Writing From Factor X

November 19, 2010

Labels Are For Soup Cans (And People, Too)

I see a lot of people disclaiming the usefulness of labels. (Especially, for some reason, people who have a perfectly good label for themselves complaining about other people making up new words to describe their experiences.)

So I want to talk about why labels are important to me.

My experience growing up as asexual was, I feel, an incredibly lucky one. I found out that asexuality existed and that an asexual community existed absurdly young. I was fourteen when I found the label, and so I essentially went through adolescence knowing that there was a place for people like me, that there was a name for people like me, and that it was okay if I didn’t have any interest in anyone else that way. Note the bit about having the name. It’ll be important later.

I didn’t necessarily take advantage of the community at the time. From about ages 15 to 18, I essentially abandoned the asexual community, such as it was. I was more interested in focusing on my autistic identity then, and was actively posting on WrongPlanet rather than AVEN at the time. Community itself simply wasn’t an issue for me, at least not about my sexuality. After all, I first had a group of friends who didn’t seem to care either, and then I had isolated myself in large part from my peers, and there was no reason for the whole tangled web of sexuality to really enter my life if I didn’t want it to.

No, the important part was simply knowing that the label was there. That it was real, that I had validation to be this way, that there were other people using this label.

I am not entirely sure that I would have been one of the people who independently makes up the term “asexual” without access to a community first. I rather doubt it. My adolescence was a period during which many, many (straight) people seemed to think I was a young lesbian, and were quite invested in trying to draw me out of my closet. And I’m not actually that immune to suggestion. I certainly would have gone through a period of extremely confused questioning, which would have been wrought with anxiety, and I probably would have gone with the flow and come out as gay because at least it was an answer. As it was, I was too terrified to come out of my closet until I went away to college, but at least I knew my label described who I was well enough. Even if I wasn’t brave enough to actually share it with people, I could be pretty sure I knew what I was, and if I changed so be it.

I could not have had that certainty without the existence of a label and a group of people who used it. For me, it was the difference between relative calm and frustrated anxiety. And all for the sake of a single word.

And here’s the other thing that labels do: they give us a community of other people who use that label to connect with. They give us a language to speak to others about ourselves, language with which we can come close to describing our experiences. And they provide a means to connect with one another.

It’s hard for me to think which comes first: the labels or the communities, since discussions within communities invariably lead to ever more finely gradated labels and more complex identities as people seek shorthands for concepts which recur over and over again. That’s what these words are, in essence: useful shorthands to communicate. And if they’re not acceptably fine-tuned, well, that’s a good reason to make a new one.


  1. Ach, you’ve stolen my thunder. I was gonna make a youtube vid called “In Defense of Labels” when I finally get round to setting up my camera. Maybe I still will…

    I find the anti-labels sentiment totally ridiculous. Do you ever hear people object to the existence of the word “short” or “tall” or any other number of adjectives and nouns describing almost every other characteristic under the sun? Or if someone describes themselves as “a quiet person” do they get accused of obsessing over this label and making it their identity? No. So why should it be different for sex, romance gender?

    So yeah, sexuality et al is diverse and complicated. The solution is *not* to throw up our hands in the air and give up on trying to understand this diversity. Human knowledge and progress would hardly be possible with this attitude. It does however make it all the more important to coin new words, for the sake of organization and ease of transmission of info – as well as for the other reasons you give.

    Comment by flergalwit — November 20, 2010 @ 1:17 am | Reply

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this. Since I began coming out as asexual a number of people have told me that I shouldn’t worry about what my label is. This never happened when I came out as bisexual or when I came out as a lesbian. So I think when people (at least outside of the asexual community) suggest not focusing on labels, it might be because they question whether asexuality is a real thing.

    Comment by Mage — November 20, 2010 @ 6:53 am | Reply

    • And you know, I think it’s often a response to perceptions of making up labels, of making new labels. As though we ought to be satisfied with whatever’s there, and if nothing works perfectly we ought to simply take a hand-me-down word and either stretch it or shrink ourselves until it sort-of fits and we stand there, awkwardly clothed in misshapen identity.

      I do wonder sometimes if it’s pushback about not wanting to learn anything new if you’re lucky enough to not have to.

      Comment by Sciatrix — November 20, 2010 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  3. I’ve heard it said that labels are bad because they tend to acquire extra meaning beyond their literal definition. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing! The word “asexual” has a few meanings beyond its definition, and they’re very positive. It frames it in terms of an orientation (as opposed to a decision or a disorder). It implies a community. It implies that this is actually a thing with a structured framework, as opposed to the idle thoughts of one person.

    The only negative implication I can think of is that it implies some level of commitment. People are afraid that self-identified asexuals will use the label prescriptively and resist change. But at least some level of commitment is a good thing, and it isn’t that hard to accept changes if they occur.

    I’ve heard that some people try to come out without using the word “asexual”. How does that even work? Does it advance visibility at all? Does it convey that there’s a community of people like this? Will anyone even remember it as an important conversation a year later?

    Comment by Siggy — November 20, 2010 @ 11:41 am | Reply

    • But but but extra meaning beyond literal definitions is what makes the English language awesome! Seriously, the connotations that identity-labels accrue over time are part of why they’re so important to have in the first place. If connotations didn’t exist, I wouldn’t wince every time I hear people talk about homosexuals instead of gay people or twitch every time someone refers to my collective gender as females rather than women. Connotative meaning is incredibly important for discussions of identity politics and more generally for communicating. Whoever made that argument must have a woefully inadequate grasp of the craft of writing, because labels aren’t the only words which accrue connotative meaning over time. There’s nothing more indicative of a person who doesn’t truly understand how to use a particular word than the use of a literally-correct but connotatively-wrong word in a given context.

      And about the commitment thing–that’s especially funny, because the only time I’ve seen anyone criticized for changing their mind about an asexual identity, it was in the context of nonasexual people from outside the community using examples of people who’d dropped the level as a reason to criticize asexuality as an identity. Within the asexual community, I’m more used to seeing people who publicly question their identities or stop identifying as asexual altogether met with praise and congratulations! (Which is one of the things I have always loved about asexual culture and will always love.) That doesn’t erase the fact that questioning one’s identity is pretty nerve-wracking no matter what identity you’re questioning, but… like I said, that’s intrinsic to any kind of identity that can be questioned in the first place.

      Oh, I think I know how they do it–but it rests on implying that this is a purely personal way for them to be, because I don’t think you can claim any kind of wider identity without using the label of “asexual.” And people might remember and they might not, but they almost certainly won’t make any kind of generalization to other asexual people. “Coming out” that way is worthless for visibility or conveying a community, because it places all focus on individual variation, not on broader communities.

      (I know this because that’s how I tried to be out as a teenager. It was a miserable exercise in failure.)

      Comment by Sciatrix — November 20, 2010 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

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