“Experiences attraction infrequently” doesn’t cut it

So here’s another item on the list of bones I have to pick with how people talk about gray-asexuality: when people define it as “experiences sexual attraction infrequently” (or “rarely” or “occasionally”) and leave it at that.

First of all, that’s not all it means, but more annoyingly, that phrasing leaves the door open for anyone to say, “How does that warrant its own label?  It’s not like people who are bisexual, heterosexual, etc. experience sexual attraction every minute of every day,” because it fosters the impression that the ace community is oversexualizing the experiences of allosexuals thanks to varying impressions of what “infrequently” entails, and, as a result, it tends to create the impression that gray-as are categorically nothing more than mini allosexuals — only with a smaller word bank, so to speak, of people they consider hot.

This post is a response to the problem where, because well-meaning people (even within the ace community) keep recycling a definition that is too narrow to apply to us all, other people are getting the impression that gray-asexuality is just some convoluted way of referring to Allosexuality Lite.

Part of the inspiration for writing this post, besides bitterness, was Sciatrix’s remark to me about how hard it is to get gray-as to actually write about gray-asexuality.  I’ve got the will and the means, so I figured I might as well contribute another post on the subject.  In the course of planning this post, though, I discovered that one of the reasons gray-asexuality is so hard to talk about, on a personal basis, is that it involves this constant self-monitoring in order to ensure that your descriptions don’t veer too close to sounding like either “just” asexuality or “just” allosexuality.  In effect, trying to describe a personal gray-asexual identity requires making two arguments at once: that it’s different enough from asexuality to justify not identifying as asexual, but that it’s also different enough from allosexuality to justify not identifying with one of the allosexual labels either.  To be honest, I don’t know if I can strike that balance.  Nonetheless, this is my attempt to express a deficiency in the definition that reduces the concept of gray-asexuality down to infrequence of attraction, by providing some personal reflections on why I continue to self-describe as gray-asexual.

For me, sexual attraction is infrequent, yes, but it’s less infrequent than it is faint and fickle — ephemeral — some kind of unstable compound with a brief half-life, one that catches my attention but then starts to evaporate just as soon as I try to seize my attention on it in an attempt to analyze it for the benefit of humankind, since “what does sexual attraction feel like?” is ever-popular question in the asexual community.  I don’t “experience” sexual attraction so much as I have brushes with it.  We bump shoulders in the hallway as we head in opposite directions, or it rings my doorbell and then runs off, or occasionally appears on my doorstep unannounced, and then just as soon as I get out the words, “What are you doing here?”, it’s taking off and leaving me there with my head stuck out the door watching it speed away, saying to myself, “Oh.  Um.  Alright.  Well, see you again in a few months, then.”

Compared to what allosexuals feel, this is much quicker to fizzle out and has much less of an effect (read: none at all) on how I form relationships.  It’s like the difference between the feeling of holding a solid object in your hands and reaching your fingers out into a cloud of fog.  Not the same thing as a pure nothingness, but not weighing as much on your perception, either.

Also, yeah, I experience it “infrequently”, whatever that means.

For the sake of argument, when making the case for gray-ace inclusion, advocates sometimes give an example of infrequence as “two or three times in your entire lifetime, tops,” as I have done myself before.  These days, though, I waver more over what should count as sexual attraction and what shouldn’t, meaning I’m not sure that kind of frequency rate is the right way to describe my particular situation.  Yet I still consider my brushes with sexual attraction to be infrequent, among other things.

For me, what does “infrequently” mean?

It means not having any consistent idea of what kind of physical appearance would have a sexual appeal to me, with those anomalous instances of sexual attraction never amounting to any permanent or recognizable kind of preference that I can draw on (even though I can easily rattle off a list of traits that attract me aesthetically).  It means not being able to personally empathize with characters or real people who ogle and gush over sexually attractive people.  It means feeling slightly awkward and out of place when my friends send me pictures of “hot” people and express how they feel about them, with no counterexamples leaping to mind that would allow me to say, “No, they’re not hot, ________ is hot.”  It means there’s no variant of a generic human form that I can put together in my mind to make me think, “Ah, yes, that is the kind of person I want to see and interact with naked.”

I felt slightly repulsed just typing that, because that’s such a non-want for me, but I feel obligated to explain here.  If I were “just allosexual”, then presumably there would be some ability on my part to identify specific features that often cause or correlate with sexual attraction for me — ex. big boobs, round butts, muscular abs, deep voices, for instance, are some features that have some kind of sexual appeal to many allos.  Ask them what kind of people they (generally) find sexually attractive, and they can put together an answer.  I can’t relate to that.  Ask them to imagine a person — no person in particular, just a general anonymous shape — that they would think is hot, and my bet is they could conjure a sexy image easily.  I can’t relate to that.

