Sunday, August 31, 2008

What's in a name?

So, I've decided to change the name of my blog. I'm generally not all that good at coming up with names, and when I decided to start a blog about asexuality, of course, I needed to think of one. To illustrate how utterly bad I am at this, I'll confess, with some embarrassment, the first name I had made up: "Asexuality and Stuff." (Ever wonder why my url is Now you know.) For reasons now beyond even my own comprehension, I really liked the name, probably because, for reasons equally inexplicable, I have long had a peculiar affinity to the word "stuff," and this more or less did sum up, in a way, the topic I would be writing about. After I managed to convince myself to change the name, the best I could come up with was "Musings on an Asexy Theme."

But now I don't really like that name anymore, so I've decided to change it to "Asexual Explorations." I'm not entirely sure why I like the name, but I do. It seems to fit the subject of the blog since I am attempting to explore themes related to asexuality and give voice to my own story and my own thoughts and feelings. My new title reminds me of a college algebra book that I sort of but not really taught from (we had a text book that we ignored and there was a course packed that we used instead.) Anyway, the book was called Explorations in College Algebra , and on the cover it had a picture of one of the authors scuba diving amidst beautiful underwater scenery (which I could never figure out how it was related to anything I taught in the class,) but it suggesting that the topic was wondrous, exciting, and fascinating. I don't think any of my students were fooled. Likewise I want to suggest that my blog is bold, daring, and opens up a whole new perspective on the world, when in reality I'm writing about the oh-so-titillating subject of not having sex.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Asexuality and Celibacy: Part 2

In my last post, I argued that the insistence on sharply differentiating asexuality and celibacy has, so far, been an important part in asexual identity politics. Asexuals have insisted that asexuality is different from celibacy because unlike asexuality, celibacy is a choice. In that post, I called into question the prudence of making such a strong distinction.

In this striving for legitimacy, asexuality is in a rather odd position of simultaneously needing to expand and contract its definition. There are those who find it strange that people who form romantic relationships/like cuddling/masturbate etc. could be asexual. In insisting that asexuals are people who do not experience sexual attraction, there is a conscious attempt to include people whose experience includes other things generally associated with sexuality—asexuality is about lack sexual attraction, not lack of sexual (or “sexual”) behavior. To maximize this inclusivity, the collective identity model of asexuality defines an asexual as someone who calls themself asexual. This functions as the basis for the advice often given to newcomers asking “Am I asexual?” They are told, “Only you can decide if you’re asexual. No one can decide it for you.” This is also the basis of the taboo against telling people that they aren’t asexual.

However, this taboo is not intended to be universally applied, and the insistence on separating asexuality from celibacy makes this clear. Suppose a person who does experience sexual attraction but has decided to become celibate describes this decision by saying, “I’ve decided to become asexual,” I expect many asexuals—including those who follow the taboo against telling people that they’re not asexual—would let that person know (or at least want to) that they’re not asexual; they’re celibate. Asexuality, they will inform the celibate person, is a sexual orientation, unlike celibacy, which is a choice.

Because of the insistence that asexuality is a sexual orientation—and thus not a matter of choice—there is a felt need to separate asexuality from celibacy. In one direction, the definition of asexuality is expanded to include people who don’t experience sexual attraction but who do experience/do things generally associated with sexuality. In the other direction, there is an attempt to narrow the definition of asexuality to exclude people who don’t have sex, but do feel sexual attraction. A broad definition is wanted for the sake of inclusivity and avoiding asexual elitism. A narrow definition is wanted in order to maintain the insistence that asexuality is unchosen and thus a sexual orientation.

