Attraction-Based Essentialism

What is “attraction-based essentialism,” or even “essentialism,” for that matter? Here’s your handy reference post to explain. I’ve proposed and discussed these ideas before on Pillowfort [DW backup], but after a recent Carnival of Aros post, I realized it would be good to port this idea to WordPress as well.

[Preview image Apothecary Jars by Kato, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

Essentialism is a type of claim about something’s inherent nature. The root of the word “essentialism” is “essence,” and that’s what essentialism is all about: it makes claims about the essence of a thing, its inherent defining qualities, the natural “truth” of it across the board (no exceptions).

With demographics and identity groups, this can entail talking as if certain traits or experiences apply to those groups categorically, in every single case. For example, you have probably encountered gender essentialism about the inherent nature of men and women.

When it comes to orientation identities, such as lesbian or aromantic, one of the common forms that essentialism has taken is attraction-based essentialism. You can recognize attraction-based essentialism when people uphold patterns of attraction as the true essence or determinant core of an orientation, i.e. the only thing those identities can or should ever mean to people (no exceptions). This means focusing on the “attraction” to the exclusion of all other elements of personal experience, such as boundaries, desires, priorities, relationship styles, community history, and degree of identification or disidentification with certain narratives.

The essentialist approach to identity is a problem because it lends itself to prescriptivism and identity policing. If there is supposedly one “right” answer to how to describe someone’s orientation or gender, then that emboldens people to tell others if they do or don’t “qualify” for a certain label. For specific examples, you can find this issue discussed in more detail in Hezekiah’s asexual identity prescriptivism linkspam. Frawley’s post (referenced earlier) also testifies to the presence of attraction-based essentialism in the aro community, reflecting on some of the same problems I described in the Open Letter to TAAAP.

A more social-constructionist approach recognizes identity words as tools. Individual people make a subjective judgement about which tools feel personally useful to them, and no one else can say for sure what orientation or gender label is right for anyone else. As I wrote in my post On Identification as an Act:

What do you need your tools accomplish for you? What do you want to do, and which are the tools that best enable you to do that? […] In this light, identification is not a question of “true” or “false”; it’s a question of use and purpose.


14 responses to “Attraction-Based Essentialism

  • Linkspam: October 1st, 2021 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote explained attraction-based essentialism. […]

  • Call for Submissions | October 2021 Carnival of Aces | Attraction (#2) – sildarmillion

    […] Do you think the conversation around attraction has led to an attraction fixation, which might be limiting the scope of the conversation? If so, in what other ways can we expand the conversation? (For more context, I recommend the posts by Coyote/osteophage on attraction fixation and attraction-based essentialism.) […]

  • Why is no one talking about the tip of the spear?: An reading of asexual academy through Skopos Theory – A Hand-Painted China Plate at a Barbeque

    […] with. There is a problem with our community memory; there is a problem with the monomania on the subject of attraction; there is a problem with people endlessly regurgitating the same 101 basic talking points; there is […]

  • What even is attraction? A constructionist view | The Asexual Agenda

    […] they learned about asexuality. This is arguably what led to asexual identity prescriptivism and attraction-based essentialism. And now attraction is a popular framework to apply to social interactions that were previously […]

  • Anonymous

    So I was looking around your blog and stumbled upon an old post of yours regarding definitions of asexuality, and I’m aware most of your views in it have changed. I’m just wondering what made you change them and how the issues raised in that post would be solved. In there, you talk about the usefulness of sexual orientation as to precisely mean a pattern of sexual attraction, and that in the case of “asexuality” not being a way to communicate a lack of sexual attraction, “we would have to rework new terms to describe the same concepts again”. This is reminiscent of David Jay telling people interested in a term to precisely denote said pattern to come up with their own word, a statement which wasn’t taken well among some groups of aces.

    I also wonder about asexuality and aromanticism being described as orientations. Even outside of the fact that some prefer to see them as a lack of an orientation, “asexual” has been used in the past to describe celibacy or even gender (hence the initial misconception of asexuals being genderless), and some aros see their identity less as an orientation and more of the way they deal with relationships. I feel like saying that they are only orientations could be seen as somewhat limiting? Or perhaps it’s just me. Some people are worried about the conflation of celibacy and asexuality, and that’s something you treated in your “Strategic Approach to Definitions” blogpost. Considering that “sex not being an issue” can intersect with celibacy and asexuality, is that worry unfounded? You did talk of asexuality being a lens once, after all.

    [Unrelated note, but I’ve been meaning to ask: I see that Cor often mentions that letting more people in doesn’t weaken asexuality, but weaken allosexuality. Is there any origin to this particular sentiment that I could look up? Since some aces have sometimes been accused of wanting to “recruit” more people in their “tribe” than educate them about sexuality, which this sentiment seemed to indirectly support.]

    I also wonder how the philosophy regarding identification as an act works with exclusive identities. If an identity is exclusive to intersex people/people with a certain cultural upbringing/neurodivergent people and so on, then surely that means one cannot use it if it happens to be inacessible to them. I understand that some people might want their own terms to describe specific experiences (aces who experience no sexual attraction, trans people who experience gender dysphoria and/or would be willing to undergo through medical transition), but I can also understand that the idea of exclusive identities taken to its extreme can sometimes be used to justify identity-policing, such as “oriented aroace”, and the denial of certain WLW/MLM terms to types of nonbinary people. Your Pillowfort account is closed at the moment, so I haven’t been able to check, but you mentioned wanting the idea of “certain labels for certain people” to be stamped out in your community, meaning that you would object to the idea of certain exclusive identities to some extent. I’d like to know your reasoning, since I know people have an habit of saying “gray-asexuality exists, so we can be inclusive of people who experience some sexual attraction: there’s nothing exclusive about limiting the asexual identity to those who experience negligible or no sexual attraction, since they would have no term otherwise” and I’d like to be able to rebut that sometimes.

