Queer Frameworks of Language: or, why vocabulary is so important to marginalised groups seen through a distinctly asexual and aromantic lens

Posted May 20, 2019 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Ace & Aro Studies / 0 Comments

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Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week’s off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It’s time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

CN: Discusses queermisic phrasing (specifically how language works to make what may sound like a perfectly acceptable sentence to one person something offensive to another)

Queer Frameworks of Language: or, why vocabulary is so important to marginalised groups seen through a distinctly asexual and aromantic lens

Language is power. In a way. Language allows us to consider the world, to communicate, to share and build knowledge. When we invent something new like, say, the automobile, we name it. If we run into a feeling that we want to describe, we name it. And sometimes we nick it from other languages because we didn’t realise it was a useful feeling to name until we realised we could.

I could give a dozen examples. In English, Shakespeare was exceptionally good at it, insofar as we can be sure that Shakespeare genuinely coined the words and isn’t just the oldest record we have of it being used.

Language has power. We can see it in the way people use slurs and insults to keep others down and the way these others reclaim them. ‘Queer’ is certainly the most obvious example for me to use here. We can also see it occur in reverse, in the way TERFs now reject the label they came up with because trans people and allies keep calling them out on their transmisic and harmful rhetoric. To them, TERF has become a slur. It’s not, of course. It’s just a shortened version of what they called themselves because using the full term repeatedly is exhausting and people like communicating as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Language allows us to know ourselves. But what if we don’t have words that fit? If we don’t have words that fit, we make do with what we have and eventually, maybe, someone somewhere will come up with a word to describe us. That may be for a positive reason and it may be for a negative one. The key here is that if people go to the lengths of coining new terms, there was a need for that word for at least that person.

There has been a need for the word ‘asexuality’ for as long as sexology has been a field. We know this because sexologists of the era discuss something very similar to asexuality (and why it’s a problem) under different terms. It wasn’t until about 2001, with the creation of AVEN, that a single, concrete term for “someone who experiences no or little sexual attraction/desire” gained traction. Sometimes it takes about a century (or two) for people to find the words they want.

And once that first step is taken, more steps can be taken. Much academic research into asexuality from 2013/2014, for example, remarks on and utilises the split attraction model, but very little of it does so consciously or with the realisation that this far more nuanced model of how human attraction works is a radically different idea and approach to what has come before. Which is also why, in truth, a lot of people resist it. It forces them to re-evaluate themselves and their concepts of how the world works, and people generally don’t like radical shifts in a paradigm[1].

That is what concepts of asexuality and aromanticism represent, though, and they’re not the only queer identities to do so: the very existence of transgender and nonbinary people also forces Western societies to shift their ideas on what gender and identity are. These are paradigm shifts that fundamentally alter how we think about ourselves as individuals, as families, as societies, as groups. It’s also why listening to ethnically and racially marginalised people talking about their cultures’ worldviews are so important. It’s also part of why white people co-opting terms specific to these cultures is appropriation. These are words that belong to a specific worldview or, if you will, a specific paradigm. One can’t simply transpose them.

But people can engage with them, provided that they have a strong and intimate understanding of both cultures and worldviews. It is why marginalised people engaging in scientific research is so incredibly important, and again why there is so much pushback against them when they do.

This brief essay, however, is not about the general state of marginalised researchers in scientific or academic fields. Others can talk about it far more eloquently than I. This post is about asexuality and aromanticism and the power of language.

You see, there is one thing which people aiming to discredit asexuality or demisexuality as an orientation tend to do, and that is: misinterpret what these terms actually mean. They will, invariably, cast asexuality as a choice and, being a choice, an intensity of something natural and innate.

Some of that wilful misinterpretation of asexuality is, I suspect, down to attempts to describe asexuality when someone does not have access to the more nuanced vocabulary used by asexuals and aromanticism today. Since asexuals receive more visual pushback – aromantics are generally largely erased – I will be using ‘asexuals’ throughout this section, but many of the same arguments will be made regarding aromanticism.

Asexuality is still largely invisible[2] to the general public, though its visibility has grown exponentially in English-language circles since I discovered asexuality in about 2010/2011. There are still many people who have never heard of it and who may never stumble across it. That means that there are still a substantial number of people out there who flounder trying to find words to describe their experiences. It also means that there are still many discussions that rely on an overly simplified and often inaccurate definition of asexuality. They were common when I started to explore asexuality.

