Sometimes I feel really sorry for people trying to learn English as a second language. Besides having so many rules and exceptions, and weird nuances, there are a lot of words that either exist, or have come to change their definition, purely through common usage. (Common usage simply means coming to be accepted because so many people are using it. An example would be the new verb ‘google’ which means ‘search for information about (someone or something) on the internet using the search engine Google.‘)
It gets more complicated when existing words have their meanings expanded. As someone who self-defines as asexual, I’m very much aware that this particular word has had its meanings expanded, and that some people aren’t happy about it. In my old hardback dictionary, which is over 20 years old and looks nice on my bookcase, but doesn’t serve any useful purpose because it’s so out of date, the definitions for ‘asexual’ are related to biology, and talk about reproduction. However, when you look at a current dictionary, you can see how the meanings have expanded to include common usage. According to the Oxford Dictionary online, the noun ‘asexual’ means ‘a person who has no sexual feelings or desires.’
However, more confusion comes into play when you discover that this is not how we’re supposed to be using it. ‘Asexual’ is an orientation (just like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual,’ amongst others, are orientations) and orientation is not about feelings or desires, but about attraction. Thus:
An asexual person is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction towards other people.
(Presumably the inclusion of an object in this definition means sexual attraction towards fictional characters is encouraged.)
But really, is it any wonder people get confused? The asexual community is telling us asexuality refers to lack of sexual attraction, while what’s probably the most respected dictionary in the world is telling us it refers to sexual feelings or desires. For those of us who are sex-repulsed, it really doesn’t make any difference. I don’t experience sexual attraction or sexual feelings or desires.
The problems start to appear once you’re interacting with the rest of the asexual community, and you find your label actually means very little. Even within the specific asexual label (if you don’t include those who consider themselves demi- grey- or any of the other terms that fall under asexuality), you still have a huge range of attitudes towards sex, all the way from extremely sex-favourable (those who frequently and enthusiastically engage in sex and enjoy it) to extremely sex-repulsed (those who find even the mention of other people engaging in sex makes them feel nauseous). If you fall somewhere near the middle of the spectrum, or your feelings towards sex are fluid, it isn’t such a problem, but there are frequently complaints within the community from people at either end of the spectrum who are feeling excluded.
But we can take this further and start looking at what it means when interacting with the (mostly) sexual world. Let’s assume that huge progress has been made, and now everyone knows and accepts that a person who labels themself ‘asexual’ doesn’t experience sexual attraction. I can imagine the following conversation:
Person One – Do you wanna have sex?
Person Two – You know I’m asexual.
Person One – Yeah, but I didn’t ask if you’re attracted to me. I asked if you wanna have sex.
Personally, as someone who has a profound love for the English language, I find this common usage definition extremely annoying … not to mention grammatically incorrect. When you start looking at how words are built, you can see the problem.
The word ‘asexual’ is simply ‘sexual’ with the prefix ‘a-‘ added to it. According to this useful chart, the prefix ‘a-‘ means ‘not’ or ‘without.’ Now the dictionary definition starts to make a lot of sense.
Going back to the Oxford Dictionary online, we get a definition for ‘sexual’ of ‘relating to the instincts, physiological processes, and activities connected with physical attraction or intimate physical contact between individuals.’
Put ‘not’ in front of that and you get something much more closely related to the dictionary definition of ‘asexual’ than to the common use one. It’s talking about ‘instincts, physiological processes, and activities,’ connected with attraction, not about the attraction itself.
Of course, this is all largely irrelevant because common use will win out. Regardless of whether the dictionary definition is updated to match it, that’s the one that will keep on being used – if you’re not convinced by this, look at the (grammatically correct) dictionary definition of ‘atheist’ and see how it compares to common use – but it’s still very frustrating. It means I have to use extra words to explain that I’m an asexual who doesn’t want to have sex.
For now, I’ve settled on ‘celibate’ because it has a more positive feel to it than ‘sex-repulsed,’ but it does still imply that my avoidance of sex is a choice, and it isn’t. I avoid sex because I don’t experience sex in the same way as the majority of people. For most, it’s a pleasurable experience, but for me, it isn’t. Sex is simply something that has no relevance to my life.
The best analogy I can give is to talk about meat. I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years, and I no longer think of meat as food. You might say, “But if you start eating it, you’ll come to think of it as food,” and that’s true, but I might as well just take a bite out of the table that my laptop is resting on as I type this. That’s as much “food” as meat is to me.
Sex is the same. It simply doesn’t exist for me, so describing myself as ‘celibate’ seems to miss the point by a very long way. I am, according to the dictionary, the very definition of asexual.