Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Defining Asexuality

The most commonly cited definition of asexuality is that an asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction. This is the definition given on AVEN’s front page. This is the definition on Wikipedia. Another influential definition is given on the AVENwiki. According to the Collective Identity Model an asexual person is someone who calls themself asexual.

Even though the most commonly cited definition is the “does not experience sexual attraction” model, the collective-identity model is highly influential in asexual discourse. It is the basis of the taboo against telling others that they aren’t asexual, the dictum that “only you can decide if you’re asexual.” It is also the basis of the idea that asexual is just a word people use to understand themselves.

When I first came to identify as asexual and tried to find out as much about asexuality as I could, one thing that bothered me was the fact that there were these two definitions, both highly influential but mutually incompatible, and it seemed that either no one noticed, no one cared, or simply no one bothered to point it out. I think that both definitions have their strengths and their weaknesses. After spending some time looking at each, I want to propose my own model for asexuality that tries to capture what is best with each while avoiding the problem of mutual incompatibility.

An asexual is a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. This fits well with the idea that asexuality is a sexual orientation. The three more commonly recognized sexual orientations are all defined based on the objects of sexual attraction. Since many asexuals feel that asexuality is their sexual orientation, it makes sense to define asexuality in this way. Another benefit of it is the fact that many asexuals, before learning about asexuality, have a sense that there is definitely something different about them than most of their peers, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. The idea that it’s sexual attraction that they don’t feel fits many people’s experiences and helps them to make sense of what that difficult-to-express difference is. There are two main problems with this definition. The first is that it’s often more useful in theory than in practice. Many asexuals feel/experience/do things associated with sexuality, so figuring out if they don’t experience sexual attraction is difficult and often ambiguous especially since if you’ve never felt sexual attraction, you don’t know what it feels like. The second main problem with it is the fact that there is no clear-cut boundary between sexual and asexual. Asexual discourse readily admits this fact and is generally comfortable with this fuzziness. But this definition is not compatible with it.

Some people report having experienced sexual attraction, but only a handful of times in their lives. Sometimes these people are called “grey A’s” or something like that. I’m not really a fan of this term because it seems to create an asexual elitism and a sense of who’s more asexual than who. According to the main definition of asexuality, these people are not asexual. Thankfully, this implication is generally ignored. In the AVEN general FAQ, one of the questions is, “I've only really been attracted to about three people my entire life, but when I was I wanted to have sex with them. Would I be sexual or asexual?” The answer given is “Sexuality can be fluid, and for some people, sexual inclination may change over a period of time or from person to person. Whether you identify as sexual or asexual is ultimately your choice.” However, I don’t think that this question completely covers the so-called gray As, since, as I understand it, there are people who report experiencing attraction which usually doesn’t involve sexual attraction, but have, on very rare occasion, felt sexual attraction.

The collective identity model takes a different approach. This model is based on self-identification. Rather than focusing on what asexuals lack (sexual attraction), it focuses on what asexuals have in common. “Rather than trying to define a common sexual classification for all asexual people, this model frames asexuality in terms of collective identity. 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.” We are then asked to consider someone who does not feel sexual attraction but is not made to feel strange on account of this. This person will not feel any need to identify as asexual, and, according to this definition, would not be asexual.

It seems that this model, rather than the “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” definition, forms the basis of the taboo against telling people that they’re not asexual. This model makes some important points. Asexuality is an identity that people form not just on account of lack of sexual attraction, but because of the effects of such a lack within certain cultural contexts. Also it frames asexuality not as something that asexuals all lack but as something that they all have in common—a disidentification with sexuality. By saying that no one can tell anyone else that they aren’t really asexual, it helps to avoid asexual elitism.

However, this model also has some problems. First, I’m not sure that all asexuals do disidentify with sexuality, at least not in the same way. Some asexuals form relationships that fit standard models for such. These people may have sex, and though they tend to attach very different meanings to sex than their partners, I’m not sure how accurate it is to say that they’ve disidentified with sexuality. Another problem with making asexuality a matter of disidentifying with sexuality as a means of thinking about relationships, intimacy etc. is that it makes asexuality indistinguishable from celibacy. Celibate people, in a very real way, have disidentified with sexuality in how they form relationships. Also, if a celibate person who experiences sexual attraction says, “I’ve decided to become asexual” to mean “I’ve decided to become celibate,” this model makes it impossible to say that this person is not asexual. (Nevertheless, the attempt to distinguish asexuality from celibacy is alive and well within asexual discourse.)

Another problem is that if asexual people are people who call themselves asexual, then I became asexual after I found out about it online and decided to identify as such. However, I, like many asexuals, feel that I have always been asexual. The “person who does not feel asexual” definition fits with this feeling. The “person who calls themself asexual” definition does not. I think that this points to the biggest problem with this definition of asexuality—it has no clear way of connecting to the other definition. Consequently, if an asexual is a person who calls themself asexual, the primarily foundation for calling asexuality as a sexual orientation is lost. If an asexual person is someone who calls themself asexual and no one can tell anyone else they aren’t asexual, there is no basis for saying that people who do experience sexual attraction aren’t asexual.

