Ace label culture

When people talk about Tumblr Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), a significant fraction of what they’re talking about is the ace community. You may not think of yourself as an SJW, but you are, whether you are or not.

It doesn’t make a difference that I’m a vocal critic of Tumblr, or that I joke about destroying it. When I modded a panel on FTB, we were called “The nightmarish collision of FTB and tumblr” merely because we talked about asexuality. And my first reaction was, “Damn right, you better be scared!”

Here I focus on one aspect of the SJW stereotype which is clearly traceable to the tumblr ace community: labels, labels, endless labels.

It does not escape my notice that whenever people complain about excessive identity labels on Tumblr, a bunch of the examples given are clearly from ace and aro discourse. For example, Gawker lists demisexuality alongside otherkin and transethnicity. Someone on Urban Dictionary used “gender-fluid asexual heteroromantic two-spirit toast-kin” as an example. Thing of Things, while defending the trend, used “requiessexual bipoetisexual squidgender moongender aroflux lesbian” as an example.

My personal relation to label culture is that I don’t mind it, but I stand on its outskirts.  I only use a few words like “ace” and “gray-A”, and these aren’t meant to be specific, but to be ambiguous. Not that such philosophical nuances makes a difference to critics of Tumblr SJW, who would lump me in with the rest.

In this post, I’ll try to identify the motivations of label culture, and then offer a constructive critique of it.

Label-hating and Puppy-kicking

If you ever hang around ace spaces, you’ve probably dealt with people who are new and searching for their place. They ask, does anyone else feel the way I feel? And you say, yes, and there’s even a word people sometimes use to describe it. Wow, there’s even a word for it? Amazing!

I can’t outright hate labels because, come on! Have you seen how much joy these words produce? Much validation. So belong.

I’m not going to make a blanket statement that all identity labels are always great and a force for good. For instance, I really don’t think there should be an identity label for men who like Asian men, but there it is!

But any proper critique of identity labels first needs to acknowledge why people like them. It’s not about feeling special or about gaining the power accorded to Oppressed Groups. It’s about that sense of not being alone.  It’s also the hope that more people will talk about the things you experience.  After the runaway success of such words as “asexual” and “panromantic”, who wouldn’t be eager to create more words?

Graph labels sans graph

To offer a constructive critique of label culture, I need to offer an alternative.  It’s worth noting that Tumblr label culture clearly grew out of the surrounding/pre-existing ace culture, but it is not the same as surrounding/pre-existing ace culture.  In my view, the difference is that previously aces were primarily enthusiastic about graphs and models. New words would arise out of the models as byproducts. But these days on Tumblr, it’s just about the words.

To give just a few examples, the AVEN triangle came from a dead model. The ABCD model was an early way to talk about romantic attraction and sex drive. Demisexuality was originally attached to a primary/secondary attraction model. Oh, and romantic orientation, there’s a big whopper of a model.

I think models were better at illuminating the vast space of possible orientations, whereas labels only chisel out little niches one at a time. There is much joy in finding a niche for yourself, but we also need to talk about the dismay of finding that everyone has their own word but you. Or let’s talk about the claustrophobia of each niche, the feeling that you have to adopt a word even if you don’t like it.  Or let’s talk about how hard it is to land in such a small niche when you’re filled with uncertainty.

But let us not romanticize models either. Models are more hierarchical, while labels are more egalitarian. Models were bigger than labels, so you can imagine there were bigger cracks too. And what about simple practicalities, like the fact that labels are more amenable to hashtags?

I’m not saying that label culture is necessarily bad.  However, it does have some disadvantages, and there are alternative ways to cultivate that sense of shared experience. If it pleases you, you can try some of the alternatives out.

This post was written for the Carnival of Aces, whose theme this month is “Asexual culture“.

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, Language, Modeling. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Ace label culture

  1. Arf says:

    There is another potential drawback to label culture… It pushes people out of the bigger labels and into niche ones possibly because the bigger ones are being gatekept(?). For example, you could say cupiosexuals, being asexuals who want sexual relationships, don’t feel like “real” asexuals and had to come up with their own label because they got pushed out. There’s more on the topic here:

    • luvtheheaven says:

      Wow, that’s quite the tumblr discussion. Thanks for the link.

    • Sennkestra says:

      I think that in some ways this is something that has sort of intensified in more recent/more tumblr style label culture, as opposed to the older AVEN style label culture – this is completely anecdotal, I feel like there’s been a proliferation of new “top level” labels and less use of sub-level specifier labels. To give an example of what I mean, when I first encountered label culture on AVEN as a newbie ace, a lot of the big labels were like “subtypes” of asexuals – aromantic or romantic, libidoist or nonlibidoist, sex-repulsed or indifferent, etc. They were all thing that you were *in addition* to be asexual, not *instead of* being asexual – the only exceptions were maybe grey-asexuality (which still overlapped with asexuality a lot more at that time) and demisexuality (which was still much more rarely used than it is now).

