The Glossary & the Gristmill

This post is my entry for this month’s Carnival of Aces, on the theme of “telling our stories.” In it, I’m trying to make three main points: One, aces cannot live on glossaries alone — we need stories, not just to demonstrate what ace experiences are like, but also to address internal intracommunity dynamics among ourselves. Two, because stories are so important, it is doubly a problem when our fellow aces foster an environment that makes sensitive and painful stories that much harder to tell. In other words, I’m saying our own community is contributing, in part, to why it feels like certain stories can’t be told. Three, there are things we can do and things we can use to foster a different environment — that is, to do right by each other and to make our stories easier to tell.

[Content Notes: this post does contain some discussion of violence, including sexual violence, conversion therapy, and murder. There’s an especially severe section on disrespectful treatment of these matters with a separate, additional warning — you’ll find it between the second header and the third, enclosed with the tags <severe section begins here> and <end severe section>.]

Aces Cannot Live on Glossaries Alone

The ace community, like the aro and nonbinary communities, is a notoriously neologism-heavy place. This happened for good reason: making sense of ourselves and our experiences has largely required rewriting the conventional wisdom & coming up with our own alternative models. The people who criticize us for “making up too many words” are not my friends. Yet at the same time, an introduction to the community that solely focuses on our terms and definitions is, essentially, no introduction at all.

Here I’ll tell a story I’m sure I’ve told before: The one time in my life that I participated in an ace educational panel, we didn’t do much planning beforehand. So we went in, we sat down at a table at the front of the room, and we started with the most basic kinds of explaining. Here is what asexuality is. Here are some of our concepts. Et cetera. The attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions. And eventually, eventually, our answers slipped away from the dry, definitional approaches and into the personal stories of awkward experiences, including one of my co-panelists mentioning that it’s easier to just present as a lesbian than to disclose being ace. To that a couple sitting in the audience reacted with visible surprise. After the panel, that same co-panelist remarked on the shift in energy in the room once we started getting into telling actual stories. It was like something clicked for those listening to us about what living this identity is like — and why it matters.

Consuming stories is also a huge part of how arriving at an ace identity worked for me. I’ve tried to write about this before, but to say it again: for people like me, assembling a collage of narratives is a vital step to understanding any given identity and what it really means to people. I lurked the online ace community for months before starting this blog, quickly getting fed up with the AVEN wiki, reading every ace narrative within reach, scouring the internet for as many ace blogs as I could find, only to eventually, at long last, settle on calling myself gray-asexual. I cannot see myself in a single-line definition alone.

For this reason, I agree with Siggy that unused labels should be allowed to die. If they are revived through actual usage, that’s fine, but misrepresenting them is not. When people are putting themselves in the role of resource-aggregator, there needs to be more consideration for the utter disappointment of ghost-town labels. I hate discovering a potentially-workable identity label that I cannot explore because there is nothing to be explored — because there is absolutely zero community to engage with or personal narratives to read — and I am dismayed at how many people have missed the point completely when I’ve tried to talk about this.

However, I’m not writing this post because I want external, educational, polished outward-facing advocacy to include more stories. I’m writing this post because we, too, also need each other’s stories. Storytelling is an important part of our relationship with each other, internally, as a community, and not just for those who are questioning.

The biggest example here is how narratives play a role in intracommunity conflicts. I think Siggy might be sick of me linking this post at this point, but in Break the see-saw cycle, a post from 2014, he wrote:

Recently Queenie discussed how sex-repulsed aces are treated as a dirty secret despite actually making a majority of the community.  And on the other side, I’ve discussed why it’s important to talk about asexuals who like sex. How is it that we have people on all sides feeling uncomfortable? Why does it feel like we’re on a see-saw, where every time one side goes up, the other goes down?  What can we do about it?

In that paragraph above, he linked to a post where he mentions a peculiar observation: the discussion of sex-favorable asexuals seems to have been dominated by third-person accounts. Briefly, he hypothesizes some reasons for this. On the one hand, asexuals who like sex appear to be very few in number. On the other hand, those people might also be refraining from speaking about it, because they don’t personally want to come under fire for it. In Queenie’s linked post, meanwhile, she explains how it’s significantly difficult to find narratives of being a sex-averse ace, despite how numerically prominent they are in the community.

So here you’ve got a conflict over feeling neglected and silenced by the community, similar to conflicts I’ve seen happening in the aro community, where a contributing factor is it’s hard to find personal narratives about a type of experience. When we feel like we’re lacking for stories, that can easily make us feel like we’re the odd ones out, and the dynamics surrounding that can sew division in a community. I wouldn’t say that a lack of stories is the only reason these problems happen (far from it), but that they are, at the very least, demonstrative of how stories play an important role in intracommunity conflicts.