    Sorry if it’s long, I’ve just… been thinking a lot, lately.

    • Coyote

      Oh wow, you really went back digging through the old stuff, huh? I should go take that post down.

      Changing my mind is something that didn’t have any one specific tipping point. It was just spending time around/exposure to less essentialist views and more utility-based approaches to identity, like you can find expressed in posts by Sciatrix, Sennkestra, Cor, and various other bloggers I’ve linked. Learning about the history of the “no sexual attraction” definition helped a lot too.

      The reason I’m not as worried about a “conflation of asexuality and celibacy” is because if people have different paths to asexuality identity, I don’t see that as a contradiction. As far as introducing or conceptualizing asexuality, the important part is just drawing attention to that diversity and disrupting a more narrow outlook. The problem would be if someone tried to tell sexually active aces that they’re not allowed to identify as ace anymore, or conversely, if someone tried to pressure someone into having sex (always bad).

      Re: Cor’s statement, I don’t know the answer to that, but it reminds me of a similar sentiment I’ve seen expressed about trans/nonbinary versus cisgender identity, so you might try looking into that.

      I’m not entirely sure what you mean by exclusivity. I can think of, for instance, culturally-specific gender terms in various Native American nations, and I think the prohibition against non-Natives using those has to do with avoiding the colonial dynamics of appropriation and entitlement. I don’t think it requires an essentialist approach to say that.

      I’m not sure which Pillowfort post you’re thinking of either, but the one that comes to mind is this one by Sennkestra.

      • Anonymous

        Oh wow, you really went back digging through the old stuff, huh? I should go take that post down.

        Well, I was looking for a comment where you had said that “an asexual person is someone who identifies as asexual”, which I had seen a while ago but wasn’t able to find back. Looking for “definition” brought me to your “A Strategic Approach to Definitions” post, which caught my attention because a lot of what you had written there mirrored what some of the people I’ve interacted with believe.

        I’m trying to wrap myself around the identity-as-a-tool mindset and trying to distance myself from essentialism, but it feels like I’m making a mistake again. That I’m embracing a model for lack of better alternatives that confuses scientific researchers regarding what asexuality is and renders asexuals even more misunderstood because that way of seeing the world simply is not common. It seems that the concept of not experiencing sexual attraction ever is one many asexuals didn’t know about until they found the term, and I’ve seen many aces who really want to keep the distinction between celibacy and not experiencing sexual attraction. I can somewhat see some of the fallacies behind these arguments (surveys can ask specifically for people who don’t experience sexual attraction without denying someone’s identification, scientists don’t have the authority on someone’s sexuality, it’s not because some asexuals do something that other asexuals should have to, nonlibidoism and sex-repulsion are unknown/stigmatised concepts that are just as deserving of attention yet still aren’t what define an asexual person by common definitions…) but I guess I’m still not there.

        The reason I’m not as worried about a “conflation of asexuality and celibacy” is because if people have different paths to asexuality identity, I don’t see that as a contradiction. As far as introducing or conceptualizing asexuality, the important part is just drawing attention to that diversity and disrupting a more narrow outlook.

        I suppose that’s why people focus less on what asexuality is not. I know that there are women who happen to be attracted to men and women and prefer to just call themselves “lesbian” since the primary type of relationships they want to pursue are with women. That’s an example of something else trumping attraction. So it would make sense that a person who experiences sexual attraction but doesn’t want to act on it calls themself “asexual”. What is harder to wrap my head around would be how internalized bigotry plays out in this non-essentialist model. I remember a discussion (I’m unsure if it was one you were in, perhaps I imagined the whole thing) that was about how people who tended to be ace exclusionists and “MOGAI hell critics” would focus very much on labels and how some people were “running away” from certain labels, and they attributed that to internalized bigotry. The people discussing it were wondering why there was such an emphasis on the words people chose, that if a woman who loved women called herself “gynesexual” or “homoromantic” over “lesbian” for example, then that means it was a form of internalized bigotry. I suppose the problem is less someone calling themself a certain word and more about recognizing one’s own feelings rather than deny them? The real issue lies in the person staying in romantic/sexual relationships they are unhappy with, not what they identify as? The fault is on the heterosexist society and not on closeted people? Straight up telling people what they “are” is always bad even if they’re “in denial” about it? (how does one even knows that for sure anyway…)

        By narrow outlooks you mean things like “we all are sexual beings”, “sex is the most fulfilling thing in a romantic relationship”, stuff like that?

        Re: Cor’s statement, I don’t know the answer to that, but it reminds me of a similar sentiment I’ve seen expressed about trans/nonbinary versus cisgender identity, so you might try looking into that.

        I’ve seen a similar sentiment expressed for that as well, but I feel like it came from ace communities first, judging by this post attributing a similar quote to David Jay. Not sure if it’s true though.

        I’m not entirely sure what you mean by exclusivity. I can think of, for instance, culturally-specific gender terms in various Native American nations, and I think the prohibition against non-Natives using those has to do with avoiding the colonial dynamics of appropriation and entitlement. I don’t think it requires an essentialist approach to say that.

        Oh yeah, that makes sense. I was talking about labels like intergender and such. So I assume that if we applied that reasoning to asexuality, it wouldn’t make sense because experiencing sexual attraction isn’t something that grants privilege to someone?

        What about perisex trans people who were AFAB calling themselves “trans women” because they identify as trans and partially identify with womanhood? Wouldn’t that be confusing? Is this a case of an “exclusive identity” as well? What if a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth and don’t transition in any way but still calls themselves trans? It doesn’t “fit the definition” and it is an use most people would object against. If we observe animals who seem to lack an intrinsic sexual desire, would it be inaccurate to call them “asexual”? I know these may seem to be bad questions, but I guess I’ve been overthinking lately.