While this distinction with celibacy makes sense, one problem with it is the fact that asexuality, in some sense, is chosen. As a sexual orientation, it isn't, but as a social identity, it is. This is reflected in the AVEN general FAQ. In response to the first question, “Am I asexual,” it states “The definition of asexuality is ‘someone who does not experience sexual attraction.’ However, only you can decide which label best suits you. Reading this FAQ and the rest of the material on this site may help you decide whether or not you are asexual. If you find that the asexual label best describes you, you may choose to identify as asexual” (emphasis mine). Decision and choice are involved—not a decision not to experience sexual attraction, but decisions about what to do in response to not feeling sexual attraction and how to socially identify.

Over the summer I have had some very good discussions about some of these issues in correspondences I’ve had with Eunjung Kim, who is engaged in research on asexuality. One of the issues we discussed is the relationship between asexuality and celibacy. One point she made really stood out to me: she recognizes that asexuality and celibacy are conceptually distinct--they deal with different dimensions, one with desire and the other with behavior--but she is wary of the distancing strategy that asexuals often employ as part of asexual identity politics. One of the main reasons for this is that while the categories are conceptually distinct, there is a lot of overlap between asexuals and celibates. Also, this distancing strategy potentially buys into celibacy devaluing assumptions, and it attempts to distance asexuals from celibates under the assumption that celibacy (not practicing any sexual activities) only applies to sexual people.

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially the idea of a distancing strategy and problems with such approaches. It helped me to make sense of the wary attitude I had already had towards this sharp distinction and find categories to think about this issue with. It also forced me to think about the relationship between asexuality and celibacy, and the this post and the last are of part of my attempt to think through this issue. It seems that three main questions are raised: What is celibacy? What is the relationship between asexuality and celibacy? What can be done to further dialogue between asexuals and celibates? These are questions that probably will be discussed for a long time to come, and I feel that all I have are a few initial thoughts.

What can be done to further dialogue between asexuals and celibates? At this point I have to confess that I know very little about celibacy. Based on my own life story, I feel like I should know more about it than I do. Most of my reading on the subject when I was younger consisted of biblical commentaries, and after finding that these didn’t help me make sense of my own experience, I stopped reading about the passages that seemed to be about celibacy. However, these texts did help me feel that I didn’t need to be pressured to go get married because not getting married was a perfectly legitimate option (I do hope to get married, but I felt that this took a lot of the pressure off because it wasn’t something I had to do.) Since identifying as asexual A History of Celibacy has been somewhere in my room on my to-read list, but I haven’t gotten very far yet. Of course, another source of information would be the internet.

Some dialogue between asexuals and celibates already exists. In addition to whatever is done on a personal level, sometimes celibate people post on AVEN and this creates interesting discussion. In the November 2007 issue of AVENues, the bimonthly newsletter of AVEN, there was an article by Robyn Y. Demby, a celibate woman, in which she discussed similarities between asexuality and celibacy. One quote about watching TV spots on asexuality stands out: “I noticed that before each interview began, the difference between celibacy and asexuality was made clear. Even so, as a 40-year old woman who has been celibate for years, I find two important similarities between asexuality and celibacy: We realize that sex is not a need and we know that we can live happy, healthy lives without it. ” One important theme of the blog/podcast Love from the Asexual Underground is relationships, and particularly relationships in a context that disidentifies with sexuality and the understanding of relationships associated with that. Celibates must deal with similar issues.

Despite the distancing strategy used by asexuals, there is one place where asexuality and celibacy readily connected: internet dating sites. Celibate Passions is a "100% free online dating & social networking site specifically for celibate singles looking for platonic relationships. " If you choose "browse by group," you will find a variety of constituencies interested in such relationships. The first (alphabetically) is "asexual." Also included are a variety of types of celibacy, including involuntary, medical, religious, voluntary, life-long, as well as a variety of types of people wanting to not have sex before marriage and some other groups too.

A similar site is, "a website celebrating celibate, platonic, non-physical or partly physical relationships, where you can meet other like-minded people, explore a holistic, integrated lifestyle and get ideas of where to look for support," and along with celibacy, it includes asexuality. Both Celibate Passions and Platonic Partners contain information on asexuality, and they give the standard explanation about how asexuality and celibacy differ. However, it is in a context that recognizes that they do potentially have a lot in common--hence the inclusion of both in on internet personals for those not wanting sex.

