“Am I asexual?” “Who can say?”

Recently, there’s been an asexual advice blog that’s been getting a lot of flak on my tumblr dash. I’d been ignoring tumblr in favor of other shiny things for a few weeks, so a few days ago I wandered over to see what the fuss was about.

I was somewhat astonished to find the advice bloggers listening to anon experiences and going “well, this is what I think your identity is.” Maybe more astonished than I should have been.

See, when I was a baby ace on the AVEN forums, telling people how they should identify was considered taboo. It’s not that people didn’t ask—then, as now, it was really common for people to assemble lists of desires, experiences, and feelings, and ask whether they were ace or aro or something else. When you’ve just encountered a new identity and you’re not quite sure of yourself, and there’s this established community of people already there and discussing that identity and you don’t know whether you fit with them, it’s really tempting to ask for that validation. By getting other members of the community to say “yes, you’re asexual,” new people get told that yes, you really DO belong here.

Unfortunately, validation aside, I still think that it’s a terrible idea to give people a straight answer on whether they’re asexual or not (or whether they’re demi or aromantic or whatever). I had a very good conversation with several advice blogs about this issue and how to make it less common on Tumblr over the last few days. The ace advice community is coming up with some awesome new initiatives (like a dedicated aceadvice tag and a list of people with specific experiences to send questioning people over to). But what I don’t think I did over there is explain why it’s a bad idea.

I’ve exhaustively discussed in the past why it’s a bad idea to let other people tell you how to identify from the perspective of the person asking, but apparently no one has explained to established ace community members why pulling this shit is a bad idea. So let’s discuss this from the perspective of someone who has been identifying as ace for a while, is up and comfortable on community discourse and knows all the labels. Say a person comes up to you in your ace community of choice. Call ’em Jo. And say they’ve just discovered that asexuality is a thing, so they come up to you and ask you “am I asexual?” How do you respond?

First: the point of labels is to find something that works for you. Labels should be tools that serve the person using them, not pre-made boxes that people have to squeeze themselves into. So how on earth do you know what is going to work for Jo? How do you know what’s going to be most helpful to them as they figure out what makes them comfortable and what is useful to help them communicate?

Hint: you don’t. That’s why suggesting terms or concepts that they might want to look into can be helpful, but you should never ever tell someone “I think you’re this.” Give them things to try on and see if they fit, but don’t shove them into the Cropped Jacket of Demisexuality or the Tight-fitting Pants of Aromanticism. Let them see what works for them. Maybe they need to tailor words to fit, maybe it’ll turn out there’s no word on the rack and they need to make something new, or maybe you have an existing concept that works perfectly already.

Second: Identity labels in the context of sexual orientation are based on feelings and desires. You know who has the best perspective on Jo’s feelings and desires? It’s Jo, since they are directly experiencing those feelings. YOU only have access to whatever they actually tell you, and that may or may not be everything they are currently dealing with. Especially if they see you as an authority figure—which, in particular if you’re running an advice blog, you are actively representing yourself as—they may modify the way they present things in order to seek your approval. They may or may not feel comfortable telling you everything that is going on with them. So you have, potentially, a vastly different view of what is going on with far, far less information to work with than they do. That means you’re going in blinded, and it means that your stabs at the right identity may be less accurate than you think.

When you tell people how they should identify and why, you risk invalidating the identities that they already hold. You also aren’t telling people how to identify in a vacuum, so you’re risking telling other people who may be listening that they are identifying themselves wrongly. Telling someone “your identity is wrong and you need to use a different word” is a really, really fraught thing to do. Generally speaking you should never do that, unless their identity is actively harming someone. You really do not want to do that by accident. If you’re going to hurt and offend people, at least try to do it on purpose.

