Why I use “allosexual”

In general, language reform is one of my least favorite kinds of social justice work.  People are soooo defensive about what words they use.  For example, if you even mention that the word “female”, used as a noun, can be demeaning, it will completely derail all discussion of more important feminist criticisms.  (I’m thinking of a real event last year in the atheist community.)  I’m grateful for the times when I don’t have to get into that kind of argument.  But here I am doing it anyway.

“Sexual”, as a term for people off the ace-spectrum, is a bad term.  Most words have problems, but I think “sexual” has problems that should kill it.  I prefer “allosexual” as an alternative (because it has enough momentum that people in the know are familiar with it), or for visibility purposes, “non-asexual” (because it’s immediately understandable to everyone).

What bothers me about “sexual”

“Sexual” has prior meaning.

The meaning of “sexual” is very nebulous (Asexual Explorations documents many of its meanings), but it has meaning alright.  According to various definitions: When a person has functioning genitals, that’s sexual.  When a person masturbates, that’s sexual.  When comic book characters pose in a way to emphasize their butt, that’s sexual.  When you grind with someone on the dance floor, that’s sexual.  Sexuality is a major motif in human society, so it’s unsurprising it has so many connotations.  Contrast with cisgender, which has no meaning I know of besides “not transgender”.

When we call someone sexual, we are associating them with all those prior meanings.  We are saying that they have genitals, that they make flirty poses, that they grind on the dance floor, or at least, we’re associating them with all these things.  If we’re intentionally making a statement about allosexual people, that’s one thing.  But if we just want a neutral way to describe allosexuals, then “sexual” doesn’t work.

Conversely, when we call someone sexual, we are disassociating asexuals with all those prior meanings.  People will think that we have no genitals, never wear makeup, never like cuddling, or never fall in love.  People think that anyway, but why contribute to the problem when we don’t have to?  One common tactic is to insist that, for example, cuddling is not necessarily sexual.  But I like cuddling with my SO, and I think when I do it, it is sexual behavior.  I am an asexual and I do things that are sexual, what of it?

What doesn’t bother me about “sexual”

I am not bothered by the very idea of a label for the outgroup.  How else would I have made this graph if not for a label for the outgroup?  I don’t have problems with terms like “straight”, “cisgender”, “able-bodied”, and the like.  I don’t think it is reasonable to argue that we should never use words to divide people into groups.

I am not bothered by the potential exclusion of gray-As, even though I am part of the affected group.  If you say everyone is either asexual or not asexual, you’re wrong and that’s that.  Gray-As are neither/nor/either/both/between/whatever.  This does not mean the word “asexual” is wrong, it’s how you use it.

Allosexual as an alternative

For years I used “non-asexual”, because that’s the only alternative that most people understood.  I want to spend my time talking about ideas, not explaining vocabulary!  These days “allosexual” is common in certain asexual communities, so I often use that.

I am not really familiar with the history of “allosexual”, except that it has been used in some scientific papers.  I honestly don’t care about the etymology, as long as its prior meaning is sufficiently neutral and obscure.

I do know that it was popularized on the Tumblr asexual community, probably as a result of persistent interaction with hostile allosexuals.  Also, the tumblr social justice communities have relatively high standards for what constitutes and acceptable word, so there you go.  (Sometimes people on Tumblr criticize “sexual” by saying the word exacerbates hypersexual stereotypes of women of color, but I think this critique is more complicated and specific than it needs to be.)

Currently, “allosexual” does not get used much on AVEN.  It is completely unsurprising and blameless that they would not use a word that was recently popularized in a community that they don’t pay attention to.  AVEN mostly uses “sexual”, because that’s the word most people will come up with without even thinking about it.  They will continue to use that word until a persuasive alternative appears.  “Non-asexual” has not been very persuasive as an alternative, maybe “allosexual” will do better.

But it won’t happen until people go on AVEN and start using “allosexual” regularly.  Flash mob anyone?  (I’m being facetious.)

