This Pride month, I am highlighting a book I read last month titled Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen.
Prior to reading this book, I did not realize that asexuality was as complex as it is. In fact, I believe that most people have a limited understanding of asexuality. What Angela Chen succeeds in with Ace, in addition to painting a broad portrait of asexuality, is commenting on the ways our society is inundated with sexuality, which I believe makes this a compelling read for not only aces and questioning aces, but for all members of our western society.
Ace is down-to-earth and informative, and an insightful book for almost all readers. I truly enjoyed my reading experience and gained a much wider perspective, and it is because of this that I would like to share some of its most important ideas and highly encourage you to read it as well.
This book report, while it strives to highlight the major points of this book, is not a comprehensive summary of Ace nor asexuality. Clearly, I cannot abbreviate every vital bit of information covered in this 188-page book in this measly book report, but I have labored to do some measure of justice to this piece, which in and of itself is not the ultimate guide to asexuality. It is a valiant effort, but the human experience is so much more dynamic than what can be recorded in such a brief format.
Moreover, Angela Chen begins this book by commenting that, while she herself is asexual, she cannot speak for all aces because the ace community is not a monolith. In writing this book, Chen conducted several interviews with fellow aces from various backgrounds, but her commentary primarily focuses on western society. It is her hope, as well as mine, that more books are published in the future which share the voices of the global asexual community. For now, this is a starting point.
The ace world is not an obligation. Nobody needs to identify, nobody is trapped, nobody needs to stay forever and pledge allegiance. The words are gifts. If you know which terms to search, you know how to find others who might have something to teach.Angela Chen, Ace (page 27)
What is Sexual Attraction?
Asexuality is a sexual orientation which describes a person who does not experience sexual attraction. But what is sexual attraction, and how does somebody who doesn’t experience sexual attraction know what it is they don’t experience?
Because we tend to lump all sexual and sex-related feelings and activities into one broad facet of life labelled “SEX,” we don’t often examine the smaller, niche experiences of sex. For example, a person might say they like sex but never evaluate that enough to realize it’s not “sex” they like per se, but what the sex represents for them: the feeling of being desired, of being special. Someone can really want to have sex without necessarily wanting the sex–it can be more about the social performance of connecting with their friends’ conversations of sexual endeavors and fitting in, rather than the actual desire for sex itself.
Sexual attraction, as Chen describes it, is “horniness toward or caused by a specific person. It is the desire to be sexual with that partner–libido with a target” (page 21). People who experience sexual attraction, no matter to whom, are considered allosexual. “Allosexual” is just an umbrella term to describe people who are not asexual.
Thus, the only qualifier a person must have to identify as asexual is that they not experience sexual attraction–that physical, aroused, magnetized sensation towards someone.
But sexual attraction is often confused with sex drive.
Sexual Attraction v. Sex Drive
As Chen describes, “sex drive (or libido) is the desire for sexual release, a set of feelings in the body, often combined with intrusive thoughts. It can come out of nowhere and for no obvious reason and not be about anyone. It’s an internal experience of sexual frustration that does not depend on sexual orientation” (page 21). Each person’s libido can vary in intensity, no matter if they are allosexual or asexual. For example, someone can experience sexual attraction but have a low sex drive, whereas someone else can not experience sexual attraction yet have a high sex drive.
This is how it’s possible for some aces to enjoy sex. Please note again: the ace community is not a monolith. There are plenty of aces who are neutral to sex and repulsed by sex, and asexuality–like most aspects of the human condition–is a spectrum. And because of these beautiful complexities, there is no one sole ace experience.
But it is perfectly possible and valid for aces to enjoy sex because of the difference between sexual attraction and sex drive.
Aces can still find people beautiful, have a libido, masturbate, and seek out porn. Aces can enjoy sex and like kink and be in relationships of all kinds.Angela Chen, Ace (page 20)
Types of Attraction
But sexual attraction is not the only type of attraction humans can experience, which is why it can be tricky for people to understand their impulses towards others. “Attraction is more than sexual attraction,” Chen writes, “yet humans can act as though sexual interest is the only reason we find ourselves compelled towards others” (page 28).
Humans can also experience aesthetic attraction, “which means finding someone beautiful without that beauty being a sexual motivator” (page 28). For myself (and likely many other aces), most of my life, I confused aesthetic attraction for sexual attraction. If I was visually drawn to someone’s physical features and sense of style, I thought that was what it meant to be sexually attracted, never realizing the critical difference.
