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: “a 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?