Saturday, October 11, 2008

Asexuality-the history of a definition, part I

To finish off my series on defining asexuality, I decided to take a look at how and why the definition is what it currently is. To a large extent, this is a historical question and so I decided to do some research on the history of the asexual community in an attempt to understand it.

There are only a few (three that I know of) places where the history of the asexual community has been outlined. On the AVENwiki, the page about AVEN itself has a short history of the site. An early (and very brief outline) is given by AVENguy in an early post on AVEN. The longest description I know of is the podcast titled history lesson on the podcast/blog “Love from the Asexual Underground.” These are very interesting and I found them helpful, but there is a lot that I wanted to know about that they don’t say. (Also, (Also from Love from the Asexual Underground, Asex 101 isn’t primarily about asexual history, but it does have some information relevant to this topic.)

In trying to do my own research, there are some important sources that still exist. According to the above mentioned outlines of the history of the asexual community, throughout the 90’s people would occasionally describe something like asexuality on some sexuality message boards, but they weren’t able to connect with other asexuals. In 1997, there came out an article called “My Life as an Amoeba” that allowed people to post to it, and thus allowed asexuals to communicate with each other, creating the first online “asexual community.” This article still exists on asexualove.net, but the posts seem to be lost and the link to the original has gone dead. The most important early (preaven) asexual community was a yahoo group called Haven for the Human Amoeba (I’ll call it HHA.) This still exists and is the most important source of information on the early asexual community. However, there are a few problems. First, there are far too many posts for a mere amateur historian like myself to read all of them—I’ve read a few hundred, but after a while, I started skipping a lot and relied a fair bit on searches. Another problem is that a good number of the sites that are linked have gone dead (including the earliest version of AVEN.) Another important source of data comes from AVEN itself—many early posts still exist. For example, if you go to Q & A on the AVEN forums and go to the oldest posts, you can find some of them (I linked to one earlier.) (Using the search tool and going to the older posts is helpful here as well but you’ll need to use the advanced search features.) Another important source of data is Internet Archive, which has some old websites (for example the Official Nonlibidoist Society’s now defunct website.) I’ve also corresponded with David Jay, and he has helped fill in a few gaps here and there. As a caveat, because of the way I’ve gone about this, my claims are largely a matter of impression. I’ve tried to find as many posts about defining asexuality, but much of this was done by searching for the words “definition” and “define” on HHA and AVEN, and so I have likely overlooked other posts discussing this issue without using these words. So take my history for what it’s worth.

My narrative begins with the yahoo group “Haven for the Human Amoeba.” This group was formed in October 2000 but, other than the introductory post, there was no conversation until Feb 2001 when the founder was curious who the other people who had joined (but not said anything) were. In the following discussion, one person asked what an asexual was and the group founder said that being asexual means being not sexual—with reference to people, this means not being sexually attracted to men or women (or horses, cats, dogs or anything else someone might want to joke about.) What relationship, if any, this group had to the “community” formed around the 1997 article isn’t clear (in April 2001, a link to that article was posted by the group’s founder without indication of how long she had known about it.) HHA started out as a very small group.

At first, discussion was pretty sporadic. Sometimes, when a new person would join, they would give some kind of introductory post or two; this would create a bit of discussion, and then it would die out for a while—sometimes a month or two—until a new person came and gave an introductory post. Beginning in July 2007, posts had become pretty regular, probably because their numbers had grown enough to generate sustained discussion. In August 2008, things really took off, going from 17 posts from Oct 2000 to June 2001, to 18 posts in July 2001, and 130 posts in August 2001.

