Ambiguity and Specificity

Asexuality is most frequently defined as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction,” because that’s what it says on the front page of AVEN, the website that dominated the asexual community for a decade. But there is also a long tradition of questioning that definition.

Right this moment, there is an ongoing discussion about how the definition is overemphasized. The complaint: Many people identify with asexuality specifically because they are sex repulsed, or because they don’t want sex. Sexual attraction is not the distinguishing factor for everyone. Emphasizing the one true definition is identity policing.

Also right this moment, there is an ongoing conversation about revamping AVEN’s front page, which leads to controversy over whether the definition should be changed or clarified. The complaint: “sexual attraction” is too ambiguous. Either “sexual attraction” should be clearly defined, or it should be replaced with something else. An ambiguous definition leads to people adopting the wrong identities.

Did you catch the difference?

It turns out that not everyone who questions the definition of asexuality wants the same thing. In fact, some of them want opposing things. There are two ideals:

Ambiguity: People clearly identify as asexual or asexual spectrum for a variety of reasons, and also disidentify with them for a variety of reasons. We need a looser definition to accommodate people’s individual needs.
Specificity: People who initially encounter the idea of asexuality frequently find the definition confusing, and come to incorrect conclusions about whether or not they’re asexual. We need to collect our best wisdom and create a clearer definition to alleviate this problem.

And of course, there are the moderates, who favor the status quo.

This is a distinct issue from inclusivity vs exclusivity. Some people argue for a more specific definition on the grounds that non-asexuals are incorrectly identifying as asexual, while others argue on the grounds that asexuals are incorrectly identifying as non-asexual. Rather, the issue is whether the boundary should be precisely defined, or left more up to interpretation.

It’s no secret that I am not a moderate. I advocate a looser, more ambiguous definition of asexuality, although not necessarily on the AVEN front page.  I will make my arguments in an upcoming series of posts (to be under the “asexual ambiguity” tag), but for now I leave you with this brief description of the problem. Let me know what you think so far!

See Part 2.

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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27 Responses to Ambiguity and Specificity

  1. Sciatrix says:

    I also make no secret of preferring a more inclusive, ambiguous definition. I care about labels insofar as I think they’re tools that people use to communicate something about themselves, and sexuality is private enough that I don’t actually see the utility of making identity words that specific. I want to tell people my city in the Country of Sexuality when I’m travelling and acquaintances ask me where I’m from, not my precise address. After all, unless they’re coming to visit me at home and we’re very close, they don’t need to know, and they probably don’t have a reason to care.

  2. Coyote says:

    “Either ‘sexual attraction’ should be clearly defined, or it should be replaced with something else.”

    So, even without trying to make a statement about whether that kind of precision should be the goal… I question whether the goal as described in this section is even feasible. I don’t think the subjective ambiguity in the concept of “sexual attraction” (or any other criterion you might replace it with) is something you really ever eliminate. No matter what, someone somewhere is going to look at that be like “I’m not sure what that means, exactly.” That’s a pretty standard part of the ace experience (especially the gray-ace experience!). There are ways to deal with that problem, and fixating on creating the perfect definition (while a fine and dandy thing to do — I do love nitpicking definitions, after all) isn’t it.

  3. Mxtrmeike13 says:

    What you wrote makes a lot of sense. I’ll stay tuned for updates!

  4. Isaac says:

    In my case, I would prefer a more specific definition. I understand labels as descriptive, not identities. For me “sexual attraction” is too ambiguous, and this ambiguity was what I didn’t like when I first came across the definition of asexuality. In practice, I would keep the definition, so it could make me a moderate. Anyway, I will follow your series, since I’m interested in your reasons.

  5. I understand why definitions are important to a lot of people, but honestly I’d like to see less time spent on them and more time spent on people sharing their experiences. I feel this in general about any kind of “meta” debate, but I think that the focus on the definition of asexuality in particular means that we get stuck on talking about a very early stage in the asexual identity formation process and that simply isn’t useful to me where I am right now.

    • Siggy says:

      I feel like a disproportionate amount of my own writing deals with language topics, because I like to talk about it and it seems to be popular. But I often wonder when people will figure out how useless it all is. We can’t spend forever talking about what it means for asexuality to have a meaning, without talking about the meaning itself.

  6. flergalwit says:

    “It turns out that not everyone who questions the definition of asexuality wants the same thing. In fact, some of them want opposing things.”
    This is an astute observation. Even though those you mentioned on AVEN are arguing for an ostensibly more inclusive and/or definition, in fact many are railing against AVEN’s “inclusivity dogma”, in some places going as far as disputing that someone can call themselves gay if they have sex with the opposite sex every day.

