Policing the Definition: Is There a Gold Standard?

I am loathe to write about this, really I am. But I’ve been surprised several times over the past two or three months by certain high-profile members of the community referring to asexuality using a definition that I was under the impression that we had a fairly common consensus going that asexuality is not. I’m not talking about new people who don’t yet understand what we mean when we talk about asexuality, here. It is to be expected that we would always have that kind of conversation going on at AVEN’s forums, as new people come in and rehash old conversations that they haven’t participated in yet. But I generally don’t go on AVEN because I had those discussions six years ago, and at this point I don’t usually find anything new and interesting on the forums. That’s not what I’m talking about.

No, I’m talking about stuff like a casual remark that if a person is asexual, that means that they don’t like sex. Around here, I would think that kind of assumption would be considered quite silly. Is it not? I mean that as a serious, earnest question: is it not? Even among asexuals who have been around the block a time or two, is that question really, seriously up for debate?

A while ago, during a privately conducted debate, I had a disagreement with Pretzelboy on the issue of how asexuality is defined. I had taken it for granted that we were debating with the definition “an asexual is a person who lacks sexual attraction” specifically in mind (I’m taking it for granted also that the “lack” is relative rather than absolute, and whether it is distinct enough to warrant the asexual label can only be determined by the person experiencing it), but apparently that was only my own assumption. He raised the idea that some asexuals actually define themselves as “not sexual” which, not to put too fine a point on it, to me seems just as much a so-vague-it-becomes-nonsensical definition as it would be to claim a definition of sexuality so broad as to make it possible to claim that all humans are sexual (in a non-scientific context).

I dropped the argument at that point, because I couldn’t see how we could get past that point to discuss what we had really been trying to talk about, if we cannot even agree on a standard definition. But it’s been niggling at me for a while since then, and I have started thinking about the topic again recently after reading the discussion about masturbation going on in the asexosphere as of late, as well as this post from Asexual Curiosities. I’d like to highlight one comment that stood out to me, made by Siggy on Ily’s first post:

Well, no one says that asexual means utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever.

Except that they do. Because isn’t that exactly what so many sexual people tend to think when they first hear the word asexual? They think asexual = not sexual = lacking anything sexual whatsoever. Because to them, sexuality is a broad term which encompasses EVERYTHING sexual. And to a lot of people, that even includes the physical reality that human beings are a species that is sexed, and reproduces via sexual intercourse. And yes, that definition of what it is to be “sexual” does make sense in at least one context, although I think it is kind of silly to use it just to state the obvious well-known fact that humans reproduce sexually.* And Siggy is right (I hope?) that asexuals have not asserted anything of the sort, but that’s the key misunderstanding, isn’t it? They really think that’s what we’re saying. That is, they think that we are saying that we are utterly lacking in anything sexual whatsoever, something that would necessarily make us not human. They really, honestly think that’s what we’re saying!

* In many cases, I think they are using this statement to infer something else (that it is impossible for a person not to experience sexual attraction given the way that humans reproduce sexually), but that assertion does not logically follow from what they are saying. After all, just because people may experience some aspects of what would be called “sexuality” it doesn’t mean that they must experience all of them (in fact it’d be pretty hard to find someone who does, if you consider how many kinks there are out there). Since it is not a valid assertion and that has been covered extensively elsewhere, I am not talking about it here. I am only talking about the ones who assert that we are not asexual because we experience any one thing that could be considered an aspect of sexuality (including but not limited to the fact that we exist because of sexual reproduction).

Part of the problem, of course, is that the only other exposure people have to the word “asexual” comes from biology class, so in that context it becomes understandable when the idea of hermaphroditic self-fertilizing species or amoebas comes into play. But even when it is understood that we are using a different definition which does not include some new form of human reproduction, people will still tend to think of the word’s meaning in terms of what its root components mean: not sexual. What does that mean? It’s still confusing, because “sexual” is an adjective that is applied to a very broad range of situations and activities, including things (like kissing and dancing) that fall in some sort of gray area where there is no consensus that it should be applied. So, people will tend to understand the word “asexual” each in their own individual way, depending on what they consider sexual. Even if their definition of “sexual” is not so broad as to include the basic physical fact that humans are a sexed species, the vast majority of people will consider acts which physically engage and stimulate the genitals to be sexual even if they do not fit whatever criteria that person thinks of as qualifying as sex. Therefore, to most people it would make sense to consider the masturbating asexual (or the sexually active asexual, for that matter) to be a paradox, and thus conclude they are not really asexual at all.

