Vectors, Scales, and Spectrums

This post is a response to Dragon’s model for sexual attraction and the ace spectrum, which prompted a lot of scattered thoughts that I’ll be attempting to organize here.  Topics include: modeling attraction patterns, attraction vs. arousal, gray-ace vs. asexual, and issues of “frequency.”  CW for brief talk of ableism and eugenics.

I’ll start off chronologically:

I think of sexual attraction as an involuntary mental/emotional draw towards a person in a sexual manner (like being drawn towards someone in a romantic manner for romantic attraction), or perhaps a recognition and appreciation of ‘sexual’ qualities (like appreciation of aesthetic qualities in aesthetic attraction). Maybe being drawn towards someone in a sexual matter due to recognition and appreciation of their sexual qualities? Aces have a notoriously difficult time defining ‘sexual attraction’, seeing as we don’t have any (maybe some grey/demi people can attempt to clarify for me if I’m wrong?).

All checks out to me so far — not that I’m any authority (other gray-a and demifolk, watcha think?).  Describing it as a mental/emotional draw is plenty sufficient, I say, though for a more thorough examination/my articulation of what sexual attraction “is,” you can check out my Tastes Like Red post (which y’all have probably already seen, but I’m linking it here for the sake of new readership).

I really like the description of sexual attraction as a vector and arousal as scalar — while I’m not sure that they’re always that separate for everyone, it seems like a great way to make the distinction, and that’s the point that first got me excited to write this post.

Sexual attraction is a vector quantity: it has both a magnitude and a direction… One is never simply ‘attracted’ but always ‘attracted to’, because attraction requires an object.

[Sexual arousal] is a scalar quantity, with magnitude but no direction.

Like I said, this seems to me like a great way to conceptualize them (with a side note that, of course, sexual attraction can induce arousal in some cases, though as you note, it does not need an “object” to exist), so my response to this mostly consists of nodding and internal exclamation points.

Now this is where we’re gonna get into more gray-a talk.

There are quite a few considerations surrounding patterns of attraction, such as the usually-cited strength and frequency and attraction (there are others: cf. for example, the list compiled by Siggy in this post). I’m going to model the most common two only, because they’re easy to put onto graphs.

I… think you’re missing the point of that post, but I’ll get into that issue in a minute.

This is a note that Dragon makes about the graph she’s using:

An obvious problem is that ‘non-binary’ isn’t a gender by itself; the obvious solution is that the graph actually needs a dimension for every gender. I can’t draw that on my incredibly sophisticated mathematical modelling program, MS Paint, so I took the easy route out and condensed all of the NB genders into a single axis. If someone were drawing this graph for themselves, they could include the two or three genders most relevant to them, or even other categories such as ‘intelligent people’ or ‘feminine people’.

Er… while I acknowledge that gender and masculinity/femininity are fraught issues unto themselves, the idea of “intelligent people” seems far moreso.  Unless you were going to go by self-identification as with gender (in which case… that seems to be more a measure of self-esteem/humility/internalized -isms than of intelligence), then you have to believe in some achievable external measure of “intelligence,” which… is ableist, at best, and many previous attempts to do so have had strong roots in the eugenics movement.  I would recommend staying away from that mess altogether.

Anyway, here is how Dragon has graphed the asexual spectrum:

The smaller purple bubble might be taken to indicate ace people, while the grey bubble is grey people.

Okay.  A couple of things.

  1. It isn’t stated, but I’m assuming that the gray bubble extends to include the area beneath the purple one.
  2. I’m gray-a, and I consider myself/sometimes refer to myself as “ace,” as you can see in the title of my blog.  I don’t know where to find Cor’s post about this, but there’s been some confusion about whether “ace” is an umbrella term or not — some people even use “asexual[s]” with the intent to use it to refer to the whole spectrum, which can get confusing when you want to specify “asexual-asexuals,” as you can imagine.  Personally, I’m in favor of using “ace” as a general asexual-spectrum term and using “asexual” to refer to the folks who use that as their primary/full-length identifier.

So, since gender becomes irrelevant in the above graph, Dragon collapsed the graph into a more linear one:

If you’ll revisit Siggy’s post, you’ll notice this looks almost exactly like the one he used to demonstrate a poor conceptualization of the asexual spectrum.  In this post, I get the sense that Dragon is thinking of gray-asexuality in a way that several gray-as in the community, including myself, have resisted.  This is further confirmed in the discussion of the next graph, when Dragon struggles with the issue of frequency.  At this point, I want to return to an earlier paragraph in the post, beneath the three-axis graph:

(You might notice that I’ve made the purple ‘asexual bubble’ extend out a little but from the origin, where strictly speaking it should be a dot at (0, 0, 0). Honestly, I don’t really buy into the overly strict delineation of asexuality as being ‘no sexual attraction whatsoever’, especially since the whole idea of sexual attraction is super-fuzzy anyway. It’s unrealistic to expect the diverse group of people who feel themselves to be asexual to fit exactly on that dot; my bubble is basically an error bar allowing ‘very almost zero attraction’ to be counted as asexual.)

This is, incidentally, also a good explanation of how the boundary between “asexual” and “gray-asexual” can be a fuzzy one.  When mulling over the concept of gray-asexuality, this is an important thing to keep in mind.

