There are generally three main ways to define asexuality: in terms of sexual attraction, sexual desire, or sexual preference. Then, for each of these, we can frame the definition as being absolute (e.g. no sexual attraction) or gradient (e.g. little or no sexual attraction.) All of these three options make sense, but all have their problems as well.
“Asexual: a person who has (little or) no desire to have sex.”
The biggest problem with this definition is that “sexual desire” difficult to characterize because there are lots and lots of reasons people have sex. Would desire to have sex out curiosity or social pressure disqualify someone from being asexual? Also, I’ve read somewhere that there are some women who report that when they’re not in a romantic relationship, they have no interest in sex, but when they form a new romantic relationship, they become very interested. (I don’t know about men because the author was writing about differences between male and female sexuality, and, like many discussions of gender difference, treated “men” as a fairly homogeneous group sexually, though intra-gender variation for women was acknowledged.) These don’t seem to be the sort of people we call asexual either. Another problem with defining asexuality in terms of sexual desire is that it’s not really clear what sexual desire is, especially since many people who don’t experience sexual attraction do experience some sort of “sex-drive,” but feel that it isn’t directed towards anyone. They may be completely satisfied (or even prefer) to deal with these desires by themselves, and so this desire is some sort of sexualish desire, and yet not desire to have sex. But for people who aren’t asexual, the experience of sex-drive that are often the motivation to masturbate are frequently closely connected with their desire for sex.
“Asexual: A person who prefers not to have sex.”
For this definition, I’m not sure how well a gradient definition works. (“A person who prefers to have little or no sex” is ambiguous because it could mean somebody who isn’t really into sex and wants little at most, but it could also mean someone who would prefer to have some sex, just not that much. The former seems to fit with what we want to mean by “asexual” but the latter doesn’t.) One problem with this definition is that there a quite a lot of reasons to prefer not to have sex. Some people choose to be celibate because, even though they do have sexual desires, after a long string of bad relationships, they feel that sex isn’t really worth it. Others choose to be celibate because it grants a level of autonomy not possible to those in a long-term sexual/romantic relationship (and they’re not interested in short-term sexual relationships.) People in both of these groups may feel sexual desire and may enjoy sex, but they prefer not to because they don’t think that it’s worth the cost. But this doesn’t seem to be who we want to call asexual.
“Asexual: A person who experiences (little or) no sexual attraction.”
This also has its problems: many people who identify as asexual do experience some kinds of attraction, and if they’ve never felt sexual attraction, they don’t know what sexual attraction feels like, so it’s hard to know whether they don’t experience sexual attraction or not. In fact, one of the ways that some asexuals express their lack of sexual attraction is by noting that even when they are attracted to someone, they a.) still have no desire to have sex with that person or b.) would still rather not have sex with that person. In these cases, lack of sexual attraction is frequently expressed in terms of sexual desire or sexual preference.
Even though the sexual attraction definition is the most commonly cited one in asexual discourse, it’s not the only one that’s used by people in the asexual community. In my last post, I wrote about a woman who identifies as asexual who said she does experience sexual attraction, but feels no desire to have sex with anyone. According to the sexual desire and (probably) sexual preference definitions, she would be asexual, but based on the sexual attraction one, she is not. This highlights one of the key problems in deciding among the various definitions: each deals with the grey area between sexual and asexual differently—each excludes some people who would be included by another definition.
Some people who don’t experience sexual attraction feel more or less indifferent about sex. They don’t necessarily prefer not to have sex, but they don’t really prefer to have sex either. Also, some people who don’t experience sexual attraction find that they can enjoy some partnered sexual behaviors—sometimes they find that they enjoy giving their partner pleasure even though they aren’t experiencing sexual desire themselves, and maybe even prefer not to be sexually stimulated. For such people, they may be asexual in terms of sexual attraction and sexual desire, but it’s really unclear how to characterize their sexual preference. Still, identifying as asexual makes a lot of sense because their sexual experience and feelings completely fail to conform to societal expectations or models of sexuality they find around them.
