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.)