The last of the three questions, "What is celibacy?" is a more complicated one. If celibacy is defined simply as not having sex, there is a large overlap between asexuals and celibates. If celibacy also carries with it the assumption of refraining from sex, it would make less sense to consider asexuals celibate. If celibacy is understood in this context, then we to accept the asuumption (which Eunjung Kim rejects) that celibacy only applies to sexual people. Another way of defining celibacy (which I accepted in my previous post) is that celibacy assumes both not having sex and not getting married. In attempting to solve this problem, I have eventually decided to give up, regarding it as a false dillema (or trilemma, as the case may be.) Based on how the word is actually used, it carries with it a ambiguity. Celibacy definitley involves not having sex. This much is clear, but it seems to be all that is clear. Whether or not it requires a decision to give up married and family life depends on context. Whether or not it requires sexual desire that be resisted in not clear and depends on context. There seems to be a good amount of idiosyncratic difference in the way the word is used by different people and in different contexts. So should we consider asexuals who don't have sex celibate? Maybe.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Asexuality and Celibacy

When asexuality is introduced in writing, at the beginning of the discussion, two main points are stressed. 1.) Asexuality is a sexual orientation. People don’t choose to be asexual, it’s just the way they are. 2.) Asexuality is different than celibacy. Unlike asexuality, celibacy is a choice. Most celibate people aren’t asexual (that is, they do experience sexual attraction), and some asexuals aren’t celibate (that is, they have sex.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone spell out the reasons for this, as though they are simply obvious ones that don’t need to be stated and this is nothing more than a little bit of helpful information to help readers understand asexuality. Yet this twofold approach of insisting on viewing asexuality as a sexual orientation and on separating asexuality and celibacy are clearly parts of asexuality’s self-legitimation strategy. There are three parts of this strategy: the claim that asexuality is a sexual orientation, the insistence that people don’t choose to be asexual, and the construction of an image of celibacy to function as a foil to asexuality.

‘Sexual orientation’ is a loaded term. Many have been persecuted and discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many see protecting people against this as an important part of social justice. Anti-discrimination laws have been passed protecting people on the basis of it, especially in employment and housing. Current US jurisprudence interprets the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment as requiring laws making distinctions based on sexual orientation to at least pass the rationality test (which one Colorado law failed.) If asexuality is seen as a sexual orientation, asexuals become deserving, in the eyes of many, protection against discrimination on the basis of their asexuality. While this does not generally happen in employment and housing, it is not unheard of by doctors and therapists. This is especially important because many organizations for doctors and therapists have policies requiring practitioners to respect their patient/client’s sexual orientation.

Most anti-discrimination statements about sexual orientation do not include asexuality—if sexual orientation is defined, it is defined as being “heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.” An exception to this is the state of New York’s “Sexual Orientation and Non-Discrimination Act,” which includes asexuality. In the world of psychiatry, the current attitude is somewhat schizophrenic. The word “asexual” appeared in the DSM-III (1980), and was explicitly called a “sexual orientation” in the DSM-III-R (1987). The word ‘asexual’ has since been replaced, and the current language gives the following specifications for sexual orientation: “sexually attracted to males, sexually attracted to females, sexually attracted to both, sexually attracted to neither.” There are clearly four rather than the traditional three. Does this mean that the DSM recognizes four sexual orientations? Not really. It only has this in the section of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) when dealing with those past puberty. In the current version of the DSM (DSM-IV-TR, 2000) sexual orientation is said to refer to being “sexually attracted to males, sexually attracted to females, or sexually attracted to both.” So only people with GID can have ‘asexual’ as their sexual orientation. The rest of the population can’t. But for the general population, it is possible to have the life-long subtype of hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is mentioned only a few pages after sexual orientation is defined that excludes asexuality and not many pages before sexual orientation is redefined to include asexuality.