        I’m not sure which Pillowfort post you’re thinking of either, but the one that comes to mind is this one by Sennkestra.

        I somehow once remembered this post (especially since it fits the situation very well), but then forgot it entirely while typing my previous comment. Thanks for digging it back, I love it. Was there a more thoughtful follow-up post written about this issue? The reason why most aces that I’ve seen want asexuality to be as visible and as well-known as other orientations is so that people can avoid asking highly personal issues when they come out, or have to make entire PowerPoints to explain asexuality, and gets others to have an idea of who they are (rather than assume that they’re necessarily open for sex). They fear that people identifying with their term and a vague definition might muddy the waters.

        This isn’t the one I was looking for though. It was more a comment of yours under a PiFo post, and since I forgot which post it was, I haven’t been able to find it back (especially with the limited access to your account). It mentioned “stamping out” the mindset of specific words for specific people “in my community”.

        • Coyote

          I’m trying to wrap myself around the identity-as-a-tool mindset and trying to distance myself from essentialism, but it feels like I’m making a mistake again. That I’m embracing a model for lack of better alternatives that confuses scientific researchers

          For what it’s worth, I’ve read a fair bit of academic research on asexuality (partly as a participant in Ace Journal Club, partly just on my own). A lot of it can be more or less divided into two groups: the humanities or sociological work, and the psychology/sexology stuff. The latter has more of a tendency toward bioessentialism because psychology is like that. I also happen to think the psych research is some of the least interesting and least worthwhile, and I’m not interested in catering to it. Over in the humanities, meanwhile, you’ve got researchers like CJ DeLuzio Chasin and Ela Przybylo who have themselves expressly argued for an anti-essentialist approach to asexuality.

          I remember a discussion (I’m unsure if it was one you were in, perhaps I imagined the whole thing) that was about how people who tended to be ace exclusionists and “MOGAI hell critics” would focus very much on labels and how some people were “running away” from certain labels, and they attributed that to internalized bigotry.

          Hmm. The post that comes to mind is A Modifier, where I talked about the idea that “it is, supposedly, a terrible and lamentable thing for people to go through multiple labels [read: specifically non-canonized labels] while questioning,” especially if they end up landing on a canonized LGBT identity in the end.

          I suppose the problem is less someone calling themself a certain word and more about recognizing one’s own feelings rather than deny them? The real issue lies in the person staying in romantic/sexual relationships they are unhappy with, not what they identify as? The fault is on the heterosexist society and not on closeted people? Straight up telling people what they “are” is always bad even if they’re “in denial” about it?

          Makes sense to me.

          By narrow outlooks you mean things like “we all are sexual beings”, “sex is the most fulfilling thing in a romantic relationship”, stuff like that?

          Those are narrow outlooks, but I admit those aren’t the specific problems I had in mind in that particular part of my comment — I was thinking of how essentialist ideas of asexuality can manifest like “there’s only One True Way to be asexual, and if you don’t check every single one of the boxes to qualify, then it’s acceptable to be cruel to you and keep pushing you to discover your Real sexuality.” Because no, it’s not.

          So I assume that if we applied that reasoning to asexuality, it wouldn’t make sense because experiencing sexual attraction isn’t something that grants privilege to someone?

          I do think the workings of sexual societal norms are more complicated than a hard binary of privileged allosexuals and oppressed asexuals, yes. That’s not necessarily the reason I would have given, per se, but if you want to put it like that, then sure. I don’t think there’s any particular need to guard ace identification like it’s a scarce resource.

          What about perisex trans people who were AFAB calling themselves “trans women” because they identify as trans and partially identify with womanhood? Wouldn’t that be confusing?

          Trans identity isn’t really my… sphere. In your hypothetical scenario, that would be… unexpected, yes. As far as coming to a moral ruling on that, I’d be interested to know if the person in question were being willfully deceptive/misleading/exploitative (ex. playing on the expectation that “trans women” were assigned otherwise, and leveraging the identity as an attempt to deflect accusations of transmisogyny) or if they just, I don’t know, speak English as a second language.

          What if a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth and don’t transition in any way but still calls themselves trans?

          Is there something in particular that hinges on this question?

          If we observe animals who seem to lack an intrinsic sexual desire, would it be inaccurate to call them “asexual”?

          I figure trying to respect the personal sexual identification of nonhuman animals is probably a bit futile. It’s probably not the word I’d use, but I’m not really invested about it.

          The reason why most aces that I’ve seen want asexuality to be as visible and as well-known as other orientations is so that people can avoid asking highly personal issues when they come out,

          I get that, but I’d also prefer a blanket solution of advocating “Just because someone seems really weird or strange to you don’t make you entitled to ask invasive personal questions.”

          Your comment description doesn’t ring a bell, unfortunately, but if I remember which comment it was or come across anything like that again, I’ll let you know.

  • Anonymous

    I’m so sorry for the walltext, but I’ve had a lot of thoughts and feelings lately.

    Over in the humanities, meanwhile, you’ve got researchers like CJ DeLuzio Chasin and Ela Przybylo who have themselves expressly argued for an anti-essentialist approach to asexuality.

    Thanks for the recommandations! Now I get where you got some of your stuff on HSDD, as well as the idea of asexuality as a lens. I’ve checked Reconsidering Asexuality and its Radical Potential, which gave me much to think about (as well as tears, ahah), particularly about the ways asexuality is still minimized even when it is accepted and the archetype of the “real” asexual (the unassailable one). This sentence, especially:

    There have been many discussions over the past several years within asexual/ace community spaces addressing whether or not people might limit themselves and their experiences in order to avoid losing their legitimacy as asexuals.

