It’s Complicated, Let Me Draw You This Graph: Asexuality and Reductionism

So I’ve been thinking about asexual culture and asexual perspectives lately. There were a few recent comments on an old post at Asexuality Unabashed on the topic, and then last week’s journal club got drawn out on a tangent about whether asexual people see the world differently than allosexual people, on the whole.

I often see people complaining that asexual culture boils down to cake, Sherlock and Doctor Who, and that it’s just an annoying collection of in-jokes. The thing is, I don’t actually think that’s true. I’m one of those people whose thinking about sexuality is very much a product of the time I’ve spent in ace circles, and I am always noticing that I think very differently about things than many of my peers. For that reason alone, I think there’s more to ace culture than the references that people often seem to think of.

So here’s one thing I think is central to asexual culture: a reductionist view of sexuality. When I say “reductionist,” I mean that aces often think of sexuality as a very complex thing that can be simplified down into component parts, and if you could just understand all the pieces at the simplest level, you would have completely understood the whole. The infamous ace tendency to have a string of complicated identity labels–nonlibidoist demihomoromantic homoaesthetic quasirepulsed asexual–is a byproduct of this, because if we’re juggling so many modules that more-or-less fit under “sexuality” we need to have names for what each of them is.

I have never encountered anything quite like the level of reductionism I am used to in ace communities in any other forum for discussing sexuality. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with academics working on one intersection of sexual behavior and another, and it’s not uncommon for me to listen to someone discuss sexuality from an academic perspective and think either “yeah, that’s an obvious distinction” or “but that’s oversimplifying!” For example, a few years ago I was sitting in a Human Sexuality class where the professor brought out what was clearly her trump card of a case study whose orientation was impossible to classify: a good friend of hers who was sexually attracted to women but who only wanted to date men. I recall being somewhat underwhelmed by this challenge.

It’s not that ace cultures are the only cultures of people interested in sex who are out there getting reductionist about things. That’s obviously wrong; reductionism is a hallmark of most scientific attempts to understand sexuality, and I’ve seen reductionist views of parsing sexuality in one form or another in polyamorous circles, sex-positivity circles, and LGB circles. It’s just that aces seem to take things to a very elaborate level in a way that I almost never run into in other contexts. And what’s more, fine-tuned, modular understandings of sex and sexual orientation aren’t the province of theorists, but instead are something a lot of aces seem to engage in, even if they’re not interested in working out new bits of jargon.

A Venn diagram with one circle labeled People who like cakes, and another labeled people who like graphs. Aces fall partly into the first circle and entirely in the second.

Siggy sketched this awesome graph to illustrate the point.

We’re a group of people who come up with complicated ideas about sex, and then try to explain them with metaphors, chartsgraphs, and occasionally even Bayesian models. I really do think it’s a cultural difference about what to do when presented with someone whose sexual orientation doesn’t fit the existing framework people use to think about sexuality. In my experience, other “sexuality cultures” have historically been likely to take an approach where the person identifies themselves as part of a miscellaneous category–“queer,” for example, or “I don’t like labels,” which is almost its own label.

Asexuals, on the other hand, tend to react to someone who doesn’t fit in the existing model by changing the model to understand why there’s a disjoint. If someone says “I don’t categorize easily under this system at all,” the tendency is to say “Oh? How?” and rework the system to allow the person to fit easily under it. There are a lot of dead models of asexuality, like the ABCD model, for precisely this reason.

So why are we so interested in parsing complexity? After all, a lot of the distinctions we make don’t really matter that much to our social lives. Almost none of that long string of identity jargon I mentioned earlier is actually useful to me outside of a very specialized sort of conversation that is only really found in asexual-heavy spaces.

I’d argue that we do this partially because of romantic orientation. It seems to be much more likely for aces to have “mismatched” sexual and romantic orientations than it is for allosexual people. While I know of six or seven cases of homoromantic heterosexual people (or vice versa) and “affectional orientation” as distinct from sexual orientation is actually a concept asexual communities borrowed from LGB groups, nevertheless between 55% and 84% of asexuals are not aromantic (depending on how you count the “other” category in the last census). Other censuses put the number around 74-81%. No matter how you slice the data, the numbers on mismatched orientations among allosexual people don’t even come close. Because there are so many aces for whom the distinction is important, the idea of a “split” orientation has become central to asexual culture models of sexuality.

Once you’ve parsed sexual orientation into two components and have a culture where everyone is used to thinking about things in terms of two possibly-but-not-necessarily-linked modules, I think it’s much easier for people to keep thinking about new modules that might explain diversity and adding them onto the way they think about things.

What about you? What do you think is an integral piece of asexual culture?