We need stories for that reason and so many more. We need stories about coming to an ace identity, but we also need stories about holding onto an ace identity over time, especially in light of the way younger aces have been treated. We need stories to articulate our problems, in order to find their solutions. We need stories about what comes next, after figuring yourself out. We need stories about the good and stories about the bad, both for the giving and receiving of reassurance. We need stories to no longer feel like the odd one out, to address intersections of identities, to know our histories, to imagine a future.

So given that stories are so important to the community, it’s also important to understand how we make it harder on each other to tell them.

Not All Stories Belong to The Gristmill

For storytelling to benefit us in the ways I’ve described above, that will sometimes have to mean telling stories about the uncomfortable, the painful, the bad, the worse — running the whole gamut from unsavory to violent. Due to their inherent thorniness, these stories can be some of the most difficult to tell, and partly, some of that difficulty will be inescapable. With that said, I’ve also seen the community to throw in its own roadblocks that make that difficulty worse.

Three years ago, I wrote a reminder that you don’t owe anyone a tour of your scars. That post was addressed to people voluntarily putting themselves out there in painful and vulnerable ways, which is a choice to be made with caution, but it is their choice to make. The real problem, to be honest, is people making that decision for others, to the point where all our community’s pain is treated like fodder for the gristmill — just another resource in the ongoing fight to prove we’re hurting in the first place. Queenie wrote a detailed series on this topic back in 2015 called Ace Survivors as Rhetorical Devices, explaining what’s wrong with thinking that way and nonconsensually treating others’ pain like a tool. Yet many people have ignored the message, even when it’s posted right there at the top of the page.

Personally, I haven’t been keeping close tabs on ace blogging for a long time now, so I couldn’t say how pervasive the problem is today. Yet just this year, I’ve encountered two startling examples of people acting with exactly this mentality.

<severe section begins here>

In one, I just happened to stumble upon this tumblr post, announcing some statistics on conversion therapy. The poster in question describes their reaction to this study as one of sheer glee, in that “I’m writing in an illegible curly font out of sheer glee at having numbers for this.” And while I’m sure they’d insist that their glee is at having the numbers, not the numbers themselves, the fact remains that here you have someone reacting to evidence of “asexuals face conversion therapy” by being happy about it.

The other encounter I had was something that took place in person. This past summer, I moved to a new city, and at my very first outing to a local ace meetup, our organizer brought up a brutally violent murder (– and understand, when I say “brutally violent,” there’s a reason why I’m not linking to the article directly; beware of googling further because there are pictures online). Consequently, it’s not something I want to think about, as I hope you might understand. The organizer at this meetup recounted the news of what had happened (without much in the way of warning beforehand, I’ll add) and then concluded, “So nobody can say that nobody ever gets killed for being ace.” The conversation moved on so quickly from there that nobody seemed to notice I was shocked speechless. A teenager had been killed, and yet not even that was spared being fed back into the same old logic of always having to “prove” something to an audience. Someone can’t eve die without that death being evaluated and found useful.

<end severe section>

So I hope you understand, when I & others see people treating every type of pain like fodder for the gristmill, that becomes a reason not to speak. That becomes a reason to guard stories tightly to our chests, to bury them, to retreat into silence, because the community that (ostensibly) wants to hear them includes people who mishandle those stories in ways that range from distasteful to horrifying. I don’t care about hearing out “but it’s for our own good” so much as I care that you understand basic cause and effect. Justified or not, this is a community attitude that makes many of our stories that much harder and more dangerous to tell.

Building Fences, Turning Windows Into Walls

So how do we fix this? Or, better: how do we do the reverse? How do we foster the right environment for telling more stories?

In order to really tell our stories, we need agency over where and how stories are seen and shared. Others not reposting without permission is a start, but it goes beyond that. The way I see it, the callous exploitation of ace pain as a rhetorical resource all comes back to one thing: the idea that everything we do and everything we say is, ultimately, about an external audience. Some aces have been stuck in constant defense mode for so long that it’s like they’ve forgotten we’re allowed to just… talk to each other, without it constantly being about how we can validate ourselves to an outside world. Not everything needs to be put on display. We need to have internal, intracommunity conversations, too. It’s okay to build a few fences and turn some windows into walls.

So what does that entail, exactly? It’s an open-ended metaphor, but in a digital environment, it might mean a lot of things. Using the block button, sure, but a lot more than that. Preemptive choices, like only sharing in certain contexts or on certain websites, if at all — or limiting the viewership of what you do disclose, through methods like disabling sharing, password protection, and private posting/viewlock options. Or in other words, getting to pick and choose and limit our visibility, because not all visibility is good.

This is what I want people to take away from this post: Contributing to the community and telling our stories doesn’t necessarily have to entail standing on a podium before the entire world. We deserve to get to lock the door and have a quiet conversation amongst ourselves without the entire internet looking over our shoulder. We and our stories — including our vulnerability and our pain — deserve to be more than just fodder for the gristmill.


