Saturday, January 12, 2008

Labeling: Descriptive vs Prescriptive

Once upon a time I created a phpBB forum based around an anti-label viewpoint. It didn't last because I didn't feel like putting in the necessary effort for its continued growth.

Lately, however I have been thinking about this idea again. I had an experience recently that caused me to reconsider some of the labels I had been using to identify myself because I realized that I had been denying feelings I was having in order to fit into one of my labels.

While I have been musing on this anti-labeling idea over the last few days I have also been doing homework for my Deaf World Discourses class, in which we're studying sociolinguistic variation in American Sign Language. I came across two words that caught my attention and I realized that I now had a better way to discuss my views on labeling. The two words are descriptive and prescriptive.

For the purposes of this discussion descriptive means that a label is being used as an adjective. It describes the person in brief terms that other people can more quickly understand. Prescriptive, on the other hand means that the label is being used as a guideline. It prescribes a set of criteria that the individual must meet in order to use that label.

I am a longtime member of, which is a site for people who identify as asexual in terms of sexual orientation. On the front page of the forum the definition of asexual is: a person who does not experience sexual attraction (it is important to note there is no mention of hormones or sexual activity in that definition). I have identified as asexual for a long time because I don't feel sexually attracted to anyone. That doesn't mean I can't have sex though, I do frequently experience arousal and I'm capable of acting on it. I'm just not drawn to people in that way.

The mistake I was making (and that some others on the forum often make) was using the label prescriptively rather than descriptively. I was trying to fit some ideal definition of this label in order to feel like I belonged to the community that has developed around this forum. I realize now that this was not a healthy mindset and I should avoid doing this in the future. If by chance any other asexuals read this blog, learn from my mistake and only use the label descriptively. It's much less stressful that way.


DJ Danjerous said...

Thanks for making this distinction! I'm a huge, HUGE fan of descriptive labeling, and bring it up (though with different words) anytime anyone asks me to define asexuality.

Labels matter, because we need concepts to describe ourselves. Take asexuality as an example. A label is what allowed AVEN to come together, and that's been (I would hope) positive for a lot of people. But a label is also something that everyone has a responsibility to define for themselves. It's a tool that should be used, tweaked and customized, not kept on the wall in its original packaging.

Nika said...

It's that label paradox again! The same label that liberates people brings them together can limit them and tear them apart later. I think that is definitely key, to use "asexual" descriptively. Just like there is no one way to be Latino/Deaf/Jewish there's no one way to be asexual.

Didn't mean to copy you on the blogspot idea. (Wink)