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Why I use “allosexual”

  1. nextstepcake says:

    Fair Warning: I am a linguistics student, and this subject in particular (the development and competition of “sexual” and it’s proposed alternatives) is kind of a pet project of mine to watch and think about. (I actually have a half-drafted first post of a long series on it sitting in my drafts.) So expect imminent walls of text as soon as I’m not in class.

  2. nextstepcake says:

    OK, but in brief(ish) form, here is why I do not use allosexual:

    First, the way that allosexual is used in it’s original context as a research term is not one that means exactly what we’re trying to use it for: In it’s original context, it refers to distinctions of “allosexual behavior” (partnered sexual activity) vs. “autosexual behavior” (masturbation, etc.). And thus it has implications of behavior (rather than attraction)-based definitions, and also could be interpreted as a dichotomy of people who have sex vs. people who just masturbate, which is really not what we are going for. (plus that also brings back the problem of implying that non-asexual people are just those who have sex all the time, which kind of defeats the point of an alternative)

    Second, it’s also too close to the french (sp. canadian french) term allosexuel – which is basically a direct equivalent of the english word “queer”; Allosexuel also translated into english as “allosexual” and has been used as such in a few pieces, so using it as a term for general non-asexuals (not just queer ones) can be very confusing and also somewhat appropriative.

    Finally, although this is a lesser concern than the others, it also has the disadvantage of being rather unintuitive and unintelligible to an average speaker. That is, if in the middle of a conversation, I start referring to “allosexuals”, the person I’m talking to will likely have no idea what I am talking about, as the “allo” prefix is not common enough for speakers to be able to intuit the meaning, and the term itself is almost never used (and certainly not in this way). It’s possible that this will decrease as time goes on, but in the mean time it makes it awkward for people first encountering the term. (Although this is going to be a problem for most alternative terms).

    For the time being, I tend to use non-asexual for formal instances (such as vis/ed work) and sexual/sexual people for informal conversations where I don’t need to be a role model, simple because they are more intuitive and understandable terms.

  3. nextstepcake says:

    In general, I think there are several factors that should be considered when proposing alternatives to “sexual people”/”sexuals”/”non-asexuals”; the ones that first come to mind include:

    -intelligibility: If a layperson hears the term with minimal context, how likely are they to be able to figure out what it means? On this scale, “sexual” and “non-asexual” have the advantage, while “allosexual” is not as helpful; however terms like “OTJ” and “poikkisexual” are even lower on the scale.

    -Intuitivity: similar to the above, how intuitive is the term? Terms like “non-asexual” and “sexual” are the most intuitive, and they are also the ones that speakers unfamiliar with various terminology are most likely to generate on their own (particularly “sexual”). Other terms may not be immediately intuitive, but still make some intuitive sense when informed of the definition, such as “allosexual”. Others, which come from roots not common in english or from roots not related to asexuality – such as, again, “OTJ” and “poikkisexual” are the least intuitive.

    -prior meanings/connotations: What other histories or meanings are carried along with this word? For invented words, what possible connotations could their component roots imply? For example, “sexual” and “allosexual” both have prior meanings and connotations that make them less suitable, and “consexual” carries the negative overtones of the “con-” prefix (as in pros and cons), “poikkisexual” and “verisexual” do not have any established negative connotations (at least that I am aware of)

    -clarity: similar to the two concerns above, how clear is it? is the term one that can be easily misinterpreted? For example, “mono/polysexual” is often misinterpreted to mean something completely different than was originally intended. Words with ambiguous or prior/alternate meanings have this problem as well.

    -verbal pronunciation: some terms that seem fine on the internet just don’t work in real life. Verisexual, for instance, just sounds way too much like “Very sexual” and would cause too much confusion. Similarly, terms like *sexual cannot be distinguished in spoken speech and thus are not useful in such situations

    -prevelance: how common the term is already. “sexual”, “non-asexual”, “allosexual”, and to some extent “consexual” all have some history of use, whereas “poikkisexual” and “zedsexual” have seen very little use (again, in my experience at least).