    I remember that you had followed this post with smaller ones about sex-repulsion, and there was one where someone had said that they felt like they couldn’t talk about their own experiences (or perhaps I’m mixing it with another, I dunno, can’t check) and it seems to be an hidden yet prevalent issue. As someone who already feels like I have to hide things about myself (which has been what has simultaneously drew me and pulled me back from IDing as “asexual”), I guess that passage just struck a chord with me. Especially since it’s followed with this:

    These discussions, however, have followed the very public accusations that asexuality visibility might be harming unsuspecting sexual folk.

    The way the ace community seems to sometimes caters to its outsiders moreso than its members (as Queenie once reflected at the end of this post), and that when it tries to do the opposite, it is accused of “finding it hard to care about non-aces”. That’s why in my early days in the ace community, I felt somewhat pushed on the side by seeing aces advocating for LGBT+ inclusion by doubling down on the “no sexual attraction” definition that I never understood. I don’t fault them for that, I’m mostly mad that they feel like they had to do that from the beginning, and that they thought inclusion to a group mattered more than their own community.

    Also, that last quote is somewhat relevant for what comes next.

    I was thinking of how essentialist ideas of asexuality can manifest like “there’s only One True Way to be asexual, and if you don’t check every single one of the boxes to qualify, then it’s acceptable to be cruel to you and keep pushing you to discover your Real sexuality.” Because no, it’s not.

    I’ve realized that there is a fear of “non-aces using the ace label”, be it because they are “misguided” (unwillingly) or because it’s “trendy” or for malicious purposes (willingly). I think it’s one of the things that has somewhat taken me back from fully embracing an identity-as-an-act approach. But I’ve thought about it for some time, and it seems the issue is more about the general idea that people get from asexuality than people’s identification itself. Hence the need for one precise definition that explains to everyone what aces are. However, I’m slowly starting to see some of the issues with that.

    One argument they have is that asexuals who desire sex without finding people “hot” aren’t asexual because a lot of non-aces share that experience as well, which I’ve realized doesn’t make much sense. I suppose the issue here is generalizing other groups of people’s experiences by saying that it’s why it makes oneself different from them, and since they’re assuming the only reason they are identifying as asexual is because of this misconception (because “sexual attraction” would be the only thing that matters to their identity if we follow that essentialist thinking), then they claim that they are therefore not asexual… In fact, I’ve just seen a post proving my point. Like the Mogai Hell Denial critics, the issue is less labels and more the attitudes behind them. But even if an asexual who wanted sex recognized that non-aces had similar experiences, it still wouldn’t be enough for these kind of people…

    …because another argument that I’ve seen to justify a stricter definition and identity policing is that it “benefits others”. I think that’s why CJ DeLuzio Chasin’s essay got me as well: the idea that aces shouldn’t pigeonhole themselves as “ace” because they might be wrong about their orientation, and it would be nice if they could one day connect with their Real Sexuality (that is, if they have one). I never saw it as a sexnormative and essentialist idea until now. And it feels similar to what some of the people advocating for a less loose definition are looking for: helping some people realize they’re asexual and convince others that they’re not actually asexual and are only misunderstanding their experiences (“‘gray-asexual?’ what’s that? you’re either asexual or you’re not, buddy, gray-As are just allosexuals lite who sometimes undermine sexual diversity, not that we’re undermining gray diversity or anything“).

    That reminds me of when someone who was questioning whether they were cupiosexual or not had begged a person who strongly believed cupiosexuals weren’t asexual/ace to convince them they were cupio so that they could get “purged” from the ace community. The person did realize they were not ace later on, and likely didn’t want to be ace themself at the time. I don’t often remember that event, but now that I do, it really strikes me as an example of the “looking for your Real Sexuality” thing. And of course it’s never asexuality. Debates regarding the definition definitely have had an impact on me during my questioning. And it’s really “funny” that when I start questioning my orientation because I’m afraid I might be repressing/blooming late into my Real Sexuality, what I get from ace and LGBT communities is essentially more “you need to determine who you truly are because if you are wrong it’s bad for you and the community that is already struggling to be taken seriously”. Thanks I guess.

    But I wonder… what’s so wrong about being wrong? Isn’t freedom of labelling oneself as one wishes also freedom to be “wrong” about oneself? (although identification-as-an-act isn’t really a question of right or wrong)

    The post that comes to mind is A Modifier, where I talked about the idea that “it is, supposedly, a terrible and lamentable thing for people to go through multiple labels [read: specifically non-canonized labels] while questioning,” especially if they end up landing on a canonized LGBT identity in the end.

    Yeah, that’s where I first heard of the idea. I had another discussion in mind, but it’s probably in the depths of Tumblr/Pillowfort anyway. “Canonized”, I love it. Anyway, I’m not really sure how to wrap my head around “people in denial of their orientation/gender” within the utility model. Wouldn’t that imply an “innate” sexuality/gender, or am I just mistaking the feelings that leads people to identifying as something with the label itself? Probably.

    But even then, it seems like issues like “not recognizing gender dysphoria/trauma/illnesses” can be important, and that therefore being wrong about them might lead to continued pain… unless I’m missing something. I mean, for me, the possibility of subtle gender dysphoria I might’ve managed to cope with was the reason why I started questioning my gender. Although I’m pretty sure I’m cis, sometimes I still question this from times to times, because what if I’m wrong and my gender dysphoria is really, really subtle? The idea is absurd to me, but I still can’t quite shake it.

    I find it interesting that Vela linked his OCD to his discomfort with identity essentialism. It made sense to me that people prone to (irrational) doubts would be more drawn to less essentialist paradigms. I’ve seen Cor relating cos grey/quoi identity to neurodivergency too (including OCD). And I’ve found more about quoiromanticism’s original meaning through you and your thread on Arocalypse (but then again, I doubt it’s much of a surprise). I had often heard from the perspective of those who “didn’t do labels” before, but your posts were much more related to questioning the idea of one “right” answer, rejecting the usefulness of specific categories. I didn’t think it was allowed, to be fair. I remember a moment in my gender questioning where I kept wondering whether I was “ambiguous” enough to ID as quoigender (probably cisnormativity).