If people come to see asexuality as a sexual orientation, for many this requires that they be accepting of people’s claims of asexuality rather than assuming that such claims must really be (fill in the blank with your favorite way to dismiss asexuality). It may also mean that respecting people’s asexuality may become required in ethics guidelines and ethics training, and would be protected by law with respect to employment and housing, though I’m not aware of any discrimination in employment or housing on the basis of asexuality.

For many, insisting that their sexual orientation is unchosen functions as an important part of the rhetoric to legitimate that sexual orientation. It is used by their allies as well for the same purpose. The idea is that people cannot be held responsible for things they didn’t choose; they didn’t choose to be (fill in the blank with sexual orientation of choice); therefore it must be okay to be that sexual orientation. This line of reasoning is not without its critics. One the one hand are those unconvinced by it, and on the other are those who think it concedes too much. The former note that while desires and feelings may not be chosen, what one chooses to do with those desires and feeling are. In the case of the latter objection are those who think that it makes too much of the legitimating of non-heterosexual orientations dependent on the fact that these are unchosen. Saying that if people don’t choose to be gay means it’s okay to be gay does not mean that if they did choose to be gay it wouldn’t be ok (as this is confusing conditional and biconditional statements,) but this objection does make some sense. Many people believe that as long as sexual behavior is between consenting adults, no one is being harmed, and people are being responsible with respect to possible consequences, then it’s fine. If this framework is adopted, the question of if someone chose to be a lesbian or not is irrelevant. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then there’s nothing wrong with being gay even if it were a choice.

In asexuality’s striving for legitimacy, a similar approach is taken. Insisting that people don’t choose to be asexual has been adopted as a core part of asexual self-legitimation. But it has its own twist. Rather than aiming to convince those with traditional views of sexual morality, this claim primarily functions to convince those using the same argument to convince people with traditional views of sexual morality. The intended audience is different. Moreover, there is a self-conscious attempt at distancing asexuality from more traditional views of sexual ethics. There is a fear that asexuality will be associated with things like abstinence only sex education and mandatory clerical celibacy. For the parts of the population that may be persuaded by claims of sexual orientation, there are few groups that it would be worse for asexuals to be associated with. A good many asexuals are opposed to these things as anyone else.

Claims that people didn’t choose to be asexual function to preemptively rebut certain objections. In sex-normative outlooks where it is good to say “yes” to sex, but only acceptable to say “no, not now” and “no, not with you” but not “no, and maybe never,” people can read claims of asexuality as being “sexually repression” or “sex-negativity.” Rather than attempting to make asexuality palatable to those with more traditional views of sexuality, the goal is to make asexuality more acceptable to those who believe themselves to have open-minded views on sexuality.

To further emphasize this point, asexuality is contrasted with celibacy in a self-conscious effort to insist how different they are, even though there are obvious similarities and overlap. Many who believe that sex is “natural” are suspicious of celibates—there must be something wrong with these people, they must be repressed, don’t they know what they’re missing out on? Many think celibacy must derive from “sex-negative” religious views or some kind of psychological problem. I’m wary of this insistence on how different they are for three reasons. It seems to buy into anti-celibacy prejudice too much, it ignores that many of the sex-normative beliefs that look down upon asexuality are the same beliefs that look down on celibacy, and it constructs a false image of celibacy.

Assumptions that “sex is natural” and that people who aren’t having it must be “repressed” or “inhibited” or just plain missing out devalue the experience of celibates, whether they are asexual or not. While many celibates aren’t asexual (possibly most), people have varying levels of sexual desire and likely many celibates are at the lower end of that spectrum. Undoubtedly, many people could not be happy without sex, but there are many who can be. The insistence on distancing asexuality from celibacy may buy into celibacy debasing prejudices even though it is similar prejudices that doubt the validity of asexuality.