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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32 Responses to It’s Complicated, Let Me Draw You This Graph: Asexuality and Reductionism

  1. A heads up, your first link is mixed up (though I shouldn’t complain, since the pingback led me to this awesome post :D).

    It is interesting, to think that an inherent trait of our orientations (romantic/sexual orientation mismatching) built a part of our culture and naming systems, rather than the other way around (which is how I had always thought of it).

    I don’t dismiss the importance of the cake or the Sherlock worship though. Built culture traits are just as important as inherent culture traits. I was thinking about this earlier; to move beyond what we were considered for most of history (sexual people who fit poorly into social sexual norms) and into our distinct seperate group, I think it was (and is) necessary to build a unique culture of our own.

    People need more than just one common trait (a common (a)sexual orientation) to bind them together for unity to achieve common goals. Most groups do this. It doesn’t matter if we individually despise cake and Sherlock; that it is there to be complained about and rebelled against is necessary.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Whoops. That’ll teach me to keep so many tabs up when I’m adding links to posts!

      I tend to think of cultures and traits as influencing each other, instead of the cause and effect only going one way. A culture is going to grow in different ways depending on the needs and context of the people inside it, and those needs and contexts are going to be partially informed by what the culture is doing. Same kind of thing as “nature vs. nuture”–it’s not a dichotomy, you can’t have one without the other, and they inform each other as they go along.

      I’m a little conflicted on the importance of the cultural references and in-jokes, especially about cake. I don’t think Sherlock and Doctor Who need to be terribly central to asexual culture, for example, and it can sometimes be really alienating to be in ace spaces if you don’t like one of the shows. On the other hand, I find cake jokes boring most of the time. Despite that, the biggest response I had to the (A)sexual documentary when I finally recently saw it was to wander around gibbering that they explained about why cake was a thing and the origins of the concept, which was as a gesture of support from the community on AVEN’s forums way back, and which people often don’t talk about. So basically I have no idea how I feel about things like that in the culture–which is why I didn’t bother to talk much about it! Maybe the solution is to come up with more stereotypes about what aces do so the existing one isn’t quite as limiting.

  2. Siggy says:

    I think this post calls for a graph!

  3. Phyllis says:

    While I don’t like Sherlock Holmes, have never watched, (and have no plans to watch), Dr Who, I do like most kinds of cake. The cake thing probably has more to do with my sweet tooth, than my being asexual. Does that make me any less of an asexual? I think not. All of that has nothing to do with my sexuality. I just have zero need for sex, and have been a lot happier, since I came to terms with this fact, and since I found out that there are many others like me. Maybe some of us say we don’t like labels, since we don’t want to have Sherlock, and Dr. Who foisted upon us, any more than we want sex foisted upon us. 🙂 I’m proud to say I am asexual, but draw the line at literature and tv shows, lol.

  4. Jo says:

    This is definitely something I’ve noticed as well! In fact, I’m currently working on a comic (I can’t draw and have never made a comic before, so it’s slow going) that explains my own theory of asexuality. It’s called ‘The String Theory of Asexuality.’ Coming soon to a cinema near you… If I ever decide it’s good enough. 😀

  5. queenieofaces says:

    This is something I have noticed as well! Well, I guess it would be hard NOT to notice it, given that several meet-ups I’ve attended have devolved into theorizing and sketching graphs on the backs of napkins. Plus, I’ve had so many conversations with ace friends that have started with, “So I’ve been thinking about how to conceptualize this thing, and I came up with an extended metaphor…”

    It’s interesting, ’cause I have a couple of friends (both straight and non-ace GSRM) who’ve found a lot of the ace theorizing really helpful in figuring out their own sexualities. So it’s not just aces who find the reductionist approach really helpful! I guess we’re the only ones who make it such a huge part of the community, though…

  6. Siggy says:

    Perhaps it’s worth noting that even the earliest symbol of asexuality, the AVEN triangle, represents a graph of sexual orientation. In fact, this predates romantic orientation as a concept. When it became clear people had romantic orientations, it became clear the graph was inaccurate, and it got reduced to a symbol only.

    I agree with your explanation that it has to do with mismatched orientations. A few reductionist models have been highly necessary and wildly successful for most asexuals. If reductionist models worked before, they’ll work again, or so we seem to think.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Hah, I’d completely forgotten about that when I was writing this! And it actually undermines my point a bit, because there’s an example of fairly reductionist and certainly highly theoretical thinking in ace circles that predates widely accepted theories of romantic orientation. That being said, I don’t really think there’s one single cause for the popularity of reductionism in asexual cultures. The highly successful reductionist models that have taken off are certainly a big factor and the one I happened to discuss here, but I can think of other possible factors, too. For example, the essential invisibility of asexuality lead to a lot of focus on trying to explain it to other people, especially after the initial political decision to contrast asexuality with celibacy. To do that, you have to explain what defines asexuality. Since there are no actual actions you can point to in order to do that, you need a fairly fine-tuned grasp of sexual orientation theory to use for your explanation.