These problems are caused by the fact that the word ‘asexual’ has two distinct meanings: one is a sexual orientation (a person who does not experience sexual attraction) and one is an identity (a person who calls themself asexual.) Asexuality, as an identity, is culturally bound, based not only on a lack of sexual attraction, but on the effects of that lack of sexual attraction in particular cultural contexts. People identify as asexual not because they disidentify with sexuality but because the definition “a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction” and the voices of people who identify as asexual based on that definition speak to their own experience. When I came to identify as asexual, the definition itself didn’t really answer my questions, and the idea of disidentifying with sexuality made me think I wasn’t asexual. I still don’t feel that I disidentify with sexuality. (I have multiple friends from high school who have dated about little as I have, or less, and I’ve never felt that there’s anything odd about not having sex.) Rather, I identify as asexual because it’s the only thing that I find even comes close to fitting my own experience. I feel that if I considered myself hetero/homo/bisexual, it would be sheer self-delusion.

On Apositive, I once wrote a blog post in which I made a framework for dealing with the problem of reconciling these two definitions. I adopted a model for sexual orientation developed by Michael Storms in the late 70’s. Rather than putting heterosexual and homosexual as two ends on a continuum with people being at either end or anywhere in between—a model that could not account for asexual, who were labeled X, as though they were some inexplicable anomaly—Storms put them on two different axes. This made for four categories—hetero/homo/bi/asexual, with asexuals being those low on both heterosexual attraction and homosexual attraction. One prediction of this model is that asexual isn’t simply a single point at the origin, but there is a spectrum between asexual and the other three sexual orientations, with no clear line between them.

We then use this to solve to some of the difficulties in whether or not to identify as asexual mentioned above. The border between sexual and asexual is blurry in two main ways. Some asexuals have felt sexual attraction, but only extraordinarily rarely. There is no clear line to indicate how infrequent it has to be for the person to be asexual. Also, many asexuals feel very different from their peers with regard to sexuality—there are certain things that they don’t feel that it feels like everybody else does, and they are a lot less interested in sex than it seems everybody else is, but they do feel some sexualish things, and it is often unclear what these feelings are. Is it sexual attraction or is it not? Sometimes it’s hard to answer one way or the other. Such people may want to identify as asexual because it is the only term they have found that enables them to make sense of their own feelings and experiences, but they are unsure if they don’t experience sexual attraction, though they do sense strongly that if they do experience sexual attraction, they feel a lot less of it than most. Self-identification solves the problem of where to draw the line between sexual and asexual. Each person who thinks they might be asexual has to decide for themself which side of some arbitrary line to place themself on (or they can choose not to decide if they prefer.) If this model is adopted, the definition of ‘asexual’ needs to be changed from ‘a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction’ to ‘a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction.’ (I’ve heard that this definition used to be used on AVEN and it pops up at a few points in the general FAQ.)

So here is my definition of ‘asexual’: The word ‘asexual’ has two distinct but related meanings. The first is a sexual orientation: Asexuals are people who experience little or no sexual attraction. The second is an identity based on this: Asexuals are people who experience little or no sexual attraction who choose to call themselves asexual.


grasexuality said...

I like your explanation here, it shows pretty clearly a lot of things I was trying to get at with some of my previous posts, but unable to fully articulate. I may go back through and find the most relevant post (heh, I can't even remember what all I've written anymore), and link to this from there.

Interesting that you note that not all asexuals necessarily disidentify with sexuality, because now that I think of it... my self-identification as an asexual person has actually allowed me to IDENTIFY with sexuality more than disidentify with it. Before, when I considered myself celibate, that was when I truly disidentified with sexuality, I guess because in effect I was refusing to form a sexual identity. Now that I have, well... it's easier to deal with.

Regarding the taboo of telling other people they aren't asexual... I'm not sure it's entirely based on the collective identity model. It seems to me that due to the nature of sexual attraction, specifically the fact that it is felt internally without necessarily being connected to arousal, it's hard for an outsider to judge what someone else is feeling. In that way, it has to be understood after doing some introspection, which other people can't do for you. However, I think that other people can at least tell when someone is using the definitions wrong (even though the definitions themselves are somewhat nebulous), and correct someone who is conflating celibacy and asexuality.

Ultimately, I think you're right that there are two definitions, but one is valued more than the other. With asexuality as an identity, there is an issue of credibility (no matter how hesitant people are to tell others that they're not really asexual, they would still do it if someone said they had just "decided to be asexual"), and that credibility is drawn from the definition of asexuality as an orientation. I do think it's more "little to no sexual attraction" than just "no sexual attraction," but the decision of whether to call oneself asexual is, to someone in one of those blurry areas, one that is more complicated than just that. That's why I do really like the Storms model, because it still leaves room for those blurry areas.

pretzelboy said...

One reason that I wanted to propose this model for asexuality is that it seems to give a framework for thinking about it that fits what is already implicit in how people talk about it. Like you, a lot of people seem to have a sense that we can tell people who's self-report clearly shows that they do feel sexual attraction (and not just a little or rarely) that they aren't asexual (i.e. that they haven't understood our definition), but that the taboo against telling people they aren't asexual has more to do with blurry lines and the fact that I know my inmost thoughts and feelings better than anyone else knows them.

I don't think the collective identity model is the only possible basis for this taboo against telling people they're not asexual, but it definitely provides strong support for it. My suspicion is that providing a foundation for that taboo was one of the driving forces behind the collective identity model, though this is just a suspicion.

Ily said...

Interesting-- I never thought those two definitions were contradictory.

BlackRose458 said...

When you say sexual attraction, you aren't including sexual urges, correct?
Asexuals can have sexual urges, just aren't attracted to people. . . ?
(This is just a question for me, not criticizing anything you've said.)

BlackRose458 said...

When you say sexual attraction, you aren't including sexual urges, correct?
Asexuals can have sexual urges, just aren't attracted to people. . . ?
(This is just a question for me, not criticizing anything you've said.)

alma granados said...

Is a peson born asexual?