Ambiguity is ordinary

This is part 2 of a short series advocating for a more ambiguous definition of asexuality.  Here’s part 1.

In the comments of the part 1, I was happy to see people take a variety of positions on the definition of asexuality.  Here, I will give the discussion more direction by explaining, with concrete examples, what an ambiguous definition looks like, and what a specific definition looks like.

My larger purpose in using these examples is to show that ambiguity is not radical, but altogether ordinary.  There are plenty of examples of ambiguity in asexual history and in other words.  In seeing these examples, you may also find that they’re not too different from how you already think about asexuality.

Ambiguity in early definitions

Although the AVEN definition, “A person who does not experience sexual attraction” has been there since the early days of AVEN, it was one of multiple definitions.  According to historical work done by Andrew Hinderliter, the early asexual community saw the front-page definition only as a public face:

Late in 2001, there was a decent amount of discussion on issues involving defining asexuality. The consensus opinion (at least the one expressed the most) was that asexuality is undefinable—each person had their own reason for calling themself asexual, and there was too much diversity in their (still very small) asexual community for any one definition to cover everyone. However, people also agreed that it would be useful to have a definition that they could give to people—having a definition would be helpful for asexual visibility.

The AVEN definition was a compromise.  They would have a clear definition for purposes of outward visibility, but on the inside, they’d still use something like the collective identity model, which is basically the ultimate in flexibility.

It’s also worth noting that another contemporary community, Asexuality on Livejournal, did not, and still does not, provide a definition of asexuality.  Instead, they say:

This is a community for asexual people to discuss living without sexuality. We welcome anyone with no or very little sexual attraction to others, people with low or no libido, and their allies.

Note that the above statement only provides suggestions for who might fit in the community, and does not say whether or not they qualify as asexual, or what it would even mean to be asexual.

The point of this little history lesson is not to hold up the early LiveJournal community or the early AVEN community as models worthy of emulation.  Let us not romanticize the past.  Besides which, these communities are responding to entirely different trends.  The point is to illustrate what it means to have an ambiguous definition.

An ambiguous definition leaves more in the hands of the person identifying as asexual or not.  In practice, that could mean giving multiple definitions in a layered structure.  If a person doesn’t identify with the first definition but still feels there’s something there, they can choose to dig deeper, and find another definition that fits them.  Alternatively, it could mean that no definition is offered at all, and only incomplete suggestions are offered.

I have a couple more observations.  First, I want to reiterate that inclusivity and ambiguity are separate issues, and that early asexual communities were not necessarily more inclusive than those today.  Second, in both of these examples, the sky didn’t fall.  The LiveJournal Asexuality community was quite active, and AVEN dominated the ace community for a decade.

Examples of Specificity

What does it look like to make the definition of asexuality more specific?  Well, back when I joined AVEN in 2009, there was a popular model known as “Rabger’s Model“.  It distinguished between primary and secondary sexual attraction, primary and secondary sexual desire.  Within this model, asexuality means that you don’t experience primary sexual desire (not a typo, although at one point an AVENwiki editor thought so).

I hated that model.  It was over-theorized.  It was an early model to include demisexuality, but it was extremely constraining, as if every demisexual had to accept these very particular distinctions between not two, not three, but four feelings.

The funny thing about the model is that the specific details were supposed to be important, but they also changed so much over time.  Rabger’s ideas were expressed in 2006, and were transferred to the AVENwiki as “Rabger’s Model”.  In 2011, Rabger disavowed the model as an unauthorized copy and distortion of their original ideas.  Since then, it has been renamed the Primary vs Secondary attraction model and now it’s hardly recognizable to me.  By now, the model has greatly declined in popularity, although it still has enough presence to annoy modern demisexuality advocates.

Here’s another example of a more specific definition.  In 2013, AVEN updated its General FAQ.  Among other things, it now includes a definition of “sexual attraction”:

Sexual attraction: Desire to have sexual contact with someone else, to share our sexuality with them.