      On the other hand, sometimes reductionist models are less than useful. I’d argue that the distinction between libidoist and nonlibidoist aces is one of these–there seems to be no practical difference between the groups aside from the obvious, and I don’t believe there are much in the way of social ramifications that come from being in one category or the other. So to my mind, that distinction does little more than add a bit of extra, unnecessary jargon to a conversation that could begin and end with “some asexual people masturbate and some don’t.”

  7. bex says:

    your insight and observations gave me a lot to think about and consider, thank you.

    i don’t know anything about ace culture so can’t provide any opinion, but i enjoyed reading about your experiences.

  8. L says:

    While I don’t care to watch TV, let alone Sherlock and Dr. Who, I have found the ace penchant for reductionism to be really helpful to me in my time trying to sort out what I need, want, and don’t want out of my marriage, and by extension, how my husband and I can be a better team, navigate compromises, and so forth. Even though that doesn’t serve a publicly social function, it’s still wildly important and eases communication between us.

    Especially since I like sex. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to try and explain “likes sex but doesn’t want it, wants it but not sexually, likes men (mostly heterocismen) but isn’t a woman, needs D/s but wants it queer and non-gendered, wants genderlessness to be focus of humiliation and inferiority but without being made inferior” and so on. Shit like that is a rabbit-hole, and sometimes the poetic analogies or endless quasi-scientific qualifiers are really all there is to describe this stuff.

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  11. Tina says:

    It’s been important for me to be able to label all of the manners in which I feel attraction, because in most cases sexual attraction, sexual activity, romantic attraction, romantic activity, and visual attraction are assumed to be the same. Despite growing up with the same assumption that has not been an accurate reflection of my own experiences. I’m seeking a reflection for my own experiences in the labels of the community.

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  17. Charli says:

    As much as people try to distinguish romantic from sexual orientation, I am one of those aros who don’t get it, no matter how much you try to reduce or explain it. Without the sex, what is the difference between romance and a close friendship?

    • Hex says:

      I thought long and hard about this, and I am honestly at a loss to describe it. I KNOW there is a difference, as I am a romantic asexual, but I can’t really articulate or describe it sufficiently. It’s sort of like they each fulfill different emotional desires; beyond that, I have trouble articulating, except that for me, typically, platonic relationships tend to not fulfill the same emotional desires as romantic relationships, whereas romantic relationships (again, in my case; I don’t want to speak for anyone) can fulfill both. (And in my opinion, good ones do, but that’s a different topic.)

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  20. Hex says:

    I have to say that I very much agree with this article. While it can complicated and out of hand as far as labels go, there are a lot of nuances and complexities to attraction.
    A good point I would like to make is that we, as individuals, have no frame of reference for what sexual attraction actually feels like. I don’t just mean the ace community, I mean EVERYONE. This sort of leads to us (the asexual community) parsing attraction down to make it more understandable for ourselves, to make it easier for us to definitively say “Okay, yeah, that really isn’t at all what I am experiencing, I don’t think I experience sexual attraction. So, what AM I experiencing, then? Oh, it’s “. It has the effect of circumventing feelings of aseuxals just being “broken”, which I think we can all agree is very important, as we asexuals are not in any way broken.

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  25. Drazex says:

    Very good article. I think one of the aspects that leads to this reductionism is also the lack of understanding of the topic. I don’t mean that in a negative way, simply that we are trying to understand something based on contradictory evidence.

    When I first discovered I was asexual, I doubted myself because I had a libido (hetero libidoist). It took time in the community to understand that there was a difference between sexual attraction and libido, and also between sexual attraction and sensual/aesthetic attractions. All of those usually coincide for allosexuals, but for questioning asexuals, understanding the difference between each one is very important for figuring out if you’re an ace, grey-ace, or allosexual with low desire.

    If you can be aroused by the opposite sex, are you asexual or “normal”? Well, some asexuals are, some asexuals aren’t. Clearly if some are, it can’t be a definition for “sexual”, but if it’s not, how do we talk about it? A name will let people talk about it.

    If you find someone attractive, regardless of arousal, are you asexual or “normal”? Same problem.

    What about wanting a relationship? Regardless of the answer to that, what if you want to cuddle? Is cuddling romantic? Where’s the line between cuddling and kissing and making out and sex?

    The only way to know that you don’t have something is to define exactly where it starts and stops, and for something as complicated as asexuality, that requires understanding far more than usual.

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