    -context: some terms work better in different contexts. For example, more complicated terms like “allosexual” etc. are more formal and may be good for advanced discussion, but are harder to explain to the layperson. Words like “non-asexual” are more intuitive for the general population but may be less preferrable for more advanced discourse. Words like “sexual” may be useful as shorthand in casual contexts but not in academic or vis/ed work.

    And of course, there are many other factors that can come into play – for example, does it carry other connotations in non-english languages? Is it just too silly to be used? Is it hard for the average person to pronounce or spell?

    Overall, of the various terms I have heard used, none so far have really been satisfactory enough for me to use them to replace “non-asexual”, so that is what I will keep using for now (although it has some unfortunate othering implications that perhaps would be good to discuss).

    • Siggy says:

      That’s some good discussion. You can probably tell from my essay which factors I consider the most important: prior meanings and prevalence. Obviously, if everyone considered prevalence to be the most important thing, we’d almost never invent new terms. But I’d rather leave the inventing to other people who enjoy it more than I do.

      I agree that there are some drawbacks in the history of the word “allosexual”. But how common is this knowledge? I think the word’s history has very little power if people only ever learn about it in order to ponder the potential drawbacks of the word.

      • nextstepcake says:

        One of the major problems is that (at least initially) one of the goals was to have a term that could also be used in more academic work; the fact that there is an established use of it in studies of sexual behavior that means something quite different is problematic.

        In non-academic contexts, though, i believe the Quebecois term is actually the more immediate problem, as there have been several objections from francophone members of the asexual community or queer communities.

        Plus, at this point, when searching for “allosexual” on google (as someone is like to do upon first hearing it) many of the first results are objections to the term allosexual.

        In addition, the opposite of allosexual in usage is autosexual, and for people who look that up or know their roots that can be misleading, since autosexual refers to a different case than asexuality (and confusion of autosexuality and asexuality is already a problem that doesn’t need to be reinforced any more)

        Still not sure how I feel about alisexual (as it kinda has the same roots as allosexual, just at a farther difference) but it is a little bit less immediately problematic.

  4. When doing visibility stuff, I default to “non-asexual-spectrum” (where the asexual spectrum includes gray-As and demis as well as asexuals), whereas within asexual spaces, I now use “alisexual,” which shares etymology with allosexual (ali- being the Latin prefix equivalent to the ancient Greek allo-) but is not likely to be confused with allosexuel. Here is a post about the history of “alisexual” as a term with some links in it. I was neither a coiner nor popularizer of alisexual when it was first proposed, although I was one of the people who tried to repurpose and popularize “allosexual” for use in the asexual community, before I learned about “allosexuel” and the other objections to it Nextstepcake talks about in their above comments.

  5. annix says:

    For a long time I didn’t have a preference for either “sexual” or “allosexual”. But in your Tumblr post about this topic a month ago, you made some really convincing arguments and I’m glad you expanded on them.

    I agree that “sexual” is already a loaded term and some of its connotations are rather unfortunate. But I don’t think that prior meaning on its own, makes “sexual” a bad choice. Lots of words have different meanings depending on context and I disagree that I apply every meaning of the word in question when I use it.

    Take for example “asexual” which had a prior meaning already, as in asexual reproduction. But context makes it rather obvious what my intended meaning is. If used to describe a person, or even most mammals, it is the sexual orientation. Where as with most single-cell organism the asexual reproduction is more probable.

    So I think context does matter a lot, but with “sexual” the context in which it is used is so similar, that it becomes impossible to determine which meaning was intended.

  6. Norah says:

    I’ve preferred *sexual since it was suggested it needed to change.
    Also ‘allosexual’ just keeps reminding me of dinosaurs.

    In speech, things are different in such a way that I don’t really mind using a longer term, so I’d probably just go for ‘some kind of sexual’.

    For complete newbies to the whole thing, I’d probably also just go for non-asexual.

  7. Lara Landis says:

    Allosexual may be a useful term, but it suffers from a few problems. The most important one is that it is awkward. Consexual would be just as ridiculous. I also run the risk of people. It also doesn’t quite convey the idea. ‘Sexual’ is easily understood. I want to make sure the largest number of people can understand me. Using a special word to sound enlightened does not help me. It also does not help spread asexual visibility to use special words that are understood by only a few. (I will occasionally use ‘people who experience sexual attraction’ and ‘people who do not experience sexual attraction’, but those phrase are also unwieldy.