According to the Collective Identity Model for asexuality, “Asexual people have something in common because they have all chosen to actively disidentify with sexuality, a socially dominant framework for thinking about everything from pleasure to attractiveness to intimacy.” In a real sense, celibates have also chosen to disidentify with sexuality in how they form relationships. Sex-normative beliefs that make sexual expression a fundamental part of living a happy, healthy life are just as anti-celibacy as they are anti-asexual.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the attempt to distance asexuality from celibacy is the false image of celibacy constructed as a foil for asexuality. What is celibacy? If we define it as “not having sex” then there is a large overlap between celibates and asexuals. If we define it as the choice not to have sex (and following through with that), the situation is ambiguous. If I don't I sex because I'm not acting on desire that I don't have, is it a choice, or is it more of a default? Celibacy carries with it the assumption of universal sexual desire and a sense of restraint. It is precisely this assumption asexual identity challenges.

So which is it: not having sex or the (lived out) decision not to have sex? I don’t think it’s either. In one of my previous posts, I mentioned thinking that perhaps I had the gift of celibacy, but that I didn’t want to be celibate—not so much because of the sex, but because I wanted to get married and have children. At that time, I did not consider myself celibate, but abstinent (which also carries the assumption universal sexual desire and restraint.) To be abstinent was not to have sex for a certain time (typically, choosing not to have sex before marriage, but it can also mean temporary decisions to, for whatever reason, not have sex for some set period of time.) To be celibate is a decision not to marry (and not have non-marital sex.) Celibacy and abstinence are two very different things.

In culturally dominant ideas about sexuality, sex is a fundamental part of one’s most important social relationship. Differences lie not in this assumption, but in when sex should be introduced into that relationship, with whom such relationships are acceptable, and if sex is also okay in other relationships. In some ways, both recognizing asexuality and celibacy as legitimate options equally challenge this view. I am wary of the insistence that the two be regarded as strictly separate, though there clearly are differences. Someone can have sex and still be asexual. Someone can be celibate and not be asexual.

But many asexuals—and possibly most—have never heard of asexuality, and probably many of them think of themselves not as asexual, but as celibate. For many asexuals, celibacy is the best framework they have for thinking about their own lives and how they form relationships. Some asexuals who have decided to give up attempts at forming romantic relationships could reasonably identify as celibate as well as asexual. Some won’t because of the assumption of restraining desire it carries with it. Even if we exclude asexuals from the category of celibates (something I do not think we should do), the boundary between them would still be fuzzy because the boundary between sexual and asexual is fuzzy. Some people who identify as asexual do experience sexual attraction, or have felt it in the past, but only very little and very rarely. Just as it is impossible to tell how much sexual attraction is necessary to make someone sexual rather than asexual, for someone in this gray area, it is impossible to tell if someone who is not having sex is not doing so because they are celibate or because they are asexual. For such people, I’m not even sure it make sense to try to distinguish between these.

New semester

Summer break is just about over and my classes start on Monday. I started this blog over the summer when I've had a good bit of free time. This will change very soon. I will try to maintain it throughout the semester, but posts will probably be a lot less common than the more-or-less weekly posts I've been doing so far. There are still several topics that I had wanted to write about and I''ll probably think of some new ones too. Anyway, for my last post of the summer I have one that I've been working on for a month or so but wasn't able to finish until today--it was that annoying feeling of having most of something written, feeling it wasn't done and not knowing how to end it. I also think it will be one of my more controversial posts because I challenge some of the received asexual wisdom, and this is another reason I had been putting it off. I hope you enjoy it. I've made it a separate post because I wanted to give it an introduction, but I also wanted it to function as stand alone post.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Asexual people of the past: should we care?

