Friday, 7 December 2012

The self-definition problem

Posted by Ganymede

A version of this post originally appeared in two parts at

Ganymede here, a newly-acquired apprentice Lasher, and very excited to be on board. I'm a kinky, andro-romantic, trans-masculine asexual who's thrilled to become part of such an awesome queer feminist collective...

That's a lot of labels for such a small sentence, isn't it? And if you've hung around this blog for a while, you'll have noticed that we're rather keen on matters of labelling and self-identity. In this post, I'm going to give my take on why they're so important: the problems they can cause when they don't work, and why, when they do work, they're so liberating.

Consider this interesting situation: as the notion of asexuality is gaining ground, so too is the need to find a word for people who aren't asexual. This is a controversial subject, where all of the possible candidates have unfortunate connotations (which is, of course, almost unavoidable when coining or using labels). But, whatever word we settle on, we still find ourselves with a fascinating problem: when faced with the concept that asexual people exist and therefore by process of elimination they belong to the group described as "sexual", or "consexual", or "allosexual", some people suddenly realise that they're not comfortable with the way their group - the majority group - is portrayed in the media.

Usually this only happens with minority groups; one parallel is gay men in earlier decades potentially feeling dissuaded from coming out because of media-based assumptions that all gay men are ridiculously effeminate. But... you can't not come out as experiencing sexual attraction, because the default assumption is that everyone experiences sexual attraction. And the default portrayal of, well, everyone in the media is that they're really rather obsessed with sex. And if you don't define as asexual, explicitly rejecting this portrayal, does that mean you're implicitly accepting it?

That's one reason why I'm incredibly excited to see asexuality being discussed in the mainstream media. Those who wouldn't self-define as asexual will be prompted to think more deeply about their orientation, and perhaps start to question the way sex is dealt with in the media, and perhaps feel less ashamed to speak out as "different" the next time they're stuck in a game of nervous, exaggerated, face-saving sexual one-upmanship with friends who worry that not thinking about sex every seven seconds will make them look "gay".

But for every label, there will be lots of people who feel discomfort with using it, because of the people they're then implicitly associated with. Some deal with this problem by calling themselves something new (like "equalist" instead of "feminist"), which doesn't have the baggage of the past, but will never have the weight of history. Some react by declaring themselves to be "real" or "proper" [insert label here]s, not like those other [insert label here]s who shouldn't be allowed to use the word; that never ends well. Another way of dealing with it is to sub-categorise yourself: if you're not sure you're asexual but you don't want to associate yourself with sex-obsessed media portrayals, you can co-opt a term like demisexual or grey-asexual to help you narrow down your potential network of peers even further. Or, just don't label yourself at all... which works fine, until you find yourself labelled by implication ("if you aren't asexual, you must be sexual/allosexual/consexual").

Fact #1: people will always try to label you. Fact #2: whatever label you end up with, you'll always be sharing it with a certain proportion of dickheads. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is choose your labels with care, and then BE AWESOME so loudly that you drown out the dickheads.

For every "label" you can think of, there are a million people using it who come in a million different shapes and sizes. Our society is starting to recognise inter-group variation to a much greater extent than only a few years previously (adding and accepting new labels like "asexual", "heteroromantic", "genderqueer", "neurotypical"), and this is frickin' awesome, but it's just the beginning. The much-needed next step is to come to recognise intra-group variation: whatever labels we take, we flavour them with our own uniquenesses.

But then, are labels still needed at all? A friend of mine commented that ey thought the world would be better all round if people spent less time banging on about What They Like To Do In Bed (or similar), and more time just doing it.

Ey has a point. It prompted me to wonder why so many of these self-identification labels do revolve around What People Like To Do In Bed (bisexual, asexual, pansexual, panromantic, aromantic, polyamorous, monogamous, sex-positive, kinky, vanilla, heteroromantic, gynesexual...). Why should What One Likes To Do In Bed be of anyone else's concern apart from the other person[s] in the bed?

The ones that don't (genderqueer, transmasculine, butch, femme, neuro-atypical, cisgender, feminist, neurotypical...) seem to have the broadly unifying characteristic of describing What You Are Like. Presumably, if these labels describe What One Is Like, one spends most of one's time being like that - so why should one need to wave around a label proclaiming that One Is Like That?

The answer I came up with:

Actually, the sexuality labels don't just tell you what the person likes to do in bed. They tell you how ey negotiates some of the most intense and complex relationships someone can possibly have with [an]other human being[s]. They tell you, through eir choice of label (pansexual over bisexual, gyneromantic over homoromantic), how ey views these other human beings, on what levels ey chooses to interact with them, and how ey responds to the ways eir sexuality is perceived in society at large.

In short, they tell you an awful lot about the most intimate facets of the person's character. In this way, they're just like the What You Are Like labels. If someone chooses to identify as genderqueer, ey's making clear the angle from which ey approaches interactions with other people, the way in which ey responds to the pressures and perceptions of society at large. If someone identifies (positively) as cisgender, ey's sending a message to other people that ey recognises the diversity of human experience and identity, and is willing to engage with them on a deeper level than would, say, Simon Hoggart.

It's funny that these issues of (largely) gender and sexuality are, essentially, the last great taboos - in that even in These Enlightened Times TM, the vocabulary to describe them is mushrooming year on year, as people finally find the courage to try and express who they are. And, no, they shouldn't need to, it should be obvious from "what they're like". But it's not. If people don't stand up and wave their labels around, their true personalities will be ignored, drowned out by the default white noise of Everyone Is A Monogamous Heterosexual Man/Woman Who Behaves Exactly Like This [In Bed].

Sure, it saves time and effort. You're more than welcome to go with it. But personally, I prefer my interactions with other human beings to be more intense, complex, and rewarding - cos, y'know, people are fascinating!

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