13 responses to “The Glossary & the Gristmill

  • aceadmiral

    Thank you for this! When I saw the topic for this month’s carnival, I simultaneously felt like it was very zeitgeist-y, but in the same way, a little late? Not that I write for the carnival, but just myself I’ve written two or three recent posts in this vein, and I feel that’s the case for a lot the blogosphere. You catching all of these things and synthesizing them together is really great! And, hopefully, people will see it and take it to heart… [/reckless optimism]

    I will say, I do think this is one thing The Asexual seems to be doing: giving people a place to tell their stories without the built in social media environment and attendant trolls. Do I see it RT’d on my feed for its pithy tweets wayyyy more often than for the articles? Yes. But I also see a lot of affection for it, so people must be reading and loving the articles too.

    • Coyote

      Well now I’m kicking myself for not also finding a way to cite more Aceadmiral posts. Thanks for appreciating what I did manage nonetheless. ^^

      Also — huh. You know, I haven’t been keeping up with The Asexual (I think I may have subconsciously written it off on account of that… extremely generic title), but it’s heartening to hear some good things about it.

  • AslansCompass

    I totally agree about the teeter-totter thing. And as someone smack dab in the middle of it (aroace and sex repulsed) I think it does everyone a disservice

  • raavenb2619

    I’m really glad you wrote this, this hits a lot of things that have been in the back of my mind for some time.

    I lurked the online ace community for months before starting this blog, quickly getting fed up with the AVEN wiki, reading every ace narrative within reach, scouring the internet for as many ace blogs as I could find, only to eventually, at long last, settle on calling myself gray-asexual. I cannot see myself in a single-line definition alone.

    I really resonate with this. It reminds me of how I realized I was aro. Definitions of aromanticism didn’t help me because I wasn’t sure if I was feeling squishes or crushes, but actual examples of aro narratives, even bite sized, did so much for me. Also, less concretely, it reminds me of how I came to terms with being ace. I figured out I was ace fairly quickly after finding out about asexuality, but it wasn’t until I found a regular influx of ace memes and ace content that I actually became comfortable with being ace.

    Re: severe section, …yeah. I really wish the discourse just wasn’t a thing. I’ve definitely made a conscious effort in the past month or two to try to pull away from it with regards to what I reblog and the original content that I make, and considering how few in number aphobes actually are, I think it’s in our collective best interest to just…stop. Stop arguing, stop searching for evidence, especially when it’s stuff that shouldn’t be used to prove a point. I’ve definitely been guilty of that, and it’s just…you’re absolutely right, and I wish there had been more, I don’t know, self-awareness on Tumblr? We love to talk about how aphobes are reactionaries, but we never really stop to be critical of our own actions.

    Tangentially related, is it worth joining the AVEN forums? I heard some time ago that there was some problematic stuff happening on there, but I don’t know for sure. I feel like I’m very connected to the aro community online, but not very connected to the ace community, but there seems to be mostly just a few enormous ace Tumblrs, at least as far as I’m aware.

    • Coyote

      Thanks. It’s good to hear that some of this resonates with people.

      I’m not the person to ask about AVEN, unfortunately. I know there was a lot of criticism of it going around in 2013 or so, and I didn’t find the community appealing at the time, so I just never got into it. I made an account recently to share the Romantic Ambivalence Survey, but that’s absolutely the only thing I’ve done there since lately… All I can really tell you about the place is that it’s big. Very very big.

      Re: ace tumblr bloggers — while I’m not in a position to be a good judge of that either, it does seem like… there’s fewer of them? Or at least, it seems like a lot of tumblr bloggers I do or used to keep up with haven’t been doing much ace blogging anymore. Bessibel, Southpaw, Vesper queerascat, Hezekiah metapianycist, Cor epochryphal, Queenie, Sci… some whose names aren’t coming to me right now… All with their own reasons, and it’s not like anyone owes it to anybody. Just… overall, seems like things may have changed some, I guess. As things always do.

      …What even are the “enormous” ace tumblr blogs, these days?

      Re: severe section, …yeah. I really wish the discourse just wasn’t a thing.

      I’m not ever sure what non-academics are using “discourse” to mean exactly, ever since that word got meme’d into tumblrese four years ago, but if what you mean is anti-ace hostility… well, don’t we all.

      I don’t necessarily want people to stop arguing back against it, just… if they’re going to, at least argue smarter, and… not in these really ghoulish, objectifying ways. That should be the bar, at the very least.

