Oriented Gray

I’ve had to summarize this situation for other people a few different times now, so I decided I might as well put together a post on the subject for future reference. Basically, this is a post about that whole “oriented” business and everything that’s wrong with it.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort.]

In the ace community, the explicit recognition of more than just “sexual” elements to “orientation,” alongside the recognition of more than just sexual & romantic attraction, has sometimes led to some aces identifying with three or more separate orientation labels. For a long time, though, no particular way of talking about such labels has caught on, which has made it difficult to talk about issues with the romantic-sexual-labeling focus as an ace/aro community norm.

Since approximately 2017, though, there’s been a new development. Good news: a new term for these kinds of nonstandard/tri-label identities is being popularized! 

The bad news? It’s accompanied by the following three problems: 

One, the name. The Tumblr blogger who popularized their model for tri-labeling has chosen the term “oriented” as its name. Even before we get into any of the other issues, this is absurd. Anyone who has “an orientation” could have been described as “oriented.” For example, I have an orientation. I am gray-asexual. I am “oriented” gray. Calling tri-labeling aro aces “oriented aro aces” makes it sound as if other aro aces don’t have orientations, which unfairly implies that identities under the aro & ace umbrellas don’t themselves count as real “orientations.” 

Two, identity policing & prescriptivism. The originator of “oriented” supports identity-policing who can call themselves oriented. This comes across both because of the heavily prescriptivist way they define it and because they’ve outright tried to discourage the “wrong” people from using it.

There are two main elements to how the definition of “oriented” has been proposed, both reflecting a deterministic outlook on attraction: A) experiencing “attraction that’s neither romantic nor sexual, but is significant,” and B) “aroaces who do not experience any kind of romantic/sexual attraction.” The problem lies in how that second part is defined and discussed.

That same page further elaborates: 

This label was specifically created for aroaces who do not experience any kind of romantic/sexual attraction, though it fully welcomes those who do not know whether they feel such attraction or not. To avoid confusion between oriented aroaces and folks on the aroace-spectrum (demi/gray/etc.), please use “gay/bi/pan/etc. a-specs” for the latter group.

There are multiple issues with this.

One, the use of “spectrum” is wrong. The statement above is using “aroace-spectrum” and “a-specs” in the broken-up way that implies aces and aros are somehow not a part of the asexual and aromantic spectrums, which makes no sense. The entire point of the terms “ace spectrum” and “aro spectrum” is that they’re umbrella terms for the whole thing

Two, the use of “aro ace” is wrong. Talk like this is acting as if only “people who do not experience romantic/sexual attraction” are allowed to call to call themselves “aro ace” — despite the fact that the reason the ace community adopted the term “aces” in the first place was in order to be an umbrella term for the entire group of people on the asexual spectrum. 

Three, the understanding of grayness is wrong. The parenthetical here, “demi/gray/etc.,” in context, strongly implies the author sees the divide between “aro aces” and “folks on the aroace-spectrum” as a matter of “romantic/sexual attraction.” This is oblivious to the fact that “those who do not know whether they feel such attraction or not” is itself a type of gray experience. The other problem with this implicit interpretation of grayness is the umbrella crunching. Although “experiencing attraction” is a commonly-cited basis for not identifying as “asexual” or “aromantic” exactly, “experiencing attraction” may not be why some people identify with grayness at all. Take me, for example: I have written for years about how I don’t want my gray-asexuality to be reduced down to “experiences sexual attraction infrequently.” 

If you want to make a distinction between “asexuals” and “gray-asexuals,” you can do that using the terms “asexuals” and “gray-asexuals.” Even then, though, you should understand, “asexual” has long been used in different ways by different people. Just because the “no sexual attraction” basis has gained a lot of traction doesn’t mean it’s the only legitimate way to come to an asexual identity. For instance, “not wanting sex” & “not caring about sex” can also be important to some aces in what they mean by calling themselves asexual, and it’s prescriptivist to attack that. The same could be said for aromanticism as well

Accordingly, as to be expected based on the above, the originator has maintained that they support policing who can use “oriented.” When it comes to grayromantics, gray-asexuals, or aromantic asexuals who identify as aromantic asexual for reasons other than attraction, the idea of expressing their tri-label/multi-label identity this way will simply be met with “nope!” In one specific case, they directly told a grayromantic that they “wouldn’t be comfortable” with them using it.

Three, spawning alternatives. One of the consequences of enforcing this absurdly narrow way of talking about tri-label aro aces is that, upon being policed out of it, one gray-ace aro ended up proposing a whole new term just to mean the exact same thing for gray people: “angled.” The problem with “angled” is that, instead of trying to challenge the identity policing, it wholesale buys into the original prescriptivist framing. The originator who is working to get it into circulation continues to say things like “oriented is only for aromantic asexuals,”  “oriented is only for people who are flat out aromantic asexual,” and “oriented is only for flat out aroaces.” And as a consequence of that, in turn, you also end up with people who aren’t sure which one to use

Being realistic here, the fact that there are gray-aces who’ve felt a draw to the concept should itself be evidence of something we already knew: the ace umbrella is an umbrella for a reason. 

[Update 12/12/19: There is now another term, “thelo,” coined in response to “oriented,” “angled,” and “electio.” The definition offered for thelo is an aro ace who experiences weak/fluctuating nonromantic-nonsexual attraction, which apparently isn’t already covered by the first three somehow. The reinvention treadmill keeps on turning.]

