The Biology Definition of Asexuality May Have More Impact on the Sexual Orientation Than We Think

For a long time I assumed there was a chasm between asexuality as a scientific term and as a sexual orientation identity; the words were separate and the gap between them unbreachable. Asexuality meant one thing in biology textbooks and another in the lgbtq+ community. Yes the word asexual had only meant one thing before, but now it means two very different things. That’s just the way it is and things will be better when people understand that when I say I’m asexual, I don’t mean I’m an organism that can reproduce on my own. I am making a statement about my sexual attraction, desire, arousal, behaviour, and/or something else. Part of asexual outreach includes an unlearning of what has come before in biology textbooks and making space for something else, something completely different. But now I wonder, are the definitions completely different? What are we missing when we say they are?

content warning: this post mentions sexual behaviour in vague detail and uses examples of invalidating people’s sexual orientation.

According to Wikipedia asexual reproduction is: β€œa type of reproduction by which offspring arise from a single organism, and inherit the genes of that parent only; it does not involve the fusion of gametes, and almost never changes the number of chromosomes.”

Another definition is: “an organism makes more of itself without exchanging genetic information with another organism through sex.”

And one more: “reproduction in which new individuals are produced from a single parent without the formation of gametes.”

For a long time definitions like these are what people were referring to when they said the word asexual.

Pretend that the biological definition of asexuality is a forest. There’s a lot going on in that forest. You have many different species of trees in a forest. Some of the individual trees are tiny saplings and others are centuries old. This is an old growth forest. There’s also insects, birds, mammals, and a host of other species in this forest. It’s the home for so many and they are all very busy in a thriving ecosystem.

This forest is the state of what has been culturally happening with the biological definition of asexuality: a lot of complex stuff has been going on for a very long time. Researchers, professors, students, and people outside of the university have been publishing studies, theories, and debating across vast geographical spaces and on the internet for centuries. It is also a lot of stuff that, to be honest, has nothing to do with many asexual people. I’m not a biology student or professor and neither are many of you. That’s not our forest and we are not a part of it.

Now imagine that forest and there are new people visiting it. They cut down some of the trees. At first it’s not significant and no one notices. It’s just a few trees, but then one of the huge old growth oaks falls. Then another. A few squirrels and crows are scared away. Deep in the forest the visitors take the fallen trees and build a house. The word asexual catches on quickly because it’s familiar to people. They’ve heard it before and the new definition is vaguely similar to the old; it has something to do with sex and something to do with an absence.

Even if we clear cut that forest, did we forget what we were building on? It was never truly empty. When we say the word asexual we are evoking a knowledge and a history that isn’t ours. Many of us don’t want to, we may want to separate the terms far enough so they look like they have nothing to do with each other, but I think it would be more productive to acknowledge our ghosts and their former life.

The biological definition of asexuality refers to offspring coming from a single organism. Maybe this is the reason that people stereotype aces and think that all of us are single: because we are haunted by the ghost of using a term that implies being single. To clarify, it’s completely awesome to be single. For some ace people that is ideal. For other ace people it is not ideal, but actually hurtful when people invalidate their asexual identity because they want or have a romantic and/or sexual partner.

I once asked Sam (not this person’s name) if a mutual friend knew Sam and I used to date. Sam said no, I didn’t want our mutual friend to think you aren’t asexual. Sam was implying if someone knew my dating history they would think I’m not asexual. Sam hid our past to supposedly protect my identity. I didn’t feel protected though; I felt hurt and like Sam was embarrassed of me.

The biological definition of asexuality also refers to reproduction without sex. This works great for many asexual people who don’t have sex, don’t want sex, and/or don’t want to be associated with sex. For them this ghost is actually a benefit. For sex-favorable asexuals or people who don’t identify with that term but for some reason want to have sex, this ghost is actually a problem. I went back into the closet in many spaces because when people find out I am interested in sexual behaviour in the right context they think I’m not asexual. They then feel like they have the excuse or permission to ask invasive questions about my sex life so they can figure out sexual orientation I “really am.”

Tying asexuality into no sex is also an issue for people who experience sensual attraction or want to make out and do activities that society has lumped in with sex because they’re considered foreplay. As in, these activities lead to sex. For many people these activities are the mainplay and can be not sexual at all. Important to my discussion, because of their being lumped in with sex, and sex is something asexual biological organisms do not do, many ace people are invalidated if they like making out or other sensual activities.

