Labels must be allowed to die

On Glossaries

Have you ever seen one of those asexual or aromantic glossaries?  If not, I have many examples in the footnotes!1  These glossaries often serve as repositories for all the identity terms that one person or another has advocated at some point in time.  Many of these terms are called “microlabels” or “neolabels”, because they’re relatively new, describe something rather specific, and are used by only a small group of people.

The idea is that someone may read one of these glossaries, and find a label that is useful.  And if you don’t like the neolabels, nobody is forcing you to use them!  And if a particular neolabel is used by nobody, then, I guess it’s at least not doing any harm? Or is it?

Coyote recently observed that aro/ace glossaries are usually quite different from traditional glossaries.  A traditional glossary might appear in the back of a book.  If you encounter a term you’re unfamiliar with, you look it up in the glossary.  But it seems the intended use of these aro/ace glossaries, is usually to read them straight through.  As look-up resources, glossaries often have omissions and other issues.2

The result is that these glossaries contain a bunch of labels that are otherwise effectively dead.  People only learn about these labels by reading glossaries, or by encountering other people who read the glossaries.  The glossaries mislead people into thinking that individual neolabels are more established than they really are.

The problem isn’t neolabels.  The problem is that permanent resources are keeping some neolabels on life support.

On Rabger’s model

I’m going to share a cautionary tale, and it’s a very old one because that allows you to see how it all rolled out in the end.

Rabger’s model is a model that was extant from the years 2006 to 2011 on AVEN.  It made a distinction between primary and secondary sexual attraction, and primary and secondary sexual desire.  Counterintuitively, asexuality was defined as a lack of primary sexual desire rather than sexual attraction.  Demisexuality was defined as having secondary sexual attraction but not primary sexual attraction.

Rabger’s model was named after AVEN user Rabger, who supposedly created the model.  Rabger did not create Rabger’s model.  Rabger proposed a model in 2005, which started a long thread on AVEN.  The AVENwiki was first created around the same time, and a few of its editors were enthusiastic about Rabger’s thread.  They put the model on the AVENwiki, but took some liberties in its description–for example, Rabger had not split sexual desire into primary and secondary types.

Although the AVENwiki is supposed to be a living resource, editors lost momentum after 2006.  It became frozen until 2010, when there was an attempt to update it.  In 2011, Rabger saw Rabger’s model for the first time, complained that the article misrepresented their views, and deleted the AVENwiki page.  The page was restored under the title Primary vs secondary sexual attraction model.

What was the problem with this model?  Personally, I didn’t like it because it was too essentialist.  Some other people liked it, and no knock on those people.  The real problem was that, when I was on AVEN circa 2010, people pretty much only understood this model through its appearance on AVENwiki.  The model did not propagate organically, it was not allowed to stand or fall on its own merit.  It’s just that the demisexuality page prominently linked to the Rabger’s model page, and this led people to thinking it was the authoritative way to understand demisexuality.

Once the model was renamed, people mostly stopped using it.  Without the illusion of authority propped up by the AVENwiki, the model died.  I think the best part about its death, is that demisexuality was freed from the confines of a rather complicated and essentialist theory.

The moral of the story?  Permanent resources, if not properly maintained, can keep ideas alive well past their expiration date, and hold back better ideas.

On Cupiosexual

(This section is based on an article I posted on Pillowfort.)

Now, for a more modern example: cupiosexual.  It’s defined in at least a few glossaries, and it means “wanting a sexual relationship, but not experiencing sexual attraction.”  As far as I can tell, “cupiosexual” was created not because there was demand for it, but because there was demand for “cupioromantic”, and people just swapped out the -romantic suffix for -sexual.  Actual demand for the “cupiosexual” label appears to be low.

When I searched around for “cupiosexual” and I found:

  • A single blog post explaining what it is, what the flag is, etc.
  • A stub on the MOGAI wiki
  • A quora post that says it’s not real
  • Some tumblr posts that list out a bunch of identities to say they’re all valid
  • A tumblr blog that isn’t about cupiosexuality at all, but someone’s personal blog for celebrity photos
  • A 2015 post by Asexual Advice explaining why they discourage use of “cupiosexual”.
  • Lots of AVEN threads.  It seems to have been more successful on AVEN than anywhere else.  But only six threads in the past year and none in 2019.
  • A short reddit thread where someone asks:

Some people think this is a unnecessary label, while others feel its an important distinction in the aro/ace community. What are your thoughts?

Yeah… so the problem with cupiosexual isn’t that it’s unnecessary.  The problem is that people under this label deserve better.

Cupiosexual means roughly the same thing as “sex-favorable asexual”, an older term that has been discussed much more extensively just looking at our blog.  Cupiosexual doesn’t mean quite the same thing–it’s a bit more rigid–but it doesn’t feel like it’s actually trying to distinguish itself from sex-favorability, it’s just an inferior definition.

