What It Means To Be Ace: Building community on shared experience

Special thanks go to my partner J for inspiring this post, and putting into neat words what I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I am not much of a tumblr user, but when I occasionally browse through the things the few people I follow have reblogged, I am struck by the conflict that seems to exist around who exactly should be able to claim belonging in the asexual community. I see it especially in discussion around demisexuality and grey-asexuality, and largely framed around the question of whether grey or demi people are asexual or not. To a smaller extent, I’ve seen it come up in conversations about people who have hormonal issues or disabilities, and who still identify as ace, or ace-ish.

I’ve always wondered why this is such a big issue, because the ace community I know has always been very open and flexible. For people to be having big arguments about whether demisexual people are asexual and whether grey-aces are more ace or straight seems, well, kinda petty, and completely beside the point. Something my partner said today hit the nail on the head in regards to why.

When people use the word asexual to describe themselves (or demi, or grey-ace, or panromantic, or any particular label or identifier), it’s not only because they have a word for their personal feelings and identity. Sexual orientation isn’t just about the personal, especially online, but about belonging, community, social politics. When someone says they are ace, they are claiming belonging for themselves, based on shared experience with other aces. They’re saying ‘hi, ace community – I feel like I have more in common with you than with the rest of society in terms of my sexuality.’

The same thing occurs when people decide to start identifying as demisexual or grey-asexual. It’s not a matter of people claiming to be something they’re not – it’s a matter of people saying ‘hey, my experiences of sexuality and love and relationships are more like those of other asexual people than the allosexual world.’ Because if they didn’t feel that way – if they didn’t feel somehow isolated from the way the rest of society does things – then there would just be no point in identifying as such.

Shared experience is what most communities are built on, and asexuality in particular has placed a high value on community and solidarity since its conception as a sexual orientation. So it frustrates me when that sense of community gets undermined by arguments about just where exactly the line is, how many specific boxes you have to tick for full acceptance in the ace community.

When people ask if they could be asexual, we tell them that they can only decide that for themselves. Why is it then that we suddenly turn around and say ‘oh, but demisexual people aren’t part of the proper asexual community!’ Or ‘sexuality is a spectrum, but asexuality is a specific point on that spectrum, and thus only people exactly on that point are allowed to be a part of our community.’ But what about the space around that point on the spectrum? What about the people who feel more comfortable, more accepted, have experiences more similar to the people who occupy that ‘asexual’ point than any other point?

Some people who identify as ace or demi or grey-ace might not tick every box perfectly, but still have a set of experiences and perspectives that make them much closer to the asexual community than the allosexual world. The same thing is true for asexual or ace-spectrum people who choose to engage in sets of behaviours for a wide range of reasons – having sex and even being able to enjoy it, for example. People make choices about behaviour that are more complex than just ‘I don’t experience sexual attraction, so I must not ever say or do anything sexual.’ Most of the ace community seems to realise that celibacy doesn’t make you automatically asexual – it works the other way around as well.

So to deny any of the aforementioned people belonging to the ace community seems arbitrary and capricious, and completely contrary to what I see as the goals of community: to foster belonging, acceptance and communication based on shared experience. To make people feel welcomed and accepted, and to demonstrate that there are other ways of being and loving and living. At least, that is the goal I have in mind when I write and speak to people about asexuality and visibility.

It seems counter-intuitive for the ace community to entangle itself in the question of who should be included and who should be excluded, because regardless of the specific choices people make in regards to behaviour, almost everyone in it will have felt isolated from the allosexual community at some point. Community is built upon shared experience – and the way I see it, that shared experience is all that one needs in order to belong.

Cross-posted from A Life Unexamined.

About Jo

Jo is an ancient history honours student in Australia, with a particular interest in gender and sexuality in antiquity. In her free time she devours books, tea and Doctor Who, but is honestly not that into cake, and proudly calls herself a feminist and an activist. She identifies an an aromantic asexual a little bit more every day. Jo also blogs at A Life Unexamined on feminism and asexuality.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Community, Demisexual, Gray-A. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What It Means To Be Ace: Building community on shared experience

  1. In many cases, those arguments are coming from a small, but incessantly loud, group of trolls. They seem to cycle through the same topics every six months or so, then start over in order to enrage the new people who haven’t blocked them all yet. Fortunately, their limited number makes them fairly easy to ignore.

  2. Kuroneko says:

    Personally, while I’m in favour of inclusiveness, I’m a little leary about this stuff, because at times the asexual community does seem a little quick to encourage people to identify as on the asexual spectrum, based on very little information, and I wonder whether that’s really the most helpful thing to do. As an aromantic asexual, the whole idea of experiencing any sexual attraction also seems totally alien to me, very very different to my experience – the inclusiveness actually in some ways pushes me *away* from the community, makes me feel ‘this isn’t me’. I constantly get doubted, told asexuality doesn’t exist (it hurt the most coming from my lesbian transgender female flatmate, because she campaigned for LGBT issues and it felt like she should have been an ally), and so when even within the asexual community we include people who *do* experience sexual attraction…well, I can’t see that making it any easier to explain or to be seen as legitimate, for either asexual people or demisexuals, etc. With people with medical issues (as I have myself so can definitely emphasise), if their asexuality is not the result of that then it’s obviously fine, but if it is would it really be the most helpful thing for them, or the community, to include them while ignoring that?

    Obviously we don’t want to exclude people, but maybe sometimes being a bit more specific and recognising more clearly that there are differences, while still being supportive to and accepting of each other, might be better sometimes?

    I also feel that there’s a *lot* of misinformation about sexuality, about how often and how easily sexual people experience sexual attraction, about libido levels, about how sex is, etc., which tends to get pushed by our ‘sex positive’ society (in the bad meaning of the term rather than the genuinely positive, the kind that’s more likely to say sex is good and so you *must* be having it), and since they don’t experience sexual attraction themselves, asexual people are particularly vulnerable to not *quite* picking up on that, which might lead to erroneously identifying someone else as on the asexual spectrum, when actually there’s a lot of variation in that stuff anyway.

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