    • Siggy did say in the post that he used the phrase “non-asexual” when doing visibility work.

    • Aydan says:

      I find that “sexual” is pretty confusing, actually. Like, I am a sexual person– I have a sex drive, I have fetishes, etc. Sometimes I dress in a manner that plays up my secondary sex characteristics. But I am also asexual. Establishing “sexual” as the antonym for “asexual” complicates that situation needlessly.

  8. Sciatrix says:

    Regarding the objections to “allosexual” because of a Francophone false cognate–well, if any proposed word has to be completely free of unfortunate false cognates in other languages, I think we’re going to be looking a long time. I’m with Siggy on that unfortunate bit of its history being likely to be unknown amongst most English speakers.

    (Also, agreed on generally finding language discussion boring. My philosophies on “allosexual” are essentially the same as the ones Siggy has elaborated here, with the addition that I find most of the alternatives to be more ridiculous-sounding and less intuitive than “allosexual” is. And I’m all for grabbing momentum and running with it.)

    • I was re-reading this post after coming across some recent posts against using “allosexual” (which cover most of the same ground that was covered in this discussion). I realized that I had continued for some time to dislike “allosexual” for the reason stated in my comment below, but that in the last year I seem to have come around to Sciatrix’s position as described here.

      It does seem like a consensus of sorts has formed around “allosexual”, at least on Tumblr (which is primarily where I write about asexuality) and I tend to prefer using terms that are familiar and in common use, unless I have really strong objections to them, so that I can focus on the larger point I’m making and not on linguistics. The arguments Siggy makes about “sexual” being ambiguous also convinced me to use “alloromantic” after Queenie coined the term. I don’t think that “romantic” is problematic in the way that “sexual” can be, but it is ambiguous enough that a better term is needed.

  9. ace-muslim says:

    My position is basically the same as nextstepcake’s. Because I’m aware of the prior academic/scientific usage of allosexual, I’ve just never really felt like I can adopt it wholeheartedly. On the other hand, none of the proposed alternatives are any better. I typically use non-asexual when writing, since at least the meaning is clear and people get it immediately.

  10. I remember when I first heard “cisgender”. My first reaction was “I most certainly AM NOT!”. My second reaction was “What does that even mean? That’s not a word.” It probably took four or five more tries before I figured out what it meant. I recognize that it’s a useful word in certain contexts, but those contexts are quite limited, frankly. I can’t tell a coworker that I’m a dyadic cisgender without getting a puzzled look in return, and I certainly can’t call them a dyadic cisgender without risking getting punched in the face. I feel the same way about all of neologistic alternatives to “sexual” I’ve seen. They all sound wholly artificial. If you tried to use any of them in a conversation with anyone outside of the tiny circle of Tumblr aces, you’d just get laughed at for making up words. Or you’d get yelled at for accusing someone of being “all-a-sexual” or “pokeysexual” or what have you.

    I use “non-asexual”. I can say that to anyone and they’ll instantly understand what I mean. I don’t have to launch into dictionary mode to define a new term. That’s particularly helpful given the fact that, in many cases, when you’re talking about asexuality, the person you’re talking to is already confused. Clarity is important.

    I started using “non-asexual” pretty much immediately after discovering asexuality. I never really used “sexual”. It never sat right. As with you, it bugged me because I felt it implied that asexual people can have no sexual characteristics whatsoever: No sexual arousal, no sexual pleasure, no sexual organs. It seemed to unconsciously reinforce negative stereotypes. I remember seeing a video where David Jay talked about “sexual people this” and “sexual people that” and thinking that it just sounded strange for some reason. It felt like his message was getting partially lost because of his word choice.