So, imagine the following hypothetical: a sex-favorable asexual goes on some advice blog, describes their experiences and asks “What am I?”  The blog’s mod isn’t sure how to answer, so they refer to one of those glossaries, finds the word “cupiosexual”, and recommends the term.  The person who asked the question is initially overjoyed, but this turns to disappointment as they can find hardly any community or resources for cupiosexuals.  They may have found a word for themselves, but they conclude that they’re still ultimately alone in the world.

And it’s not that they’re alone, it’s just that they were given the wrong search term.

Fortunately, cupiosexual is not present in many of the glossaries (partly because it’s more common to find glossaries focusing on romantic orientations only).  But I find myself wondering… are there other abandoned neolabels kept on life support?  In their attempt to help people find applicable identity labels, are glossaries sometimes guiding people towards dead ends, and loneliness?


1. Examples of glossaries:
Aromantic-spectrum Union for Recognition, Education, and Advocacy
Arospec awareness week
Asexuals anonymous
Aro-ace place
A-Spec Labels and Terminology
Asexuality Archive

2. One common omission in aro/ace glossaries is “SAM” or the split attraction model.  Another is the word “platonic” (which can be looked up in mainstream dictionaries, but means something different in aspec communities).  Another common problem is that glossaries fail to acknowledge that words have multiple meanings.  And some glossaries are split up into multiple pages, making it actively difficult to look up specific words. (return)

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.
This entry was posted in Articles, Demisexual, Language, sex-favorable. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Labels must be allowed to die

  1. Coyote says:

    I’m trying to imagine what the counterarguments could be, and so far I’m no further than “but what if somebody needs it?” — which I think you addressed by explaining how these pages don’t necessarily help those people. Actual links to people *talking* about these things and *using* these words in practice has a better chance of that. And for neolabels where something to link doesn’t yet exist… presumably the thinking is that having an entry on a wiki or a glossary takes care of the first step, paving the way for those things to follow, but… in reality, in the current atmosphere, it seems more likely that someone would just start from scratch and try to create a whole new term of their own, due to not being sure how other people are using the “older” term and not wanting to step on anybody’s toes.

    • Siggy says:

      In addition to “But what if somebody needs it?” there’s also “Even if there’s no community now, perhaps someone will eventually build one.”

      But like you said, if someone does build a community, they might be better off just creating a new term, rather than appropriating a term whose history has been lost to the mists of Tumblr. A dead word does not help to build a community, a dead word is a dispiriting signpost that someone else once tried to build a community and failed for one reason or another.

  2. A problem i’ve been having with the glossary at Asexualidad en Breve is that, even if i know a label is useful and has some kind of community and discussion around it, most of the time the only googleable content in Spanish is gonna be an Asexualpedia page or two. I haven’t even added sex-favorable/indifferent/etc. to the list because of that :/

    • Siggy says:

      If you look at the glossaries, the favorable/indifferent/repulsed trichotomy is another common omission alongside SAM and platonic. Many glossaries are just strangely attentive to obscure identity terms, while inattentive to far more common non-identity terms.

      But yeah I’d guess the experience of reading a glossary in Spanish is somewhat different. Because if you put an obscure label on there and people can’t find any search results, they might just conclude that it’s actively used in the anglosphere (whether or not that’s true).

      • Coyote says:

        the favorable/indifferent/repulsed trichotomy is another common omission

        huh. Hadn’t even thought about that one. And there’s definitely plenty to link on that topic.

        This is just a thought, but I also have to wonder if “absences” in these glossaries encourage people to try to “coin” what occurs to them — like multiple cases of people suggesting “romance drive.”

  3. As the author of one of those glossaries, I will say that I tried to avoid including things that seemed to have limited use, largely because I didn’t want to make them seem more established than they actually were and because I didn’t want to have to try to keep up with the latest fad nanolabels. I wasn’t always successful… This reluctance also meant that I was years late in including words that did become more widespread.

    Rabger’s Model and the AVEN Wiki were huge inspirations for me back in the day… Because they were so awful. I basically refused to use the wiki as a resource to give people, so I just ended up writing a bunch of stuff myself. (And now I have a mountain of stale content that’s all my own!)

    As for things on life support, I’d say it feels like lithromantic and neutrois are in that camp. Those were popular terms back in the day, but I don’t recall ever seeing people who used lithromantic for themselves, and the only person I can think of who used neutrois has moved on to non-binary and genderqueer. (Maybe I’m forgetting some people or just don’t hang around in circles where they’re popular.) Those words also tend to zombie along with the help of random pride flag compilations.

    • Siggy says:

      Yes some of the glossaries are very different from the others, especially yours and the AVENwiki’s. But I wasn’t very well going to exclude glossaries from the list just because they didn’t fit in with my narrative.

      Contrary to appearances, neutrois and lithromantic are alive and well. I know that from survey data–lithro’s the most common “neolabel” after quoiro. Aroflux and cupioromantic are also in that range. There are also plenty of other labels that are really obscure, but apparently see at least some use. Like the aego-, abro-, and ficto- prefixes. At the tail end it becomes subjective whether the label is dead or not.