Recently emma-rainbow made a post on her blog about a play from antiquity in which a character seemed to be asexual. It seems exciting to find a historical reference to asexuality. Before that post, I had known of only one. In the book Forms of Desire , there is a chapter by John Boswell containing the following quote:
The sister-in law of Louis XIV describes the sexual interests of men at the French court in terms almost exactly like modern sexual taxonomies: some prefer women, some like both men and women, some prefer men, some prefer children, and some have little interest in sex at all.” (p. 169.)
(In context, the point he is trying to make is that although at different times and places, in different cultures, people have very different beliefs about sexuality and different ways of thinking about sexuality, it is possible to find at least some people in times past who think of things in terms more or less analogous to our concept “sexual orientation.”) When I read this, the last phrase caught my attention.

The simplest way of trying to find a history of asexuality is the “who is and who isn’t” approach. This, more or less, consists of making lists of people we think may have been asexual. From what I know about similar attempts with gay history, these have produced low quality biographies that tend to be deeply anachronistic. Serious historians avoid such approaches. I imagine that if similar endeavors are made with asexuals in the future, it would result in equally bad history. At present, our numbers aren’t even strong enough for this, and we merely try to tack on ‘asexual’ to people of the past here and there. (Rainbow Amoeba had a recent blog about this and why she disagrees with the practice.) These lists tend to ignore the serious problems faced by such approaches. For one thing, it is hard enough for people in the early 21st century who are reading about asexuality to figure out if they themselves are asexual. Figuring out the asexuality of people long dead, whose thoughts we have no direct access to, and who have not clearly expressed them for us (and definitely not in the “doesn't experience sexual attraction” framework we use), is probably an impossible task.

And then there is the fact that we commonly use ‘asexual’ in two different ways. One is a sexual orientation, and one is an identity based on that sexual orientation. In the past, there probably were people of the former sort, but in talking about asexuals of the past, there is a danger to read in the identity aspect in as well. Asexuality as an identity is about how lack of sexual attraction affects people in particular cultural contexts, people gathering (mostly online) to discuss it, and a sense of connectedness to others with similar experiences. In different social contexts, lack of sexual attraction would affect people differently, and people would probably think about it differently. (Of course, among people who identify as asexual now, there is also variation in how they think about asexuality.)

Trying to talk about asexuals of the past is a highly problematic thing to do. Still, when I read the above quoted passage, I was excited. I was perfectly aware of problems with identifying who in the past was and or was not asexual, and I knew full well the danger of anachronistic thinking. The question is “Why does it matter?” One reason people might care is to justify our own asexuality. If this is the case, then the attempt to find asexuality/asexuals in history is misguided. The legitimacy of our sexual identity should be based on our own experiences. This is how we can most effectively persuade others of the reality of asexuality—not so much by giving amazing arguments but by giving voice to our own stories.

A similar reason people might care about asexuals in the past is for apologetical reasons. Someone might find some historical figure they believe to be asexual and add this to a mental list of reasons why people are very wrong if they think that asexuality doesn’t exist or must be a serious disorder. My own impression is that often the arguments people use are arguments to bolster a position that they already held for entirely different reasons. Then, after having a position, for whatever reason, they find arguments to support it and use those arguments to remind themselves of how incredibly right they are and how very wrong everyone who disagrees is. These seem to be very popular in politics and religion—people are often primarily interested in how to defend positions already held rather than trying to have a more informed view of the issues. It is easy to spend lots of time arguing against positions that everyone in the audience already disagrees with—it reinforces group solidarity by attacking a foreign, hostile “them,” the asexophobes—and I can easily imagine some asexual somewhere, thinking “So and so was asexual, and they were totally awesome. That just shows how dumb/ignorant/evil/misguided people who think that there must be something wrong with asexuals are.” I don’t recall having seen references to historical figures used in this way, but it doesn’t require too much imagination to envision it happening somewhere.