Meanwhile…in the 2000-2001 school year, there was a college freshman at Wesleyan University by the name of David Jay. David had considered himself asexual since high school, and after going to college, he had gone to the LGBT office trying to find out everything they knew about asexuality. They didn’t know anything about it. During this time, he found the above mentioned “My life as an Amoeba,” and this was the first time he had ever seen the word “asexual” used to refer to people outside of his own writings. This prompted him to create a page about asexuality on his Wesleyan account, calling it AVEN—the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Before finding that article, he had already been thinking about doing this, but it provided the necessary impetus to get things started. There wasn’t much information on this page—mostly just a definition of the term asexual and his email, asking anyone who knew anything about the subject to contact him. The original definition was something like “a person who is attracted to neither gender.” He then emailed his page to the heads of LGBT groups on college campuses around the US in an attempt to find other asexuals. One of them wrote back to him about the “neither gender” part, informing him about trans issues. In response to this, David modified the definition so that it did not assume a gender binary. This was around March or April of 2001.

This initial definition—a person who is attracted to neither gender—fits well with the (now abandoned) meaning of the AVEN triangle, which I believe was also on the original AVEN page. The top line is based on the Kinsey scale: one end is other-sex attraction, and the other end is same-sex attraction, allowing for all sorts of combinations of these in the middle. The existence of another dimension was postulated —amount of attraction—which formed the vertical axis, bisecting the Kinsey scale. As attraction decreased, gender preference vanishes, making a triangle. After learning about the experiences of other asexuals, this theory didn’t last long, but the symbol has survived. In the theory that this symbol represents, the definition “a person who is attracted to neither gender” makes a lot of sense.

In August 2001, the summer after David’s freshman year, someone who had joined HHA in July 2001 (and had info about asexuality on her webpage, which is now dead so I have no idea what was on it) found David’s site and contacted him, telling him about HHA and asking if he wanted to join a webring she was putting together of asexual sites. It was early August when she contacted him, and a week later he joined HHA. This was shortly after the time that the group had started to get enough members to have sustained conversation. It was also around this time that people began to get an idea of the diversity that existed even within their small group. One person who considered herself asexual said that she masturbates, and another was very confused by this. She thought of asexuality as a lack of sexual attraction (likely reflecting the founder’s definition), and thought this was the same as sex drive (if you don’t experience sexual attraction, what’s the point?) At this time, the concept of undirected sex-drive was introduced into asexual discourse and several people found it to be useful and adopted it. A couple weeks after David joined, he suggested that the thing that unified people on HHA was not experiencing sexual attraction—this suggests that by this point, he had changed the phrase “attraction/attracted” to “sexually attracted/sexual attraction,” probably on the influence of the founder of HHA’s definition and the one or two others who had adopted it. The first instance of the present definition in HHA was in a discussion on defining asexualism (asexualism and asexuality were used interchangeably back then) in a post by David in late September 2001.

In present asexual discourse, one reason the term “sexual attraction” is used in the definition is to contrast it with other kinds of attraction (i.e. emotional/romantic attraction.) When the above definition was proposed, this distinction had not become standard in asexual discourse. As far as I can tell, this issue came up in late December 2001 and was more-or less worked out in January 2002. Interestingly, this requires a change in the meaning of “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” without requiring any change in the language.

Late in 2001, there was a decent amount of discussion on issues involving defining asexuality. The consensus opinion (at least the one expressed the most) was that asexuality is undefinable—each person had their own reason for calling themself asexual, and there was too much diversity in their (still very small) asexual community for any one definition to cover everyone. However, people also agreed that it would be useful to have a definition that they could give to people—having a definition would be helpful for asexual visibility. This was discussed, and there was no consensus. David had proposed his definition, but there didn’t seem to be any strong support for it or disagreement with it. My impression is that the majority opinion was to think of asexuality not in terms of sexual attraction, but in terms of sexual preference. Seen in this light, the Collective Identity Model makes a lot of sense: No single definition encompasses all asexual people, so the common theme is that asexuals are people who call themselves asexual because they disidentify with sexuality—i.e. they prefer not to have sex, and this affects how they go about forming relationships. (The parts about identity and relationships were particular emphases found in David Jay’s writings more than in other members, but by and large, this definition fits pretty well with the early consensus.) In this context, I think the definition “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” was intended to fill the need of a definition to be used for the purpose of asexual visibility rather than as the one that the community was based on.

Reading the history this way, David’s comment that I mentioned in a recent post makes perfect sense: “A person who does not experience sexual attraction” is the definition used outside the asexual community. “A person who calls themself asexual” is the one used inside the asexual community.

