Sam posted a piece last week about the limits of “sexual attraction” as a term, and I’ve been feeling confused and ranty ever since. It’s a good piece, and you should read it, but mostly what it’s done is remind me why I get frustrated a lot by discussions like this.
See, I’m one of those really analytical people who likes to quantify things. I like to have certainty. I like to have operational definitions for my terms so I’m sure what we’re all talking about. I like to be clear about things. Most of all, I like to be fairly sure that I know what we’re talking about when I have conversations.
There is a large part of me that reacts to something that says “well, actually, this term is squishy and imprecise” with flailing and dismay, and then my natural tendency is to start trying to construct better definitions. Unfortunately, when you have no actual personal experience of the thing you’re trying to describe and you’re trying to define a feeling, constructing better terms is fairly challenging.
It’s like this: you’re born into a world where, upon maturity, everyone gets a pet elephant which is invisible to everyone but themselves. Society is structured around the needs of peoples’ elephants. People talk about the elephants and their foibles incessantly. The mass media includes the elephants in every story ever as major plot points. Until you hit the age where you get your own elephant, you can’t see them, but you’re assured that you’ll get your own when you grow up and then you’ll understand everything.
So you grow up, you reach the Age of Elephant Acquisition, and… no elephant. You infer that elephants exist–after all, people keep insisting they must, and people your age have started talking about their elephants and how wonderful and interesting they are, and also people with fairly unusual elephants are willing to do truly baffling things for the elephants’ sake. Probably, you think, the elephants exist, but you’re not sure, because you’ve never experienced anything that seems like an elephant of your own, and couldn’t it be possible that this is some sort of elaborate plot or mass delusion or something?
But people keep insisting that the elephants are totally real, and everyone else your age has started talking about how their elephants are doing. And you’re seriously the only one who is confused by the elephants thing, so you maybe try to casually bring it up–maybe you sort of try to ask people how their elephants look in casual conversation, because it’s possible that you do have an elephant and you just haven’t noticed! Possibly they are in fact very small and hard to see, but they cause a lot of mischief! After all, sometimes funny rustling things happen around you, too, just like they do to people who do have elephants. So you try to ask around, in case it’s something that you can miss, or you’re not interpreting things right, and you look very hard for things that can be interpreted as being sort of vaguely elephantine. But when you do ask them, people give you funny looks and treat you as if you’re stupid for asking, because duh they know what an elephant looks like. Everyone has one! All you have to do is look, it’s not like they’re hard to see!
You see how this can become frustrating.
Eventually you assume you are, in fact, different and not just unobservant, and try to construct the image of what an elephant looks like so that you can understand properly. But no one who has one will sit down with you and answer your questions and help you understand, even if you’re really stubborn and you ask a lot of people a lot of questions. You end up having to construct your understanding of the elephant from tiny snippets, little bits of information you can coax out of normal people before they get aggravated and change the subject. And of course everyone emphasizes different parts of what the elephant is, because everyone is different and thinks about things differently, and you have to try to pick at the distortions as best you can.
That’s what it’s like, being asexual and trying to define sexual attraction on its own. Or being aromantic-ish, and trying to define how romance works. I suppose being agender and trying to suss out gender identity is similar, and I bet there’s other parallels to make. The thing is: you don’t have something, and you’re trying to understand how it works, and no one who says they understand will try very hard to teach you what it’s like.
The thing is, you could say that my innate need to define things is fairly unproductive, and that human sexuality is so varied and complex and squishy that operational definitions are useless. You might also say that there’s no point to defining things well enough to have labels, because that gets in the way of celebrating our Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Except I’m not going to say that, because I think operational definitions are really useful even if you don’t have an innate desire to categorize everything properly so you can understand it better.
For one thing, operational definitions are sort of necessary to having conversations about things. If no one is quite sure what the terms we’re using actually mean, conversations usually end up confusing a whole lot of people. Especially if someone asks for a bit of clarification and no one is able to provide it.
You know who else operational definitions are really useful for? Questioning people. No, seriously, if you’re questioning whether a particular label works for you or not, or how you should identify, or whether you “count” with a specific group, it really helps to be able to point to things and say “well, I have that, and that, but not that.” How can we use terminology that says “asexuals don’t experience sexual attraction” without explaining what sexual attraction is? How can we expect questioning people to make a decision about whether a term fits them when the definition of that term is unclear?
I have been trying to figure out how romantic orientation theoretically works so I can decide what mine is for, oh, two years now, because there is no concrete definition anywhere and every time I corral a bunch of romantic asexuals into a corner and demand that they explain I get shrugs and “I don’t know, you just know.” (Well, when I’m not getting outright condescension, anyway. That’s always fun.) Asking people who haven’t spent a lot of time around the asexual community is arguably worse, because they’re prone to giving silly explanations like “friendship but with sex!” and that’s clearly wrong because the category of friends with benefits also exists, and also there are longstanding romantic relationships which are without sex–lesbian bed death, anyone?–even outside the asexual community. No matter how much I ask this question of people who use these terms I never get any answers.
So how on earth are we supposed to get people who actually do claim to see the invisible thing to describe it? Because if those of us who can’t see are trying to paint around the invisible thing–well, it’s clear we’re missing something, even if we’re not quite sure what.
The problem is that people who aren’t missing that feeling are considered to be the default. So there’s no incentive for them to define the modular feeling that some of us are missing–be it sexual attraction, or romantic attraction, or other things. No matter what they do, on that aspect of their sexuality they get to be easily understood and mainstream. Why would they spend their time defining what an elephant is? From their perspective, all they have to do is invoke the concept of “elephant!” and everyone will understand them! Except those of us who don’t have the elephant to begin with, and we’re in the vast minority.
Here’s the thing. If painting around an invisible concept doesn’t grasp the whole of the thing, perhaps someone who actually experiences the invisible concept should define it. Until then, those of us who aren’t “default” and need to explain how ought to continue to try. It would be good to have the help of people who do experience these forms of attraction. But if they’re not going to work on a definition, the rest of us need our painted edging to get by.