This is possibly a bit of a contentious question, but I have been wondering for a long time whether describing asexuality as ‘a lack of sexual attraction’ is the most effective way of communicating what it’s all about – especially to the broader, non-asexual population.
I’m just testing the waters a bit here – I have been meaning to write a longer series on how we talk about sexual attraction in the ace community for a while now, but haven’t quite gotten to where I want to be with it yet. So these are just some thoughts that come to mind, rather than a definitive argument or anything like that. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s comments and thoughts in response.
The thing about ‘sexual attraction’ is that it’s a nebulous thing, that defies definition even for a lot of allosexual people (who you think would be experts on it, but who most of the time have just as little idea of what it actually entails as we do). I’ve often found that when I’m talking to a non-ace about asexuality, they will turn around and ask me what exactly I mean by ‘sexual attraction’ – and I don’t always have a good answer. For something that we talk about on a pretty constant basis, and sometimes define ourselves against, we don’t have a very good understanding of what attraction looks and feels like, or what separates it from other words and concepts about how we engage with other people – interest, connection, desire. Sometimes we fall back on (tired and as far as I can tell inaccurate) tropes of seeing a stranger on the street and feeling a desire to jump them then and there. The best explanation I’ve come across, and the one I usually use, is that it involves wanting to make sexuality part of the way you connect with someone – a desire to connect sexually to another person. But even that isn’t particularly easy to understand.
Attraction is difficult to understand as a concept – for aces and allosexual people alike. So it strikes me sometimes that the strict definition of asexuality as ‘not experiencing sexual attraction’ might not the best way of communicating what asexuality is to people who haven’t heard of it before. I’m not necessarily saying that we should change the definition of asexuality – but maybe we should think a bit more about different ways of actually explaining what asexuality is about to others.
The alternative I’ve been thinking about is sexual desire. I know that there have been conversations in the past about how desire does not equal attraction, and there may be people out there who do feel that sexual attraction and sexual desire are entirely separate concepts. (I’d like to hear your thoughts, if you do.) I know that from my own perspective, sexual desire and sexual attraction don’t feel very different at all – I tend to think of them as part of the same experience or conceptual entity that I don’t have or feel.
I think there are some real advantages in using ‘lack of sexual desire’ rather than ‘lack of sexual attraction’ to describe (but not necessarily define) asexuality to non-aces. The first is that I think allosexual people can relate to the idea of sexual desire – as a feeling and experience – much more than sexual attraction. Sexual attraction is hard – it’s not something a lot of people even consciously think about. But I feel like sexual desire is something people can identify, poinpoint more easily. It’s a more real feeling, where attraction can be more of a tendency or preference. It’s more physical than desire, but it also can’t just be boiled down to arousal, because (for me, at least), it really implies a target, a person that that desire is directed at. I think it also has stronger emotional and mental aspects, as well.
Another benefit is that sexual desire can be understood as contextual much more readily than attraction. Attraction sometimes feels very external, very instantaneous, spontaneous, something you either definitely feel or don’t feel after a short period of time with someone, or even no time at all. It has very strong connotations with finding someone hot or sexy or wanting to tear their clothes off on the spot – and I think that’s why a lot of the allosexual people I’ve talked to about sexual attraction have said ‘I don’t do that, but that doesn’t make me asexual.’ Desire, on the other hand, can be more contextual, responsive, targeted, but also internal – it seems to be more commonly understood as something that can develop slowly in a given situation as much as being there from the start. Emily Nagoski talks a lot about different ways of experiencing desire in her book Come As You Are, which I’ll get to talking about in more detail one day. But overall, it feels like sexual desire is more versatile, and can encompass more depth and breadth or feelings and experiences than attraction can.
I wonder what it would look like if we started talking about asexuality more as lack of sexual desire than lack of sexual attraction – just as a way of communicating what exactly it is that we mean by ‘asexual.’ I’ve talked to a lot of non-ace people who don’t really know what to do with ‘sexual attraction’ as a concept, but who have very real associations with ‘sexual desire.’ Perhaps shifting the focus a little might make our ‘message’ clearer, easier for other people to connect to and understand. At the same time, I’m not sure if there are aces who would feel alienated by such a shift. I’m not advocating for one over the other at the moment – but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts, so please do have a think and weigh in.