When I was watching the recent HHA anniversary livestream earlier this month, the presenters highlighted an old quote from one of David Jay’s posts from the very early days of modern ace communities that really resonated with me. The quote occurred in response to an email thread about questions on how to create a universal definition for asexuality, a debate which continues to this day:
It seems like a common definition is sort of problematic. Because, in the end, we only sort of have a common identity. Asexuality means very different things to each of us, and finding a definition which is all-inclusive and still meaningful may be impossible. The reason that we’re forming a group isn’t because we have a neat, common identity but because we face a common set of issues. It seems like if we form a group it should be around those issues, not around some difficult-to-draw identity line.– David Jay
It reminded me of a similar concept in my own local ace 101 outreach work for a while now: the idea that asexuality is not a single, unified experience, but rather a similar but varying set of experiences that have just enough in common that it makes sense for us to join in a single community – a coalition of multitudes of varied experiences.
I don’t think I’ve ever come out and spelled it out in it’s own post here, so I think now is a good time to make this a formal proposal and put it up for discussion.
Multitudes of Experiences in Coalition
When it comes to explaining asexuality, anyone who has ever come out is probably familiar with the deluge of questions about asexual experiences that ensue: Do aces date? Can aces have sex? Do they like cake or find people attractive or want to be in LGBTQ communities or – or – or –
Many of those of us who do a lot of 101 work have faced these questions that the standard response has become something like a mantra:
Well, some do, and some don’t
We can’t really answer most of these questions with anything, because there is no single defining “ace experience” that sets a benchmark for all others.
“But surely,” you may ask “we can at least agree on ‘lack of sexual attraction’ at least?” But as a matter of fact, we can’t take that for granted either. Although that definition has been adopted by some ace groups over the years as a strategic unified front, the underlying reality of our communities has always been more complicated – there’s a great review of the complicated history of defining asexuality here.
As users like David Jay and Celibbrat were discussing back in 2001, the fact is that “we’ve all arrived here for different reasons”. For starters, here are just a few of the reasons I’ve heard from people about why the term “asexual” resonated with them:
- Lack of sexual attraction
- No sexual attraction towards any gender
- Lack of sexual desire
- High sex drive but no interest in making that partnered
- Attraction to partners but no interest in making it sexual
- Nebulous feelings of attraction that couldn’t be pinned down enough for another term to make sense.
- Disinterest in sex
- Discomfort with sex
- Lack of interest in sexual relationships
- Lack of interest in romantic relationships
- Preferring to remain single
- Opting out of sexual relationships for mental health reasons
And even on top of that I’m sure there’s probably at least 10 more that I’ve missed. As you’ve noticed, these vary widely – some almost seem contradictory! It’s no wonder that people can’t agree on a single “correct” definition when our community clearly isn’t a single group of people.
That said, there is something bigger which I would argue unites us: the sense that traditional models of sexuality that centered around assumptions of sex and a single spectrum of gay-(to bi)-to straight just didn’t work for us. For most of us, a new label like “asexuality” was the first time we could find a label we felt comfortable picking up.
The other common factor that continues to bring us together is that we have a need for the kinds of support that asexual communities can offer. To go back to the quote that kicked off this whole post, we may or may not share a single identity experience, but we do share many of the same issues – and we share an interest in working together to overcome them. And that, after all, is exactly what coalitions are for!
Coalitional Definitions in Action
In my current asexuality outreach 101 work, I like to use this exact language of ace communities as coalitions as part of my basic introduction to the question of “What is Asexuality”, as a way to try and forestall the development of some common assumptions about asexuality.
My usual short intro presentation (of which you can see a recent example here) follows what I think of as a define-disrupt-diversify process, which goes something like this:
- A basic “traditional” text definition of asexuality, alongside a second slide with visual representations of the Kinsey scale and the Storms model, for those who learn more from images than text.
- As soon as audiences have observed that, the next slide is a challenge to complicate things by disrupting the credibility of the simple, easy definition I just gave them.
- After a short discussion about the ace community philosophy of “labels are tools, not boxes”, we segue into the topic of diversity of experiences in the ace community, by introducing the mantra of “Some Do, Some Don’t”, calling readers attention to a handout of community sub-terminology, and showing the following slide on coalitions:
When put together in this manner, my hope with define-disrupt-diversify style introductions like this is to give audiences a basic sense of what asexuality is, while also troubling the assumption that there is (or that anyone should expect) a single universal definition of what an asexual person is.
This is a post for the October 2020 Carnival of Aces, on the topic of “Multitudes”.