Labels: Helpful or Hurtful?

A conversation topic that I’ve seen come up a lot, both in the context of asexuality/aromanticism with their stacks of microlabels and autism where there’s the question of “should I tell this person they probably are,” is the extent to which labels are useful or harmful. Since this blog is likely to attract far fewer angry responses than Twitter, I decided to formally weigh in this month.

My opinion boils down to this: labels shouldn’t be forced on people, but they are tools that can be highly useful and need to be more freely offered as options.  This applies to both aspec labels and the autistic label overall, although of course there are some nuances between the two specific categories and the discussion around them.

I initially tried to explore some of the arguments people make, but (especially combining the two communities in this case) it’s a complex enough topic with so much said in some cases, I felt like I was touching on everything and talking about nothing, so instead I’m going to focus on the key points I think people should keep in mind when considering arguments they encounter elsewhere like “labeling people will make them feel different” or “these are too subjective when you try to get specific, distinct definitions” compared to the people like me who seem to love them.

Point #1: People are better at knowing we’re different than others seem to think.

We usually KNOW we’re different from an early age, whether it’s being neurodivergent or not getting why everyone’s going on about the whole sex thing.  But we don’t know why, or other people apply negative labels to it, so many look around and see that there seems to be no language or role models reflecting their experience, and assume that there’s just something wrong with them as an individual that needs to be fixed.

Large numbers of people in both communities feel like they’re broken as human beings and do things that harm themselves (e.g. pushing themselves to have unwanted sex, unnecessary masking that wrecks their mental health long-term) before finding out that it’s normal to be the way they are and there’s language to defend their experiences to others.

It’s kind of like that story of Pandora’s box I read in a kids’ myth book or something when I was young, where she released the bad stuff but slammed it shut before Hope could enter the world too: the negative stuff is already out there.  We may be trying to help, but keeping people from accessing labels that help them see their experience as normal and find others like them often deprives them of a more positive view of things.

Point #2: “Subjective” doesn’t equal “bad.”

We’re humans – our individual experiences of reality are subjective.  Language in general is subjective, not just the language that tries to differentiate platonic and alterous attraction.  And our experiences and feelings are very real to us, even if they aren’t meaningful in the broader context of the universe (depending on your religious views of course – I speak from an atheistic perspective).

Yes, it can be confusing and maybe annoying when different people are using the same label to mean different things, or when it makes sense for one person to separate types of attraction in detail but you can’t figure out where the line is between half of them or why it even matters.  For example, some people struggle to differentiate platonic and romantic attraction even though it feels obvious to many others, which is known as quoiromantic.  And, I also use quoiromantic for myself in the “just doesn’t understand the concept of romantic attraction” sense of the word.  (It’s one of those terms that’s kind of an umbrella term as well as a specific thing.)  Things start to fall apart when you try to create specific, distinct definitions.

But honestly, that seems like an inevitable result of humans being a varied group of creatures having different experiences of how they operate and of reality around them.  We’re all just out here trying our best to make sense of the world as we experience it, using language that may have been newly coined as a tool to communicate concepts.  If a term is meaningful to people and makes them feel like they’re not broken after all, who are we to try to argue it’s not important?  Honestly, the wide variety of ways we experience and comprehend our own existences is pretty beautiful in my opinion.

And furthermore, we have to consider people’s actual experiences as much as their ideal ones.  For example, some feel like we shouldn’t bother with labels when we should just accommodate people, which I agree with – you shouldn’t need labels to have your needs and (not-harmful-to-others) desires respected and met.  That said, the social world doesn’t operate like that right here and now, so while we absolutely should work towards wider acceptance and dismantling needless prejudices, we also need to respect that we aren’t there yet and so having the option to use a label if one chooses for themself is important self-defense in the present moment.

Point #3: Language ties into privilege.

Ever notice how we talk about trans people, autistic people, etc. more than cis people or neurotypical people, in terms of the precise terms? (I wrote a post recently on why we need to more frequently acknowledge neurotypicality) The lack of consistent labeling for those groups while those who don’t fit in are labeled can reinforce the idea that we’re “other” somehow while the rest are “normal” – too normal to need specific words like the others.  Which on the surface, is an argument for why we shouldn’t label people.