The reason I bring up these ghosts is to shed light on our history and give a new perspective to old problems. Some of the stereotypes in the asexual community help some aces and harm others. Importantly though, as a whole the ace community often widens the definition of asexuality to include people who want to use the definition. I am a valid asexual with my sex drive and no sexual attraction. I can have sex every day and still be valid. Someone else is a valid asexual if they have no sex drive and do have sexual attraction. They’re also valid if they never have sex and never want it. There’s lots of ways to be valid. Asexuality as a term sometimes doesn’t match the values or goals of our current community because the ghosts were made for their own purposes, not ours.

While I feel frustrated when I am invalidated, can I really blame people who think I should be single and can never have sex because they first learned about asexuality in a science classroom? Not really. We built asexuality on a forest with ghosts and that requires unlearning and exorcisms of old ideas.

Invalidation is much more complex than just ghosts and biological definitions, but I would like to propose that this history is part of what is going on. If we continue to see biological and sexual orientations of asexuality as completely different, we risk missing the connections other people are making between them. These connections actually make sense in light of the history. Remembering our history can help us move forward. Thinking about what has come before has helped me slow down and be more patient. I can still be hurt and frustrated, because being invalidated and told you aren’t asexual is a hurtful experience, but I can give people the benefit of the doubt easier. I am asking them to unlearn what they know, for my benefit, and to make room for my way of being in the world. This takes time, patience, and compassion on both sides.

Before our community settled on using the term asexual some people wanted to call us non-libidoists and others wanted to call us nonsexual. Those words evoke their own unique meanings, histories, and definitions. Non-libidoist would always have been haunted by Sigmund Freud. If we had gone with another term many people who identify as asexual today would not be a part of the community. For example, non-libidoist refers to people who have no or little sex drive. Some aces have a sex drive.

Thinking about being haunted by the biological definition of asexuality opens up questions for me. If we had gone by another name, would people in the community have made the same effort to be inclusive of people who come to an ace identity for a variety of reasons? Does our use of the term asexual exclude people who might have been in the community if we went by another name? Where are they now?

What are some other stereotypes from the biological concept of asexuality that have carried over to the sexual orientation identity? What do you think of using this ghost and haunting metaphor to describe asexuality’s past with a different definition?

About Talia

Talia is an asexual, nonbinary, vegan-feminist that drinks a lot of coffee and stays up very late playing Blizzard video games and writing fiction. They are working on a PhD in Environmental Studies where they think a lot about oppression as intersectional and impacting identities differentially. Talia has a particular fondness for asexuality, fandom, and Critical Animal Studies. Their personal blog is petuniaparty.tumblr.com
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, asexual politics, Language, personal experience, sex-favorable and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Biology Definition of Asexuality May Have More Impact on the Sexual Orientation Than We Think

  1. demiandproud says:

    Well, concerning reproduction, it’d be good to consider alternative methods for having children when you don’t want sex and I think there the ghost of biological “asexual reproduction” may come very close.

  2. Rachel says:

    I’m not quite sure how to feel about this. I am not certain how to approach any reconciliation or reassessment with the history of the term, not after we spent so long trying to distance ourselves from our homonym. Nor is this dilemma unique to asexuals (see: But bi- means two!, Gay used to mean happy or, euphemistically, sexually promiscuous!). Learning how those communities dealt with that could be illuminating.

    I also wonder what the community might have been like if our terms had developed differently, emphasizing some aspects over others. What if the non-libidoists had won that battle? What if the gray-aces or demis had been successfully banished? As for who we have defined out of asexuality, I obviously can’t answer that in full because I can’t see into alternate universes, but…

    By centering the sexual-attraction definition, it absolutely has created entry hurdles for people whom place more importance on other common but non-definitional aspects of “asexuality.” See: people talking about sex-repulsion, trauma, or lack of libido as the epicenter of their identity over the nebulous “sexual attraction” that most aces necessarily can’t define anyway. And honestly, while I don’t disagree with the “asexuality-as-orientation can have different definitions for different people!” stance, I’ve yet to see it work in practice. I never see any meaningful discussion or centering of these alternative definitions. No matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise, we don’t make room for alternative definitions. And I’m not sure how we could even if we want to.