Previous/related posts on this topic: 


12 responses to “Oriented Gray

  • Cracticus

    I was kind of hoping the term would be replaced by something that doesn’t involve redefining existing words to the exclusion of those preexisting meanings. Disappointed to see it seems to be gaining traction. My biggest frustration with the whole affair is how grey folk are being treated as basically allo and as though we’re fundamentally different from asexuals and aromantics, when we’re ace and aro for a reason.
    Just to clarify. I don’t have a problem with someone calling themselves orientated aroace to mean an asexual aromantic who experiences non-sexual, non-romantic attraction. I do have a problem when someone insists those combination of words can only mean that or presume that there aren’t any grey folk who also want to identify with a non-s/r orientation label.

    • Coyote

      Yeah. The main justification I’ve seen so far for why label & define it this way is (paraphrased) “bi aro ace keeps getting assumed to mean gray-biromantic and/or gray-bisexual,” which… Well, people seem to assume & treat it like it goes without saying that that’s only a problem for a particular kind of asexual aromantics. But the “assuming bi = biromantic or bisexual” can also be a problem for gray folks and people who don’t use the romantic orientation model — people who might also use labels like bi in a more general way, similar to bi aromantic asexuals. And that’s just… not even being acknowledged as a possibility here.

  • Rowan

    You know, thinking about all the posts you’ve made on this, I think one of my objections to a lot of different discussions about these labels (including this one, but also the assumption that you *have* to experience straightforward romosexual attraction to ID as a non a- label) is that I don’t want anyone to make any assumptions one way or the other. *I* don’t know whether or not I experience whatever type of attraction, and I don’t like the way that people try to claim ‘lesbian aro ace’ as *definitely does* experience some kind of attraction *or* definitely *doesn’t* experience any kind of attraction. I don’t want people to think that they know! I don’t always know, so they *definitely* can’t claim to, and I don’t feel like litigating that with people!

    This is very unhelpful for any kind of discussion – saying ‘I don’t want these labels to betray things about me or cause people to assume anything’ kind of goes against the purpose of labels – but, you know, here you go in any case.

    • Coyote

      My outlook is that gray- and a- should both be enough to contain that ambiguity… and this pattern where people keep wanting to frame things in more absolutist terms is a problem. This overfixation on attraction we keep seeing is really becoming a nuisance.

  • Vesper

    thank god someone somewhere [within my limited line of sight on the internet] has written about / discussed how problematic ‘oriented’ and its’ prescriptivist usage is. part of the reason i’ve had to mentally check myself out of Tumblr (and subsequently ace stuff in general, unfortunately) is because of the steady increase in usage of that term triggering flashbacks to past encounters with the prescriptivist side of aro ace Tumblr… sigh.

    • Coyote

      D: Is that (part of) why? I’d been wondering about what you were up to, but I know everybody’s got whole lives outside of ace blogging and everything.

      …In that case, though, I feel compelled to mention that there’s a pretty different atmosphere on Pillowfort (despite its other drawbacks, granted). I mean, if you look at the Tumblr and PF versions of Laura’s recent post on the subject… there was a significantly different reception there, even ignoring all the comments from me. I just want to put that on the radar here as another option.

      Anyway, but yeah, I’m definitely ready to argue this with anybody still on the prescriptivist side. You are not alone in spotting the problems.

      • Vesper

        unfortunately, i’m still too burnt out and low on spoons to engage with any more than a select few people on such topics, but i appreciate the fact that somewhere critical discussion of them is happening. thanks for sharing.

  • Linkspam: August 16th, 2019 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] described gray experiences, wrote about issues with oriented aroace terminology, and made a linkspam on tri-label aro […]

  • embodiedinlanguage

    Thank you! I came across the term some time ago, well before I saw anything about the coiner’s intentions for it. It’s very frustrating when new concepts with broad potential utility get so narrowly constricted. And like Rowan…sometimes I don’t feel like being too specific!

  • Rachel

    Looks like the community’s at it again… hooray… (sarcasm)

    I can sympathize with the intention behind the oriented aroace label – as you’ve written about before, SAM is supposed to be more than romantic orientation, but has become more or less completely swallowed by the romo. And aro aces who have attractions are absolutely assumed to be gray-aspec before literally ANYTHING ELSE (but as you and Vesper have pointed out, this is not exclusive to aro aces in the slightest). Reactions like this never come out of nowhere.

    But I’m totally stunned and frustrated by the caginess and lack of good faith/common ground displayed toward the gray-members of the community This kind of line-drawing is arbitrary and clumsy and that doesn’t help its case. And it runs on some faulty assumptions, as others have pointed out. Excuse the salt, but I thought the aro, ace, and aro-ace communities were supposed to be anti-prescriptive and anti-exclusionary, but I guess I must have missed the memo that said otherwise.

    • Coyote

      SAM is supposed to be more than romantic orientation, but has become more or less completely swallowed by the romo.

      In a sense. But the term “SAM” was itself coined in 2015 to conflate attraction subtyping & romantic orientation, as part of a backlash against our preexisting and more nuanced language, so that’s just continuing on its purpose, really.

      Anyway, yeah, I guess in some ways this did kind of catch me by surprise with just how ludicrous it is. In other ways, though, it’s a natural continuation of some various things happening in context — an environment that makes people highly sensitive/view all criticism in very black-and-white terms (us vs. them, all relations of difference = relations of power/privilege, all criticism = unjust attacks, and I need to protect myself from attacks, etc.) plus the onward creep of the nonstandard usage of “ace/aro spectrum,” which has really taken root on Tumblr lately.

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