So how could it possibly be useful for any one of us to define asexuality as simply “not sexual” if that is the conclusion that the majority of people are going to draw from it? Even if people do realize that “asexual” is meant to refer to one specific aspect of sexuality, there is nothing in that definition to indicate which aspect that would be. Why wouldn’t people assume it refers to behavior?

Maybe masturbation is something that may or may not be considered a form of sex, depending on what you think “sex” means. And maybe it’s something that may or may not be considered “sexual” depending on what “sexual” means. But that’s a moot point. It doesn’t matter, because the definition of asexual that we are using isn’t really “not sexual,” it’s “lacking sexual attraction” specifically. Even if we contend that masturbation does not have to be considered sexual, what criteria are we using to determine that? From what I can gather from that discussion, it’s the lack of sexual attraction or interest/enjoyment which leads to that conclusion. You can certainly masturbate without experiencing sexual attraction—at least I sure hope so, because otherwise how could we explain the masturbatory practices of children? I doubt there are many who would contend that a child’s masturbating experience contains sexual attraction to anyone, but people still call it a sexual experience. So we must ask ourselves: are we using the same criteria that most people are using to determine what is or is not “sexual?” Probably not. Most likely, they will stick with their own definition because it makes the most sense to them. If a person defines physical stimulation of the genitals (for purposes of arousal and especially orgasm) as sexual, it is not very convincing to say that it is not sexual just because the component of attraction is missing. Attraction is more of a side point to the physical act, under this definition. I have met sexual people who don’t specifically think of any attractive people while masturbating, but they still consider masturbation to be sexual in general.

Likewise if we say that masturbation isn’t sexual in some cases because the people who are doing it don’t enjoy it, and are doing it only to “scratch an itch” or feel obligated to keep it up for health-related reasons. Let’s replace “masturbation” with “sex” then. Sometimes sex isn’t enjoyable. Sometimes people feel obligated to have sex because they want to maintain the health of their relationships. But does that mean that sex is no longer a sexual experience?

I hope I am mostly preaching to the choir here, but if there really are asexuals out there who say that asexual means “not sexual” in any sense except to explain its component morphemes, I’d like them to consider this: if we use a definition that is so incredibly vague, how can we make important distinctions like the difference between asexuality and celibacy? And how do we avoid non-inclusive, elitist statements like “you’re not really asexual if you have sex/masturbate/like sex” if we use a definition that is so open to interpretation about what is and is not sexual?

On AVEN, that attitude is very much discouraged. Nobody likes it when somebody starts saying “you are not asexual because you do x” and the admod team is quick to warn people who do. That is why I had thought that there was indeed basically a consensus among at least the more weathered members of the community that we are going by the “lack of attraction” definition; if we use the other one, then honestly? We have no business telling anybody to stop telling other people that they aren’t asexual because they do things that those people think of as sexual. By defining an asexual person as simply “not sexual” with no other qualifications, we would be encouraging other people to fill in the blanks with their own ideas. Which may or (more likely) may not match the meaning we intend to get across.

I find it really weird, then, to discover that we have this kind of contradictory state of affairs within the community with regard to our standard definition. Truthfully, it made me wonder whether my perspective is really welcomed by the community or not. If people do accept this definition, then am I not asexual enough? Pondering this question has left me somewhat unwilling to make any blog posts lately.

I think this is where the idea of policing each other comes into play. Nobody likes it (except those who are doing the policing) when people police others’ “rights” to call themselves asexual based on their own definition of what is or is not sexual. I think maybe this desire to be inclusive is so strong that many of us don’t want to say, “No, your definition is wrong.” (Yet clearly we do engage in some sort of policing, and attempt to keep people who make such statements out of the community.) So we shoot ourselves in the foot by being so open to whatever way that people want to define themselves that it hurts efforts at making a consistent, coherent, and cohesive education effort. We cannot expect other people to understand what we are talking about if we do not apply a critical standard to our own definitions/discourse as rigorous as the standard that outsiders will most certainly be holding us to.