    I wasn’t used to that way of seeing identities, and I found a lot of use in it. It allowed me to think less of identity as “finding the Real Me” and focused more on what I wanted to do. It’s the only time when I felt open to using an ace/aro label, because essentialism confined me (even though I’d fit “the technical definition” of both identities). And I think I’m finally starting to understand that who I “really” am, the “truth” about myself… doesn’t have to matter. I don’t have to force myself to feel bad about it for not trying to look for it. I am not looking for a “progressive reason to stay in the closet“… and even if I were, so what? I can’t blame myself for making a judgment based on what I knew and made sense at the time. People don’t have to be “hurt” so that they can find their “real orientation”. It isn’t “worth it“. My “questioning” doesn’t have to end, it isn’t even remotely required. I clearly won’t solve my issue of “compulsively looking for my Real sexuality and gender out of self-doubt and societal fear” with more self-doubt and pressure to get it just right.

    What you’ve written has helped me a lot, and I suppose I’d like to thank you again for giving me a new perspective.

    That’s not necessarily the reason I would have given, per se, but if you want to put it like that, then sure. I don’t think there’s any particular need to guard ace identification like it’s a scarce resource.

    What would be your reason then?
    I’m guessing you feel the same for other types of identification, right?

    Is there something in particular that hinges on this question?

    “Trans” is usually defined as someone whose gender identity and assigned gender at birth are incongruent. Since identity-as-an-act allows for people to ID in whatever way they wish, that would mean allowing people to identify with a word that “technically” doesn’t fit them. It would be just odd to me that someone who identifies fully with their gender at birth yet calls themself trans participates and gets a voice in trans conversations. If they were some form of crossdresser, wouldn’t there be better words for them? Or does that mean that there is some rule that states that trans identification means one has a different gender identity than their AGAB? Since there exist nonbinary people who don’t identify as trans, I suppose there would be “supposedly cis” people who do. Or perhaps I’m only overthinking an hypothetical. If I don’t worry as much about hypothetical non-aces calling themselves ace, then I shouldn’t worry about hypothetical cis people calling themselves trans.

    Now I’m wondering about political lesbians, and their “sexuality is a choice” ideology, though I’m guessing their transmisogyny and anti-bi prejudices were a much bigger problem. I don’t know much about them, but I heard that some of them were essentially women who didn’t date men but wouldn’t involve themselves in romantic/sexual relationships with women either. So if they identified as lesbians, that means they were lesbians, even if they didn’t really date other women… so if other lesbians found that to be an issue, that’d be on them, right? Same for cis men calling themselves lesbians?

    On the topic of “sexuality is/isn’t a choice”, it seems like a lot of the reasons behind why some people prefer essentialist approaches is because they feel like otherwise, they would be “forced” to be “converted” into being straight. And I feel it’s buying into the idea that asexuality is somehow lesser (and should be changed), which is reminiscent of the Reconsidering Asexuality and its Radical Potential essay, especially the parts hinting at “if we can’t make someone sexual, we must then accept their tragic asexuality”. Not only has the “it’s involuntary” mindset led me into believing some pretty messed up things, but it has really alienated me from identifying as asexual from the very beginning because “well, celibacy and asexuality are different, so I need to figure which one I am, otherwise that means I’m choosing to be asexual, which I can’t because it’s not a choice” when… no! If I chose to be asexual, what’s so bad about it? In the thread I just linked, someone then asks “Why would anybody choose to be asexual?” and that coupled with the “it’s the new trend to want to be asexual, which is odd because who would willingly be asexual?” is just super alienating to me. Granted, some of the reasons behind me wanting to be asexual were in poor taste, but that didn’t mean that me wanting to be asexual was bad. You’ve tacked the subject before, and I suppose that’s why it makes more sense for asexuality to be seen as a lens rather than create a line in the sand between it and celibacy.

    I get that, but I’d also prefer a blanket solution of advocating “Just because someone seems really weird or strange to you don’t make you entitled to ask invasive personal questions.”

    Oh yeah, there’s that, too. I suppose I took it for granted.

    In there, you talk about the usefulness of sexual orientation as to precisely mean a pattern of sexual attraction, and that in the case of “asexuality” not being a way to communicate a lack of sexual attraction, “we would have to rework new terms to describe the same concepts again”.

    Quoting back what I wrote before, I suppose you don’t believe that to be true. I know that there were attempts at separating asexual orientation from asexual identity, but to be fair it reminds me of the separation between “sex and gender” which can misgender people. Someone there could say “your identity is asexual, but your orientation is heterosexual”, and I suppose that could be seen as identity-policing? I’m guessing that’s why the concept quickly got dropped: people who hold the belief that sexual orientations Should Only Be About Sexual Attraction would definitely use that to tell people who they “really are”.

    That’s something that really annoyed about those looking to define asexuality more strictly. “Every other orientation is should be defined like this, and that includes asexuality.” And so the logic would go “heterosexual means sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender, homosexual means sexual attraction to the same gender, asexual means…”, completely missing on the point that gay people and lesbians don’t always conceive of their orientation as “homosexuality” nor as depending on their sexual attraction patterns. It ignores how sexuality terms were previously defined, and how “bisexual” still is defined by some of the people who use it. It’s just both so prescriptive and a poor reason to redefine asexuality similarly to “every other orientation”. In my eyes, asexuality isn’t like “every other orientation”, and oftentimes trying to make it so leads to the erasure of the gray area as “pointless” and to the redefinition of other orientations through attraction-based essentialism… or, in some cases, desire-based essentialism, because “sexual attraction” isn’t an essential-enough concept, and “people mistake it with finding people hot and so they think they’re asexual when they’re not and we need to correct that misunderstanding quickly by telling others they’re not ace otherwise no one will take us seriously“.