      Over the years and especially on tumblr, though, I feel like the recent trend has been a huge proliferation of top level categories that a person might be *instead of* being asexual – e.g. “I’m not asexual, I’m autochorisexual”, or “I’m not asexual or grey-asexual, I”m aceflux”. In addition to more terms, there have also been more people using such terms – for example the meteoric rise of “demisexual” as a distinct identity label and community that’s beginning to stand apart from the asexual community. I think this is also related to the trend of trying to draw a hard line between being “grey-asexual” and being “a real/pure asexual”, and away from the idea that “asexual is anyone who likes the label, regardless of how what exactly they experiences”

      This is completely impressionistic of course, so the trend may not actually be as clear as I make it out, of course. And I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, at least some parts – helping people find labels they like can be a good thing. But I think that some approaches do have the effect of fracturing communities and encouraging separation rather than association.

    • Sennkestra says:

      Also, one of the common unintended side effects of defining a new identity for yourself is that it also often entails defining other peoples identities for them as well – in ways they may not agree with.

      A common example of this is the pansexual/bisexual conflict – which sort of started when some people decided that they didn’t like using a word with etymological ties to the word “two”, so they decided to use a new word to refer to themselves to emphasize how they can experience attraction to more than just two genders – and thus we have “pansexual: someone who experiences attraction to more than two genders”. Unfortunately, this carried with it the implication of “unlike those other bisexuals who can only experience attraction to the two binary genders”. Which, as many actual bisexuals will tell you, is not the case! So while it’s good that those people found a new label they liked more, it came at a cost of making stereotypes and assumptions about people who did not choose to use that label, which was bad. And while this may not be inentional on the part of all pansexuals, there are some who do actively enforce that misassumption to justify themselves, and others who just can’t be bothered to take steps that might mitigate that harm.

      The same kind of effect applies to some labels in the ace community as well – for example, I’ve seen the term “autochorissexual” bandied about sometimes as a term to describe “people who are mostly asexual, but who can still masturbate and enjoy erotica” – and I’ve seen blogs respond to questioning asexuals with things like “well, since you like erotica maybe you could be autochorissexual instead!”

      One the one hand, some people seem to really like the term! On the other hand, the positioning of autochorissexual on tumblr as “an identity for people who are different than asexuasl” as opposed to “a phenomenon that some asexual people and some non-asexual people may experience” or “a term that some people prefer to asexual because it places greater emphasis on their ability to fantasize” or whatever, it has the unintended effect of implying that well, “real asexuals” must not masturbate or enjoy erotica, because that’s what autochorisexuals are!”

      There are definitely ways to mitigate the negative effects of overlapping labels – for example, by having advice blogs and definitional blogs place greater emphasis on the fact that many labels can overlap in the experiences they describe, and that what each label means to each person can vary. For example, to go back to the bisexual vs. pansexual debate, instead of defining the difference as “one is only attracted to two, the other likes all!” (a difference in inherent meaning), define it as a difference in personal word preference – e.g. “bisexual and pansexual can both refer to attraction to multiple genders. Some people prefer the term pansexual because it avoids some of the confusion about the prefix bi-, which is sometimes misinterpreted as enforcing a gender binary”

      Similarly, if you want to define the difference between grey-asexuality and asexuality, instead of using strict inherent differences (i.e. asexuals experience x, but grey-asexuals expeience y”), consider again referring to personal choice – for example, mentioning that the choice of whether to use asexual or grey-asexual really comes down to what you are comfortable with – that anyone is welcome to use either term.

      • Arf says:

        Ahh, that’s a good way of putting it—all the new labels being created are top level labels, you’re right. Demisexuality, I think, really did need to be a distinct thing, though, because a lot of demisexuals I’ve spoken with feel like they don’t quite relate to asexuals or allosexuals. I think part of the fracturing that is arising from that is because a) many demisexuals like sex/have sexual feelings and feel alienated from general ace spaces, b) demisexuals may feel left out of ace awareness/outreach, as an identity that is mentioned as a side note, and c) demisexuals simply have distinct experiences.

        I definitely agree with a lot of what you’ve said and my changing attitudes have been reflected in my advice blog posts. I’ve become so much vaguer about suggesting labels. I inevitably end up saying “go with what feels right” to pretty much everyone because their anxiety over wanting to be categorized is so palpable. I tell people they’re allowed to use whatever word they prefer. But I’m not sure that’s the advice they want to hear, especially when so many other advice blogs are willing to just slap labels on and provide stricter definitions.

        I almost feel like the more I study/think about labels, the vaguer they all get in my head, to the point where I feel like any label could apply to me in some way. Like Queenie in the comment below, maybe at some point I’ll end up just using “queer” or “ace” or something very general.

