Saturday, October 18, 2008

Asexuality—the history of a definition, part II

The most widely accepted and most widely quoted definition of asexuality is that an asexual is “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Last time, I wrote about some of the history of how this came about. This time, I want to write about what I see as some of the consequences of the standardization of this definition—many of which were unforeseeable.

In the early asexual community, many people came with preconceived ideas of what asexuality was, but after they came to have a better understanding of the other people identifying as asexual, there came to be a general consensus that the term was undefinable. However, it was also recognized that having a definition would be important for explaining asexuality to people. The definition that came to dominate was the one presented on the main page of the asexual site that came to be the most important one in the asexual community. That site came to dominate primarily because of its superior design, and its definition persisted because most people didn’t object to it, and the few times that there was serious advocacy for an alternate definition, the proposed alternatives tended to have even more problems that the (now) standard definition.

In effect, it has come to be the definition primarily because it is the definition authoritatively presented to newcomers to asexuality and is quoted frequently on the forums, especially to questioning people, who can then be referred to static content on the site. Because parts of the static content (especially the parts that aren’t ascribed to anyone) are interpreted as being the official view of the asexual community, and they, in effect, become the official view—the understanding of asexuality that AVEN gives plays a fundamental part for many people’s decisions of whether or not to self-define as asexual. The AVEN definition has a strong influence on whether or not someone identifies as asexual. In a sense, the asexual community did not create the definition; the definition created the community.

My impression from the early dialogue that I’ve read is that, by and large, the AVEN definition was notadopted by people who first came to the asexual community before AVEN’s forums came to dominate asexual discourse. But they generally didn’t object to it either. Each person came up with their own definition, if they bothered with one at all. However, once AVEN became the place that the majority of people new to asexuality went, AVEN’s definition come to be the first introduction to asexuality people had—especially because of its prominent display on the main page—and it came to be more influential in asexual discourse. Sometimes there are people who don’t like AVEN’s definition, or who want to change it for some reason or other, but none of these has ever been strong enough to pose any serious challenge to the standard definition. The longer the definition has been around, a larger and larger part of the people in the asexual community has been strongly influenced by that definition in how they think about asexuality, and it continually increases in definitional inertia. Another reason the definition has persisted is that a lot of people find that it makes sense to them—it is sexual attraction that they don’t feel.

One consequence of the standard definition is the creation of the category “Gray A’s” and the like. Since the official definition of on asexual is a person who does not experience sexual attraction (categorically), this creates a group of people who identify with asexuality and who come close to the definition but don’t quite fit it, but they still want to be part of the asexual community even though the definition technically excludes them. The standard definition was never intended to exclude these people (recall that the AVEN triangle was equipped, from the beginning, with a gradient between asexual and sexual.) Combined with an inclusive approach that discourages strict readings of the definition and prohibits attempts to enforce it, there became a need to understand how to categorize these people. As a result, all sorts of typologies have been created. My suspicion is that if a definition like the one used by the founder of asexuality on LJ had come to dominate (asexuals are people with little or no sexual attraction or people who experience sexual attraction but have low or no sex drive and thus are unmotivated to act on that sexual attraction), there would be no reason to create such schemas.

I also think that the standard definition has made the understanding of asexuality underlying the collective identity model obsolete. That model, much more than the standard definition, represented a consensus view in the early asexual community—each person had their own reason for considering themself asexual (that is, not sexual,) and no single definition could cover everyone. The main thing that united people was a sense of being “not sexual” or a disidentification with sexuality. Several people thought of asexuality in terms of sexual preference rather than sexual attraction. The people involved in Haven for the Human Amoeba (HHA) were almost entirely people who had somehow managed to find the group on their own—possibly by just wandering in or by searching yahoo groups for the term “asexual” or something along these lines. There was not a lot of information for newcomers, (I think one of the early asexual sites had an FAQ, but I don’t know what it said,) and there were not a lot of stories that were posted (a few, but they were pretty brief.) As a result, the sorts of people who would have managed to find the site and decide to call themselves asexual probably differ (in the aggregate) a fair bit from people who now manage to find one of the main asexual sites and decide to call themselves asexual now that there is a lot more asexual visibility. I would expect that the people in the gray areas—now they often take a long time to decide if they are asexual or not—would have been much less likely to find HHA and if they did, less likely to identify as asexual than similar sorts of people today.

In the present asexual community, there are a lot of people who did not think of coming up with the term asexual on their own and when first hearing/reading it, didn’t think it really fits because they don’t think of themselves as being “not sexual.” However, later they go to some asexual site, read about it and decide that they are asexual. When these people decide this, it is not from having a strong sense of not being sexual but because they feel they fit the definition or they feel they can relate to the stories of other people calling themselves asexual. In my case, I had a strong sense of being different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, but I didn’t think of myself as being “not sexual.” I identity as asexual because I feel that “experiencing little or no sexual attraction” fits and helps me to make sense of that difference that I hadn’t been able to figure out what it was.

Likely the biggest unforeseen consequence of defining asexuality as not experiencing sexual attraction is that there are people who feel this definition fits them but don’t “disidentify with sexuality” or who are not clearly asexual with respect to sexual preference. There are people who identify as asexual who find that they can enjoy some aspects of partnered sexuality, even though it’s not experienced as a felt need and it is a fairly limited range of things they find they can enjoy. There are also people who don’t experience sexual attraction who are at least curious about what sex would be like. They may feel no motivation to do anything about this curiosity, but consider themselves open to the possibility in the right circumstances, should such a situation present itself. For such a person, their sexual preference is difficult to characterize, but they may have perfectly good reasons to identify as asexual. I think it is these consequences of the standard definition of asexuality that make the collective identity model (in its present formulation) obsolete. Redefining asexual identity would be an interesting (though difficult) thing to do, especially since what creates asexual identity is a common matrix of effects of little or no sexual attraction within present day social contexts—no asexual person experiences all of these effects, but most members experience several of them in overlapping ways, and thus in the creation of the identity “asexual,” centered around not experiencing sexual attraction, people are able to find others among the group “asexuals” who report things that sound very much like their own experience—especially in a context where the person had previously never heard of anyone else sharing that experience.

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