    • Coyote

      You use a lot of links, lol. Kudos.

      I remember that you had followed this post with smaller ones about sex-repulsion, and there was one where someone had said that they felt like they couldn’t talk about their own experiences

      You could be thinking of this post, which links to this post [cw: nsfw header text] — see house-of-ace’s addition at the end.

      That reminds me of when someone who was questioning whether they were cupiosexual or not had begged a person who strongly believed cupiosexuals weren’t asexual/ace to convince them they were cupio so that they could get “purged” from the ace community.

      Good grief.

      But I wonder… what’s so wrong about being wrong?

      That’s exactly the question. It’s one thing if a person just doesn’t have words for something (not their fault) or has internalized negative ideas/shame (in which case, it’s those ideas themselves that should be addressed), but I find the idea of other people claiming authority to dictate other people’s sexualities a lot worse than those people simply being “mistaken” about themselves.

      What would be your reason then? I’m guessing you feel the same for other types of identification, right?

      Yes. I just don’t think there’s anything sacred to asexuality that could be infringed on. Although the current terminology did emerge out of a relatively specific context, it was never supposed to be culturally exclusive that way — and if someone were like “No you can only identify as asexual if you’re a White twenty-something American who uses a lot of internet,” that would be racist and silly. There are just no comparable stakes that apply.

      If I don’t worry as much about hypothetical non-aces calling themselves ace, then I shouldn’t worry about hypothetical cis people calling themselves trans.

      That’s pretty much my perspective, yes.

      So if they identified as lesbians, that means they were lesbians, even if they didn’t really date other women… so if other lesbians found that to be an issue, that’d be on them, right?

      My understanding of the issues with political lesbians is that there were… disruptive behaviors involved, but I’ll avoid speaking to that because it’s not a topic I’m familiar with.

      I know that there were attempts at separating asexual orientation from asexual identity, but to be fair it reminds me of the separation between ‘sex and gender’ which can misgender people.

      That people were ever making that distinction is news to me, and, yes, I agree that it’s superfluous.

      Thank you for the comments, and I’m glad any of my posts have been helpful to you.

      • Anonymous

        You use a lot of links, lol. Kudos.

        I might have taken that habit from you. I did notice that I kept adding more and more of them. Oh well, the more links the better, right?

        You could be thinking of this post, which links to this post [cw: nsfw header text] — see house-of-ace’s addition at the end.

        Oh yeah, it’s exactly that one. (By the way, is your Pillowfort private due to trolls again?)

        It seems that it’s got a lot to do with experiences that are tied to one’s asexuality, that can’t be separated from it. Similar to aroaces who have to hide their asexuality in aro spaces in order to talk about their aromanticism. It seems to come from the pressure of not wanting to fall into a stereotype and giving the wrong idea about what an “asexual/aromantic person” is like, probably due to the lack of knowledge regarding these orientations making anyone some form of “representative” of it.

        I experience something similar, in that the reason why I started questioning whether I was asexual or not is one of the main reasons why I don’t identify as asexual (and prefer to ID as something adjacent to it instead). A part of my discomfort is tied to attraction fixation, which made me feel like I could lose possession of the more logical word describing myself as soon as I felt some nebulous feeling that I couldn’t predict, and that I’d have to be on the lookout for sexual attraction in case I happened to be an oblivious allosexual appropriating the term. The thing is, I already had that pressure of checking-for-every-possible-attraction-in-case-it-goes-against-my-self-perception and I suppose some parts of the ace community made me double on that. Meaning that if I was wrong, I could be wrong twice, and I would’ve been supposed to feel ashamed twice too, probably.

        I think the idea of an inherent, unchanging asexuality was palatable to me, and would theoretically “solve all my problems” (except not really). I just needed to prove that I “really” was asexual, which… how do I do that? How do I predict my Patterns of Attractions? I remember at some point that I had made an attempt at figuring out whether I was nonlibidoist or not in order to determine if I was “asexual-by-default”, that’s how far essentialism and my worries got to me. I felt that the best way to win this “When-Will-I-Stop-Being-Asexual” game was to not play it at all. So now I’m not trying to figure out whether I am and will stay ‘asexual’ anymore. I’m okay saying I’m just ‘ace’.

        If anyone asked me about how my questioning went, I wouldn’t be able to answer without leaving big chunks of it. Because I know that if I were honest about it, I could easily be misunderstood or simply not trusted (especially since I don’t have a confirmation of what I really have, won’t have one, and probably will never know if I’m right on my assumption). It’s ironic that my paranoia toward “being rejected by family and general society” turned into “being rejected by the ace community”, with some of my former fears mapping perfectly with the new ones, just with an ace flavor/”don’t be bad community PR” attached to it. My ace experiences are tied with my fears, in that it’s my fear that led me to care about asexuality to begin with. I can imagine myself IDing as asexual in some odd alternative universe where I didn’t go through all that but I feel like I’d be… “boring”? Not me? That I’d have nothing to fight for, to guide me? Which, isn’t bad considering all the questioning I went through, and might be better than feeling alone, feeling like I’m the only one, for something that wasn’t asexuality, but that I found out through asexuality. I might be somewhat unlucky, but at least I was lucky enough to manage to find the solution to my issue.

