From the very beginning, ace communities have created their own words to describe and talk about our experiences. In some cases, we take previously existing words, and use them in a way that effectively redefines them. This can occasionally lead to confusion, as people who encounter ace language for the first time might misinterpret some of our words. Conversely, aces who have only encountered the words in ace contexts are confused when they find people outside the ace community using those words in a different way.
This is a short list of words that are used both inside and outside ace communities, with different meanings. For purposes of this post, I will take a neutral and descriptive stance, without assuming that ace community meanings are superior or inferior. But this does not mean that I take a neutral stance in general, nor do I think readers should take a neutral stance.
In ace communities, “platonic” is one of several categories of relationships–other commonly known categories are “sexual” and “romantic”. A platonic relationship is a deep connection that does not have a sexual or romantic element. We also often speak of “platonic attraction” which is some internal feeling that leads people to want or seek platonic relationships.
Outside of ace communities, the phrase “platonic love” is often used to describe non-sexual love. In contrast to ace community usage, it’s usually implied that platonic love is romantic. For example, Urban Dictionary’s current top definition is “A romantic bond between a couple that involves no lust or carnality; often a deep pure love.” The romantic element is also supported by Plato’s dialogues, in which platonic love is a form of eros, a romantic concept of love.
A few caveats: Most people aren’t very familiar with ancient Greek dialogues, so I wouldn’t consider them defining. Often people don’t have a clear idea whether platonic love is romantic or not, because people who aren’t influenced by ace communities simply don’t think about that distinction very much.
In ace communities, “libido” is a synonym for sex drive, or people’s drive to engage in sexual activity (either solo or partnered). In my experience, “sex drive” is slightly more common, but “libido” also has its uses. Most notably, “non-libidoist” is a common term for aces who don’t masturbate.
Outside ace communities, libido usually means the same thing. However, sometimes it refers to a concept in psychoanalysis–the questionably scientific discipline established by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. An old version of the Wikipedia article says, “Libido in its common usage means sexual desire; however more technical definitions, such as those found in the work of Carl Jung, are more general, referring to libido as the free creative—or psychic—energy an individual has to put toward personal development or individuation.”
3. Sexual desire
Outside ace communities, “sexual desire” is synonymous with sex drive, libido, and sexual attraction. Obviously this is unacceptable in an ace context, where sexual attraction and sex drive aren’t even close to being similar.
In ace communities, “sexual desire” can be considered similar to “sex drive”, but with a few differences. In an ace context, “sex drive” emphasizes unpartnered sexual activity. “Sexual desire”, on the other hand, emphasizes partnered sexual activity, often to the exclusion of unpartnered sexual activity. And where “sex drive” is a drive, presumably instinctive and internal, “sexual desire” is a desire, which leaves open the possibility that it is not internally driven. But many people use “sexual desire” to refer to internal instinct, and would not use it to describe a desire based on external factors.
In ace communities, whenever you have one of these acronyms, the A emphatically stands for Ace/Asexual. Ace communities are hyper-aware that some people think the A stands for Ally, and vociferously insist that this is incorrect. I always wonder, are aces being descriptive (“this is what the A stands for”) or prescriptive (“this is what the A should stand for”)?
As a descriptive matter, it is clear that many people use the A to stand for Ally–otherwise, who would we be mad at? There is also concrete evidence that using A for Ally predates using A for Asexual. Although we don’t know when the A started being added, we know that it was first mentioned on Wikipedia in 2004, where it said it stood for “straight allies”. Asexuality was first mentioned in that article in 2006, and even then only under the “variants” subsection.
In ace communities, “sex-positive” refers to a political stance, where you are fine with other people having sex. Note that “sex-positive” may have additional controversial connotations, and people may disidentify with it even if they are fine with other people having sex. Also note that “sex-negative” is not necessarily an opposing political view, it’s a political view with a different emphasis, often inspired by this essay.
Since around 2014 or so, some people in the ace community have also used “sex-positive” as a synonym for “sex-favorable”, referring to aces who are willing to have sex. This is nonstandard usage that will make some people (like me) mad.
Outside the ace community, “sex-positive” is still a political term, but it tends to have very different connotations. Outside the ace community, the concept of “being fine with sex” is almost entirely vacuous as it describes most allo people. The meaning and connotations of “sex-positive” are mostly derived from the “feminist sex wars” in the 70s and 80s, which was chiefly about how feminists should address pornography and sex work. The “sex-positive” side would be considered the victor in terms of how much influence it has had on contemporary feminism. Because of the decline of anti-porn feminism, “sex-positive” is now used to describe a large number of feminist views regarding sex.
In the ace community, an asexual is someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction or sexual desire. There are some variations on that definition, which people like to think really hard about, but I won’t talk about that here.
Of course, the term “asexual” as we know it was defined circa 2000, and people used it to mean a variety of things before then. Because I subscribe to Google alerts for “asexual” I can attest that it continues to mean a variety of things today. Many alerts are for “asexual reproduction” in biology, although I filter those out so I don’t know how common they are. There are also a few instances where people use it to mean “sexless” or “genderless”. And there are some instances where people appear confused about the concept. But asexuality as a sexual orientation is the most common definition outside of biology. The current Merriam-Webster definitions strike me as correct, although they could be reordered to reflect current prevalence.
This was just a short list. Can you think of any more?