    I see myself as middleground on the inclusivity v. specificity thing. From the point of view of community and helping people come to an identity they’re comfortable with, inclusivity makes far more sense. As far as coherence and consistency goes, being more specific helps. I feel there is a very real tension or dichotomy between the two. But that’s why I favour the sexual attraction definition: I think the term sexual attraction itself can be interpreted very elastically or much more rigidly, and so gets the balance about right.

    (FWIW I don’t like the fact that “sexual attraction” is given a specific definition in the AVEN FAQ – I feel this is a serious error – but much of the membership seems to want to keep this definition so I’d only remove if there was a strong consensus to.)

    • Siggy says:

      In this series, I’m not really going to get into the whole AVEN front page revamp argument. For one thing, it’s not clear to me that adjusting the definition or FAQ is even within the scope of the revamp, so maybe I’d just be contributing to the noise. (Actually as PT mod, I think you’d do well to clarify that, flergalwit.)

      However, I do encourage people who are only familiar with the tumblr/wordpress arguments to take a look at the AVEN thread, if you have the energy to deal with it. Likewise, if you’re only familiar with the AVEN arguments, you should take a look at the tumblr/wordpress arguments.

      It is true that most of the people advocating a clearer definition are in fact complaining that the ambiguity leads to over-inclusivity. When I say that inclusivity and specificity are separate things, I’m hedging a bit, since not every person on AVEN is saying the same thing.

      But also, I’m questioning that conflation. AVENites are incorrect to think that a more specific definition is necessarily a more exclusive one. It depends on the specific definition, does it not? Part of the problem is that people who advocate specific definitions always imagine that it is their own specific definition that will win out.

      • flergalwit says:

        I have stated explicitly more than once in that thread that changing the principal definition is outside the scope of the project. (Modifying the FAQ could be within, but I wouldn’t make any controversial change such as removing the defn of sexual attraction without a broad consensus. Also adding clarity that “it’s just one definition”, “here are some alternatives”, “use it as a tool not a prescriptive criterion” etc etc is within the project’s scope.)

        I’m going to start a new thread shortly to get it back on track, and ask people to use other threads to debate the definition.

        Re the definition, I think you may have it backwards, or I may have misunderstood your point. The AVENites pushing for change are not pushing for a more specific definition in the technical sense. They are advocating “lack of sexual attraction and/or no innate desire for partnered sex”, which is actually more inclusive than the original definition, at least if you treat the word meanings as static.

        Of course said definition may end up being more exclusive, operationally speaking, precisely because they are implying a more rigid meaning of the individual terms involved.

        • Siggy says:

          You may have made the clarification about the scope of the project, but I found it to still be unclear, particularly since rather than splitting it into a different thread you appeared to be participating in the argument. Actions speak louder, and so forth.

          I saw some AVENites pushing for the “lack of sexual attraction and/or innate desire for partnered sex”, but I would not assume that every AVENite is saying the same thing, and there appear to be major unexamined differences between what people on the “same side” are in fact advocating. The “and/or” definition strikes me as a movement towards more ambiguity (since it leaves it up to the subject to decide which part of the definition is most relevant to them), although as you observe, they may want more specific definitions of the individual terms such as “sexual attraction”.

          • flergalwit says:

            Well I have a known weakness in responding to arguments, when perhaps I shouldn’t. My best bet if I’m going to stay out of something is not to read the debates in the first place, which doesn’t apply in this case.

            In seriousness, I don’t intend to avoid the definition debate. I’m planning a detailed post on the matter myself. However it’s outside the scope of the current project.

            It seems most AVENites who want change are advocating the and/or definition. There has been a raging debate about it since the Spring, covering 100s of pages. It happened to spill over into the Front Page discussion, but most of the argument is on other parts of the forum.

          • Siggy says:

            Yeah it’s one of those unending AVEN arguments. I remember when an entirely different generation of AVENites was having the same arguments in 2012.

      • Lavender says:

        Oh I love this comment dearly because I’m firmly on train “list many possible definitions” if I don’t get
        my dream definition of “asexuality is little to no sexual attraction or anyone who is helped by using the term.” A more inclusive, specific definition could be:
        “An asexual (n) is a person who;
        1. Experiences no and/or experiences little sexual attraction; and/or
        2. Does not engage in sexual activity with other people; and/or
        3. Once experienced sexual attraction but no longer does, or experiences sexual attraction now but previously identified as asexual before; and/or
        4. Experienced trauma, mental illness, bodily dysphoria, physical illness, or is taking medication that affects their libido or sexual attraction in such a way they are now identifying themselves as asexual; and/or
        5. Is also autistic and this affects how they understand concepts such a sexual attraction and physical intimacy in any way as to render them as more comfortable identifying as asexual for any reason; and/or
        6. Does not engage in sexual activity, either or both by themselves or with other people; and/or
        7. Does not intrinsically desire sexual activity with another person; and/or
        8. Finds the term useful to describe themselves, either for ease of use over other terms and/or for the information communicated by the term.”