Having seen how one person came up with the definition “A person who does not experience sexual attraction,” the question becomes how this definition became the standard one in asexual discourse. Once it came to be the definition (prominently displayed) on one asexual website, I think that there are two main questions to address. The first is why AVEN came to be the main asexual website. The second is why AVEN’s initial definition continues to be its definition today. I’ll start with the first part.

Early in the asexual community, there were some other asexual websites that are linked in HHA, but these have gone dead. In terms of asexual community—places where asexuals can gather and converse with each other—I am aware of three places online that existed early on. The first, HHA, isn’t very active anymore. The design isn’t particularly good for large groups and other sites do things much better. AVEN first started its forums in May 2002. However, there was one other important site which continues to be active—the asexual community on LiveJournal was formed in April 2002, about a month and a half before the AVEN forums began. If we look at the “about” section of its profile, it says, “This is a community for asexual people to discuss living without sexuality. We welcome anyone with no or very little sexual attraction to others, people with low or no libido, and their allies.” One thing you will find is that “a person who does not experience sexual attraction” does not appear. The community was created because the community “asexuals” was considered too judgmental and was generally celibate people (termed “lifestyle asexuals”) rather than people with little or no sexual attraction (“classic asexuals”) and they spent a lot of time criticizing the sexual behaviors of others. The language that is used on the asexuality community on LJ’s profile is the same sort of language that can be found on the AVEN forums by the founder of asexuality on LJ. (For example, on the introductory post of the founder of the Official Asexual Society. LJ’s founder is paranoidgynandroid on that post.)

The founder of this community on LJ was perfectly aware of AVEN’s definition—in fact, she was heavily involved in redesigning AVEN in March 2002, was the author of AVEN’s general FAQ and was also responsible for AVEN’s present color scheme (this explains why terms like “little or no sexual attraction” are used in the FAQ, and also why asexuality on LJ’s profile links people to AVEN’s FAQ for more information.) While she knew about AVEN’s definition, she felt no need to adopt it, but given her role in early AVEN, I imagine that she saw no important conflict between her definition and AVEN’s.

The reasons AVEN has risen to prominence are listed in the above linked “History Lesson.” The domain name, asexuality.org, was easier to remember than other asexual sites, the graphics were better, the software was better, David was a better webmaster, and the forums enabled there to be multiple conversations going on at the same time. He also mentions AVEN’s inclusive approach, though I’m not really convinced how important this is. The less inclusive sites seemed to me to be somewhat at the fringe of asexuality. (For example, the Official Asexual Society/The Official Nonlibidoist Society’s design made it largely a one-woman show and didn’t give people much of a chance to communicate with one another the way AVEN or LJ did, meaning that it could not be the basis of enabling large numbers of asexuals to connect with each other.) If you read the early LJ posts, you’ll find that in several key aspects, it actually has a more inclusive approach than AVEN (LJ’s definition includes people who experience very little sexual attraction, people who experience sexual attraction but have such a low sex-they feel no desire to act on it, and a sharp distinction between asexuality and celibacy is not made.) My suspicion is that AVEN’s inclusive approach was a necessary condition for its rise to prominence, but not a particularly strong factor since other sites also had inclusive approaches.

Another important factor is that once AVEN started to be an important site, this created positive feedback--whenever it was mentioned in an article about asexuality, it's the page that people would be referred to for more information. One big advantage of having the asexuality.org site rather than the HHA yahoo group, is that it was findable on google, so that people who typed in asexual came to be able to connect with other asexual people.

My intuition tells me that the main reason for AVEN’s success is its superior design, especially with the forums, which enables it to do a lot more than LJ can. (Which LJ has no problem with because it’s close connection with AVEN predates its founding. Also, in July 2002, the founder of asexuality on LJ directed people over to AVEN, highly recommending it, especially because they were having more discussion than on the LJ community.) Because of AVEN’s forum design, people are able to participate in the discussions and feel like they have a place in the asexual community—this is important for keeping them involved. More than this, as the site grew, there came to be more work to be done than any single person could do. By including additional people in having key roles—key roles in maintaining the site, moderating the forums, doing visibility and education work, talking to people in the media, etc.—this makes those people more involved and have a greater sense of investment in the asexual community. In order for the asexual community to grow, this is necessary. It cannot be just a one-person show (like the Official Asexual Society had been.)