Honestly, I think that “asexual” is a misleading term, and the only reason why it makes sense at all is in the context of other words that refer to an individual’s sexual orientation, like homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. If we had a different cultural context which did not include those concepts, most likely none of us would have come to identify as asexual in the first place. Actually, all four of those words sound quite silly if you don’t have any knowledge of their context. I mean, really? Bisexual? What could that mean, that you’re double-sexual? But if you know that “sexual” in this context refers to an individual’s sense of sexual attraction, and if you know that the prefixes all refer to the gendered direction of that attraction, then you begin to be able to decode the word. (Although even once you’ve got that down, you have to also understand why “homo-” and “hetero-” are used instead of “andro-/gyno-” which would make more sense in a non-homophobic culture.) Only then does it become intuitive to invent the word “asexual” to describe a lack of sexual attraction!

The problem, of course, is that other people tend not to understand this context at first, and think we are saying literally what the root components of the word mean. But that doesn’t make sense. We can’t (and don’t) argue that we do not experience anything that could ever be considered sexual whatsoever, so why do any of us even continue to engage in debates over what is and is not sexual, when it comes to explaining to outsiders why asexuality is possible? Why do some of us accept “not sexual” as an appropriate definition, if it is so vague that it could mean anything? Especially, why accept it while still clearly being influenced the pervasive norms of the asexual community, and apparently still using an operative definition that equates “not sexual” with “not having sexual attraction?”

Is our disidentification with sexuality so strong that we are reluctant to admit that any part of our experiences might be considered sexual at all, ever? Is it a reluctance to admit that they might have a point, if we were actually saying that? Are we just being drawn into a straw man debate?

It all boils down to this: if we are to have a chance at being accepted within the wider community—the community of non-asexuals, or those who do experience sexual attraction—then we’ve got to recognize that the binary distinction asexual/sexual that we often use to refer to insiders vs. outsiders is not a literal reference to people who experience aspects of sexuality vs. people who don’t. We need to acknowledge how broad a category “sexuality” is, and make it clear to everyone that we are only referring to one aspect of that, the only one that it seems we really have all got in common: a relative lack of sexual attraction, distinctly low enough to warrant such a classification. If we can’t come to any sort of consensus about the basic definition of “asexual” within our own community (which is completely based around that term!), how can we expect others to begin to understand? How can we expect them NOT to dismiss us as a bunch of people who can’t possibly have a point because we are saying contradictory things?

Asexual Elitism

It bothers me when I hear some asexual saying that they feel like they’re somehow above sexual people because they have no interest in sex. Um… what?

Usually, I’ve noticed, this attitude is held by asexuals who are disgusted by sex. And it makes sense that the two would go hand-in-hand, because it’s usually the disgusted ones who are the most sex-negative, and the most likely to adopt a dichotomous, divisive way of thinking. Not that this is always true, of course; some disgusted A’s still manage to maintain a sex-positive attitude.

I’ve seen all manner of different kinds of claims about how asexuals are better than sexuals, but the one that gets me most is the claim that asexuals are more intelligent than sexuals. There seem to be a lot of imagined correlations (not even false correlations, because there hasn’t been any research yet to create those, as far as I know, unless you count Bogaert’s census study, which is probably highly inaccurate) about asexuality floating around out there, but even if there were a study that found that asexuals had a statistically significant, overall higher level of intelligence than sexuals (and assuming that this study took into consideration possible false correlations such as the intersection between asexuals and people who like to spend a lot of time on internet forums), why get all elitist about it? In truth, such a correlation could possibly exist, we don’t know; but even if it did, it doesn’t mean that we are all smarter than all sexuals. In fact, by taking an elitist attitude, you would be proving yourself to be unable to grasp what correlations actually mean, and thus… You’d look stupid.

Another form of asexual elitism worth mentioning is when people say that asexual love seems more pure or true, but I think Spin from Apositive.org already has that topic covered. ;)