  2. That’s a really interesting point about models and labels. I think that Tumblr could do with more in the way of models and thinking about how labels relate to each other. This is particularly on my mind because I was reflecting recently on how “squish” seemed like a helpful label at first but it didn’t actually work for me until I was able to place it in a larger model as an instance of a specific type of attraction. Some of my critiques of online aromantic discourse are basically that they’re too label-happy without having done enough thinking about models (to be honest, I think a lot of the problems I have with online aromantic discourse stem from Tumblr culture; I’m glad asexual culture had already developed for a number of years before Tumblr became a major platform).

    I try to keep my identity labels simple (aromantic and asexual), but I may use other labels as descriptions and if I wanted to I could come up with a long string of them, and have sometimes been known to do that.

    I have to admit that when I came across someone using “platoniromantic aceflux” the other month, I thought, “That’s what the kids are calling themselves these days? What happened to wtfromantic gray-asexual? Get off my lawn!”

  3. lilietb says:

    I think an important part of tumblr ace culture is how /free/ everyone is to use labels. There’s this courtesy culture that no-one cat straight-up tell you “You are X”, instead proper etiquette is to say “You might want to look into X label”. Even if something applies to you, you are not ~obligated~ to use it as a label for yourself in any way. Like, autochorissexual probably describes me, but I don’t like it and don’t have any desire to seek out community based on that; however, I’ll gladly announce myself to be cupioromantic and associate myself with other people like that.
    Everything is optional at its core, and all models are acknowledged to be imprecise approximations of /some people/’s experience.
    That has been my experience, at least, and it was great.

    • Siggy says:

      I think there’s some disagreement about how optional the labels really are. Uncommon labels (e.g. aroflux or requiessexual) are very clearly optional, but as they become more popular there can be a lot of soft pressure to, if not identify with them, at least respond to them in some way, to justify why you don’t identify with them. Also see Arf’s first comment.

      Not that models are any better in this regard. People have also long felt soft pressure to fit themselves within models. I don’t think the problem will ever go away.

      • Arf says:

        > Not that models are any better in this regard. People have also long felt soft pressure to fit themselves within models.

        Yeah, I will say, even with all the flaws that labels have, I prefer them to models because ultimately, the definitions of labels are fuzzy and it’s easier to fit into them. Like I HATE seeing the primary/secondary sexual attraction model trotted out and used to define demisexuality because it is totally wrong with regard to my experience of demisexuality.

        I also don’t like the idea of trying to make labels a more scientific thing, as it might exacerbate the problem of “omg I don’t have x, y, and z traits am i really ace???” The thought of confused baby aces trying to fit themselves into a rigid model is cringeworthy. With labels, at least you can alleviate the anxiety by saying, “Well, how do you FEEL about this label?”

        • Sciatrix says:

          See, one of the things I like about models is that they explicitly encode spectra and variation and complexity inside them, much more than a fuzzy label does. They might or might not work, but they have less of a tendency to be binary than labels do.

    • Sciatrix says:

      Ha–this is actually a trait that I think predates Tumblr by a considerable amount. My experience with labels in ace culture back in 2005 on AVEN had exactly this courtesy culture, and I (among others) have actually complained about it getting lost and diluted on Tumblr. Glad to see that’s not the case in all Tumblr communities!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I… get irritated with the excessive amounts of labels, honestly, mainly because every time I see some new, very specific label, I’m always reminded of the gatekeeping and I know that if it could describe me, someone somewhere is going to expect me to adopt it. And I also often end up on the receiving end of rants about how much our labels suck, and how “not you, but those other aces” are all ridiculous and overthinking it. I have trouble keeping track of new labels, too, since I loathe Tumblr and they mostly get coined there.

    (Side note: the attention I started getting on Tumblr was actually a big part of why I took a long blogging hiatus, because I’d get reblogged over there and then anti-ace people would come to my blog to harass me, plus I’d face some anger from within. So at least in my case, you were right that the Tumblr explosion was killing off non-tumblr blogging, by making the environment more negative.)

    The Sorting Hat advice blogs often bother me, and I’ve seen several younger (individual) aces taking those labels offered there and perpetuating the gatekeeping by saying something along the lines of “I’m only talking about real asexuality” or otherwise implying that I am not allowed to call myself asexual. Since I stay the hell off tumblr for the most part, I usually only see that when it’s specifically about me. So I’ve developed a resistance to new labels because of that pressure to adopt them and the frequent derision/invalidation I see associated with them, which is triggering to me. The gatekeeping is not new, but I feel like… the super-specific labels make it less obvious that it’s going on? Maybe? And yet also seem to encourage dismissive or contemptuous comments.

