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.