      Anyway, even for those who do want to take a break from dealing with that stuff directly, while still doing ace blogging… problem is, for Tumblr users, it seems like it must be especially hard to avoid. I’ve heard of the Tumblr users I know getting anti-ace posts “recommended” to them by the algorithm, not to mention how, even if you’re just minding your own business, if you’re vocal about asexuality at all, it’s easy to get attacked, and not so easy to get unwanted visitors off your posts. I mean, unfortunately, when I think about it, it doesn’t seem like “just stop” is very feasible there in a situation where “stop fighting” might just feel like “lie there and take the beating.”

      But also, yeah, this seems very characteristic of the patterns people get into when they start sorting themselves into “camps” and it becomes really important to assert your loyalty to the group and all that, especially when people are stressed out, emotionally tired, overwhelmed, and inclined to simplify things down as much as possible… Not a whole lot of reflection can happen there, and intracommunity criticism like this can feel very unwelcome. Seems like that happens with all sorts of topics, tbh, not just the ace ones.

      Oh, by the way, off topic re: aro-ace intercommunity stuff — do you know of any followup on the tumblr side of this post?

      • raavenb2619

        …What even are the “enormous” ace tumblr blogs, these days?

        I’d say the biggest by far (that I know, at least) is https://fuckyeahasexual.tumblr.com.

        I don’t necessarily want people to stop arguing back against it, just… if they’re going to, at least argue smarter, and… not in these really ghoulish, objectifying ways. That should be the bar, at the very least.

        that’s fair.

        I’ve heard of the Tumblr users I know getting anti-ace posts “recommended” to them by the algorithm, not to mention how, even if you’re just minding your own business, if you’re vocal about asexuality at all, it’s easy to get attacked, and not so easy to get unwanted visitors off your posts.

        yep. Normally I just block whoever I need to, but it’ll still hit you unexpectedly every once in a while.

        Not a whole lot of reflection can happen there, and intracommunity criticism like this can feel very unwelcome. Seems like that happens with all sorts of topics, tbh, not just the ace ones.

        Yeah. Did you hear about the whole kerfuffle with https://fuckyeahasexual.tumblr.com reblogging an ace survey circa 2-3 weeks ago? It definitely caught me off guard how…polarized everything was, even when it was just internal aspec politics. Like, it’s great that we’ll (mostly) unify when it comes to aphobia, but even polite discussion about asking people to change their behavior gets blown out of proportion and taken out of context.

        Oh, by the way, off topic re: aro-ace intercommunity stuff — do you know of any followup on the tumblr side of this post?

        I don’t think so? I know I saw that post, but I think it was through WordPress, not Tumblr. I don’t know that it’s had much of an impact, considering the Tumblr signal boost about it (https://godlessace.tumblr.com/post/187361122353/aro-complaints-about-ace-communities) has gotten…57 notes? In almost a month?
        Is it a good idea for me to try to get https://fuckyeahasexual.tumblr.com to signal boost it? The post would get more eyeballs, but I don’t know that that would translate to people changing their behavior, or even reading it, and given how polarized everyone was with the survey, I don’t want to inadvertently send a bunch of angry people in Siggy’s direction.

        • Coyote

          Yeah. Did you hear about the whole kerfuffle with https://fuckyeahasexual.tumblr.com reblogging an ace survey circa 2-3 weeks ago?

          Yeeep. Heard about that through Laura G., lol. What a trainwreck. That’s pretty near a perfect example, actually.

          has gotten…57 notes? In almost a month?

          Oh, is that considered low? I think my sense of scale has gotten out of whack.

          Is it a good idea for me to try to get https://fuckyeahasexual.tumblr.com to signal boost it?

          I have no idea what would be the internal politics of that, sorry. Can’t advise.

          What I will say, though, is that the reason I asked was because I was curious about more of the followup from aro tumblr — in general, not just as21-7, intergalactic-lithromantic, and techno, since I’m pretty sure the views expressed aren’t particular to just them. For that reason, I’m glad they reached out and enabled Siggy to make the post. That gave other people the opportunity to chime in and start a discussion there in the comments. And now, I’m just… wondering what more people would think of the things that got said, I guess, since it doesn’t look like those original folks have been back.

  • raavenb2619

    Oh, is that considered low? I think my sense of scale has gotten out of whack.

    I mean, I guess it depends. It’s not a meme so engagement will be lower, but then again, my ace memes are usually way more popular than my aro memes. I would expect it would get at least a hundred if fuckyeahasexual reblogged it, they’ve generally been responsible for my post popular memes reaching a wider audiences.

    I have no idea what would be the internal politics of that, sorry.

    mm okay. I think I’ll send it to them, either as a public or anon ask. Or maybe a dm, I’m not sure.

  • perfectnumber628

    I really appreciate this post and agree with a lot of it :) Especially the part about how it’s not really useful to add every conceivable identity to a giant glossary.

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    Raaven shared this post about a teen kicked out by their parents with me as another example, so I’m saving the link here for future reference.

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