        It’s just odd, wanting to speak despite not wanting to risk being misunderstood, yet at the same time being fine with not speaking… and then being told not to speak, and feeling bad about that, because maybe I don’t deserve that community, perhaps I am ruining it merely by my presence and existence and beliefs. I thought that if there was just so much risk in IDing as ace, I might as well not take it. Asexuality seemed like a roadbloack in my journey, but even if it was, I got a lot of positive things out of it. In the end, I deserve to make that much space for myself. Maybe having confidence in myself might inspire someone else. Perhaps, one day, I will talk to an ace who shares a similar experience… who knows… great, now I’m tearing up, because I have a feeling it won’t happen. But that’s okay! I’m fine on my own. Gotta focus on my safety first.

        Good grief.

        I mean, it’s no surprise, coming from the same person who believes telling misidentified people that they’re not asexual is “worth it”, and that if asexuality (identification) is considered a choice then AVEN supports conversion therapy and shouldn’t try to get into the LGBT+ community… honestly, this whole “are aces part of the(?) LGBT community” debate being used to “control” the community is kind of the reason why I don’t care about it anymore. It’s just used as a reason to get tighter definitions, police others’ identities and/or invalidate the gray areas (fortunately I’ve never seen the latter, only heard about it).

        I think what gets even worse, is that they weren’t interesting in “purging” the ace community from non-aces (who are welcome as allies), they just wanted to correct people of their “mistake” with a clear “no you’re not ace”… which isn’t better, I know. Sometimes, I ask myself who has stopped me from IDing as ace the most: the people advocating for a stricter definition and sometimes reducing gray-asexuals to ‘low-sexual people’ (“ace exclusionists”), or the people who didn’t want non-LGBT aces to have a part in the LGBT+ community (“ace exclusionists”). I know in the end the real answer me is me, but I don’t really exist in a vacuum.

        I guess I have been all flavors of ace exclusionists, in a way, and knowing about one kind helped me to dismantle the other. Realizing that LGB orientations weren’t necessarily defined through sexual attraction (making asexuality an outlier, despite what others thought), that “bisexual” could mean the same thing as “pansexual” and “biromantic” sometimes and that it didn’t mean either group was wrong (one word existing doesn’t negate another one’s meaning, we don’t have to restrict language so that we can have clear boundaries for categorization’s sake), that some people defined their orientation solely on who they were open to date (meaning “attraction” isn’t the only thing that matters), that some people could “drop the label” and not ID as ace (asexuality is based on identification, it is my own choice to make), “homosexuality” isn’t that great of a term, and the reassurance that perhaps my fears were more unfounded than I thought… all of these ideas, even if not fully fleshed out, helped me realize that there were more than one way of seeing it and solving the definition issue.

        Granted, pansexuality and romantic orientations didn’t get a warm welcome, identification was a “I could say that I’m ace, and therefore I’m basically ace” thing, people were still fixated on attraction regardless (“comphet” and “fake” attraction, desires and wants being shoehorned into “attraction”, the same way non-trans nonbinary people get put in the “T” of LGBT), mistrust of bi people who weren’t attracted to both men and women because “identities only work one specific way and the only legitimate ones are ours”- oh wait, you already made a post on that.

        This thread is like a car crash, once I’m viewing it, I can’t stop myself from looking at it, ahah. The main person arguing for a definition that included both sexual attraction and desire (against others preferring a desire-only definition) explained that they experienced low sexual desire, but were sex-repulsed, hence why they identified as gray-asexual. Someone replied that sex repulsion is different from innate sexual desire, and that the questions they should ask themself is why they are sex-repulsed, and if they would desire sex if they weren’t sex-repulsed… uuuhhhh. I somehow forgot this part of the discussion, and frankly this surprised me because I thought these people would think sex-repulsion couldn’t co-exist with sexual desire (which is why I used to be mostly fine with a desire-only definition), but no. The cupio-invalidating user agreed with that statement, and added that “sex-repulsed sexuals are a real thing”. I’m assuming that’s why I forgot this part of the thread? That it may be that my past self just went: “Oh yeah, sex-repulsed allosexuals are acknowledged, which is great because I might end up being one since sexual attraction is inevitable-“. This harsh focus on “Truth regardless of experiences that could overlap with asexuals” is reflected in their own identification, as they say that they’re a romance-repulsed romantic with no romantic feelings ever since they are on meds, and that although they may wish that they were aro, they aren’t so “naturally”… and now I can’t help but make connections. I’m frankly wondering how much “born-this-way essentialism” restricts people, and how much value it actually has, for all its popularity.

        [By the way, now I’m just starting to see “good grief” everywhere, how fun.]

        That’s exactly the question. It’s one thing if a person just doesn’t have words for something (not their fault) or has internalized negative ideas/shame (in which case, it’s those ideas themselves that should be addressed), but I find the idea of other people claiming authority to dictate other people’s sexualities a lot worse than those people simply being “mistaken” about themselves.

        …Oh yeah, I never thought about comparing the two in terms of morality.

        You see, I had tried to imagine being an “asexual-identifying allosexual” for a moment, and I could get how it could be seen as offending to some asexuals, that someone who had a perfectly fine sex life and was in no way a “typical asexual” called themself asexual without “suffering any of the struggles” (which is another thing that distanced me from asexuality because then ‘am I suffering enough to be asexual’ even if I “fit” the definition?). Yeah, that sounds “offending”, these other asexuals are right in feeling alienated by these types of aces.

        And then I realized that wait… I can never be inside someone’s head, no matter how real some of these experiences might feel like. I don’t know why they identify the way they do, and if I have to subscribe to the idea that they might be “wrong” about themself identity-wise, then I have to also believe that what they say to me about themself might be wrong too. It makes sense, yet I can’t seem to find a way to word to people convinced that asexuality’s meaning is being diluted that they shouldn’t focus so much about false positives (or that if they do, it’s about the message they send about asexuality, not necessarily their identity). I feel like saying “don’t worry about them” would sound insensitive. And I know telling them to create subspaces failed in the past, on the idea that “there is no need for a space [free from sex-related things] when the ace community is supposed to be that”.