It feels inaccurate to say I “experience sexual attraction infrequently” (or any variation of that) is not just because of the fuzziness of “infrequently”, but also because of the stickiness of the word “experience”, which implies something much more sustained than the occasional static that appears on my radar.  When I call my sexual attraction rare and fleeting, that doesn’t mean hot people are uncommon, but that my experience of seeing anyone as “hot” is uncommon — and that that feeling genuinely leaves me.  My straight & bisexual friends have given me the impression that this is not true of them — if they think someone is hot, they can expect to feel the same way about that same person tomorrow.  As convenient as it would be to have more in common with the majority of people, I can’t relate to that.  I just plain don’t experience my sexuality the way allosexual people do.

For the time being, I don’t feel like “asexual” itself is the best way to describe my sexual orientation.  But dang is it a whole lot closer than bi, gay, or straight.

That’s what it means when we say that asexuality has a spectrum: that you don’t have to be asexual in order for asexuality to be one of the closest reference points for describing your experiences.

Granted, there are times when I do consider identifying as “asexual” instead, but the word “gray” as a prefix feels more suited to expressing the way my sexuality feels.  It feels gray.  It feels hazy.  It feels semi-arid.  I’m not convinced that my experiences can be definitively declared to be less than ten inches of precipitation a year, and the label of gray-a lets me avoid worrying about precision.  If we went by a previous, more nebulous understanding of asexuality as “disidentify[ing] with sexuality”, though, then I am asexual through and through.

Most critics of gray-asexuality have given me the impression that they want gray-as to identify with an allo label instead (preferably the label of “straight”), and since the shift from identifying as heterosexual to gray-a has allowed me the mental space to recognize that some of my brushes with sexual attraction are similarly-gendered, pushing me into picking a different label would probably just result in me resorting to something vague and non-het like “queer”, and (besides the fact that I don’t feel enough kinship with the term for it to apply) — I do not think that would go over well.


27 responses to ““Experiences attraction infrequently” doesn’t cut it

  • Siggy

    Oh, you linked my “Many ways to be between” post, but an arguably more relevant post was “Not to be confused with Fluidity“. It seems we share a pet peeve.

  • Siggy

    When I’ve talked about my experience being gray-A, I’ve also used the word “fog”, and talked about how tricky it is for me to even pin a frequency on my attraction. To speak of frequency suggests that it is an event, but it is not an event for me. It is a non-event. I literally feel like I’m talking about nothing.

    I can look back at some period of time and say there was some romantic attraction somewhere in there, but it did not occur at any particular time. Sexual attraction feels even more removed than romantic attraction. I’m not even sure whether my romantic attraction has a sexual component, or if it’s separate but usually coincident, or if I’m just okay with being sexual with romantic partners, or what.

    • acetheist

      Gray-asexuality: the orientation of fog.

      Thanks for the comment — makes me wonder how common this is as a reason for identifying as gray-a (although just knowing there’s someone else in the same boat who gets what I’m talking about is nice enough on its own).

  • rimonim

    Thanks for this–I really appreciate the window into your experience. I think you’re right about the allosexual experience–my attractions are more or less stable over time, I can easily list attractive qualities or imagine a generic attractive person, sexual attraction is directly linked to how I form relationships (including non-sexual friendships), etc.

    I can see why gray-asexual is the right label for you, and I really see what you mean about the problems with “frequency” as a metric. It seems like this is more about quality than quantity.

    • acetheist

      It may be about quantity for some people, and I’ll say that’s just as valid, but restricting the definition that way makes it unnecessarily narrow in a way that doesn’t account for experiences like mine. And I’d also say that quality and quantity are both significant factors for me — the former no less than the latter.

      But anyway, thanks for confirming I wasn’t too far off-base with those assumptions about what allosexuality looks like. (:

  • timberwraith

    I think I’ve reached a place where “labels are artificial and inadequate” pretty much summarizes my feelings about so much in life. When you live in the borderlands of others’ perceptions of categories and identities, you find yourself in a place where “fuck it” begins to summarize your attitude towards others’ entanglements of language and tribal identity. I just want to be and my being usually entails violating the artificial, constrictive boundaries which people have rendered as unacknowledged, yet well fortified conformist orthodoxies.

    “Are you gay or straight?” I’m neither, actually. “Oh, so you want to cling to straight privilege.”

    “Are you atheist or theist?” I’m neither, actually. “Oh, so you are too much of a coward to take a stance on God and religion.”

    “Are you a man or a woman?” I’m a transgender woman, but neither group of cis people want to claim me. Y’all view me as a kind of undefined radioactive wasteland that no one wants to venture into without proper protection.

    “Are you working class or middle class?” I grew up in a blue collar family, I’m college educated and thus, partially acculturated as middle class, and I work in a job that is probably working class but is not recognized as such because it’s “pink collar”. So, where do I fit?

    And now, I am having the following ongoing conversation:

    “Are you *really* asexual? Cuz, you don’t totally fit the full line of descriptors, attributes, and other requirements that I’ve pulled out of my left ear.”

    *sigh* Look, do you really want me around? Because my very existence tends to reveal the inadequacies and faults of others’ group identities.

    OH. So you’re one of those special snowflakes.”

    Right. Yes. I am a special snowflake because I refuse to chop of bits and pieces of myself so that others can feel more comfortable with my presence.

