Friday 24 February 2012

Of Labels and the Notion of 'The Other

Posted by Jenni

One of the most common arguments I see regarding asexuality is “Why does everything need a word?”

Whilst there are many people who could identify with a label such as gay, queer, or similar, but choose not to, the fact remains that a lot of people who have non-heteronormative sexualities, and non-standard gender identities use labels. And so there must be a reason for it.

My personal reason for caring so much about the word asexual in reference to myself is that it was tied to a community of people, people who all felt the same way as me. It removed the sense of alienation I was feeling, and helped me confirm to myself that it was okay to feel the way I do. I really do love using the label asexual about myself, because it helps me remember that it's okay to be me. Equally, I will only use the term 'hetero-romantic' when asked, because I don't identify with this word in the same way – it's not the important part of my orientation to me, since it's the bit that I was always okay about.

I'm sure that everyone has a similar, but different tale of why certain labels mean so much to them, and why they choose to use them, but here I want to look at why some people don't see the point in labels (and sometimes get offended when you give them a label like 'cisgendered'). Basically, labels denote 'other'. People never need to come out as straight, or cisgendered, because the assumption is that they are. If you're seen as 'the norm' then you will (probably) never need to clarify something about your identity. Yes, there may be cases were these aspects of your identity can cause issues, but generally, you won't be faced with the uncomfortable assumption that you are other than what you are. The 'norm' is generally seen (at least, in the UK) as straight, white and (probably) male.

There has been much discussion on the notion of 'other' in the media, and how it affects our experiences of media, and one point seems to be raised a lot – people who are 'other' (be they non-male, non-straight or non-white) can relate to stories about people other than themselves. We've all experienced this. Growing up watching Star Wars, I understood Luke Skywalker, and wanted to be Han Solo. Interestingly, it seems that people who are the 'norm' find it harder to relate to 'other' characters – we see this given as the reason video games have primarily male protagonists, why men play the leads in most action films, why most comic books have a skewed 'male perspective' (idealising women as sexualised, idealising the men as powerful). We saw this at the outcry over Spider-man being written as a non-white character. It's at the point where characters that are explicitly other are sometimes changed in order to sell better, and indeed, where there have been instances of people 'forgetting' (a DC comics artists drew a line-up of characters as all white, despite one of them being otherwise).

How is this relevant to our discussion? Well, we can see here how some people might not realise the importance of labels. There is no shortage of role models for 'the norm' in media, whereas for people like me, our occasional representatives in media get taken away or invalidated (a recent episode of House ended basically with the conclusion that all asexual people were ill or lying.) Finding a label or a word removes this sense of isolation and disconnection from society – there are other people who use the same word, and so even though it seems otherwise, there are other people like me – in a way that not much else can.

Finally, let's look at how we use labels as a whole, shall we? Even labels such as 'geek' or 'Liverpool fan' come into play here. I'm pretty sure that most people, even those who are against this idea of “labelling everything” as they put it, will use at least one label to refer to themselves. Even words such as 'married' or 'single' are labels of a kind – you are identifying with a role, or a type of person. My argument then is such – why then are labels that refer to 'the other' such a problem? I would argue it's because giving something a name can give it power, and existence. Labels demand recognition, and the acceptance of a label can lead to the acceptance of those identifying with it. Currently, some people refuse to accept 'asexual' can refer to people, but if we can change this, then we can work on other things – like education and understanding.

So if someone calls themselves a label you're unfamiliar with, then I challenge you to this: ask them what it means, and, even if you don't think it's a thing – accept it anyway. If it's a thing to them, then it is real, and it does exist, and letting that happen gives the word a power it otherwise could never have.

A note on the origin of this piece – within the asexual community is a sub-group of people who identify with the word 'demisexual'. This means they don't feel sexual attraction without an emotional connection. There are two types of sexual attraction – primary, based on physical characteristics, and secondary, based on emotional connection. Most feel both, asexual people feel neither, and demisexuals only experience secondary. However, people often call this out as slut-shaming, because they have misinterpreted the label to mean 'we only have sex when in love' which is a standard of behaviour, not attraction, and reliant on a set of presumed morals that whilst the criticising person may think demisexual people hold, they may not. Basically, demisexuality is a thing, and, whilst many people who experience it or are discussing it may not think it needs a label – if the label makes people feel better, then it damn well gets a label.

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