories. But single NPR listeners, take note - apparently in beta testing, sapiosexual is one of its most popular new terms. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.