But the problem is, all the systemic assumptions and structures that reinforce one experience as the norm and others as abnormal are still there, so we need to fix those before we try to drop labels.  If we tell people now that they shouldn’t use the identity terms without fixing the broader issues that impact us, we’re impairing people’s ability to fight back by making it harder to identify those issues and find like minded community and such, thus perpetuating the real problem rather than solving part of it.


This is why I see labels as tools that should be provided.  It’s about respecting people’s autonomy and the extent to which language matters to people, really.  Forcing labels on people who don’t want them is not appropriate.  But I sometimes think too many people think the alternative is “don’t really offer the label,” without realizing that informing people about something doesn’t mean they’re being forced to use it.  It’s about informed consent: people need to know on a basic level what language/frameworks are available to them, and that XYZ may apply to them personally rather than being an abstract concept (for some reason I had a hard time realizing that I personally could be a sex-repulsed ace, even though I knew asexuality existed and actually identified as demi/greysexual for some time before that – it just didn’t occur to me that it could apply to me as opposed to just “people,” ya know?) so that they can decide for themselves if they want to use something or not.  But they can’t make that decision if they haven’t been properly informed of the option.

And if someone decides to collect niche labels like they’re playing Pokemon, we should respect that too.  If it helps them, more power to them, even if others of us don’t get how it works.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment!

If you want to explore some of the discussion around aspec labels, a Carnival of Aces monthly topic last year was on Labels and Microlabels:

5 thoughts on “Labels: Helpful or Hurtful?”

  1. I’m glad you’re writing on this topic. I personally write a lot about subjectivity and inconsistency of language. There are two reasons for this:
    (1) A lot of people I know IRL are very rigid in their understanding of certain words and are unwilling to accept that other people use those words in different ways.
    (2) I’ve been frustrated way too many times by arguments based on semantics. Two people are up in arms arguing about something because they are using words differently and thus misunderstanding what each other are saying.

    Too often, I see people wanting to use labels as shorthand communication which they expect others to understand, except, others may not understand the label in the same way. Too often, I’m in conversation where the other person expects me to conform to their understanding of a certain label and will not do me the courtesy of adopting the way I use the label for the sake of the conversation.

    So, even though I often sound like a broken record, I feel like it’s important to keep reminding people not to take the meaning of words for granted. And that’s also why I’m always encouraging people to always define the terms they are using, and to use more words to explain what they really mean if necessary.

    1. “And that’s also why I’m always encouraging people…to use more words to explain what they really mean if necessary.”
      As an autistic person, I wish more people did this in everyday life XD. I don’t read minds; I need words, y’all.
      You know, now that I think about it, I wonder if the prevalence of autists in the aspec community has any relevance to our habit of trying to define every extremely specific experience with a precise word…

      I’ve also seen the opposite perspective too: some friends were discussing microlabels once, and a point that was brought up was that it’s sometimes about different layers of knowing a person. Sometimes you don’t expect people to know what you mean with a label, or you intentionally use a broader term like just “asexual” if you don’t want to discuss. But to share the label and have someone ask what it means is an opportunity to get more personal, decide how many layers of the onion you want to peel back in that context.

      1. “I wonder if the prevalence of autists in the aspec community has any relevance to our habit of trying to define every extremely specific experience with a precise word…”
        That’s an interesting thought!

        But I think the other perspective is in line with it too: people identify specific words, but in layers, making a judgement call regarding how specific to be depending on to whom one is talking. Which I can relate to … while I choose to use descriptions with people rather than labels, I choose how descriptive to be depending on to whom I’m talking.

  2. I like the choice aspect of what you are saying, both in adopting labels and in sharing them with people. I am a person of the “privileged majority” in most areas, but I do identify with the label “atheist”. For most people in the Midwest where I live, this conjures up images of demon-worshipers and baby eaters. Not flattering, and not accurate at all. Therefore, although I definitely use the label for myself and with select people who really do understand, I am careful how much I share it with people in general. However, there are a few times when I’m in a congenial crowd, and I wear the label with pride. I agree that one should be free (and respected) to choose the best-fitting label(s), and also to share it or not, depending on personal comfort aspects of the crowd one is in at the time.

    1. That’s a good point too, I hadn’t thought about worldviews when I wrote this – I’ve been away from your area long enough that the “atheist” label has stopped being significant for me personally because people don’t try to make a big deal out of it, lol.

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