The Rhetoric of Digital “Ace Discourse”

How Tumblr Created An Argument No One Could Win

“I’m not going to get into it.”

That’s what I’ve always said about the “ace discourse” that’s been rife on Tumblr since the beginning of last year. I’m not going to get involved, I’m not going to discuss it, I’m just going to sit here and stew and wait it out.

But the fact that I have to be silent about this sort of thing is, in and of itself, a problem. I don’t want to be attacked for having an opposing opinion, I don’t want to be labeled as “bitter” or “salty,” and I especially don’t want to be misconstrued as “a cishet ace that has no idea what they’re talking about.”

But that’s the reality that the Internet, and Tumblr in particular, is creating — one of confusion, disreputable information, and absolutist ideals perpetuated by a relativist mode of thinking.

For those unfamiliar with the so-called “ace discourse,” asexuality is a sexual orientation in which a person does not feel sexual attraction toward anyone. It’s been said that about 1% of the population identifies as asexual, or “ace,” in some form or another. Asexuality is also not strictly limited to this one label — it forms a spectrum, ranging anywhere from demisexuality to gray-sexuality. Some asexual people also use the split-attraction model to distinguish their romantic interests in others, including heteroromantic, homoromantic, biromantic, panromantic, and aromantic, among others.

The supposed issue here started cropping up about two years ago on Tumblr, where many LGBTQIA+ individuals have created an inclusive, welcoming community. However, Tumblr has a tendency to foster argumentative and often toxic situations wherein misinformation is spread and users are attacked for simply stating their opinion on a particular issue. This has been a repeated problem for years on the site among numerous different fandoms and groups, usually culminating in mob mentality and blatant bullying.

In this case, a number of users began claiming that asexuality was not a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, arguing that the A in LGBTQIA+ stood for, and has always stood for, “Ally.” This quickly grew into widespread attacks and mob mentality on both sides of the issue, as those in the asexual community attempted to spread positivity while “exclusionists” continued to make longer and more aggressive posts. Users argued over the “qualifications” needed to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the definition of “oppression” became a central theme. That definition, hotly debated and altered multiple times, doesn’t seem to have a coherent answer any longer, and what was once considered fact has started to blur.

Exclusionists, on the one hand, want to protect the LGBTQIA+ community from those outside of it— namely cisgender, heterosexual individuals pretending to be part of the community — who could sap resources away from those who truly need it. However, those on the opposing side just want asexuals to be a valid part of the community — to be recognized not just by the larger, mainstream audience of society, but by fellow LGBTQIA+ individuals.

This has culminated in a rather tense atmosphere on Tumblr: while the initial wave of discourse has died down in recent months, asexual users are still afraid to speak their minds, and exclusionists are drowned out by the continual wave of positivity in the “ace discourse” tag.

As someone who identifies as asexual and as a current Tumblr user, I was never directly involved in any of the arguments, but I was afraid for a long time to log back into Tumblr while it was still going on. Seeing that kind of toxicity on my dash was uncomfortable, to say the least, and I was no longer able to use Tumblr as a way to relax. I usually go there to talk about shows I like and enjoy cool fan art, but after the wave of discourse, I still feel uncertain and uncomfortable on my own dashboard.

This kind of exclusive-based toxicity is not isolated to Tumblr alone — other social media sites, including Reddit and the blog scene, have picked up on the arguments happening on Tumblr and are starting to emulate the same back-and-forth attacks. A number of journalists have also started to weigh in on the issue, often becoming just as accusatory as numerous Tumblr users.

However, outside of the internet, these exclusionist problems don’t seem to exist: asexual flags are sold alongside numerous other sexuality flags at Pride events, and AVEN, or the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, marches proudly along with other LGBTQIA+ groups at Pride parades. In my own experience, telling other LGBTQIA+ individuals, in person, that I’m asexual has always been met with remarks like, “Awesome!” or “That’s cool! I support you,” or “Nice.” I’ve also never once heard from, nor spoken to, someone who favors the exclusionist point of view outside of Tumblr.

But telling the Internet that I’m ace? That’s something I haven’t even tried to do until now. Being anywhere on the asexual spectrum has become, in essence, a “stance” on Tumblr, and even reblogging something remotely related to the asexual community can get users knocking down the doors to your blog with argumentative statements and furious accusations.

There seems to be a strange dichotomy between life on and outside social media. Online, any issue that can crop up and be debated will, even if it is considered minor or unimportant outside of that online sphere. Users online also tend to treat issues as though they exist in a vacuum, where the consequences of bullying or fierce arguing don’t seem to matter as much. Outside of that, issues very clearly don’t exist in that vacuum — they involve real people with their own mindsets and ideologies, and putting a screen between that often makes all of us, myself included, forget that simple fact.