    Look, I’ve got a solution. After years of not fitting into anyone’s notion of “proper member of group X”, I think I’m now clear on the pattern. So, how about if I live my life in as natural a fashion as possible rather than cramming myself into other people’s words, communal boundaries, and tribal identities? Because I’m really fed up with rejecting the conformist attitudes of the socially powerful only to find that I am then subjected to the conformist attitudes of the not so powerful.

    Because really, at 45 years and counting, I’m thoroughly done with this shit.

    By the way, how much of *yourself* have you been hiding and/or mutilating in order to fit into your peers’ notions of “proper member of group X”? That’s a serious question, actually. How much?

    And what does that mean to you?

    • whittaker5694

      Well said!! The boundaries you speak of are a point I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately. It ends up forcing people to defend themselves in an effort to belong or be accepted and allows others to determine if you in fact are what you say. I say be yourself and be proud and if someone doesn’t agree or looks down on them, that’s their issue. Good luck!

    • acetheist

      I respect your disinterest in labeling yourself; that’s a valid choice in its own right. For my own part, I like labels mostly because I like finding words for things in general, and gray-a is one that fits comfortably enough for me.

      Not sure if those were rhetorical/general questions, but since you seem pretty serious about it… I don’t know? Nothing comes to mind, really. Uh, I guess I have to keep my mouth shut about some religious stuff in the ace community sometimes, but that kind of goes for everywhere, and it’s still relatively more relaxed about the subject than I might dare to hope for — the other day, even, at an ace meetup, I had a conversation about church services with Sciatrix (an atheist) in which she had me cracking up laughing. I’ll keep thinking on it for you, though.

      • timberwraith

        Acetheist, my question was a rhetorical one directed at the gatekeepers rather than you. I’m completely supportive of your perspective and position. I’m sorry for the confusion. I imagine that it’s a question that many people have to ask, though: how much of myself am I closeting or distorting so that I can commune with others in my social group? I imagine that few people fully fit into the labels and associated roles and characteristics laid down by the collective. We all face this hurt at some point in our lives. That applies to socially dominant groups and the marginalized equally as well and since we often share some degree of membership in both, we often experience both versions.

        I wrote my response coming from a place of frustration that the kind of gate keeping that is evolving among on-line asexual communities reminds me of the same patterns I’ve personally endured or witnessed in so many other communities of people who band together to fight oppression. The need to create social division and conformity thrives in those communities as readily as it does in the mainstream. It expresses itself differently but it hurts all the same.

        I mean, there’s been this whole battle regarding allosexual LGBT+ people rejecting asexual people as queer. And now, the same “who’s in and who’s out” social patterns are playing out among asexuals, too. “Oh, I’m sorry, but you just aren’t asexual enough to be admitted. Please try one of the marginalized identities down the street. I hear that there are vacancies.” It’s just human beings being human beings, but it’s incredibly frustrating and horribly short sighted. Sometimes, we just don’t learn. It’s sad. So sad.

        I don’t reject the use of language that I see as appropriately describing who I am as a person and so, I find labels to be useful tools, but I am trying to take a more “post-modern” approach. Words are signifiers and nothing more. They are linguistic place holders that symbolize what exists but can never wholly embody the reality they represent. However, the inherent conformism of group dynamics tries to do the impossible: it attempts to reify the artificiality of language as a solid, unchangeable whole. We collectively mistake an assemblage of written symbols for people’s lived reality… and in the process, we do violence to the person’s life. I am trying to maintain my awareness of this underlying dynamic.

        I’m also learning to tell others to “stuff it” when they think I haven’t earned the right to adopt a particular word as my own… and then be quietly amused when they turn red and yell epithets. If you’ve given me the power to upset you so easily, I might just take pleasure in turning it against you (the rhetorical “you”).

        A sense of humor helps, even if it’s a bit evil spirited and immature. :)

        • acetheist

          “Acetheist, my question was a rhetorical one directed at the gatekeepers rather than you. I’m completely supportive of your perspective and position. I’m sorry for the confusion.”

          Oh, haha, okay. Oops.

          I concur with a lot of what you said there — I’ve seen people saying you can’t be asexual if you’ve been abused, if you have a sex drive, if you don’t have a sex drive, and so on… it’s all silly, but also rather harmful and based on a lot of misconceptions. People are asexual if they feel like they’re asexual. There’s really not anything more to it.

      • timberwraith

        Re-reading your post, I realize that my reaction is somewhat tangential to the original material. I guess I’ve been seeing enough skirmishes over who is “properly asexual” originating from the community itself to make this a raw topic for me.


        • acetheist

          That’s understandable, though. You could probably write a whole post of your own on the subject — I’m sure the AA would happily drop it in their linkspam.

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  • Anonymous

    “but it’s less infrequent than it is faint and fickle — ephemeral — some kind of unstable compound with a brief half-life, one that catches my attention but then starts to evaporate just as soon as I try to seize my attention on it in an attempt to analyze it for the benefit of humankind”

    It’s interesting to hear that for other people it’s less about frequency as well. I do experience what I think is sexual attraction but it kind of bounces off an invisible wall whenever I feel it. It’s like it’s there but if I act on it, it shifts or vanishes.

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