        On a somewhat related note, how do you (or don’t) define asexuality?

        Yes. I just don’t think there’s anything sacred to asexuality that could be infringed on. Although the current terminology did emerge out of a relatively specific context, it was never supposed to be culturally exclusive that way — and if someone were like “No you can only identify as asexual if you’re a White twenty-something American who uses a lot of internet,” that would be racist and silly. There are just no comparable stakes that apply.

        Yeah, that’d be true, but I was thinking more in terms of people who had what some would consider “common allosexual experiences” calling themselves ace, which some aces had issues with because they felt like asexuality was losing its meaning, reinforcing bad stereotypes of non-aces, and obscuring non-aces’ diversity. I don’t know if that’s just me, but the last argument sounds similar to nonbinary people somehow reinforcing the gender binary by not identifying with it, making it “harder” to “count” as binary, because apparently there were too many things that “made” one nonbinary. What they don’t realize, is that nothing “makes” them anything, and self-ID solves that issue.

        What is your opinion on those who advocate for asexuality not to be seen as a choice as some form of “stepping stone” to ace acceptance? Which, come to think of it, is exactly what alienates me. All this focus on “involuntary experiences” (which usually are attraction and innate desire) is not really something I can apply to myself without overthinking it and feeling insecure over the entire concept. I know what I want voluntarily, and I don’t equate that with my “involuntary” sense of self like some seem to do.

        • Coyote

          Man, you are really pulling some deep cuts here. I had forgotten about writing a lot of those posts.

          You seem pretty familiar with a lot from 2014, so it might be superfluous to ask, but have you read the August 2014 Carnival of Aces?

          (On a somewhat related note, how do you (or don’t) define asexuality?

          I like the approach that Sennkestra suggested a while back of making a vague statement and then illustrating it with a few examples. This helps reinforce that there are multiple possibilities (not locking it down to just one thing) while also grounding it in identifiable/recognizable specifics. So that would go something like this: “As a sexual identity, asexuality can be used to refer to some form of absence of or disidentification with sexuality. For example, some people identify as asexual because they don’t experience sexual attraction, sexual desire, or a sex drive.”

          (What is your opinion on those who advocate for asexuality not to be seen as a choice as some form of ‘stepping stone’ to ace acceptance?

          I think it runs some risks, like you said, so my perspective on that depends on the amount of emphasis. People aren’t always very precise in what they mean to communicate. If someone just brings up “not a choice” in passing, maybe that’s less-than-ideal, but the more emphasis it gets as a defining prerequisite, the more that risks provoking identity stress.

          (By the way, is your Pillowfort private due to trolls again?)

          It’s one guy, singular. Enabling concealed mode makes my entire blog viewable only to accounts I follow, which is indispensable when a stalker keeps creating new account after new account for block evasion. I won’t have it permanently set that way, but that’s the most low-hassle option for now.

          Let me know if there are any specific posts you want to check — you’d just need to use an invite link to set up an account, and I could follow you.

  • Anonymous

    Oh yeah, most of them are from 2014-ish. Didn’t notice.

    You seem pretty familiar with a lot from 2014, so it might be superfluous to ask, but have you read the August 2014 Carnival of Aces?

    I’ve read some of the submissions. Perhaps now is a good time to check the other ones.

    I like the approach that Sennkestra suggested a while back of making a vague statement and then illustrating it with a few examples. This helps reinforce that there are multiple possibilities (not locking it down to just one thing) while also grounding it in identifiable/recognizable specifics. So that would go something like this: “As a sexual identity, asexuality can be used to refer to some form of absence of or disidentification with sexuality. For example, some people identify as asexual because they don’t experience sexual attraction, sexual desire, or a sex drive.”

    I see! Rather than positing a lack of sexual attraction as one of the definitions, it’s instead shown like one of the possible ways to come to an asexual identity.

    I think it runs some risks, like you said, so my perspective on that depends on the amount of emphasis. People aren’t always very precise in what they mean to communicate. If someone just brings up “not a choice” in passing, maybe that’s less-than-ideal, but the more emphasis it gets as a defining prerequisite, the more that risks provoking identity stress.

    Oh, that does make sense! I thought the issue was more on how “sexuality isn’t a choice” sounds less like asking for acceptance and more like a plea for tolerance, but there is also the issue of identity stress (which is a really interesting concept to name, frankly). I suppose a statement like “for most, asexuality is a not a choice” would work, or is that giving it too much emphasis?

    I know that when it comes to sometimes time-wasting thoughts, I often feel like I’m in control of them, and that the only reason why I’m not stopping having them is because… I’m lazy? I’m not sure if they would even count as intrusive thoughts, and I know that I’ve often felt bad for this “choice” element. That if I didn’t choose them, then it’s not my fault, but since it seems like I might have some control over them, that means I’m just supposed to endlessly feel bad about them. So in some other contexts, “X is not a choice” also has run into a few troubles for me.

    Let me know if there are any specific posts you want to check — you’d just need to use an invite link to set up an account, and I could follow you.

    Wait, don’t you have to pay to set a Pillowfort account?
    Otherwise, I’m interested in trying!

    • Coyote

      Emphasis is something I’d want to judge in context, not just within an individual sentence. I guess the way I think about the not-a-choice thing is like… There are certain experiences that we have that are involuntary, and some aces may identify as ace based on some of those, and that’s fine. At the same time, “identifying as ace” is itself a choice, and it’s a choice that deserves to be respected.

      Pillowfort accounts can currently be created in two different ways — either with a $5 donation or with an invite link, which can be generated by anyone with an existing account. I have a large backlog of links generated, so if you were willing to give me a contact method, I could send you a link without risk of it being snapped up by passersby before you could get to it.

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