    I don’t know if models are better or not—the charts and graphs were just as excessive, but also often oversimplified. I kind of just prefer descriptions over either labels OR models, with the understanding that not everything can easily be described. I like larger frameworks that are not necessarily graphically represented—I guess you could call that a model too, but I feel like it’s somewhere in between labels and graphs.

    • Siggy says:

      Descriptions are sort of the go-to alternative to labels, but they don’t really seem to stick. I’m sure everyone can make guesses as to why.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Yeah, I know descriptions are a lot less likely to stick, but… that’s also kind of the point? It sorta goes back to the point you made about wanting it to head nowhere. If I use a description instead of making up a label, the rhetoric associated with what I’m talking about is a lot more likely to NOT go in a direction I don’t like. Plus, then my experiences are more likely to get associated with asexuality itself, and change perspectives on what “counts” as ace.

        Also, I realize my earlier comment probably sounds way more negative than I meant it to be, so just to clarify in case it put anyone off—my problem is more with the meta expectations/culture around labels than with labels existing.

        • Siggy says:

          What I’m saying is, this is the standard argument against labels: “You have all these words, but I don’t know what they mean so you have to explain them. But then, why don’t you just say what you mean in the first place? Just describe yourself!”

          But despite this being said by a lot of people, hardly anyone seems to actually do it. Is it that people are describing themselves all the time and we simply don’t recognize it as a thing? Or is it that people like advocating descriptions more than they like using descriptions?

          I don’t know, it seems like “descriptions” are not an alternative to labels at all, except in the sense that “not using labels” is an alternative to labels. And a fine alternative it is–I don’t mean to knock it. But I don’t know how to even talk about it.

          • Elizabeth says:

            Ah, that makes sense. I think descriptions are a lot more situational than labels. Like, it doesn’t really make sense for me to go around explaining all of my feelings and experiences about sex for every conversation. I could link to some posts where I describe it, if it’s relevant to the conversation. But it usually isn’t.

            Whereas with labels, I could say something like (for example) “I’m a requiescarnal/eriscarnal/arcflux gray/demi-panromantic asexual” and… basically force those facts about myself into the conversation. But that completely changes the conversation, because then you have to explain what all of those things mean (obviously some more than others). Most of the time, I don’t want to have a conversation like that. It derails whatever else was going on. And I don’t even know if I like those labels or if they’re even accurate, so not using them is kind of default for me anyway.

            Basically… I would describe myself/my experiences in detail in some blog post, and then if someone really wants to know, they can read about it. Or they can ask about my feelings on whatever topic directly. It’s not like I wouldn’t describe them… It’s just that it’s not important enough to wrangle the topic in the very first time I meet people. It’s not something I would consider an identity, just experiences.

  5. epochryphal says:

    *looks at the long history of sapiosexuality* Yep. Reasons, and isms, and drawbacks, and loneliness.

  6. Isaac says:

    I have realized that I am a model enthusiast, and that because of that I feel many modern labels orphan for not having a model behind.

  7. queenieofaces says:

    I think for me concepts > models > labels. For example, I find the concepts of romantic attraction and romantic desire, and the idea that you can experience one without the other more useful than “cupioromantic” as a word. Then again, I’ve begun to describe myself using vaguer and vaguer identity labels (see: going from “biromantic” to “demibiromantic” to “??????bi????pan????” to “queer”). I could describe myself with four paragraphs of labels, but that just gets unwieldy, since I inevitably have to wind up explaining what each individual one means.

    I’m also hesitant about labeling for a lot of the reasons people have brought up above–namely the outside pressure to adopt a particular label if it “fits” your experiences. That’s part of the reason I started identifying as queer rather than bi/panromantic–I had a bunch of people telling me that I should identify as pan because I’m attracted to non-binary people (and everyone knows bi- is transphobic) and then a bunch of other people telling me I should identify as bi because I’m attracted to people of similar and different genders, and I just wanted all of them to go away and leave me alone and stop telling me how to identify. I’ve also had people loudly imply that I should identify as requiesromantic rather than greyromantic because trauma has had an impact on how romantic attraction has been happening for me. It’s part of a larger trend toward a pretty uncomfortable sectioning of people into “real [identity label]s” and “fake [identity label]s who only think they’re [identity label] because of trauma.” I understand why people who’ve experienced trauma might find the label comforting, but I think there’s a difference between adopting a label yourself and being gatekept into it because the REAL [identity label]s don’t want you confusing people.

  8. Grey Wanders says:

    This is a good discussion, so I didn’t want to say anything earlier, but…this sentence: “You may not think of yourself as an SJW, but you are, whether you are or not.” …does it make sense? I keep thinking maybe I’m just reading it wrong, but it looks like you said ‘regardless of whether or not you are the thing, you are the thing’. Did you mean “whether you think you are or not”?

    • Siggy says:

      I wrote it that way intentionally. I’m saying that according to some people you are an SJW, regardless of whether that reflects reality.

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