Another reason for trying to find asexuality in history is to create a sense of “our history.” People often are most interested in history that they feel is personally relevant to them (if they are interested in history at all.) Schools spend a lot more time teaching their own nation’s (or civilization's) history than they do others’. This can create a sense of “this is where we came from, this is who we are (and this is why we’re so totally awesome.)” One reason that an asexual identity is important to people is that it makes us feel connected to other asexuals in a meaningful way. There is a sense of something held in common. This shared sense of commonality can be read back into the past giving people a feeling of connectedness with historical figures, a sense of pride at certain people being among our numbers, a transtemporal sense of “us.”

In my own opinion, the most valuable reason for the study of history is that it can give us a sense of perspective. We understand our own situation better if we understand how things got to be the way they are. We understand our own times better by understanding those gone by. The societal effects of asexuality (orientation), in modern times are not the same as those in times past. By gaining an appreciation for the past, we can view the present in a larger context and have deeper insight.

But this isn’t why I was excited when I read the quote. We see asexuality in history. But it’s just an item in a list, and I understood nothing more about asexuality after reading it than I did beforehand. What made me so glad to see it is simply that I saw it. As an asexual, one enormous frustration is that even in contexts that are all supposedly about sexual diversity, people usually don’t even acknowledge that we exist. This is frustrating, and before I found AVEN, it was isolating. Seeing us included in history is an acknowledgment that we exist. Boswell was mostly interested in the fact that the quote showed recognition of things similar to our concepts of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality. The other two were mentioned simply because they were in the source, but the inclusion of asexuality was simply unimportant to him. But it is very important to me.

So there we are in history. At Versailles. Mentioned right after pedophilia. I don't feel that this legitimates asexuality in any way, but it's nice to see that the existence of people uninterested in sex was acknowledged long before AVEN was around.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Grammar Part 2: More thoughts on words

I’ve had to somewhat rethink my last post in light of some of the comments people made. I still hold to my position that grammatically/semantically, there is no difference between the noun phrase “asexual people” and the noun “asexuals” (which is also a noun phrase.) In terms of connotation, I also think they are the same—I don’t sense any real difference in how I feel about either term, nor do I have any sense that I would think it strange/insensitive/offensive if people use one rather than the other.

This doesn’t apply universally to other cases where there is a noun/adjectival choice. In doing research for this blog (by which I mean using google and and then Control+f on some Wikipedia articles), I found that both the terms “blacks” and “black people” are common, and they are used interchangeably in the Wikipedia article on black people. However, in the article on white people, the terms are not interchangeable. In that article as well as a google search of the term ‘whites,’ the only contexts in which I found ‘whites’ used was when viewed negatively as an outgroup—I found it in contexts discussing stereotypes and in a page discussing working class whites and the construction of “white trash” as a scapegoat. To me, the term “whites” simply sounds weird and this is probably because I almost never hear it used.

However, this possible alternation doesn’t apply to all ethnic groups. “Native Americans” and “American Indians” are used, but “Native American people” and “American Indian people” just sound odd to me (probably because I never hear them used and because they’re long and awkward.) When I googled the terms, I found that “Native American people” is used,” but “Native Americans” is used about 50 times as often. A similar discrepancy is found between “Asian people” (in quotes, I got 1.1 million results,) and “Asians” (20.1 million) Unfortunately, this isn’t a reliable way of doing things, since, if I type “Asians,” google will also give me results for “Asian.” (It may not be accurate, but it’s fast and easy.)

When discussing any kind of minority group, we often feel that we can’t simply use words interchangeably. There is history of serious racism (or other forms of prejudice, depending on what group we are talking about), and racists continue to exist. In addition to more overt racism (whether lynching, hate crimes, discrimination, or negative stereotypes), there are others who are utterly insensitive (I don’t get what you’re problem is. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of this?) In discussing sensitive issues on which so many are insensitive people (often including ourselves, unintentionally), we want to communicate to others that we aren’t racist and that we aren’t insensitive. We are self-conscious, afraid that if we use the wrong term, people will look down on us, judge us.

Groups often debate extensively about what terms should be used. There are debates about what words demean people, what words more highly value people, what words are pejoratives, and what pejoratives should be reclaimed. People argue that if certain words are used, people will think better or worse of members of some group. Do not words, after all, form our very thoughts?