    • Talia says:

      Yes I agree learning how the bisexual and gay community dealt with the definition of their identity also meaning something else could be very constructive πŸ™‚ In the case of bisexuality I know this has been fracturing for many, especially when it comes to the distinctions between bisexuality and pansexuality.

      I can see why it might seem counter-productive to think about the history the ace community tries to distance itself from. I used to believe that. What I like about thinking about this history though is that we can try to understand where other people are coming from when they are evoking, relying on, or referencing that history. Thinking about the history helped me understand the discourse more. Even if we continue to distance from the biological definition of the term, I think sitting with what’s going on even momentarily could be helpful. Or it is for me anyways. Maybe it isn’t for you.

      Well if our community was called non-libidoist it would look very different. I wouldn’t be part of the community and I’d probably be part of the bisexual or pansexual communities and dealing with a different kind of constant invalidation. I assume the same is true of many others, and the fact that many of us are here, because of the name we chose, shows that it does open up space for many ways to be ace. But, as I also gestured to in the post, I’m not positive about that and I wondered who isn’t here because we used that term? I wanted to imagine where they might be and how to include them (if they want to be included).

      I completely agree that centering the sexual-attraction model creates hurdles for people in our community. I disagree with you though that we don’t make room for alternate definitions. For example, I put a lot of thought into writing how I am asexual and including that this is absolutely not the only or most valid way to be ace. It isn’t perfect, but rather a practice in process of learning how to balance being with self and others. I try to validate forms of asexuality that aren’t my own way of being because I want to represent them and give them space. Whenever I write about that I don’t experience sexual attraction, I nearly always also include that it’s okay to experience sexual attraction and still identify as ace. I may not center those experiences as much as I could… but should I really? That’s not my experience. I don’t want to propose theory or ways of understanding an experience that isn’t my own. I have seen many other people also write about a particular ace identity while also being expansive and opening up room for others. I have also seen some people only talk about one form of asexuality as if that is the be all and end all and nothing else exists. I think this is a significant part of the ace community, but it’s not inevitable.

      • Rachel says:

        To be clear, I don’t think that a reassessment of the community stance on biological asexuality vs orientation asexuality is inherently counterproductive so much as lacking in any concrete leads. Backtracking might be worthwhile, but where should we start? And how? And just how much do we actually (as opposed to theoretically) stand to gain from doing it? Unless there is a game-plan, I am hesitant to commit.

        Just to be clear on a few things:
        – I’m actually in favor of the sexual attraction definition because I think that casting a wider net is better than barring people who might otherwise benefit from the community, regardless of the problems that the sexual attraction definition carries. But then, it’s easy for me to say that because I can identify my lack of sexual attraction quite easily, so I’m in no danger of soft-exclusion by way of community definitions.
        – My complaint about the community’s juggling of multiple definitions isn’t about anything you say or do, but what I see from the community as a whole.

        Here’s what I mean:

        Asexual community: Asexuality is defined as a lack of attraction. Asexuality is not sex-repulsion/lack of libido/whatever!

        Random asexual: But my sex-repulsion/lack of libido is why I call myself asexual in the first place! I am asexual because I am sex-repulsed/lack libido/whatever!

        Asexual community: That’s valid!

        *five minutes later*

        Asexual community: Anyway, asexuality is defined as a lack of attraction. Asexuality is not sex-repulsion/lack of libido/whatever!

        There is PLENTY of air-time given to sex-repulsion and lack of libido as, well, side-effects of asexuality-as-lack-of-attraction. But are either of those things treated as the core of how asexuality is defined? No, neither are given equal billing to the lack-of-attraction definition.
        I agree with the core sentiment that you expressed: that there is always an opportunity cost that comes with any terminology. By championing “asexuality” as a lack of attraction, we necessarily forfeit whatever opportunities (and problems) that other definitions may have presented. And again, I’m IN FAVOR of the attraction definition, because I think we are better off for having libidinous and/or sex-favorable aces in the community than not.

        TL:DR: You wondered (and I don’t mean any of this in an accusatory way) at the opportunity-cost of defining asexuality as we have, and at the people we lost by doing so. I wonder that too, and I can’t speak for the people that never set any foot with us. But I can speak in partial commonality with the people whose asexuality chafes with the dominant lack-of-attraction definition: the people who define their asexuality by their sex-repulsion or lack of libido. That is but one part of our opportunity-cost, albeit a minor one (as compared to the people that get defined out entirely). I don’t see this as some heinous misdeed that must be corrected, but rather as the unavoidable price we incur for defining asexuality as we do. Is that clear?

