Ace Family Resemblances: Absences & Alienation Beyond Attraction

This month, Sildarmillion selected “beyond attraction” as the theme for the Carnival of Aces. I appreciate this theme because over the past decade or so, the ace community has become saturated with what I have called attraction fixation or attraction-based essentialism. For instance, you can see a lot of this in the AVEN debates over the phrase “little or no” (note, this series is PF login-only). Other examples, while less extreme, still reflect an attempt to isolate one specific feeling or experience that aces don’t have, which I think is inadvisable as well as unnecessary. When people take this kind of approach to asexuality, it generally reflects an ignorance of the history and prior debates on this subject.

Personally, I appreciate the “attraction” framework for describing certain kinds of experiences, but over the years I’ve gotten increasingly disillusioned about centering it in definitions of asexuality or gray-asexuality. Not only does that approach contribute to identity policing, but it also leaves a lot out of the picture, including what I consider to be more salient to my own identity as ace.

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image: 1800 Series by Weijie, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]

Note this post is mostly retreading things I’ve already written about before, but I tend to look back on my old writing with annoyance, so here we go again.

As most of y’all know, I advocate viewing labels as as tools, as a matter of family resemblance, and as strings in a web:

What that an act of identification is — what that really is — is a choice to connect ourselves, as if by a string, to a much larger web of instances wherever those same words have been said, a choice to position oneself relative to others who do the same, an invocation of every other invocation of the word. Our personal reasons for that choice will vary, our relationships to these words will vary, our personal narratives will vary, and those little ripples and variations in the pattern, in speaking style, in specifics, in stories, are how we know we’re talking to another person and not just speaking to a mirror.

So by identifying as ace, what sort of family resemblances am I getting at?

Here’s an incomplete list:

Absence of sexual experience. Recently, I watched a documentary where, as part of a story, an interview participant casually mentioned that she “didn’t want to die a virgin.” The turn of phrase was striking to me precisely because it wasn’t just “wanted to have sex” but that she didn’t want to remain within a certain social category, a certain type of person: a person like me. I understand that people have different goals in life; there’s nothing to reconcile there. At the same time, this offhand remark lingers with me because it’s a reminder of that what I am, the way I live, is understood as so thoroughly undesirable. Never-having-had-sex is both non-normative at my age and a significant part of my personal history. If I want to connect with people who aren’t going to act weird about that, the ace community is a good place to start.

Absence of compatibility. I believe that generally speaking, sexuality words can be useful shorthand for communicating something about repertoires and compatibility. It’s not just who you’re “attracted to;” it’s also about who you might potentially “match” with. Conventionally we might express this as which genders you’re “into,” how interested you are in sex, and if so, what kind. For me, a lot of that is up in the air and distantly hypothetical, which is why I focus on what I can nail down more easily: everything that I know wouldn’t work, which is a lot. So from my perspective, the most socially-significant pattern here is the extent of absence and negation.

Absence/avoidance of social sexuality/sex talk in socializing. I’ve known countless people who incorporate sex talk in how they socialize with friends. Where I live (in person and online), this is not unusual. People talk about who/what they think is hot, recount their sexual experiences, put sexual terms in their usernames, crack jokes like saying “nice” in response to the number sixty nine even though it is in fact the least appealing* position I’ve ever heard of, et cetera. I don’t just passively abstain from this — for the most part, where possible, I actively avoid it. In some ways this actually feels more relevant to me than the first two items on this list because of how hard this stuff is to get away from, even at its most benign.

*If you disagree, you can keep it to yourself.

Salience of sexnormativity as a sticking point. The moral value placed on sex, the universalizing rhetoric on sexual desire, and the medical framing of sexuality as categorically “healthy” — these are not just ideological tenets I object to intellectually, but personally lacerating and yet socially sanctioned in a way that has always felt very isolating to me. Even in contexts where people speak out frankly and explicitly against prejudice, in my experience this is one of those norms that easily persists under the radar for others, despite how glaringly noticeable it is to me.

Experiences of dysphoria. Here I’m referring to what I have called sex dysphoria — a kind of violent unease and jarring wrongness at being misapprehended with regard to sexuality. There’s probably a lot of people out there who have experience with this to some small degree. In my case, I’d say it’s shaped my experience as fundamentally as gender does for others. Identifying with the ace umbrella (and seeking out the company of fellow aces) has been helpful to me in navigating and mitigating this.

Loss of connection. Like I talked about in my ace reading of Jessie’s lament, there’s a common ace narrative about feeling “left behind,” fearing the possibility of friends moving on without us, and getting dropped by friends in favor of partners. This isn’t unique to aces (or universal among aces), but it is something made salient by restricted access to affection and intimacy. Which, by the way, is how it feels. Restricted. There are so many things I want out of life that feel like they’re behind the sexual/romantic equivalent of a paywall.

Involvement with (and renunciation by) communities. The way I see it, a community is a web of relationships, and which “communities” I do or don’t feel like a part of are shaped by my interactions with (and other exposure to) individuals. For example, I got into ace blogging about eight or nine years ago, and while I’ve changed a lot over that time, I’ve formed neighborly relationships with other aces that feel like a consistent source of connection. When it comes to discussing and foregrounding the issues above, my experience has been marked by relative acceptance among aces, as well as renunciation by those who mistrust aces. Regardless of what I “am” in some internal sense, I am a member of the lexical culture targeted by disparagement of our language, which in turn has modified my relationship to other sexuality terms.

These factors are all salient to why I identify as ace. They create a family resemblance to other aces, and it’s a resemblance that I choose to describe as such because these connections are meaningful to me. No one single aspect here is a universal ace experience — nor is it anything I expect people to confidently guess just from the word “ace” alone — but they are things that keep me circling back to asexuality as a useful reference point. I am not gray-asexual because I “experience sexual attraction infrequently” (the attractionist’s definition). I identify as gray-asexual because even though “asexual” doesn’t feel like the right fit, I choose to foreground absence, alienation, and negation as the defining features of my relationship to sexuality.

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