Frequency is generally taken to indicate the number of instances of attraction in a certain time. However, this isn’t a very precise system – what if you just don’t often see people to whom you might be attracted? …

I prefer to visualise frequency as the number of times one experiences attraction over the number of people you encounter who are ‘your type’. On the other hand, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in this system – what exactly constitutes ‘one’s type’? … And then I have to question my earlier stricture about people attracted to those of very rare genders only: if they’re attracted to all or most people in that gender but the group is very small, this model technically counts them as allo when that might not match their experiences and they may feel more at home in the ace community. But then again, if a gender starts becoming more common/commonly known, do these people not count as grey any more? Furthermore, what’s the difference between being grey and just having a very specific type, such as ladies with pink hair and glasses who agree with your political views and can bake a mean soufflé? Is there one?

Here, Dragon seems to be struggling with complications produced as a result of the “experiences sexual attraction infrequently” definition of gray-asexuality — or rather, the assumption that a gray-asexual person necessarily experiences sexual attraction more “frequently” than an asexual person.

As you may have guessed, I believe this to be a flawed assumption.

The reason for getting stumped on the difference between being gray-a and “just having a specific type” is that this discussion is approaching the matter with a specific expectation in mind of what gray-asexuality IS, as a fixed, inherent nature, to be distinguished from a relatively “dormant” sexuality that has simply had infrequent opportunities to show itself.

But gray-asexuality isn’t really anything.

Or rather, gray-asexuality is a broad, vague umbrella term, defined by its relationship to asexuality rather than a specific trait unto itself.  Many people take that to mean that gray-asexuality must be “like asexuality, but with more sexual attraction.”

(Gray-asexuality: the discount asexuality!  Now with more sexual attraction!  Buy now!)

But yeah, no.  Not quite.

Let’s return to the “asexual bubble” for a moment.

As Dragon pointed out, an ace person might experience/have experienced sexual attraction and still decide to identify as asexual.  This can be for any number of reasons, but since it’s on the table, let’s talk (in)frequency of sexual attraction — notably, not the only way to talk about the asexual spectrum, but still.

Let’s say we’re dealing with two different people in the same situation.  Maybe they’ve found a small handful of people sexy.  Their precise experience, attraction-wise, is exactly the same.  One of them might decide, “Those instances of attraction were outliers, and ‘Does not experience sexual attraction’ is the best way to describe my sexuality overall.”  The other person, meanwhile, who has had the exact same frequency of sexual attraction, might decide, “Those instances of attraction were outliers, but they’re still relevant to me.  ‘Does not experience sexual attraction’ is almost the best way to describe my sexuality.”

The difference between asexuality and gray-asexuality isn’t necessarily a quantitative difference.  It can also be a subjective difference in the decision about what to count as relevant and what aspects of yourself to foreground.  When a person identifies as gray-asexual, they’re not necessarily making claims about how their experience stacks up to some hypothetical AU in which Pink Hair Ladies abound.  Similarly, an asexual person might’ve been sexually attracted to people of a gender that, in our universe, doesn’t exist — but there’s really no point in talking like that, since that’s not the universe we do reside in and where we have to make lives for ourselves.

In short: gray-asexuality should not be assessed in terms of “how much sexual attraction is there?” but rather, “how much does the concept of asexuality resonate as something personally useful?”

And that’s an important difference.

[ edit: reminder — you don’t need an account here or even an email address to comment! ]


6 responses to “Vectors, Scales, and Spectrums

  • Siggy

    Yeah, you could probably add a bunch of additional axes besides frequency and strength of attraction. There’s sexual limerence, sexual fantasies, the degree of connection between various kinds of attraction, and so on. But if you add enough dimensions, you just end up with something like the radar graph of yore. That’s useful if you want to list out all the different kinds of aspects which might be relevant, but maybe doesn’t give you a big picture.

    In my model of gray-A, I simply state a general principle about which aspects might be relevant. That way, even without listing all the dimensions, you can just use your imagination to think what the dimensions are. In Dragon’s model, she avoids getting into it so she can discuss other features of orientation.

    I also agree with the point that the same experience can be associated with different labels depending on which dimensions the person considers most relevant. You could probably put this in the model by associating each person with a scaling transformation. Although maybe that’s too much math.

    That reminds me, we have survey data on people’s strength and frequency of attraction. I oughta look at that some time.

  • Linkspam: March 13th, 2015 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote wrote a response to Dragon’s model of sexual attraction and the ace spectrum. […]

  • Dragon

    Hi, I’ve responded to your response over on my tumblr: http://dracovulpesque.tumblr.com/post/113669113558/a-response-to-coyote.

    This actually highlights the communication problems you’ve been talking about – I write a post on tumblr, you write a response on wordpress, I only find out about it because someone replying to my post on tumblr mentions it, and then when I write a response I have to inform on your wordpress that it’s over there on our tumblr. If only there were some sort of internet-wide pingback system or something.

    • Coyote

      Heh, yeah, it is a bit clunky. Still, thanks for checking it out, and thanks for letting me know! I tried sending the url of my post in an ask message, but apparently I wasn’t sneaky enough about disguising that it was a url. Do you know the trick to that?

      • Dragon

        In the past I think I’ve just put spaces where the dots should be, or brackets around the dots. I can’t remember which one worked, unfortunately. I understand why they’ve got that restriction, but it’s still pretty annoying.

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