Asexuality, Identity, and the Issue of Labels

Simon Percelay

Content note: discussion of sex, sexuality and LGBT+ oppression

Over the last century, many political emancipation movements representing women, black or LGBT people, have fought to improve their rights and change their public image. These movements have often claimed back control of terms used to designate them, often as slurs, in order to combat the labels that belittled, segregated or dehumanised them. In today’s mainstream discourse, it is no longer acceptable to mock someone because they are ‘effeminate’, or to make sexist, racist or homophobic remarks. Such comments will almost always lead to a public backlash of varying degree. Of course, there are strong structural reactionary movements against these changes; yet the fact that these reactionary movements feel the need to occupy the public space so visibly is proof of their gradual dispossession of a vocabulary they once owned and controlled, a process they often denounce as “political correctness”. What happened was a reinvention and re-appropriation of the labelling processes of identity in favour of communities that had been deliberately or unconsciously oppressed in the past.

An issue with this re-appropriation of labels, especially in the LGBT+ community, is that of creating clearer targets. The ‘celebration’ implied by the process, which allows the expression of ‘true’ identity in the absence of stigma, also makes it easier to target these groups. Such examples can include the tragic events that happened during a LGBT club night in June 2016, but more generally the witch hunt that some people can lead against anyone who attends LGBT+ friendly events. Greater visibility creates both greater acceptance and greater insecurity.

This is where asexuality comes in. Unlike more commonly-known parts of the LGBT+ community, for whom the main emancipation fight is against strategies of deliberate oppression, rejection and stigmatisation, the asexual community faces issues related to their “non-existence” as a commonly accepted label: most people do not know what asexuality entails, and after being offered an explanation some of these people may still refuse to acknowledge asexuality as a serious sexual orientation – or lack thereof. It is common for an asexual person to hear about how “they just haven’t met the right person,” how “something is wrong with their genes” or how they’re “just being prudish.” Asexuality is so little known that it is not even seen as a deviance, because its very existence is contested. As a result, oppression against the community is often not deliberate: it includes expectations for women (and to a lesser extent, men) to find a companion and have children, the unnecessary over-sexualisation of many of the aspects of life (advertisements, club nights, romantic relationships), and the general idea that humans are expected to feel sexual attraction for their attractions and relationships to be valid. Most of these things take the form of micro-aggressions that non-asexual people see as benign, unaware of the existence or experiences of asexual people.

Surely, this situation of “invisible” forms of oppression could be solved through the positive affirmation and visibility of asexuality as a commonly known and accepted label. Yet, this may often be the opposite of what asexual people want: they may want their sexual orientation to just be ignored and accepted as irrelevant to their personality, or they may desire their society to simply be less focused on sexual relationships. In fact, ‘asexuality’ in itself covers many different experiences: some asexual people may still want to have sex but only with someone they have established a strong romantic relationship with; some may be repulsed by sex, others may be simply indifferent to it; some may still masturbate, or some may still perform oral sex… The separation between all these experiences is hard to delineate; ultimately, asexuality is a “wordless” experience, because there are as many people identifying as asexual as there are personal experiences. What the term constantly points out, though, is the need for social norms to stop fixing expected behaviours within the sexual domain. Objectifying asexuality as a form of universal label that applies to a homogeneous group of people uniformly is not only misguided, it can also be harmful; it prevents the ‘normalisation’ of asexuality in the public space and creates the idea that all asexual people are similar, and that they expect the same kind of treatments. Behaving with asexual people the same way as one would behave with prudish people is not what they are looking for: while not afraid of sex, they would just like it to be less of a structural element in public and private life. Pity or commiseration are not what is being sought.

More generally, the idea of a clear “asexual” label would also be harmful in regards to the general expectation that personal identity is a constant and unalterable quality. As an asexual activist says in the documentary made by Rodney Uhler in 2012, “Not Broken, Not Alone” (available on YouTube), one should not define a part of their own or someone else’s identity with the belief that it will always remain the same. It might not change, but it might as well. There are asexual people that have had sex, maybe even on a regular basis, without it meaning that their asexual identity has been invalidated: they might see themselves as asexual on an everyday-life basis, and experience other desires in certain circumstances. This is not to say that people have direct, conscious control over their sexuality; rather, there are processes and events that may lead someone to change over time. Identity is not more or less validated by practices that other people judge as non-appropriate for their perception of a given identity group; this does not apply just to matters of sexuality, but also of gender and romantic attraction. What matters truly is what the person actually feels and experiences; to create an objectified “asexual” category and to assign specific social expectations to such a group is to miss the point of emancipatory politics.

Ultimately, the asexual label should help raise issues faced by people who self-identify as asexual; yet it is important to remember not to create unnecessary stigma around the idea of what a true asexual person is like. The use of categorising labels may perpetuate forms of oppression through the creation of new social norms. What is important to keep in mind is the changing nature of identity and the uniqueness of personal experiences.