What are micro-sexualities and why are people arguing about them?

Attacking micro-labels is often part of a "queerness has gone too far" discourse, but there's a rich tradition of rejecting categorisation to remember.

by James Greig
20 October 2021, 1:00pm

"Our passion for categorisation, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos." James Baldwin wrote this in 1955, but the anxieties these words speak to remain as relevant today as ever. As any Tumblr veteran will tell you, 'micro-labels' or 'micro-identities' have been a source of debate in the online queer community for a long time now. These labels seek to articulate often hyper-specific expressions of sexuality, for example, abrosexual (having different levels of sexual or romantic attractions throughout your life), demisexual (only feeling sexual attraction when you form an emotional connection to someone) and demiromantic (only experiencing romantic attraction after developing an emotional connection). Many of these categories fall somewhere on the asexuality spectrum, while others are concerned with gender identity rather than sexuality. I think it would be fair to say that a lot of the people who use them are young.

In recent years, their re-emergence on TikTok -- a platform that often gives rise to content that goes viral elsewhere -- has seen them become a focal point for transphobes and other conservatives, who use them to delegitimise a generation of young queer people as silly and self-indulgent. Every time someone goes viral with a TikTok explainer of a micro-identity, you can be sure to find a prominent transphobe or right-wing pundit denouncing it as an omen of the collapse of Western civilisation. This, too, might be a rehash of early 2010s culture wars, but it seems that the sheer discoverability of TikTok has brought the topic to a larger audience than before and, as a result, incurred an even greater backlash.

The presentation of these explainer videos can, at times, be grating, and I confess to having found them annoying. But there is a difference between something being annoying and it posing societal harm, and I've changed my mind about these labels recently, at least to some extent. Attacking micro-labels is now often part of a general "queerness has gone too far!!!" discourse, which encompasses just about everything. There is a considerable cross-over between the people attacking this stuff and those attacking, say, pronouns or gender-inclusive language. It all plays into a wider hostility towards young queer people, which, without exaggeration, is one of the defining features of public life in the present day.

“The online language used by young people is often used to tell a story about queerness or queer theory as a whole. But whatever you think of them, these labels have vanishingly little to do with queer theory as an academic tradition.”

That said, I don't believe that micro-labels are an entirely positive thing. There is a rich and important tradition of rejecting categorisation within queer history that is worth examining, even if I don't think we should be scolding today's teenagers for failing to live up to the standards set by radical thinkers of the past. The online language used by young people is often used to tell a story about queerness or queer theory as a whole. But whatever you think of them, these labels have vanishingly little to do with queer theory as an academic tradition. Judith Butler (perhaps the most influential queer theorist) is ambivalent about identity categories, describing them as "instruments of regulatory regimes" which can be both "normalising categories of oppressive structures" or, more positively, "rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression". Broadly speaking, queer theory is more concerned with destabilising identity categories than it is about coming up with new, ever more specific ones. Even the umbrella term "queer" exists in opposition to categorisation, and whatever power it has is drawn from the fact that it encourages solidarity between everyone who is not cisgender or heterosexual. It is expansive, rather than fragmentary.

The gay liberation movement of the 1970s, meanwhile, was hostile to labels and explicitly concerned with abolishing sexual categories.  This hostility to categorisation was a common feature of all liberation struggles of the time, including anti-colonial and anti-racist movements (which aren't really two distinct categories). There was a sense that categorisation was bound up with imperialism, capitalism and the patriarchy, and that rejecting it was an important part of being free. Ultimately, these movements believed in a shared humanity to which everyone belonged. This tendency was apparent in the work of anti-colonial writers like Frantz Fanon) and the Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton, who ultimately wanted to abolish the concept of race altogether. This kind of thinking has had something of a renaissance recently. We can see its influence in a book like Emma Dabiri's excellent What White People Can Do Next, published earlier this year, which argues that racial categorisations themselves are fictitious, and that investing in them is "a conservative, fearful choice". She argues that categorisation is something which stands in the way of true liberation.

While Emma's work is mostly concerned with race, these principles can also be applied to sexuality. She argues that our preoccupation with categorisation "atomises the limitless variety of subjectivity into lists of 'knowable' categories that 'reduce' in order to acknowledge, flattening the complexity of being into neatly bounded classifications that produce a subject defined by their difference which can be governed end appealed to, not to mention targeted for advertising, accordingly." I don't think that social media created this impulse towards categorising ourselves, but it has certainly accelerated it. For many, this is a way of finding community and a sense of belonging online, and I think that people should be able to identify however they please. But it's still worth considering whether there might be more liberating and fulfilling ways of thinking about ourselves.

“That said, it's possible to think that categorisation is regressive and not something we should be aspiring to while also recognising that the harms posed by micro-labels seem fairly abstract.”

That said, it's possible to think that categorisation is regressive and not something we should be aspiring to while also recognising that the harms posed by micro-labels seem fairly abstract. While queer online communities have their fair share of in-fighting (as does any online community), I'm not convinced that terms like "abrosexual" or "demisexual" are preventing solidarity from forming between queer people as a whole. Nor do I really believe that anyone feels trapped within these labels or that they're standing in the way of a more fluid view of sexuality. The fluidity may instead be found in moving between these different categories rather than rejecting them outright.

There's also a difference between categories imposed from outside (the primary concern of the liberation movements discussed above) and categories that you've chosen for yourself and embraced with enthusiasm. The latter strikes me as something which can be playful, exploratory, and not inhibiting freedom in any tangible way. Whose freedom is being limited by someone identifying as 'abrosexual'? The person themselves? In what way? It's all pretty academic. But ultimately, we don't have to think they're "valid" in order to side with the people who use them when they're being attacked by transphobes and reactionaries.

 Above all, we should be wary of emboldening people on the Right to attack any one aspect of queerness, since these attacks invariably form part of a larger whole. Even if you think micro-sexualities don't make sense, it strikes me as naive to imagine that conservatives will stop at mocking the gender or sexual identities which you consider ridiculous. In fact, many of them think that we're all degenerates, and attacking micro-identities is essentially a proxy for that revulsion. Maybe it's not ideal to pick and choose your opinions based on what your enemies believe, but we should probably try to avoid being on the same side as anyone mocking and denigrating queer teenagers.