Negative may be better than the alternative

Earlier I saw a post by Anagnori expressing a sentiment I’ve seen several times before: Why do we have to define asexuality in a “negative” way, in terms of what asexuals don’t experience?

The desire is there, but for the most part no one is really able to come up with a “positive” alternative.  So no one really knows what it would be like to have a “positive” form of asexuality.

However, I can analogize it to another “negative” label that has come up with “positive” alternatives: atheism.  Atheism is also defined as a lack.  But there have been many attempts by many groups to come up with “positive” alternatives.  Words like “humanist”, “skeptic”, “secularist”, and “freethinker” are examples.  And even where these labels are not used explicitly, many “atheist” communities de facto have positive values–people not sharing those values are either pushed out or made to feel out of place.

This strategy has costs and benefits.  The benefit is a more coherent goal, and more power to achieve that goal.  The cost is divisiveness.

Division isn’t really a bad thing in itself.  For instance, it’s not bad that the atheist and asexual communities are divided, that just makes sense!  In terms of atheist communities, I don’t really mind if supernaturalist atheists aren’t part of my community–we don’t have much in common anyway.  No, what’s wrong with divisiveness among atheists is that atheism is not just a political cause, but also a minority identity.  (I developed this idea more in a post on my blog.)  Atheists can in principle have all sorts of political views, and yet they may still need community support by virtue of being a minority in a religious society.  If some people feel unwelcome in mainstream atheist communities, or worse, there are big clashes between different atheist communities, that’s the price we have to pay.

When I apply these costs and benefits to asexuality, it just doesn’t make sense to turn asexuality into a more “positive” label.  Is there a particular need for a more coherent goal?  Is it worth the divisiveness?

Asexuality serves more as a minority identity than a political cause.  If you find an alternative positive meaning, it will exclude people.  For example, you could create a definition in terms of queerplatonic relationships (ie strong relationships that are neither friendships nor romantic), but personally I’m not interested in those relationships.  I’d be willing to politically advocate for their legitimacy, but not to participate in them.  If asexuality were a political cause, that would be fine.  But since it’s a minority identity, it’s not fine, it’s exclusionary.

Another example: A lot of asexuals (especially in the blogging community) are very pro-feminist.  Feminism–there’s a positive value for you.  But do you feel comfortable with branding asexuality as a kind of feminism, perhaps the kind of feminism that emphasizes sexual diversity, loves reductionism, and has sophisticated views on “sex-positivity”?  Those things are great, but given how often asexuals feel their identities delegitimized, I’d like to reduce the pressure on asexuals to be anything in particular.  (In contrast, I’m just fine with atheist communities where atheism is closely associated with feminism.)

So based on my experience, I just don’t see a “positive” definition of asexuality as being a good thing.  I think it would lead to misery.

Of course, arguments from analogy are always sketchy.  Would we come to the same conclusion if we considered other analogies?  There’s probably something to be learned from non-binary people, for instance.

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.
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10 Responses to Negative may be better than the alternative

  1. swankivy says:

    I think, along with being divisive, one of the biggest problems with trying to define our lack of attraction as a “positive” attribute is that so many of the attempts to do so would sound elitist. We’re already suspected of being elitist even if we don’t say anything, so it’s kind of lose/lose.

    Celebrate our supposed extra time for other activities besides sex (or, where it applies, relationships)? We’re viewed as believing we’re more productive or worthwhile people. Celebrate our supposedly non-sexual but intimate relationships? We’re accused of presenting our friendships as deeper or more nuanced. Celebrate our way of thinking without sexual attraction’s influence? We’re believed to be expressing that sexual attraction “clouds” the mind and that we’re sharper and better. Celebrate our supposed immunity to problems like STIs, unwanted pregnancy, types of relationship drama, and distracting urges? We’re interpreted as looking down on those who do deal with these things.

    All while ignoring that not all of us have “extra” time, have intimate but non-sexual relationships, do not experience “sexual” thoughts, or are immune to the issues mentioned.

    I think the closest thing to a “positive” we have is the idea of asexuality as an orientation–not as lack of one. It’s the answer we have to that question of “who you’re attracted to.” Saying “no one” is different from not answering, just like putting a zero in the blank on the math test is a very different response from leaving it blank. And even this doesn’t include all aces. Some aces DO think of asexuality as basically a way to say you don’t have a sexual orientation.

  2. Cleander says:

    I think it’s also worth considering that many other identities also have very strong “negatives” as integral parts of their definitions. For example, while attraction different genders is one positive definition of “heterosexuality”, it only works when you have an additional (often unspoken) negative constraint: that one is also NOT attracted to the same gender. Without negative definitions, you could never have any sexuality labels except for maybe pansexuality.

    • ace-muslim says:

      I actually think that the role of absence or lack in other sexual orientations, particularly the monosexual ones, is something that is not talked about very much and that it should be talked about more.

      Shameless plug:

      • Cleander says:

        I agree!

        Interestingly, one of the few places I’ve noticed “lack” aspects of other orientations (specifically heterosexual ones) commonly mentioned is when people attempt to explain why asexuals should be straight, in arguments like this:

        1. Gay people are attracted to the same gender
        2. Straight people are not attracted to the same gender
        3. Asexual people are not attracted to the same gender
        ergo; Asexual people are straight.

        There are of course many fallacies with this, but it’s interesting how only one positive or negative aspect is emphasized in each example in order to prove their point (instead of recognizing that each is defined by both a negative and a positive, which would break their argument).

        On the other hand, it seems much less common get the reverse emphasis (straight people are those who are attracted to different genders, gay people are those who are not), which is interesting.

        (I haven’t mentioned bisexuality/pansexuality/etc. because this is a vast oversimplification)

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