Third: If you are trying to shepherd new people into the ace community and act as a mentor, your job should be to help people make informed decisions about their orientation. You’re supposed to be empowering them to find words they’re comfortable in and labels that work for them, and you’re supposed to be providing a space to help questioning people figure themselves out. That means that you can’t be yet another person telling them “I know what you are, it’s this.” The goal is for them to own their labels, to take control of them, to say “I know what I am, this is the word that describes me, and I’m going to take that word and go out and use it to communicate with people.” You cannot provide a space to let people do that if you’re being prescriptive about whether labels “count” for them.

But, you ask, then what can I do? If someone comes up to me and asks me to my face if I think they’re ace, what do I tell them?

Well—you know, I’d been postponing this post for a few days while I took the time to respond to the discussions on Tumblr, and then someone in that discussion asked that exact question. And Cleander answered it extremely well, so with her permission I’m just going to reproduce her advice below.

1. Don’t directly apply definitions to people. If you think someone may not understand asexuality or our terms, it’s quite fine to say “we usually define _____ as ___, which isn’t necessarily related to _____”. The key is in not adding “And therefore you don’t fit this”. Just put the definition out there, but don’t judge whether they fit it or not. Let them decide that.

2. Offer multiple possible narratives. In the first example, the response assumes that the asker fits one specific narrative. In the second ask, multiple possible narratives are presented to the asker can see which one fits to them more.

3. Don’t decide their identity for them. Notice that the second one never says “you are probably…” or “I think you aren’t really”. It doesn’t make any judgements about the person at all – just  offers more insight and a couple options for them to “try on”.

4. Use less strict definitions. This may be more of a personal preference, but I prefer using softer definitions (like “in the asexual community, we say” or “this is usually described as…”) since things are fairly variable between communities and I think there is no universal “right” definition, especially since out understandings are constantly evolving.

And bonus advice #5, that didn’t come up in this situation but that I thought of while writing:

5. Don’t suggest final answers, discuss things to look into. Let’s say you get an asker who sounds like they might be an aromantic sexual person, or gray-asexual, or something like that. Instead of saying “I think you might actually be grey-asexual, not asexual”, or something like that, try saying “We also have a concept in the ace community which you might find useful, which is the concept of grey asexuality – [explain]” or “one thing that might help you is to think about “romantic” and “sexual” attraction differently – in asexual communities, we usually speak of [explain]”. Again, giving options, not suggesting answers.

Remember, when you stand up to offer advice to someone who is questioning their asexuality and confused about it, your job is to help them decide what words work best for them, not decide for them. It’s the difference between saying “Are you looking for something like this snappy evening jacket? I think it might fit what you’re looking for” and saying “This jacket looks best on you, so let me just put it on” or worse, actively wrestling someone into the jacket. Identities are at least as important to us as clothes are, even when we’re not sure what kinds we’d like to wear. We should be at least as cautious about imposing our opinions about identities on someone as we are about shoving them into badly-fitting clothing.

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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28 Responses to “Am I asexual?” “Who can say?”

  1. Cleander’s post was excellent and I like how she provided an example of what to do, as well as saying why not to do things.

    This is a perhaps trivial comment, but I had no idea there were so many ace advice blogs on Tumblr! I’ve come to realize in light of various discussions in recent months that the ace blogs I follow are not necessarily representative of “the asexual community on Tumblr” (as much as that exists as a thing) but I’m feeling like I may be even more out of touch with it than I previously thought.

    • Talia says:

      That’s not a trivial comment to me Laura! 🙂 I only follow a few ace advice blogs on Tumblr and I often wonder about whether or not they are representative of ‘the asexual community on Tumblr.’ This is probably unlikely because I only follow blogs that I like and whose posts I am excited to see on my dash. I don’t pay any attention to how they fit into the greater community. Other than spending more time in the asexual tag (which I don’t have time for because, well, fandom), I haven’t come up with a way to get a macro view of what asexuality really looks like on Tumblr. It’s something I’m continuously thinking about though. Perhaps the aceadvice tag will be useful for me, even if this isn’t it’s intended perhaps.