You are welcome to form and share your own opinion of that one.

If you think specificity would be cool, but these particular definitions are not very good, I’m afraid that’s what specificity looks like.  In practice, a specific definition only gets chosen by a small group of people.  Unless you’re lucky, you won’t be one of them.  If you prefer a more specific definition, please imagine a scenario where the specific definition is decided by an entirely different part of the ace community, and that you get no input whatsoever.

Comparative Lexicography

Now I’ll compare the word “asexual” to other words.  To start with a simple exercise, let’s first consider a concrete object.  Define “table”, as in the piece of furniture. Does your definition include desks? Does it include stools? Does it include nightstands? Does it include the flat surface at the top of a shelf? Even ordinary concrete objects usually have complicated and ambiguous boundaries.

Here’s another question. How did you learn those boundaries? Did you read them in a dictionary?  Or are you just describing your experience of what people tend to call tables?

Moving towards personal identities, define “liberal”. And then “religious.” How likely do you think your neighbor would come up the exact same definition?

And now, let’s get to my favorite example.  Define “gay”.  Most aces reach for the definition, “someone who experiences sexual attraction only to people of the same gender,” because it’s exactly parallel to the definition of asexuality. But I’m afraid this is not how gay men (including myself) define it.

The thing is, most people just don’t think about the definition that much. If you ask someone to define gay, they usually aren’t recalling a definition they read somewhere, they’re simply inventing a new definition to match the usage that they typically see. Although crude, Urban Dictionary can be a good source, since it tells you what various people think a word means in absence of any lexicographical research. Here are some example definitions of “homosexual”:

“a person whose sexual preference is members of the same sex.”

“someone who feels affection for someone else of the same gender.”

“A person who is attracted only to members of the same sex.”

“A absoultely normal person who happens to love people that are of the same sex.”

“A guy who likes guys, or a girl who likes girls.”

“Somone who is into the same sex.”

So does “gay” refer to sexual preference, affection, attraction, love, who you’re “into”, or something else? My gay friends would find all these definitions satisfactory, and possibly indistinguishable. On the other hand, if presented with such a large range of definitions for asexuality, we’d surely pick them apart.

Again, I am not saying that we should take “gay” as a model of what a word should be like.  I’m always complaining that these kinds of gay/ace analogies not only misunderstand gay politics, but wrongly assume gay politics are worthy of emulation.

The point, rather, is that ambiguous terms are perfectly possible, and in fact the norm, from pieces of furniture to sexual orientations.  Perhaps asexuality is unique among sexual orientations, in that it has problems that are best addressed by a more specific definition.  I happen to think so.  But you cannot say that any problems in the asexual community are the fault of its vague definition, because its definition is not vague.

See Part 3.

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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11 Responses to Ambiguity is ordinary

  1. I find it both entertaining and infuriating that AVEN’s definition of sexual attraction precludes sex-averse people from experiencing sexual attraction, which is at odds with the culture elsewhere on the site that sex aversion and lack of sexual attraction are different things. It’s entertaining for the contradiction. It’s infuriating because I’m sex averse and I experience sexual attraction, and I don’t experience these two things as being in conflict.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      I more find it entertaining and infuriating (if you don’t mind me quoting you) that the definition for attraction has the word desire in it after all of the things I’ve seen in the ace community (such as the Primary/Secondary model stuff Siggy mentioned above) that try to hard to separate what attraction is from what desire is.

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  3. Coyote says:

    “Sexual attraction: Desire to have sexual contact with someone else, to share our sexuality with them.

    You are welcome to form and share your own opinion of that one.”

    Part of why this definition kills me is because “sharing your sexuality with someone,” to my ears, sounds like it should mean the same thing as coming out/disclosing what your sexuality is.

    • queenieofaces says:

      “Sharing your sexuality” makes me think of when my brother was little and would “share” all the foods he disliked. Here, I’ll “share” my sexuality with you; just take it (I sure as heck don’t need it) and don’t ask questions.

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