        It’s inclusive, it’s beautifully expandable (just add another definition to the list!), completely accurate in so far as it includes every narrative of asexuality I’ve heard to date (though let me know if I missed anything), and refreshingly honest and doesn’t prioritize any one definition or another. I think is illustrates how limited trading bullet point 1 for 7 would be, and how little 7 actually explains anything on its own, and if it were to be made the definition it would probably cause even more confusion. And I do think that as much as I *like* it, this is probably an “everyone loses” proposal, because the good thing about “experiences little to no sexual attraction” is that it’s short. I can’t imagine anyone reciting the Asexual Constitution of Neverending Bullet Points while coming out to their parents.

  7. RLQ says:

    Setting aside what the definition of asexuality can or should be, “sexual attraction” needs to be better defined. I spent most of my life believing I was straight because my culture taught me that “attraction is attraction is attraction” and that the only difference between attractions is the kind of sex organs you prefer to get with. (Heterosexuals love the “opposite” gender, homosexuals love the same gender—I knew I didn’t want sex with others of my gender, so I must be straight by default—gender is binary, and bisexuals are just exploring their options until they decide. ‘Murica!)

    The idea of differentiating types of attraction into sexual, romanic, platonic, etc., was never presented to me until I joined ace communities. Even after coming to terms with the idea that romantic or sensual attraction doesn’t equal sexual attraction, I still couldn’t confidently label myself as asexual with that sticky little term “sexual attraction.” How can you know what sexual attraction is to know if you don’t have it if you don’t already have it? Forums and posts from sexual people describing sexal attraction always read to me like descriptions of arousal, which I knew not to be the same thing.

    I don’t think the definition of asexuality must include the term “sexual attraction,” but if it does, and in current instances when it does, yet-un(self)labled-asexuals who, like me, have only the general public’s definition of the term to go on, are still going to come away from the defnition more confused that helped by it.

    • Z says:

      It’s wild cause it was entirely the opposite for me. I first came across asexual back in 2006/2007 and it was being talked about as being uninterested in sex, which didn’t apply to me at all, sex was just a fine, interesting activity that you do with whoever because you like sex. I was id-ing as pansexual and quietly freaking out about being unable to connect with or care about people the “right” way, thinking that I was missing vital bits, even looking up anti-social personality disorders, because everyone seemed to have these ~feelings~ for certain people. It wasn’t until 2011 when someone mentioned the sexual attraction definition and that really clicked. And reading through accounts of what people consider “sexual attraction” really drove home that that’s what I wasn’t feeling*. Like there’s sometimes arousal with it, but, for me, it’s so far removed from the way I experience arousal, it’s like a completely clear line between the two things. So sexual attraction is the only reason I even id as asexual.

      *(as long as they’re not hedging their descriptions of sexual attraction to include any interest in sex whatsoever to disinclude those who like sex, which is something I keep running into when people know they’re talking to asexuals vs when they think they’re not, and which I kind of think is what’s going on with avens new sexual attraction definition.)

      • AceAdmiral says:

        This was my experience in 2007, too. I think the definition that we have, and the definition troubles we continue to have, grow out of this issue that in 2007 was only just starting to be articulated. As Metapianist mentions in another comment thread below, attraction is an unusual way to talk about any sexual-orientation-identity (and indeed in some languages not even aces do it). There’s this whole package of things that come together in the “type of capital-R Relationship you’re looking for,” and in the common conception, this package is so bundled up you can only have it or not. So people like Z and I who had a part or two of the package but not the rest… we couldn’t be asexual because we weren’t have-nots, we were just defective haves. Or, maybe more precisely, there was a choice to either be defective haves or to forsake what we did want and become have-nots (all of my initial writings on the subject were 100% about my anxiety that choosing to be asexual would be choosing to be alone forever).

        So we try to tease out and account for all the parts of the package, and which parts can you have and still be asexual, and this is where the definitions start to be troublesome. If you’re going to make a community based on a commonality, then we all have to be missing at least one part together, right? So “sexual attraction” is chosen and this solves the problem since possession or not of any of the other parts is no longer suspect. Except, obviously, this is a fantasy because in reality there is still tons of gatekeeping and also this distinction is kind of arbitrary. The principle behind this rigid, if broad, definition seems to be coming from good intentions, though. To a certain extent I think we are forced towards being specific precisely because we’re forced to examine a big concept that’s generally viewed to be a cohesive whole in minute detail. Well, and as Captain Heartless points out, we have to explain and defend ourselves so much that specificity projects authority and helps us shut down “extraneous” lines of questioning.