      • Yep, I do the same thing. I follow only those blogs that I find to have beneficial content or whose authors I really like. I used to follow the ace tags but found that the signal to noise ratio was not very good and it wasn’t a good use of my time. I’d rather engage with a smaller number of fellow aces that I really gain something from, than a larger number.

        However, it does mean that when people are getting very exercised about what “the asexual community” is doing or acting like, I often have no idea what’s going on!

    • Sciatrix says:

      I’m not even sure, upon reflection, that there IS just one ace community on tumblr. I’ve been trying to get better about rechecking the ace tags again now, but I really pay the most attention to the people that I’ve deliberately followed and the people who they consistently reblog.

      Incidentally, I found those–and actually quite a few more–with judicious Google searches and from finding several lists of ace-related tumblrs. The lists were much more extensive, even within the genre of “advice blog,” than I was expecting them to be.

  2. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Thanks for posting Cleander’s advice, and making me think again about how I talk to newbies.
    There is a reason I stay out of the wolcome lounges, but IRL I can’t always keep away from the poor dears 😉

    • Sciatrix says:

      Yeah, the bulk of my interactions with questioning or unsure people these days happen offline. I contemplated putting in a “if you’re involved in offline organization, this is really useful to pay attention to,” but I wasn’t sure if it was accurate to everyone. That being said, I get a surprising amount of terrified PMs and emails from questioning people in my city asking me whether the meetup I run is welcome to people who haven’t figured things out yet.

  3. L says:

    I think a good analogy is canon vs. headcanon. Guess who’s the only person in the universe who can create new canon for themselves? Obvious, yes. But less obvious, I guess, is the idea that everyone else’s ideas are just that: ideas.

  4. Siggy says:

    This is maybe embarrassing to admit, but I was aware of the “don’t tell people what they are” rule, but never really internalized it because I just don’t deal with newbies much. So I’m sure I must have done it the wrong way at some point. I just don’t have the demeanor for dealing with newbies, I’m too judgmental and inconsistent.

  5. “the Cropped Jacket of Demisexuality or the Tight-fitting Pants of Aromanticism.”

    Because if asexuality was a decade, it would be the 90s

    • Sciatrix says:

      Is it wrong that I wasn’t even thinking so much of the nineties as “terrible fashion choices” when writing?

      Incidentally, you should go back to wearing the Shoulder Pads of Ambiguous Romantic Orientation. 😛

      • ^ Telling people what they should identify as would be much more acceptable if it was like this.

        (also, you got it totally right. Turns out I do still have an ambiguous romantic orientation, and I do still like shoulder pads)

  6. Quinoa says:

    I’m glad you wrote this! And I completely agree. Sometimes on AVEN, I say things like “based on what you’ve told me, it sounds like you might be ____, but it’s up to you to decide how you identify,” but even this is a little too declarative. I should probably be using Cleander’s suggestions.

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  14. ettinacat says:

    Reminds me of my journey to identifying my romantic orientation. I had a lot of frustration with asking people “what is romantic attraction and how can I tell if I feel it?” and constantly getting “if you don’t know what romantic attraction is, you’re probably aromantic”. Which didn’t feel right to me at all and didn’t help me figure it out myself. In fact the only thing I found helpful at that time was when someone responded to my blog post questioning whether romantic attraction even existed by pointing me to a research review of limerence. Reading that finally made me see that there was this romantic thing that some people felt that sounded totally foreign to me. But I still wasn’t sure, and I kind of tabled it for awhile.
    Just recently I came back to the asexual community and started thinking about my romantic orientation, and I knew that aromantic probably technically fit me, but it still didn’t feel right because I really want some kind of close committed relationship, either romantic or the closer kind of QPR. I ended up identifying as cupioromantic. I still identify as cupio, but I also started identifying as aromantic for two reasons. Firstly, because of my belief that cupioromantic is a type of aromantic, and secondly because of acephobic/arophobic people attacking aroaces, which made me realize that I need to defend that identity because it basically fits me.

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