Now that we’ve seen how the present definition came to be the one on AVEN’s mainpage and how AVEN came to be the main asexual site, the question is why the definition hasn’t changed during AVEN’s rise to prominence. I think the first major reason is definitional inertia—once a definition is there on the main page, it’s going to be harder to change than if there was no “standard” definition and people were trying to hammer one out in a discussion somewhere. Not just that, but the way it is portrayed is significant. LJ more or less has a definition, but it isn’t clearly stated in an easily quotable form and you have to read through the page a bit to get to it. But on asexuality.org, “Asexual: A person who does not experience sexual attraction” is in big letters right in the middle of the screen so that it stands out and is one of the very first things people see when coming to the site.

The issue of defining asexuality didn’t come up much in early AVEN discussions. There was one thread, several months after the forums were created where David opened up the question of whether anyone wanted to change the definition of asexuality. (The context, as it turns out, was making T-shirts. If people are going to buy asexual T-shirts, is there a different definition they would rather exhibit via their clothing?) One person suggested saying that asexuals are people who have little or no sex-drive, but this was rejected because of the fact that some asexuals have an “undirected sex-drive.” Other than this, no one else proposed any alternatives. In response to the “little or no” part of the rejected alternative, David mentioned a couple possible modifications: “experiences little or no sexual attraction” or “experiences negligible sexual attraction.” He acknowledged these to be more accurate but was afraid that they would be confusing. No one else commented on this, and no other definitions were proposed.

There was one thread I’ve found in 2002 in which one person tries to attack AVEN’s definition, but the arguments don’t make a lot of sense. The majority opinion on that thread indicates that most people were perfectly aware of problems with the AVEN definition—it has difficulties dealing with the gray areas—but people didn’t seem to want to change the definition because they recognized that any definition is going to run into similar problems. There is no perfect definition of asexuality.

From time to time, there have been some people proposing alternative definitions, but these tend to have even bigger problems than the standard definition, and none of these proposals has managed to gain widespread support. The longer the standard definition is on AVEN’s frontpage, the more inertia it gains. As AVEN became larger and was managed not by a single person, but by a group of admods, this makes changing the definition even harder. Also, people have become used to the definition “a person who does not experience sexual attraction,” and for many it is an important part of their decision to identify as asexual, so this adds to the definitional inertia.

In my next post, I want to take a look at what I see as the effects of the standardization of this definition of asexuality.

4 comments:

Ily said...

I always find it exciting to read about stuff like this. What stood out to me most was the "attracted to neither gender" definition, because that's what I use to explain asexuality to people who don't understand what it is. That definition puts asexuality in a context with gay, straight, and bi as orientations, while "someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction" (or some variation) seems to stand alone. I'm not a proponent of the gender binary, but if you changed it to "not attracted to any gender" (or something like that), it would be my preferred definition for asexuality.
(I agree that it's impossible to have proper discussions through Yahoo groups, unless you receive individual e-mails, which is invasive for a group that sends more than a few messages a day.)
I applaud your detective work!

Ily said...

Also, you got me looking at early AVEN, and did you see this thread:
http://www.asexuality.org/en/index.php?showtopic=366

They started an interesting discussion on definition...

pretzelboy said...

Thanks for the link. I had seen that thread and read some of it but decided not to mention it in my post because because it deals more with asexuality as an identity rather than as something about inner feelings, etc. (The difference between asexuality as sexual orientation and asexuality as identity raises a whole bunch of issues that I don't feel remotely competent to address.)

edgeofeverywhere said...

I also tend to use the "not attracted to people of either/any gender" definition when explaining asexuality to people. It's interesting that David started with that definition before eventually settling on the current AVEN one.