Identity vs. Description, and How Labels Are Used For Both

This was a post written for the May 2015 Carnival of Aces, which was hosted by elainexe and has a topic of “Identity, Labels, and Models”. For more information on this ongoing blogging carnival, check out the main page by clicking here. Consider participating sometime soon, or even hosting a future month’s theme yourself!

The Wikipedia page on “Identity” in a social science context — specifically in psychology, sociology, and anthropology — is fascinating. The idea of what makes something a part of someone’s identity is such a complex one.

In the ace blogosphere and community we tend to discuss identity fairly often. Mainly, most of us in this community prioritize asexuality as an identity, and if it’s not “identity” worthy levels of importance to a person, if it’s more just a description of how they “don’t find [many/any] people sexy” or “don’t care about/want sex”, then they probably aren’t going to bother staying in this community for long, or may not even search for/find the community at all.

Labels are complicated. What counts as a label at all, vs. just a “word”?

I am a ___.

Is any phrase or word that fits in that blank a label?

I am asexual, a daughter, a sister, a cis-woman, a fanfiction writer, a vidder, an atheist, a former-Catholic, a child abuse survivor. Are all of those labels? Maybe. One commonly used definition of a label is:

a brief descriptive phrase or term given to a person, group, school of thought

So as long as it’s brief enough, it can count as a “label”. As long as it’s 3 words or less, it should be okay, right? If I can sum up the description succinctly enough, even if it doesn’t explain context, saying I’m a “non-libidoist sex-averse asexual” counts as just one label? Or does it? What about if I try to add in my romantic orientation, which I’m currently not sure if I should just say is aromantic or if I’m still wtfromantic or what. I’m a “non-libidoist sex-averse aromantic asexual person”. Is that just one label for who I am? Because it’s a brief enough “descriptive phrase”?

I’m not sure I understand where the dividing lines are anyway. But I definitely know that where description turns into identity is confusing for me.

One of the biggest uses for the describing power that labels can serve is when labels are pitted against one-another. Either you are an atheist, or you are a Christian, or you belong to another religion, or you have some other specific term for where you fall. Feminists vs. various degrees of non-feminist people is not as powerful of a concept as the stark contrast between Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) and Feminists.

The people for whom the dividing lines don’t work need to explain, in detail, “Actually, I believe in God but I am not religious.” or “I’m a Jewish Atheist”. But the dividing lines make things simpler. Are you gay, straight, or bi? Well, if you’re none of the above, a new label that is differentiated from them is helpful. Actually, I’m asexual. Asexual as a way to categorize yourself as different from in a significant way from the other “options”. The Wikipedia page cites Weinreich & Saunderson 2003 as saying,

The formation of one’s identity occurs through one’s identifications with significant others (primarily with parents and other individuals during one’s biographical experiences, and also with “groups” as they are perceived). These others may be benign – such that one aspires to their characteristics, values and beliefs (a process of idealistic-identification), or malign – when one wishes to dissociate from their characteristics (a process of defensive contra-identification).

And I think the idea of asexuality as a defensive contra-identification is a strong one. The idea that we look at the people in our own lives who clearly view strangers, actors, acquaintances of theirs, etc as sexy way more often or more strongly or differently than we do, and/or who view sex in a very different way than we do, and we want to identify ourselves as “different”. We want some way to mark, even if we’re completely closeted for our own sakes, that yes, we are different in this way.

But oftentimes, a contra-identity like that is only relevant when other people’s identities are something you’re being reminded of. We live in a hypersexualized world, where “sex appeal” is used in advertisements and entertainment constantly, where social bonding between friends includes commentary on the people one has had sexual experiences with — or on the people one wishes they could have a sexual experience with. Where asexuality as a contra-identity feels inevitably necessary.

When I think of why my asexuality is an important identity to me, it is not for contra-identity reasons, at least not at the exact current point in my life. For me, right now, I think being asexual is a prioritized identity mainly because of the community.

That Wikipedia article I cited earlier mentions,

Many people gain a sense of positive self-esteem from their identity groups, which furthers a sense of community and belonging.

There is something powerful about finding a new place where just by the nature of something you can’t even control, that just “is” a core description of how your body and mind works, you suddenly belong, and have a group of other people who have some experiences in common with you. People who want to stand with you in solidarity, who want to meet up with you just because of this thing you have in common, who want to learn more about your life story and share intimate details about theirs with you. A group with a flag and colors and a sub-culture of some kind that you are welcome to be a part of, as long as you match the basic description for being asexual-spectrum. I don’t think it would appeal to everyone, but for those of us for whom it does appeal, it’s pretty amazing.

