That word… I do not think it means what you think it means.


I’m guessing that many of you reading know what “asexual” means, since my audience is pretty much exclusively ace or ace-friendly.

Asexual:  One who does not experience sexual attraction.

With minor variations, that’s what we all here understand it to mean, right?

And I’m sure we’ve all come across people who use the word differently, from the strict biologist talking about fungi, to the “I wish my homework were asexual” meme posters, from the people using it as a synonym for celibate, to the angsty 16 year old who’s decided to become asexual because boys suck.

Clearly, not everyone uses the word as we use it.  I would say that most people don’t even know about the definition that we use.

So, why is it, then, that whenever anyone remotely famous uses the word “asexual” to describe themselves, we automatically assume that they mean it the same way we do and embrace them?  How do we know that they’re not using it like the angsty 16 year old does?  How do we know that they don’t mean that they’re actively choosing to ignore their sexual attraction and not have sex?

This has been bothering me ever since I first went looking for a list of famous asexuals. It seemed like so many of the people on the list were included because they’ve never had sex or because of some tenuous link of the person having used the word “asexual” in some interview at some point long ago.   There’s usually not enough context because the interviewer doesn’t quote them directly, or the way they describe themselves is ambiguous and seems to imply celibacy or abstinence more than asexuality as we know it.  In one case (which I won’t mention by name), the cited justification for claiming that the person is asexual comes from an almost embarrassingly incoherent sentence which I would sooner take as evidence that they’re using a variety of controlled substances than as evidence that they’re asexual.

I understand that we need a public face, someone to point to and say, “Yeah, I’m just like them”.  It’s important, it’s valuable, it give us immediate legitimacy.  Clearly we’re not alone and not making it up if that person is one of us.

But what if they’re not?

I’m writing this because of the reaction to the articles about Tim Gunn reporting that he hasn’t had sex for 29 years.  People in the tag are screaming about how the articles are somehow erasing his orientation and denying his identity because they refer to him as “celibate”, rather than “asexual”.  Yes, he’s described himself as “asexual” in his book, but what if he didn’t mean it in the same way we mean it?  Is there anywhere that he’s made it clear exactly what he meant by the word “asexual”?  If he used the word asexual the same way we did, then we have every right to get upset over the way the articles erase his orientation.  However, at the same time, if he’s not using that word the way we’re using it, then we have no right to assign him an identity that’s not his.

I’ve only seen one unambiguously, confirmably asexual-as-we-mean-it famous person, and that’s the writer Keri Hulme, talking about it in this article, complete with a shout-out to AVEN.  Are there others who are definitely using the word asexual in the same way we do?

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