To some extent, this makes sense to me. Words have histories. We make associations with words beyond mere semantic content. Words evoke feelings. The reason we feel some words are derogatory is that we have heard them used as insults and have heard that they are insulting. At another level, however, I am skeptical. There is a dominant idea that the language we use shapes how we think. Depending on what is meant by this, it can be a highly controversial claim. To the extent that language is a part of our thinking process, obviously language is part of thought. Language is the primary means of communicating ideas to others. In that our ideas are largely shaped by the people we’ve heard and the things we’ve read, language effects our thoughts. However the claim that speaking one language rather than another determines how we think is not a live option among linguists. (We have concepts for things we don’t know a word for, such as the plastic thing on the end of a shoelace. We often have the feeling that we have a thought but it is difficult to put into words.) There may be some slight evidence that speaking one language rather than another has some effect on how people think or perceive the world, but it is inconclusive at best and generally only shows very weak links. It is possible that culture, not the grammar or vocabulary of a language, is responsible for differences in how people think. And it is quite possible that how we think about the word shapes the language we use much more than languages shapes perception.

There are claims that using one term rather than another will affect how people think about some concept. This may be true to some extent, but I have my doubts. How a question is worded can affect how people will answer it, and there is evidence that how you order information affects how people interpret it. (If you describe a person with good attributes and then add some negative traits at the end and ask someone to describe that person, they tend to give much more positive descriptions than if the same information is given in reverse order—negative information is first and then positive traits.) However, I am skeptical that using one term rather than another will make a big difference (if any at all) about how someone will think about something (unless there is some obvious reason for doing so, such as one word being clearly insulting). The content of the message seems much more likely to be important in shaping how people think.

This fits with the way that we remember things we’ve heard or read. We typically don’t remember the exact words someone told us—maybe a few words stood out or we recall a phrase here or a sentence there—but generally we remember the gist of what was said. We remember the main point, not the specific words. Unless one term has negative connotations that another doesn’t or suggests something that is misleading or untrue, I doubt that using one term rather than another will make much of a difference. On the other hand, it can be useful to have multiple terms to use. For asexuals, words like asexual, ace/ase, A, amoeba, asexual person, and so on can all be useful in different contexts. Among people unfamiliar with asexuality,'asexual' and 'asexual person' are probably the best ways to go. Amongst ourselves and others who know our language, we can more freely alternate between them.

Often, the meaning isn’t the important thing. A good example is the word ‘asexy.’ Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what this word means. It certainly isn’t the opposite of sexy, as though asexuals are all a bunch of funky lookin’ people. The AVEN Wiki’s lexicon defines it as “an informal word for asexual; someone or something that is made more attractive by her/his/its lack of sexuality.” This is about as good a definition as possible, but I don’t feel it really captures the word (and I don’t think any other definition could do this.) It’s obvious that ‘asexy’ is an asexual parallel to ‘sexy.’ There is enormous cultural value placed on being sexy, and for us aces, sexy doesn’t tend to be that important. So instead of being sexy, we can be asexy. The meaning isn’t as important as the feeling. Personally, I think it’s kinda cute. But I don’t expect “I’m too asexy for my shirt, too asexy for my shirt, so asexy it hurts” to be in any chart-topping songs in the near future.

For one thing, the rhythm is totally wrong.

In dealing with words for asexuals, I don’t sense any strong difference between ‘asexual’ and ‘asexual people.’ I’m not a huge fan of either, but I use them because it enables communication on the subject and there aren’t any alternatives that I really like any better. In the end, our choice of words will be based on individual preference—some people like the term ‘asexy,’ and some people don’t. Some like ‘ace’ or ‘ase,’ and others don’t. ‘Asexual,’ both as noun and as adjective, is the most widespread term, and all signs indicate that it will continue to be so for some time.