These are descriptions like “An asexual person is someone who doesn’t want to have sex”. This statement, you’ll notice, implies that asexuality is a choice about someone’s behaviour, not a description of who someone is attracted to. It’s a quick and easy way to explain to someone that having sex is off the table, but it conflates orientation with behaviour. We can also use this structure to colloquially try to describe other orientations. For example “A homosexual person is someone who only wants to have sex with someone of the same gender”. Notice how that description, while technically accurate, is significantly more uncomfortable to read than when I mentioned asexuality[3]?

That’s because language has power and one of the things centuries and decades of fighting for gay rights has accomplished is the idea that being gay is not a choice, but this phrasing implies that being gay is a choice, and if being gay is a choice… Well, then there might be something to gay conversion therapy. Obviously there isn’t, but if we use language that couches sexual orientations as a choice, there will be people who take it to this extreme and that harms everyone.

For another example, I could say “A bisexual person is someone who wants to have sex with one or more genders”. Now, here, the visceral reaction is partially down to the way that the sentence structure implies that bisexuals are into a specific kind of sex, notably any number of sexual partners larger than two. That, in turn, implies that bisexuals are sluts, and just like that we’ve got a bimisic argument that I didn’t in the least intend to make and made anyway.

But still, if we don’t understand asexuality and if we don’t have better words, we may fall back on using them and, still, amisic people will insist on using this definition where they almost certainly wouldn’t for any other orientation because, well, what I mentioned above happens. It happens with asexuality and aromanticism too; it’s just that the people using it don’t particularly care.

And because not everyone who discusses (their) asexuality or aromanticism knows asexuality and aromanticism exist and that there are better ways to describe their own experiences, orientation and behaviour, people keep using terminology like this out of ignorance, and amisic people can use that ignorance as a shield if they want to.

The only solution to this is, of course, better education about and more research into asexuality and aromanticism as a whole. But language has power and we can see that nowhere better than in the way marginalised communities try to use it themselves.

We reclaim words that were used to hurt us. Transform the pain – and our survival of that pain – into a badge of honour, into a shield, something to be proud of.

We come up with new words, offering us better ways to express ourselves, to expand our worldview and our sense of self.

We build on the foundations of those who went before us because similarity has power. Using Greek words to form new ones adds a level of ‘authenticity’ that plain English language doesn’t have. Following existing patterns makes words more acceptable. It’s why ‘ze’, ‘sie’ and ‘zie’ are the most popular neopronouns[4] and why ones like ‘peh’ or ‘hou’ don’t really seem to have caught on.

We try to strip them of their power, such as when TERFs complain that calling them what they are is a slur (it’s still not, sorrynotsorry TERFs), when amisic people complain that ‘allo’ or ‘allosexual’ is a slur (it’s not, it’s simply a description that offers more accuracy and nuance than ‘sexual’ as a contrast to ‘asexual’) or when amisic people insist that asexuality is about choosing not to have sex or when people see a seeming contradiction (such as a nonbinary woman or a gay asexual) because their worldview, their paradigm, does not allow for these terms to be used in conjunction.

Sometimes, we strip the words, accidentally or not, of their power, such as the way amisic accounts rendered the term ‘cishet’ harmful to asexuals. Cishet is a term that originally comes from the transgender and nonbinary communities and is, effectively, just a description of someone who is cisgender (i.e. someone whose gender identity matches that which they were assigned at birth) and heterosexual. It soon became ‘cisgender, heteroromantic and heterosexual’ to account for the split attraction model – which, I should note, appears to have been coined by amisic people and promptly co-opted and reclaimed by aromantic people because it was useful – that separates, among others, romantic and sexual attraction. The term was already established, though, and there was no real need to make it something like ‘cishethet’ when most who know the term would automatically include both heteroromantic and heterosexual because the two are seen as intrinsically linked in our societies as a whole. Amisic people, however, quickly adopted the term ‘cishet’ to exclude asexuals and aromantics, relying on the confusion created by two conflicting paradigms, one of which isn’t yet well-understood for their arguments. They exclude either ‘heteroromantic’ or ‘heterosexual’ depending on the group they’re discussing. They rely on their paradigm’s contradiction between terms like ‘gay asexual’ or ‘asexual lesbian’ to claim that ‘heterosexual asexuals’ are a thing that can exist.

