What It Means To Be Ace: Building community on shared experience

Special thanks go to my partner J for inspiring this post, and putting into neat words what I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I am not much of a tumblr user, but when I occasionally browse through the things the few people I follow have reblogged, I am struck by the conflict that seems to exist around who exactly should be able to claim belonging in the asexual community. I see it especially in discussion around demisexuality and grey-asexuality, and largely framed around the question of whether grey or demi people are asexual or not. To a smaller extent, I’ve seen it come up in conversations about people who have hormonal issues or disabilities, and who still identify as ace, or ace-ish.

I’ve always wondered why this is such a big issue, because the ace community I know has always been very open and flexible. For people to be having big arguments about whether demisexual people are asexual and whether grey-aces are more ace or straight seems, well, kinda petty, and completely beside the point. Something my partner said today hit the nail on the head in regards to why.

When people use the word asexual to describe themselves (or demi, or grey-ace, or panromantic, or any particular label or identifier), it’s not only because they have a word for their personal feelings and identity. Sexual orientation isn’t just about the personal, especially online, but about belonging, community, social politics. When someone says they are ace, they are claiming belonging for themselves, based on shared experience with other aces. They’re saying ‘hi, ace community – I feel like I have more in common with you than with the rest of society in terms of my sexuality.’

The same thing occurs when people decide to start identifying as demisexual or grey-asexual. It’s not a matter of people claiming to be something they’re not – it’s a matter of people saying ‘hey, my experiences of sexuality and love and relationships are more like those of other asexual people than the allosexual world.’ Because if they didn’t feel that way – if they didn’t feel somehow isolated from the way the rest of society does things – then there would just be no point in identifying as such.

Shared experience is what most communities are built on, and asexuality in particular has placed a high value on community and solidarity since its conception as a sexual orientation. So it frustrates me when that sense of community gets undermined by arguments about just where exactly the line is, how many specific boxes you have to tick for full acceptance in the ace community.

When people ask if they could be asexual, we tell them that they can only decide that for themselves. Why is it then that we suddenly turn around and say ‘oh, but demisexual people aren’t part of the proper asexual community!’ Or ‘sexuality is a spectrum, but asexuality is a specific point on that spectrum, and thus only people exactly on that point are allowed to be a part of our community.’ But what about the space around that point on the spectrum? What about the people who feel more comfortable, more accepted, have experiences more similar to the people who occupy that ‘asexual’ point than any other point?

Some people who identify as ace or demi or grey-ace might not tick every box perfectly, but still have a set of experiences and perspectives that make them much closer to the asexual community than the allosexual world. The same thing is true for asexual or ace-spectrum people who choose to engage in sets of behaviours for a wide range of reasons – having sex and even being able to enjoy it, for example. People make choices about behaviour that are more complex than just ‘I don’t experience sexual attraction, so I must not ever say or do anything sexual.’ Most of the ace community seems to realise that celibacy doesn’t make you automatically asexual – it works the other way around as well.

So to deny any of the aforementioned people belonging to the ace community seems arbitrary and capricious, and completely contrary to what I see as the goals of community: to foster belonging, acceptance and communication based on shared experience. To make people feel welcomed and accepted, and to demonstrate that there are other ways of being and loving and living. At least, that is the goal I have in mind when I write and speak to people about asexuality and visibility.

It seems counter-intuitive for the ace community to entangle itself in the question of who should be included and who should be excluded, because regardless of the specific choices people make in regards to behaviour, almost everyone in it will have felt isolated from the allosexual community at some point. Community is built upon shared experience – and the way I see it, that shared experience is all that one needs in order to belong.

4 thoughts on “What It Means To Be Ace: Building community on shared experience

  1. Yeah, that argument’s been going on for a long time, on and off again, though I get the impression that it’s just a minority of asexuals who argue against gray-a and demi inclusion. There are also occasionally some allos who butt in with unsolicited opinions on who they think the “real” asexuals are, but that’s another topic.

    Anyway, I think the explanation you went into — that non-asexual ace-spectrum people use the labels they do as a way to claim belonging in the ace community — is exactly what gets feathers ruffled, since we get painted as being intrusive “allies” trying to claim a place where we don’t belong (and thus don’t deserve). I kind of understand the feeling behind it, but at the same, I’ve written before about how it doesn’t really make sense. The ace community is not such a prestigious club that allosexuals would be clamoring to get in.

    But yeah, the argument gets really, really old after a while, and I think both sides are tired of it. I’m just glad that among the majority, gray-asexuality and its place in the ace community is generally accepted. If it weren’t, I don’t know what I’d do.

  2. There are so many instances of this sort of thing happening in all parts of the LGBTIQA community. And I find it really bazar. And so, although I have no right to speak for the ace community, I can sort of relate to what you’re describing.

    I think seeing more people realise that their personal experiences with sexuality fall outside of societal norms has the potential to make these groups (in this case the asexual community) MORE visible.

    In terms of trying to claim a place in which one doesn’t belong, I think for a lot of people, sexual orientation is very fluid. And if everybody whose orientation doesn’t belong into a clear-cut category was only allowed to identify in a community of people with the EXACT same specific perspective…

    I think the world would be a very lonely place.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head! I communicate a lot on Facebook groups for asexuals and it amazes me how diverse they are. Not all are anti – sex or anything, or some are, for whatever reason. Some are sex – positive and I’ve learnt that it’s all fine. I’ve even seen controversial discussions such as pornography being discussed (actualy, out of curiousity, I started a thread on it) and the range of views on it were so vast. There were those who were grossed out aobut it, morally against it, but it wasn’t all of them.

    You’re right in saying that it’s up to each individual to find out where they fit and, yes, not all of them will tick all the “boxes” (I guess that’s somewhat true for all orientations).

    My take on it, is sexuality (ace or not) can be confusing and it’s not our place to deny or place a label on anyone. Often it’s a lot more complicated than that.

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