    As far as the objections of the “Tumblr Social Justice” crowd. As far as I’ve seen, the ones who are objecting the most are the ones who object to the entire concept of asexuality. They’re a very loud, very angry, and very inconsequential handful of people with a warped sense of what “social justice” means, who hate the world and will never be happy with anything we say or do until we shut up and go away. As such, I’m not terribly inclined to give their opinions any weight at all.

    What word did Bogaert use? I wish I had time to read that book right now… (I pre-order it months in advance, then I can’t read it when it gets here…)

    Anyway, if we’re on the word-creatin’ train, let’s come up with a word that means “celibate”, but without all the religious and purity connotations or the implication that it’s a choice.

    • nextstepcake says:

      As for Bogaert, he uses sexual. I haven’t had a chance to test this formally yet, but in informal observation I’ve noticed that the vast majority of the time, when people attempt to generate a word for “people who are not asexual” they tend to generate the word “sexual”; a few use “non-asexual” but suprisingly fewer han I would expect.

      As for alternatives to celibate: “not sexually active”? That’s what I use.

    • Queenie says:

      Seconding nextstepcake on this one; when I’m talking to non-aces about asexuality, they tend to use “sexual” as an antonym to “asexual.” Occasionally people will use “non-asexual,” but I get the impression that the people who use that are trying to be PC.

  11. I don’t think the prior (English) meaning of the word allosexual is a problem at all. Yes, it indicates behaviour, but so do all such words (heterosexual, homosexual, etc), and, if you’re going to repurpose a behaviour word into an attraction word, I think implying asexuals are ‘those people who don’t like partnered sex’ is the best you’re going to get. I’d prefer it if we had completely different words for attraction and behaviour, but no-one does, and that seems to be just the way it goes. And I would probably push for ‘non-asexual’ to be the word of choice in a sciencey space, since that’s possibly the only word we’ll find other than fhnsdjfnsaiudfabdssexual without any baggage.

    I also find this discussion kinda dull because I find it very easy to keep my labels in three separate groups- those I would use with the general public, those I would use in ace or otherwise well-informed queer spaces, and those I only really use when I’m talking to myself. The talk about how confusing the word ‘allosexual’ is is kinda disingenuous, because NO ONE (that I have seen) is proposing that we use the word for visibility- we have the word ‘non-asexual’ for that. As far as I’m concerned, ‘allo’ is a) a very short piece of specialised vocabulary to make discussions much easier in the ace community, and b) a word which I use in understanding myself, rather than in communicating to others, because it’s a positive identity, not just not-ace.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Yes, this, seriously. I use a very different level of vocabulary when I’m doing visibility work than I do when I’m writing for ace audiences. For one thing, I’m a lot less technical, and I’m a lot more tolerant of oversimplifications when I’m not aiming my work at ace audiences. (I usually use “non-asexual” if I need a relevant word in that context.)

      I mean, are you guys seriously going out and doing visibility work and trying to introduce every concept in its full complexity and every unusual term with its definition at once? Maybe it’s just that the majority of my visibility work has been in the context of a relatively short, well-defined period of time where I and my co-panelists focus on a lot of different minority sexuality and gender issues with an audience that may have zero background in the subject, but when I do visibility work I try to keep my concepts relatively easy to understand (even if that means oversimplifying a little). I do not use the more obscure jargon ever unless I’m going to be referring back to a concept multiple times over the course of the panel or session and need to be able to have a word to do that quickly with. I often don’t even get into terms like “romantic orientation;” usually I do “Well, some asexual people get crushes and want to date other people, and some people don’t. Sometimes people who want to date have gender preferences.” and then that’s it and on to the next question. I’m trying to focus on keeping people’s interest and teaching, and spending time defining a bunch of terms isn’t conducive to doing that.

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  13. AVEN member says:

    Hey, cool! I’ll go spread awareness of this term on AVEN!

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  15. doxixhavexto says:

    “I am an asexual and I do things that are sexual, what of it?” THANK YOU.

  16. luvtheheaven says:

    Reblogged this on From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts and commented:
    I like to use the term allosexual myself, so I am reblogging this now. These reasons make sense to me, the arguments against using it don’t make sense. So here. Please read this in order to be less confused when perusing my blog.

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