One advantage of making the definition about sexual attraction rather than sexual preference is that people are given more freedom to explore themselves and try different behaviors while still being allowed to identify as asexual. I think that this makes asexual identity more helpful for real people's lives (especially those in the gray areas.) In making asexuality about attraction rather than preference, it enables asexuality to be more descriptive in how we think about ourselves rather than prescriptive, to borrow an idea from the avenite Shockwave that he borrowed from linguistics' identity politics as it tries to justify its status as science and seeks to separate itself from the things we learned about grammar in school.
The right to identify as asexual is important for many people. They sense that their own feelings completely fail to conform to images of sexuality presented in TV and movies, talked about by their friends and peers, even what is acknowledged to exist in sex education. In identifying as asexual, there is a sense that people are not alone, that they are not broken. Their experiences are valid, and they are no longer an inexplicable anomaly among the human population whose very existence is unacknowledged. For many people, a sense of belonging, a feeling of fitting in is important. A sense of being normal. Identifying as asexual grants this to many people.
Still, as much as we want asexual identity to be a tool for thinking about our lives, an identity to insist that we are not broken, a means for communicating our selves to others, I doubt that it could be used entirely descriptively. My suspicion is that there will always be a temptation to use it prescriptively, in order to help us feel a part of a group rather than an isolated anomaly with no one like ourselves telling us that it is okay for me to be me. In Shockwave's post, he wants to use an asexual identity descriptively precisely because he had been succumbing to the temptation to use it prescriptively and wanted a way to think about not using it that way. I doubt that there is a way to avoid this temptation and the only way to deal with it is simply to be aware of it and always be willing to reflect on our lives and reevaluate our ideas—something of value regardless of how you identify. Still, if asexuality were defined in terms of sexual preference—what kind of behavior we prefer (not) to do—I suspect that the temptation to use it prescriptively to retain that sense of validation would be stronger than it is now. I don’t think it would allow people as much freedom to experiment with sexuality (for those interested) while still retaining an asexual identity.
Still, whichever way we define asexuality—in terms of preference, desire or attraction—the definition will always exclude some who don’t fit the definition we’ve chosen but does fit one or two of the others. It is possible to define asexuals as people who fit any one (or more) of these three, and something in me likes this and something else recoils at it. The scientist in me doesn’t like disjunctive definitions, but, on the other hand, if we think of asexuality primarily as an identity, the science becomes irrelevant. On the other, other hand, the study of asexuality will be an important part of our future visibility and acceptance, and any researcher using self-identification as asexual as an operational definition must be aware of this problem—especially if they want to do a quantitative study. (If they’re studying asexual identity, this isn’t really a problem.) Another part of me has an entirely different reason for recoiling at the definition “an asexual is someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction, little or no sexual desire, and/or prefers not to have sex.” It’s just long, complicated, and annoying.
Still, if we look at what actual asexual people say, we can find people defining their asexuality in terms of any of these three things. The standard AVEN definition uses sexual attraction, but other people conceptualize it different. For example, even on the AVEN static content, we can find some variation. In the top ten responses to asexuality the author says her asexuality can be summed up in one sentence. “I don’t want to have sex. Plain and Simple.” She then expands on this: “It is not a case of avoiding sex out of fear, or as a result of a perceived moral obligation, or out of disinterest in starting a family. I just seem to have been spared the development of sexual inclination--maybe I have a biologically nonexistent libido, or maybe I have a psychological disinterest in physical intimacy, or maybe some of both . . . but the end result is simply that I have no interest in sex, and I like it that way.” She does not define her asexuality in terms of sexual attraction. She defines it in terms of sexual preference, and then explains this in terms of sexual desire. This isn’t at all uncommon. Lots of asexuals explain their asexuality in terms these. (Try googling either one of the following phrases, in quotes, along with the word asexual. “I’m not interested in sex.” “I have no desire to have sex.” You get a decent number of hits.)
Each asexual person is different and has a somewhat different idea of what being asexual means to them. There is no need to stick stringently to the standard AVEN definition or to any other. That really isn’t what the definition is designed for. It’s supposed to me more of a guidepost for people, something to help people think about their lives and something to be useful in presenting asexuality to audiences unfamiliar with it.