Sunday, August 17, 2014

Orientation labels and oppositional meanings

Our language and words are supposed to be infinitely fluid, to express whatever we like.  But often when you get down to the technical details, you find it's made of all this chunky stuff, these words.  It's as if the air we breathe were made of little pebbles.

Identity labels are some of the chunkiest words around.  Case in point, many identity labels not only have a direct meaning, they also have an oppositional meaning.1  I say "oppositional" in the sense of "opposite".

What is the opposite of "straight"?  To many people, the opposite is "gay".  When you say someone is straight, you mean that they are attracted to the opposite gender (there's that "opposite" idea again!).  But also, you mean that they are not gay.  (And also not bisexual.)  ((And also maybe sorta not asexual.))  Note the hierarchy of meaning.  Everyone agrees that "straight" and "gay" are opposed.  We agree that bisexual people are not straight, but wouldn't say they're opposed exactly.  As for asexual people, whether they can be straight or not is commonly contested.2

To depict this graphically, here I show the meaning of "straight" within the Storms model.  Blue represents the direct meaning, and orange represents the oppositional meaning.3  The darker the color, the stronger the meaning.


We can give a similar treatment to the other major orientation labels

Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual, and Asexual

You might notice that none of the words have a particularly strong meaning with respect to asexuals.  Due to asexual invisibility, most people who talk about about other orientations are not really thinking about asexuals.  However, if you're talking about asexuals, you are most certainly conscious of gay and bisexual people.

The word-chunkiness becomes especially clear when we consider the inversions of these labels.  For example, "queer" is sometimes thought of as an inversion of "straight", with the result that "queer" is most closely associated with gay and lesbian people, and to a lesser extent bisexuals, and hardly at all with asexuals.

This raises an interesting question.  Is "queer" necessarily the inversion of "straight", or is it contingently so?  For instance, if "bisexual" came to be more closely associated with "queer", would it necessarily become more dissasociated from "straight"?  If someone is straight, do they automatically become disassociated with queerness?  (And let's not even talk about straight trans people, or you'll break our fragile language to pieces.)

Here are some more inversions:

Monosexual and Non-asexual (aka allosexual)

Monosexual is a funny term, because it's intended to be an inversion of bisexual, but literally means attracted to one gender, so it inadvertently excludes asexuals.  Due to disagreements over various synonyms like "bisexual", "pansexual", and "omnisexual", people often use "non-monosexual" as an umbrella term for all such people.  But now "non-monosexual" is a perfect inversion of "monosexual" (which is an imperfect inversion of "bisexual"), and therefore inadvertently includes asexuals. I've heard "plurisexual" as yet another alternative to reduce confusion.

Non-monosexual and Plurisexual

Notice that I showed inversions of "straight", "bisexual", and "asexual", but there isn't really an inversion of "gay/lesbian".  That's because "straight" more or less functions as the inversion already.

Lastly, here are a few extra terms which explicitly acknowledge an orientation spectrum:

Kinsey 1, Kinsey 2, and Gray-A

And here are few things which we do not have words for.

??? and ???

Do you feel like you're breathing pebbles yet?  Gosh, and these are just the words that can be easily described within the Storms model!  It only gets worse from here!


All graphs were sketched by finger using the GoodNotes app.  I happily recommend this app to people who like drawing graphs.

1. The term "oppositional meaning" is my own invention, although I see that it's used by at least one other person, apparently to denote something very similar.

2. Ace in Translation offered one of the best explanations of the subject.

3. I'm hoping orange and blue are colorblind-friendly, let me know if they are not.

1 comment:

miller said...

Oh this is so fascinating, the whole oppositional definitions of stuff laid out and how it highlights how asexuals are never on anyone's mind and... just yeah. :D