Let’s take a step back, though, to examine that. In the paradigm that believes romantic attraction and sexual attraction are the same thing and that everyone experiences both to some degree, the idea of a ‘gay asexual’ is, indeed, a contradiction. In this model, gay is, after all, synonymous with homosexual and you cannot be both “attracted to someone of the same sex” and “attracted to no one at all” at the same time.

That is emphatically not how the split attraction model works. In this model, gay and homosexual (and bi and bisexual, etc) are not, in fact, 100% identical terms. They still function as synonyms a lot of the time, true, but they are not the exact same. In the split attraction model, terms like gay and bi refer to either romantic or sexual attraction (or both!), whereas homosexual and bisexual refer, predictably, solely to sexual attraction. In such a model, a gay asexual would refer to a homoromantic asexual, or to “someone who is romantically attracted to people of the same gender but sexually attracted to no gender”[5]. Since gay and other terms like it can stand for ‘only romantic attraction’, ‘only sexual attraction’ or ‘both romantic and sexual attraction’ in this model, there is no inherent contradiction in saying ‘gay asexual’[6].

Because both paradigms currently exist simultaneously, it is easy for people who mean harm to a marginalised group to exploit and use the clash and, perhaps more importantly, the importance of social media and the way disinformation has the power to spread in an anonymised way, to muddle the arguments further and discourage people from understanding that this ‘discourse’ is based on a group of people wilfully and deliberately obfuscating that these are two different frameworks clashing.

And, indeed, if you look at the arguments amisic people often present, it’s clear that the issue is that their worldview does not allow for asexuality to exist as its own thing. Their paradigm has as its base assumption that everyone experiences sexual attraction to a gender, and that one’s willingness to engage with (certain) sexual acts is what determines if someone counts as LGBT or not. People who don’t – but especially those who only experience it rarely, like demisexuals – in this framework are supposed to have an on-off switch. It’s why heteroromantic demisexuals especially get chucked out of LGBT spaces by them, even though they too fall under the original definition of queer as they deviate from expected social ideals about sexuality and heteronormativity. Once they’re in a relationship that allows even the remotest chance at becoming sexually active, they’re deemed heterosexual[7]. You can see it in the rhetoric that they consider gay asexuals ‘LGBT’ because they’re gay, but not[8] because they’re asexual. The underlying assumption, knowingly or not, is that gay asexuals count because ‘gay’ implies that they’re willing to be sexually active in a specific way and it’s why someone who is asexual, and thus presumed unwilling to be sexually active, doesn’t.

Language matters because the way we use it creates avenues to gain or lose power. The way we use it creates paths to knowledge or deliberately attempts to close them off permanently. Examining our worldview, the foundations of what our societies value (especially our dominant, white, Western alloheteronormative patriarchal societies value), isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable.

But it is necessary if we want to build our understanding of the world and if we want to create a better place for everyone. This is, frankly, just one aspect of why.

End Notes

[1] For an example of quite how uncomfortable it can make people, I suggest looking at the way the Christian Church responded to the findings of a certain Galileo Galilei. Asexual and aromantic discussions about attraction and orientation are unlikely to impact the whole of modern science quite to that extent, but they do question the central nature ‘sex’ (more accurately the conflation between sex and romance) plays in Western societies and they offer up numerous research avenues for scientific branches that were unavailable with less nuanced language.

[2] Aromanticism is even less visible. 2019 will see only the second traditionally published book with an explicit aromantic character that I’m aware of, whereas I can no longer count the traditionally published books with explicitly asexual characters on two hands.

[3] Your mileage, as they say, will vary. Personally I find it incredibly uncomfortable, but many people will get a far more visceral reaction to the way I defined homosexuality than asexuality.

[4] Although in that nominative case form they’re all feminine pronouns in other languages spoken today.

[5] Other variations may be more commonly used, depending on one’s definition of ‘asexual’ in context, but I think this conveys the gist of what I mean clearest here.

[6] A similar argument could be made for ‘nonbinary woman’, which is likewise a seeming contradiction unless one changes the framework of gender one works with.

[7] If, that is, the argument isn’t that demisexuality is ‘normal’. This is another common argument also based on stuffing terms from one framework into one where they cannot fit without distorting their meaning to the point of uselessness.

[8] Emphatically not, in many cases.

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