Policing Asexual Definitions

One thing I really dislike is label policing.  Claiming that one specific definition of an identity is the correct one, and objecting to anybody else who fails to fit it using that label.  Many communities have these sorts of “correct definition” disputes.  But disagreements over the “correct” usage of asexual, aromantic, and sexual and romantic attraction (etc.) seems to crop up in the ace community very often.

As far as I’m concerned, any person is entitled to use whatever label they feel describes them.   This results in many overlapping and conflicting “definitions” of terms, as everybody uses language to talk about their own particular experiences.  And I see no problem in this.  Identity isn’t straight-forward, and there are a lot of gray areas.  Rigid definitions can never include everybody.  And so a certain amount of flexibility is needed in our terminology, if we wish for all aces to have the words to talk about their own asexuality.

There are of cause situations when using a single straight-forward definition is helpful.  In education and awareness-raising activism, it isn’t realistic to convey the nuances of every asexual person’s experience in a short time.  There are also socio-political reasons why one might advocate for a particular definition over another (for example where defining cisgender/trans* has equal rights implications).

But within these, space needs to be left for personal identification.  Even if just a caveat saying that “not all aces use the same definitions” or “there is massive diversity in how different aces experience their asexuality”.

One situation where it may be reasonable to object to somebody else’s definitions is cases of appropriation or where it’s derogatory.  But this isn’t something I’ve seen all that much off when it comes to asexuality.  People really don’t have much to gain from appropriating our language.  And the times I have come across it have frequently been so ill-informed that calling people out on it wouldn’t be controversial.  We’re talking about allosexuals who make offensive “jokes”, trolling, or allosexuals calling themselves asexual because they’re fed up with not getting any sex etc.

But most of the time arguing over correct terminology does far more harm than good.  No doubt those involved in such a disagreement will be convinced that their own language usage is right.  But people witnessing the dispute may very well include people who are unsure of how they identify or what label is correct for them.  Arguments over semantics probably aren’t going to be helpful in figuring their identity.  And might even lead to even more uncertainty or less confidence in calling themselves asexual/aromantic/etc.

This issue is magnified when the dispute is between two activists in public, where many more people will see it (such as the disagreement between thinking asexual and rotten zucchini).  As an activist (or blogger), asserting your own definition of asexual, aromantic, romantic attraction, etc. as being the one correct one, whilst disregarding all other viewpoints, isn’t helpful.  Anybody who doesn’t understand their (a)sexuality or (a)romanticism in the way you’ve framed it is excluded.  At worst it may leave some people feeling their identity or label isn’t valid, or even feel that they don’t belong in the ace or aro communities.

For better and worse, the opinions of activists are heard much more than other asexuals.  This can be useful in increasing visibility and progress in society.  But also means our personal opinions are given more weight than sometimes warranted.  And with that comes a degree of responsibility.  We can’t just disregard those within the community who use a different definition to ourselves.

Debate is generally healthy within the asexual community, but occasionally it is counter-productive.  Trying to generalize something as personal as how we individually define our identities is always going to be a tricky subject, with little benefit.

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4 thoughts on “Policing Asexual Definitions

  1. Pingback: Linkspam: January 9th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

  2. Frankly, I think it would make far more sense to come up with words with strict definitions and come up with more words and descriptive frameworks as needed, if the asexual community were actually interested in all aces having the words to talk about their own asexuality. Or at least agree on word definitions en masse. (That way people might not be under word-umbrellas, but at least they would know where they were.)

    Label-policing is bad, because socio-political communities like the asexual one are more about bringing together people on the basis of similar abnormalities than the exact nature of the similarity as the community perceives it and because it tends to hurt the people who most need support – those who don’t (or don’t quite) fit a commonly accepted definition, but are far from average in relevant ways.

    However, it’s almost always done explicitly by people who feel that their socio-political community is being appropriated from. Which is difficult.

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    • I agree that more descriptive frameworks and words are needed if there’s aces who don’t feel that they fit the common narratives in the community. But I don’t see anyway that the asexual community could agree on strict definitions en masse. We are too large and diverse. And it’s natural to use words in the way that makes sense to your own experiences. Which inevitably leads to disagreements over which definition is the best one.

      Coupled with that, there isn’t a single asexual community. There’s people on AVEN, tumbler, blogs, as well as asexuals who aren’t part of any of these. So I doubt we could ever get to a position where everybody in each of these communities (and outwith) accepts – or has even heard of – a common set of definitions. Regardless of how many specific words we come up with.

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