How Important is Terminology?

If you’ve read any of my previous work, a lot of it is about trying to come up with operational definitions for things like sexual attraction, romantic relationships, and so forth. I’m most comfortable thinking about things by defining my premises, building a model, and following that to its logical conclusion. That’s very useful in my research, but I do it constantly—anyone who has socialized with me for long has watched me ruin a lot of perfectly good jokes that way.

I spent a lot of time trying to clarify my understanding by interrogating those premises. For the most part, that wasn’t a productive avenue of thought. I spent a lot of time arguing in circles and trying to collect data that didn’t ever coalesce into a functioning theory. I tried so hard to make the model I was working with internally consistent that I burned myself out on the entire discussion.

Instead, I’ve learned to be comfortable with ambiguity. In fact, these days when I talk about my relationships, I’m more likely to couch them in the language of ambiguity (“Schroedinger’s dating”) than by coining a new term to reify the type (“queerplatonic relationship”). The number of terms I use to describe myself has gotten shorter and shorter with time, until now I only identify as “asexual” unless explicitly asked to define myself along some axis (romantic orientation, repulsed/indifferent, etc.). This is very, very different from the way I used to think and talk about sexuality, in terms of trying to chase down and identify smaller and smaller sub-categories of orientation. I primarily learned to think about sexual orientation from asexual communities, and I think this very analytical approach to asexuality is a very distinct characteristic of those communities—I’ve never seen anything else quite like it in the sex-positive or LGBT spaces I’ve been a part of.
The thing is, I’m not sure that interrogating our operational definitions and trying to parse sexuality completely is a productive way of understanding asexuality. Actually, that’s not entirely true—I think models are important to clarifying the way we think, if only to make sure that we’re not talking past each other. Explicitly defining our terms is useful for the same reason. Insofar as they’re useful for communication, spending time thinking about the way we describe orientation is a good thing.

But I think it might be better to think about asexuality in terms of multiple coexisting models, rather than encouraging models to compete against each other in the hopes of creating objective understanding. I’m not sure objective understanding is even possible. When I see people attempting to define things like sexual attraction and romantic attraction, people who feel the thing under definition often says it’s impossible to define, while people who don’t tend to come up with definitions that are rejected by the former as incomplete or insulting. It doesn’t seem to be a productive avenue of conversation, for the most part.

I want to see the usefulness criterion become a bit more prominent. That is, “an asexual person is someone who feels that the label “asexual” works best to describe them”, as contrasted to the other common definition “an asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” I think that the latter method of defining things is very useful for things like visibility and awareness, but I don’t think it’s as useful for identity as the former is, and I’d like to see the former acknowledged as frequently as the latter. Sometimes in ace spaces people feel the need to police other people’s identities to fit better with their own internal definitions, as in this recent comment on Annette’s post identifying herself as grey-A where another person told her that really, no, she’s actually demisexual. I think that remembering the usefulness criterion is likely to reduce the frequency of incidents like this.

I also just don’t think that arguing over definitions is very important. I’d rather see more discussion on lived experiences and the practical issues that turn up among aces.

About Sciatrix

Sciatrix is an American graduate student studying ecology, evolution and behavior. She identifies as asexual and has mostly given up trying to sort out the whole romance thing for now. She has previously blogged about asexuality at Writing From Factor X. In her free time, she trains in canine agility and knits oddly cabled hats.
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3 Responses to How Important is Terminology?

  1. Siggy says:

    Sometimes people ask if sexual orientation refers to which genders you’re attracted to, or which sexes. I think there is no real answer to this question, since most of the time people use these sexual orientation terms they aren’t even thinking about people whose gender and sex mismatch.

    Similarly, when people have trouble defining romantic attraction, that makes me think there is no real answer. Romantic attraction is no more or less than what people think it is, and if people don’t think about it very much, then it isn’t anything in particular.

  2. morethanx says:

    I personally like terminology, simply because I like having neat words for things. Like you I have found some of the words’ meanings to be less than helpful (hello, romantic attraction), but I still find it helpful to have a word to describe that there seems to be this thing that a lot of other people want/feel that I just don’t.
    I agree with your point about the usefulness definition. I remember there was a bit of pushback on Tumblr, and there were quite a few “well, by THAT definition, I’m asexual! And I don’t ID as asexual, therefore the whole idea is bunk.” The usefulness definition may sidestep this neatly by removing the implied ‘you fit definition of X therefore you are X’ that comes when it isn’t there.

  3. Pingback: Components of Resilience: Affect Management & Positive Frameworks | Prismatic Entanglements

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