But this is not an attack on technology — rather, I want to deconstruct the notions behind each side of this rather polarizing issue and determine whether this could be a major human rights problem happening right in front of our eyes.

Exclusionists, as I stated earlier, have a tendency to make long, “informative” posts that detail exactly why they’re right and everyone else is wrong. An excerpt from one such post is shown below.

Endless posts like these exist, but I wanted to showcase this one in particular for its use of argument and organization. This post, like many others, assembles “research,” primarily consisting of self-analysis, that backs up each of its claims, including that asexuality is not a sexual orientation, asexuals don’t experience “enough” oppression to be included in the LGBTQIA+ community, and one of the main advocates for asexuality rights and the founder of AVEN is disreputable because he’s cisgender male and heteroromantic, or “cishet.”

Even though this user doesn’t provide any outside research or support to back up their claims, their post has over 4,830 notes, or likes and reblogs from other users, as of this writing. Almost 5,000 people reacted to this post in some way, and the reaction it received was largely positive, indicated by the number of likes and positive written responses.

The popularity of this post is largely due to the way it’s constructed. The post uses a Question and Answer format, making it seem much more official and informational than other, less-organized posts:

This post only has 406 notes despite saying almost exactly what the above post states. Using organization and format to their benefit, Tumblr user chisayukizome is able to draw other users in easily and persuade them of multiple points, despite their clear lack of evidence.

This is not to say that those on the opposite side of the issue are entirely innocent. Ace-positive users don’t provide sources on their posts, either, and they often descend to the same passive-aggression that’s seen on the exclusionist side:

In addition, arguments between both sides tend to escalate quickly into name-calling and blatant attacks against other users, as with this particular response to an ace positivity post:

Responses like these perpetuate an even stronger response from the ace positivity side of Tumblr, usually leading to an increased number of posts that call for more acceptance and tolerance. While I appreciate the positive nature of these posts, I find that they’re not an effective or beneficial way to address exclusionists or “aphobic” individuals. Drowning out the opposite side of an argument will not dispel that argument — it will only make them angrier, more upset, and more willing to attack other users. This ends up perpetuating a cycle of yelling, attacking, and lack of resources that only spreads misinformation on both sides of the equation.

In any case, no one on either side here can truly recognize their own fallibility. I believe that no one can “win” this argument or succeed in creating some sort of mutual understanding if the basis for that very same argument is a blatant lack of evidence and repeated attempts to drown each other out. Moving forward and making progress with this issue, whether it’s understanding where both sides are coming from or sharing evidence with one another and discussing it openly, cannot be accomplished with viewpoints that are built on faulty platforms.

In this sense, both sides are taking absolutist stances without considering the relativist angle at which they’re informing that same viewpoint. On one side, exclusionists come to the conclusion that all cishet aces are detrimental to the LGBTQIA+ community while still ignoring any consideration of the asexual point of view. On the other hand, ace-positive inclusionists preach that all asexual individuals, regardless of gender or romantic orientation, belong in the LGBTQIA+ community, while still ignoring the experiences of non-ace LGBTQIA+ people. They both view their absolutist ideals through a relativist lens, and this mode of thinking is not just detrimental — it’s dangerous and hurtful to everyone.

When I first found the word “asexual,” I felt like I had finally found the words to explain who I was and how I felt. When I finally figured out I was biromantic, it felt like I didn’t have to keep pretending any longer.

When I first saw “ace discourse” appear on my Tumblr dashboard, I felt like I did before I found the words — like I was silenced once again.

At this point, it feels rather pessimistic of me to say that it doesn’t seem like there’s really a point in trying to dispel any of the misinformation or, well, bullshit seen on Tumblr. But it is much, much harder to dispel bullshit than to create it, and Tumblr epitomizes that.

However, ignoring it or just moving on from all of this is going to do anyone any good, either. I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that human rights were violated here. Numerous individuals felt marginalized and silenced on both sides for months, even years on end, and the perpetuation of this kind of online oppression requires some form of action.

Now is about ensuring this kind of misinformed toxicity doesn’t spread anywhere else, online or otherwise. Now is about ensuring that arguments have sufficient support — and if they don’t, having an open discussion about it. Now is about not giving in to the base impulse everyone, including myself, has online to attack those who may have a different stance than our own.

Everyone on Tumblr, exclusionists and inclusionists alike, seems to have reached some sort of conclusion for themselves:

But we don’t have to.