        • Talia says:

          Thanks for the examples and clarifying πŸ™‚ Yes that is clear. I really like your example of: “Asexual community: That’s valid!

          *five minutes later*

          Asexual community: Anyway, asexuality is defined as a lack of attraction. Asexuality is not sex-repulsion/lack of libido/whatever!”
          I have seen this happen before. I agree that that is the unavoidable price for defining asexuality as we do, but I often think that if we (as a whole, not one individual) get rid of the “is not” and instead replace it with “asexuality can also be…” things might be better. As in we use a multiplicity rather than a binary definition. That may not be realistic because the average person uses binaries/opposites rather than multiplicities to understand definitions. Also maybe there are some downfalls I’m not aware of or thinking of.

          And to speak to the beginning of your comment, yes I agree there aren’t any concrete leads about where to start and how far back to go. In this post I was opening up the conversation to say hey maybe we want to consider this. Maybe this is relevant to us. Maybe no one cares lol. I wanted to start that conversation before I began to think about a game-plan and where it might go.

          • luvtheheaven says:

            I do find it invalidating and annoying and ridiculous HOW often I see this on Twitter: https://twitter.com/aspecareawesome/status/1146985530070110208?s=19

            Where asexuality is NOT in like an caps… This big part of what it is for me and at least half of the aces I’ve met?? I don’t know how to change people’s minds on how that’s not the best approach to spreading the news that sex-favorable asexuals exist? I just. It frustrates me every time I’m pretty sure…

  3. Siggy says:

    I was thinking about this article earlier, and making parallels to the work of Ianna Hawkins Owen. Ianna’s research also focused on “out of date” understandings of asexuality, and persuaded me there is continuity between modern misconceptions about asexuality, and historical stereotypes. But Ianna focused on the concept of asexuality regardless of whether the word “asexual” was used, whereas this article focuses more on the word “asexual”. It feels like these are two halves of the same story.

    • Talia says:

      Yes I completely agree that this is part of the same story. Thank you for bringing my attention back to that post πŸ™‚ I remember hearing the term asexuality being used to refer to white and black women historically in some of my undergraduate feminist classes. It’s also been used as a negative stereotype for people with disabilities. I wonder if that was before or after asexuality as a biological concept started gaining traction. It would be curious to see if the uses were independent or linked. Looks like I have some research to do and things to think about!

  4. Blue Ice-Tea says:

    I would question the etymological assumption that underpins this article: that the sociological definition of “asexual” was adapted from or came out of the biological one. I think it more likely came about independently. I don’t think the first people who described themselves as “asexual” were adopting a word from biology. I think they looked at the existing sexual-orientation labels (“hetero-“, “homo-“, and “bi-sexual”) and decided they needed to make one meaning “none of the above”. They wouldn’t even have needed to know the word “asexual”; they would just need to know the prefix “a-” and tack in on accordingly.

    That’s how it was for me, anyway. I knew the term “asexual” from biology, but I didn’t think I was adopting a biology term. I thought I was creating a neologism for a sexual orientation that didn’t have a name yet.

    I think any “ghosts” that haunt the word have a lot more to do with the history of “homosexual” and the other sexuality labels. The concept of sexual orientation as we now understand it was invented by the Victorians, and it’s always interesting to consider how it informs and constrict our understanding of human sexuality. Some of what you say in this post does seem to point towards that.

    “Before our community settled on using the term asexual some people wanted to call us non-libidoists and others wanted to call us nonsexual. … If we had gone by another name, would people in the community have made the same effort to be inclusive of people who come to an ace identity for a variety of reasons? Does our use of the term asexual exclude people who might have been in the community if we went by another name?”

    This is an important and interesting point. When I encountered the asexual community, I had experienced sexual attraction but did not have a sex drive. For a long time I felt very uncertain about my place within the community. If the community had focused less on a lack of attraction and more on a lack of libido, maybe I would have identified with it sooner.

    On the other hand, here I am, so… clearly it wasn’t that big a hurdle! πŸ˜‰

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