Words, ultimately, only mean what enough people agree that they mean. The current definition of an asexual — a person experiences little or no sexual attraction — is something the early asexual community arrived at as more of an accident of history than as a matter of consensus. Originally, these online communities ascribed to themselves the label of asexual because they felt a disassociation with sexuality, an even more nebulous sentiment than the definition we use now, and while the refinement of a definition should not preclude anyone from choosing whatever label feels right, there are — for the purpose of enabling education to the wider world — a few facets that make the current definition the best one that’s been arrived at so far.
This post is inspired by the fact that both allosexuals and aces sometimes talk about asexuality in a manner that would suggest it is equivalent to not having a sex drive or not wanting sex. While that’s true for some asexuals — and that’s important to emphasize — attention to the precise nature of definitions can help us benefit from the fact that some definitions are more advantageous than others.
First of all, on the matter of sex drive, the lack of one should not itself be termed asexuality (although some people may experience it as related to their asexuality) because asexuality is needed as a term for an orientation. For example, asexuality-as-orientation is a useful part of explaining why generalizations such as “heteroromantic asexuals are just straight people with a low sex drive” would be inaccurate. Even if we swapped the words around and decided to refer to only nonlibidoists as “asexual”, there would remain a need for an orientation-term for which the sexually attractive group is nobody. As a matter of personal preference, I’d rather asexual be the word we use for this concept.
In response to this idea, people have argued that the word “asexual” is a misleading label, for it draws up associations of asexual reproduction and makes it sound as though the person is completely nonsexual (nonlibidoist, celibate, no sex organs, etc.) when, according to explanations to the contrary, human asexuals can still get aroused and choose to have sex. The suggestion has been put forth that we call the orientation something else. Let’s presume we do this. What should the new name be? It’s a sexual orientation, so in order to follow the pattern of other sexual orientations, it should use “sexual” as a root word, with a prefix to indicate the “direction” of sexual attraction, if you will. Homosexuality uses “homo” which means “same” (attraction to the same gender), bisexuality uses “bi” which means “two” (attraction to more than one gender), so for no attraction at all, we’d use a prefix for “no” or “not”, like…
…Well, what do you know.
And since we’re on the subject, the whole “but that makes me think of something else” objection is a nice explanation for why asexuality needs more visibility. If asexuality were mentioned more frequently in wider contexts, I hypothesize the frequency of this confusion would fade as the idea became normalized, much as the word “bisexual” is now more often thought of as an orientation than it is its other definition, a description of a species with two sexes — a point that tumblr user greenchestnuts raises often (bless them).
The matter of celibacy and/or “not wanting sex” is a little more tricky because of more general misconceptions about human sexuality. Some people define or refer to sexual orientation as “sexual preference”, a conflation which, though the two often overlap, is a bit of a misconception (and causes problems discussed here). By this logic, a bi woman who prefers women (for any number of reasons independent of what attraction she feels) should be calling herself a lesbian despite the fact that she experiences attraction to other genders as well. Perhaps that might be useful in her individual case, but to encourage and enforce this perspective as a general framework undermines the notion of sexual orientation as a description of patterns of attraction, and then we would have to rework new terms to describe the same concepts again. The “sexual preference” paradigm would also tell us that all people in monogamous sexual relationships have orientations pertaining to exactly one person (which, bizarrely, is the mode of thinking that is often turned around as an attack on demisexuality).
If we are to posit “asexuality” as an orientation, which, as mentioned, there is a need for, then under a literal view of sexual orientation, “not wanting sex” is an insufficient definition because that would not describe a pattern of attraction (although obviously, a null pattern of sexual attraction is itself a good reason for not wanting sex). This all would seem rather self-evident, but my hope is that it will explain a few reasons why it’s important to pay particular attention to implied definitions. The “experiencing little or no sexual attraction” definition is what enables asexuality’s classification as an orientation, and its classification as an orientation is necessary for people on the asexual spectrum — especially those who have a libido and are willing to consent to sex under the right circumstances — to have a succinct way to describe their patterns of attraction.
The possibility of not having a libido and the validity of celibacy as a life choice should still be covered in asexuality education (and sex education in general!) because these ideas, though separable, remain interrelated and all of them still need to gain ground in terms of wider awareness and acceptance. The discussion of these concepts alongside asexuality is not something I’m arguing against. For the most part, I think this subject is sufficiently handled. However, I’ve seen enough usage of nonlibidoist and/or sex-disinterest explanations, even by actual aces themselves, to suggest to me that this warrants discussion.
There’s one last category of alternate definitions I’ve seen for asexual-spectrum labels, and that’s that some people experience sexual attraction “without wanting to act on it”; mostly, I’ve seen this put forth as a possible reason for identifying as gray-a. By my take on the terminology, that’d be experiencing sexual attraction without having sexual desire. That’s almost creeping up on celibacy, but not necessarily the same, as far as I can reason without having read anything from this population. It sounds almost like a sexual version of lithromanticism (experiencing romantic attraction without the desire for it to be reciprocated). Lithsexual, then? In any case, I can’t speak to that, and since it’s posited as a reason for the gray-a label, it does not necessarily interfere with my argument. I can’t recall ever seeing this one used to define asexuality itself — at least, not in any way that’s distinct from “not wanting sex”.