      But the glossaries certainly include words that are even deader than “cupiosexual”. For instance, “adfecturomantic” has even more barren search results, and does not appear anywhere in survey data. That one has something to do with neurodivergency or trauma, so I figure people keep it around because they’re worried about appearing anti-victim. Apparently people haven’t thought so far as to imagine what it might be like to be a trauma victim finding a dead word in glossaries everywhere.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    You know, I wouldn’t be so sure that the primary vs. secondary sexual attraction model is entirely dead… because it’s in The Invisible Orientation, right there on page 38 (in the edition I have) in the first paragraph about demisexuality as the explanation about what it means. When I talked with the author back around the time the book came out, she said that (presumably at the time of writing) there was a group of people who were still actively using that model, and that’s why she included it. Who knows if that’s still the case now, but with books being seen as an especially authoritative permanent resource, I wouldn’t be surprised if that model does make a come-back in the future. I think it would be unfortunate if it does, though. I don’t see what the primary/secondary terminology adds other than more confusion.

    At least with books, though, there’s an expectation that they will age and become outdated, whereas with many of these glossary pages, there isn’t really a way to tell when they were written in the first place, or when they were last updated.

    • Coyote says:

      with many of these glossary pages, there isn’t really a way to tell when they were written in the first place, or when they were last updated.

      This is a good point.

    • Siggy says:

      I agree, although it’s no longer under the name of Rabger’s model, and no longer comes with all the baggage of trying to be a grand model that replaces conventional models of asexuality.

      I don’t have an issue with individuals who like the primary/secondary attraction idea. I’m more looking at it from the perspective of permanent resources, and I no longer have any complaints there. Primary/secondary attraction is present on the AVENwiki, but that’s a lookup resource, not something you’re supposed to read straight through. The presence in The Invisible Orientation isn’t ideal, but book publishing is slow, so what can you do.

    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      If the primary/secondary attraction model is dead, it’s news to me! As a demisexual, I’m one of those people who definitely found the model useful, both as a way of explaining my own experience and as a confirmation of my place within the ace community. “Person who does not experience sexual attraction”: that was never me. But “person who does not experience primary sexual attraction”: that one fits very well!

      (I’ve read The Invisible Orientation, too, which may have contributed to my sense that this division was still a real thing.)

  5. Coyote says:

    Note: I posted a link to this post to Arocalypse.

    • Siggy says:

      I don’t have an account, so I’m just going to put various replies here.

      Marking words as archaic or dated seems okay. I am in favor of keeping around historical records of these words. But… A) I don’t think public-facing glossaries are the appropriate place for that. B) A historical record should provide more information than just the definition. C) The coverage is highly inconsistent–why include this long list of defunct labels invented around 2014, but not include any of the dated language from the 2006 era (as can be found on the AVENwiki)? D) Waiting around for someone to say it’s not archaic is a bad procedure–by marking something as archaic we are not trying to say “no one uses this anymore”. See the continuing use of primary/secondary attraction. E) Some of these labels are not even archaic, they were simply proposed and never used even at the time.

      Some other commenters noted that they liked seeing obscure labels even if there was no further information to be found. Well there’s room for subjective tastes but I don’t think that should be a driving force in creating formal public resources.

      BTW, I am not just basing my claims on the Ace Community Survey. A couple aro community surveys also make note of uncommon romantic orientation labels that show up.

  6. Talia says:

    I think it would be nice to have a list of the terms that were previously used in the ace community, both to remember our history and because people may resonate with terms that fell out of favour. I agree with you that we should allow the labels to die if they are no longer being used.

    I remember when cupiosexual was really popular several years ago. The label technically applies to me but I never used it and never wanted to so. I avoided cupiosexual a little. The label froze in my mind as it was then and I’ve always kind of considered it a popular up and comer that might get rid of sex-favourable. I didn’t consciously notice how the traction declined, but now that you point it out I don’t recall the last time I heard someone call themselves cupiosexual. Maybe that’s the case with some of the other labels as well – that some of us don’t keep up with them because they don’t apply to us and we continue to think they’re around and thriving.

    • Siggy says:

      I think wikis are great places for lists of outdated terms. A wiki automatically maintains a page history, and pages can be updated as terms go out of date or as new resources are created.

      I think I was more hostile to the idea of “cupiosexual” than you, because it usually excludes gray-As, seemingly without any thought put into that decision. It’s alternately defined as referring to people who never experience sexual attraction–which is based on a misconception that “asexual” and “gray-A” neatly correspond to “never experiencing sexual attraction” and “infrequently experiencing sexual attraction”. So this is what I mean when I say that the definition of “cupiosexual” is simply inferior.

      I feel that if “cupiosexual” had more active discussion, then this sort of issue would be hashed out, and people would either justify the definition or find ways to redefine it. As it is, the word is dead, and I’m not sad about it.

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