I write about fandom to some degree here on my “From Fandom to Family” blog, and being involved in fandom is different in that it’s about what we choose to spend our time invested in, rather than what simply describes an innate and uncontrollable aspect of it. The fact that I am a vidder describes something I do often, and have done so often in the past that even if I never did it again it would not be easily forgotten. It describes who I have chosen to be. I identify strongly as a “vidder” too, just like I identify strongly as “asexual”, because pretty much every day of my life these days I am reminded of this identity by the online communities I frequent, by the new comments I get on my fanvids, by the temptations I have to write a blog post about asexuality or to create a new fanvid. By the requests I get to participate in collaboration fanvideos as birthday gifts for my friends and acquaintances in the YouTube vidding-community. By the private messages or emails or “asks” on tumblr that I get where people find my posts about asexuality to be informative and useful, sometimes in understanding their own confusing feelings.

Being a child abuse survivor is less of an identity for me for a number of reasons. It’s a label, a description, a truth. But I have survived the abuse my mother inflicted on me and now it’s mainly in the past for me and my life. I write about it on my blog and tumblr sometimes, sometimes I even vid about it… it’s an important set of experiences that shaped my entire childhood and therefore who I am today. But it only shaped who I am. It’s a memory. It is not who I am now. I don’t hang out around other people with abusive mothers constantly. It isn’t something I think about every single day, or if I am reminded of it, it doesn’t have to stay on my mind for long.

Identity is complex though. I do identify as a child abuse survivor sometimes. If people were to make a blanket statement about survivors of child abuse, and that statement didn’t apply to me, I would feel like my identity was being attacked. It’s a spectrum, and while it’s not a prioritized identity for me, it’s still an identity, at least in some circumstances.

When it comes to asexual blogosphere and community, there are various labels like being “aromantic” that can often be a description of what type of ace-spectrum person you are more than a separate identity. It depends on the context, but I’ve noticed that many times when a person doesn’t bring up being aromantic without also mentioning being ace, there is a high chance that they don’t think of it as an entirely separate identity. They don’t organize around meeting other aromantics, they don’t feel as much comradery with allosexual (or maybe I should say zedsexual) aromantic people, they don’t spend as much time invested in the concept, etc.

I think even when a label is an identity, it’s still usually a description, it’s just that it has become a description PLUS an identity. But a lot of times, labels are “just” descriptions. One of the questions posed in the call for submissions for this carnival of aces was:

Do you use sex-averse/repulsed/indifferent/favorable/etc as identities?

and personally, I have to say not usually. Being sex-averse is a description of what type of asexual I am, and I’d never bring it up without also bringing up asexuality. It’s also the most common way to be asexual — most asexual people don’t want sex. So it’s sometimes almost assumed when people learn of my asexual identity. In order for it to be something I built an identity around, it might need to be a type of word that had a person suffix like “ist” or “er” (vidder, atheist). As it is now, it is just an adjective and linguistically it is not even easy to define myself as sex-averse as if it held that same weight.

Of course, there are still terms like “non-libidoist” which have the “ist” suffix and yet I still don’t consider to be an “identity” for me. The fact that I have no sex drive feels likely extremely related to my asexuality in some way, but practically speaking, it is usually irrelevant. What is more relevant is the fact that I’m not looking to be in a typical sexual relationship so if you suggest it then I’m going to turn you down. What is more relevant is the fact that I don’t relate to comments about how hot the actor is in my favorite TV show. What’s more relevant is if I want to fill out my sexual orientation on Facebook or at a doctor’s office or when filling out a long anonymous survey for my roommate’s psychology class, I wish there was a “none of the above” option, but it’s not there, and I’m stuck. What is more relevant is that the community of like-minded people I personally happened to find weren’t other people with no ability for arousal or orgasm — it was a group of people who have “asexuality” in common, regardless of any other factors we may or may not have in common like romantic orientation, libido, sex-aversion, or a number of other factors. We found the “Asexual” aspect of things to be what we would bond over, and we have, and now it is an embedded part of my identity.


4 thoughts on “Identity vs. Description, and How Labels Are Used For Both

  1. You’re echoing my thoughts on the romance spectrum. While I certainly feel for allosexual aromantics, this part of my labels isn’t reason for me to bond with others atm.


    1. I’m glad we’re on the same wavelength here. 😉

      I think I could potentially bond with aromantic people of all types, it just didn’t end up happening that way. I could still do it in the future, potentially, but for now I don’t feel a drive to, because I’m satisfied with what the asexual communities are providing me.

      Online (and even offline) communities are structured in a way to prioritize where we fall on the ace spectrum, not the aro one.


      1. Given as I’m currently devouring “Queer Theory” by Annamarie Jagose (dating back to 1996), it’s worth thinking about how much the existence and availability of spaces actually has an impact on one’s identity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s