Definitions are tools, not prescriptions

Today, Kiowa of Asexual Advice responded to an anonymous message in which the asker said that they have a consistently low libido that isn’t distressing to them and an acquaintence told them that made them gray-asexual. They asked if it was true that low libido automatically means a person is gray-asexual.

While I agree with Kiowa that low libido doesn’t automatically mean someone is gray-asexual, I disagree very strongly with her statement “Orientations are all described by sexual attraction, not by libido.”

This statement is factually incorrect. Many non-asexual people define their sexual orientation in terms of the kinds of partner-relationships they desire, rather than the sexual attraction they experience. In the entire history of asexual communities, there have always been people who self-describe as asexual for different reasons than their attraction experiences, even if lack of sexual attraction also describes them. Sexual attraction and lack thereof are irrelevant to my orientation. My sexual orientation is asexual for reasons that aren’t lack of sexual attraction.

I would have told this asker: if the word “asexual” helps you understand your sexuality, you are free to describe yourself as asexual. If it’s personally meaningful to you that you have low libido, you can describe that as asexual, with or without the word gray. I think it’s possible Kiowa tried to express this, but her wording comes across as telling the asker “You can describe yourself as gray-asexual if you want. If you feel a different label describes you better, that’s fine too.” Her choice to not question the idea that identifying as asexual without the word gray is not an option for the asker also concerns me, because there is a very widespread practice in asexual communities of shunting people out of asexual identity and into gray-asexual or demi identity without their consent.

Kiowa, you have a choice. You can choose to emphasize “Asexuality is about lack of attraction, not anything else,” which results in alienating asexuals like me, and potentially alienating people unfamiliar with asexual communities’ conceptualization of sexual attraction.

Emphasizing that singular definition can be immensely confusing to people who are just encountering asexual communities for the first time. Libido and sex aversion are vastly more concrete experiences than sexual attraction, and many asexual people’s response to the question “do you experience sexual attraction” is “honestly, I have no idea.” Those people should be affirmed in their chosen label, including if it is “asexual,” with or without the word “gray.”

Kiowa, you could choose to say this instead: “the most common definition is lack of sexual attraction, but some asexuals define it as [other definition] or [another definition], but the most important determining factor is whether the word asexual helps you understand your sexual orientation in a meaningful way.” And if you did that, people would feel a lot more empowered than if you continued choosing to respond to “am I asexual” questions with “I think [particular label] might fit you” or “You can use [label] if you want, but you don’t have to.”

Definitions are only tools. They are about describing concepts, not restricting them. They don’t declare the boundaries of what it means to be asexual.

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