        So the question this thinking leads to is, how much do we have to have “in common” to be a cohesive community? Do we all *need* to have the same void where a part should be? Could there be an acceptable set of possible voids? But then I get very, very nervous that advocating for a more ambiguous definition will lead to a backlash of increased gatekeeping within the community and discontent from without. Plus, and this is where I ultimately end up, people can tell where they’re comfortable and where they feel unwelcome, and no amount of definition hair-splitting is going to change that, so the whole thing is much theoretical ado for nothing in reality.

  8. Seth says:

    I’m moderate, for the same reasons Isaac and Coyote gave. Here’s how I see this playing out: The existing definition isn’t going away. It’s pretty well entrenched in a community that’s now spread out across AVEN, Apositive, Tumblr, and people who don’t frequent any of those. Plus, we’ve been using it in awareness campaigns since AVEN was founded a decade and a half ago, and it has the advantage of linguistic consistency with ‘heterosexual’, ‘homosexual’, and so on. The pro-specificity argument itself may never die out, but I expect the individuals making it will eventually give up as they realize that the goal they’ve set is nigh impossible. That’s not an issue for the pro-ambiguity people, who’ll probably have partial success. I’m hedging since I’m not that familiar with the debate, being among those who stick to blogs and don’t hang around AVEN, but I’d estimate 50% chance another, more ambiguous definition will be added to ‘asexual’, 40% chance the new definition will be assigned to a word other than ‘asexual’, and 10% chance the status quo will rule.

  9. TreePeony says:

    I don’t think the definition should be changed. Like Seth mentioned, if heterosexual = only sexually attracted to the opposite sex (which is how heterosexuals themselves define their sexuality), and likewise for homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality etc., then shouldn’t it be the case that asexuality should also have some kind of concrete definition as a baseline? And then there can be a footnote of sorts noting that unlike most other sexualities, asexuality is a spectrum, and then go on to speak about grey-A’s, demisexuals, sex-repulsion, sex-favourableness, sex-neutrality, etc. under a further clarification article/FAQ for people who’re actually interested in the topic. Adding in too much information at the outset is pointless, if you ask me. And I dunno about other people, but when I started researching little-known sexualities I already knew I was different enough from the majority that I’d have to carefully read through definitions and additional info on a number of sexualities, if I were to figure out what I was supposed to be.

    And as for romantic orientation… I personally feel that that should be a different topic altogether, and merits a 2nd clarification article — especially because there’s mismatch in romantic and sexual orientation among non-ace spectrum people as well, making the discussion of romantic orientation a separate issue altogether. Not to mention aromanticism, which is a different kettle of fish.

    • It’s not actually the case that non-asexual lgbp+ people commonly define their sexual orientations in terms of sexual attraction, or even attraction in general. It’s much more common in lgbp+ communities to define your sexual orientation in terms of the relationships you desire (e. g. woman who wants partner relationships exclusively with women = lesbian).

  10. I don’t really care what happens to AVEN’s definition, but the older I get the more I think we should avoid emphasizing definitions and terminology in 101 work (at least in introductory, outsider-oriented work). So I think that puts me in the pro-ambiguity group.

    As for what we should do instead, I’m inclined to say focus on stories and experiences and let the definitions work themselves out based on that (and accept that there will be asexuals with contradicting definitions). After all, sexual orientation is often a confusing mess that defies coherent single definitions.

    The downside of this, however, is that the analytic and definitional approach works really well for defending yourself in arguments. And for that, you want a tight definition. But I’ve started to realize that if we need to rely on defensively arguing we exist then we’ve probably already lost- at best we will get a cold acceptance.

  11. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Late as usual, but at my organisation, we’re currently trying to get away from “definition” and replace that with an “explanation”. Also, we’ve decided to use AVEN’s explanation as the short version, as it’s fitting the orientation model better, but we will include “and/or has no desire for sexual interaction” in longer texts.

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  13. tango says:

    The over-arching binary of human sexuality is ‘asexual’ vs. ‘allosexual’. As with most binaries, these are umbrella terms. So under allosexual you’ve got specific terms like ‘heterosexual’. Under asexual you have specific terms like ‘grey-ace’.

    The over-arching umbrella terms are supposed to have to broad definitions. It seems illogical to try to structure the definition of a broad term in the same way that the specific term is structured.

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