Adventures in Definitions

I would like to introduce a new writer here at Ace Times. Pramana can be found on AS-NS and the following piece is the first part in a series that looks in to the definition of asexuality. Please feel free to discuss this topic on AS-NS where the rules allow free debate and frank language. So without further ado let me introduce the person that I think is making the biggest strides in redefining asexuality, and creating a more up-to-date and accurate definition for the term. Take it away Pramana [ED]


Back in the day when I was young and naive and first learning about asexuality (four months ago) I read Julie Sondra Decker’s book The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality, watched Angela Tucker’s 2011 documentary (A)sexual, and scanned the materials on AVEN’s main page. I thought that asexual was defined as “a person who does not experience sexual attraction”. And I thought that recognition of the orientation was the logical consequence of adding the ‘D’ option to the multiple choice exam:

1. Heterosexual: attracted to people of the opposite gender.
2. Homosexual: attracted to people of the same gender.
3. Bisexual: attracted to people of both genders.
4. Asexual: attracted to people of neither gender.

Only there was a complication. This definition only applied to asexuality, but there was something larger called the asexual spectrum, which incorporated gray-asexuality and demisexuality. Still, these were defined in terms of sexual attraction. At least, they were for the most part. But something called “sex-aversion/repulsion” appeared to be relevant to some people’s decision to identify as gray-asexual.

Nevertheless, I was unconcerned about the sexual attraction definition. So when I joined AVEN and started a thread regarding an overarching definition that would capture the entire asexual spectrum, I assumed that it would be developed around the concept of sexual attraction. I soon discovered that some people on AVEN believed that asexuality should instead be defined in terms of sexual desire, and a few had really odd beliefs regarding the nature of sexual attraction. This rolled into an argument that preoccupied the forum throughout the month of March, 2017. Early on, I decided to endorse the “does not experience sexual attraction and/or lacks intrinsic desire for partnered sex” definition. It made sense to say that someone who lacks intrinsic desire for partnered sex is asexual. But I didn’t want to drop “attraction” because that definition is the favoured one in behaviourist psychology, and because a small subgroup of the community (sex-favourable asexuals) do not experience sexual attraction but still have an intrinsic desire for partnered sex.

The March round of the Definition Debate (I always capitalize it now) died out around the end of that month. By that time, AVEN had released a statement discussing how the attraction-based definition is widely used in psychology, with the implication being that it wouldn’t change the definition to one that lacks academic support. I started doing more reading on my own, because I had many new questions concerning the nature of sexual attraction and desire and how these concepts relate to asexuality. Initially, I read articles published by behaviourist psychologists (particularly noted researchers Anthony Bogaert and Lori Brotto). They follow an attraction-based definition, and discuss asexuality as analogous to heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. And much like those other sexual orientations, they think that asexuality is caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors. However, I noticed that the environmental factors they identify as relevant to asexuality differ from that of other orientations. These factors include mental health problems, a lack of sexual conditioning experiences when a teenager/young adult, and gender differences whereby women are more likely to be asexual. People are used to thinking of sexual orientations as being an inherent/innate phenomenon, fixed by biology or early childhood factors and forming an essential, standalone part of the person. But that isn’t what psychologists are saying about asexuality.

I wasn’t surprised, however, since by this time I was pretty familiar with the asexual community, and realized that many people in it met the profiles that the psychologists describe. People with autism. People with OCD. People from conservative religious backgrounds. People who are socially isolated. People who are sex-repulsed. Furthermore, instead of asexual, many of these people identify as gray-asexual or demisexual. These gray-area identities seem even less likely to be an inherent/innate phenomenon.

Meanwhile, I started reading the other main collection of academic writing on asexuality, that produced by sociologists and gender studies professors. They view asexuality from a social constructivist perspective, focusing on the decisions that lead people to claim an asexual identity and form asexual communities. For them, asexuality is about challenging the notion that having sex is better than not having sex (although they accept that biological/environmental factors explain why people lack sexual attraction/desire, and thus why people want to legitimize a lack of interest in sex in the first place). They advocate a broad “does not experience sexual attraction and/or lacks intrinsic desire for partnered sex” definition in order to encompass everyone who might wish to use the label for this reason. And they argue that asexuality is more diverse than other sexual orientations, and should be better construed as a category analogous to sexuality.

Reflecting on this range of ideas, I started to wonder what links all the different varieties of asexuality together. I realized that since asexuality is more diverse than other sexual orientations, a single psychological term such as “attraction” or “desire” or “sex-repulsion” is insufficient. For that reason, I determined that it might be useful to move to a more abstract philosophical definition. This brought me back to a definition that I encountered when I first started reading about asexuality, a definition with Julie Sondra Decker states briefly, and without elaboration, near the start of her book. This definition provides that an asexual is someone who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it. In the intervening time, I had become used to hearing asexuals describe how they were sometimes motivated to have sex in order to please a partner or to conceive a child, while not finding the activity to be something they valued in itself. This provided the inspiration for me to flesh out this alternative definition of asexuality through the philosophical distinction between intrinsic (valued in itself) and instrumental (valued as a means to an end) desires. The ways in which people experience (or don’t experience) sexual attraction and desire can then be explained in terms of how they affect whether people perceive partnered sex to provide intrinsic rewards.

This new definition better accounts for the varieties of asexuality recognized today (asexuality, gray-asexuality, demisexuality, sex-favourable asexuality). And it explains how experiences such as sex-aversion/repulsion and touch aversion and body dysphoria can act to devalue partnered sex for those who might otherwise be motivated to pursue it.

There is an issue regarding whether or not this definition should include celibacy. People who otherwise might wish to pursue sexual activities but who are prevented from doing so by concerns about grossness and awkwardness and the effort required are seeking to avoid negatives. On the other hand, those who make a commitment to celibacy for religious or other ideological reasons are motivated by the belief that there are greater rewards to be had from not having sex, such that they are seeking to obtain positives. Therefore, celibacy could be excluded by expanding this definition in the following way: an asexual is someone who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it, and who does not believe that celibacy provides greater intrinsic rewards. Nevertheless, there may be reason to omit this clause and maintain that celibacy fits within the definition. I’ve encountered a number of people in the asexual community who are sex neutral to sex negative, whereby such views are relevant to their decision to identify as asexual. These people may have experienced low levels of sexual attraction/desire to start with, but their negative perceptions of sex and its role in society may have further reduced their level of interest. The line between asexuality and celibacy isn’t always that clear on the ground. Perhaps a definition of asexuality should reflect this reality.

I’ll conclude on that cliffhanger. In a subsequent article, I’ll discuss in more detail how asexuality and celibacy should be distinguished. Ultimately, I’ll argue that these are two conceptually distinct phenomena, which may causally interact in various ways.

About the Author

I blog about whatever interests me. Originally, my focus concerned satirical food reviews documenting the hipster trend (hence the name). I've since branched out into writing about politics and philosophy. Lately, I've been covering asexuality/aromantic themes. HFP

1 Comment on "Adventures in Definitions"

  1. great article, it was interesting to see your thought patterns layed out.
    “an asexual is someone who does not value partnered sex enough to pursue it, and who does not believe that celibacy provides greater intrinsic rewards.”
    this is also interesting.. it’s pretty difficult to define asexuality. since there are so many ifs and buts

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