Aesthetic attraction can, but does not have to, inform someone’s romantic attraction, as well. Romantic attraction is “the feeling of being romantically interested in or having a crush on someone” (page 28). Even if a person is sexually attracted to all genders, they can be exclusively romantically interested in a specific type of person or gender. Like sexual orientation, there are a variety of words to describe someone’s romantic attraction: biromantic (being romantically interested in two or more genders), homoromantic (being romantically interested in the same gender), aromantic (not being romantically interested in anyone), and so on. Aces can be romantically interested in anyone or not romantically interested in others at all.
Additionally, other types of attraction exist: touch attraction or sensual attraction, emotional attraction, intellectual attraction, and so on. It’s not that aces invented ways to be attracted to others, but merely that they paid attention to the ways we feel and tried to ascribe words to those experiences. It’s been all about examining the different ways humans can feel towards ourselves and others, and respecting those differences.
Explanation via Negativa
It’s kind of ironic that aces must discuss sex and attempt to pinpoint something they don’t feel.
To explain asexuality and what it means to not experience sexual attraction, aces must define and describe the exact phenomenon we don’t experience. It requires us to use the language of “lack,” claiming we are legitimate in spite of being deficient, while struggling to explain exactly what it is we don’t get.Angela Chen, Ace (page 19)
This is why it can often be confusing to be ace, especially if someone has never encountered the term “asexuality” or discovered the varied ways in which it can apply to people. Many aces may struggle with self-acceptance and a feeling of brokenness in a sex-obsessed society, not quite sure why they feel so uncomfortable with sexual activity or excluded from some seemingly all-inclusive sexual society.
I could not understand attraction as anything but how I experienced it: emotional yearning–love, really–overpowering and overwhelming.Angela Chen, Ace (page 12)
And I think it’s important to note that asexuality is not a recent phenomenon. Asexuality did not arise because millennials sit in front of screens too much, nor because Gen Z is preoccupied with being “special snowflakes.” As Chen explains, “People had identified as asexual for decades before and in the 1970s bonded over asexuality in self-published work and zines. The people already existed; the internet helped facilitate these discussions at a scale and volume that had not been possible before” (page 18). Having the language for a unique experience can be the difference between self-loathing and self-acceptance, and can be an incredibly empowering discovery. And moreover, having the language to describe our various personal qualities can help connect us with other people who feel similarly, creating a sense of community and pride. Whether or not someone prefers using labels, at least having the label is a springboard for locating resources, better understanding, and more precise discussion.
The Ultimate Joy, or, Compulsory Sexuality and The Sex Myth
Even in religions like Christianity, the subtle messaging is that all humans desire sex. Purity rings, chastity balls, literature on ways for young men to avoid the temptations of sex–all of these efforts exist to deter unwed humans from engaging in what the church assumes is their natural lust for sex. For religious aces, this type of celibacy can be hilariously easy.
Compulsory sexuality (which springs from Adrienne Rich’s notion of compulsory heterosexuality, which is the idea that society only thinks heterosexuality is “natural” because it fails to understand that heterosexuality is a pervasive institutional mentality) is “a set of assumptions and behaviors that support the idea every normal person is sexual, that not wanting (socially approved) sex is unnatural and wrong, and that people who don’t care about sexuality are missing out on an utterly necessary experience” (page 35). In fact, compulsory sexuality is so prominent in our western culture that, despite it being glaringly obvious, it is a message often unconsciously consumed.
In songs, movies, television shows, books, and virtually every other form of media, the assumption is that every human wants sex, and that sex is the ultimate form of physical bliss. This is “the sex myth.” The sex myth is twofold: the notion that “sex is everywhere and we are saturated in it,” and the belief that sex is the most thrilling and pleasurable experience a human can engage in (page 37). Thus, anyone who doesn’t partake in sex is thought to be fundamentally lacking. Just think about any teenage movie ever made in which a virgin protagonist’s friends task themselves with getting that person “laid,” the association that their life will drastically improve thereafter.
When sex is a commodity, having and flaunting sex becomes a form of conspicuous consumption, used to signal that we are not passionless, uptight, boring, and robotic but instead have the financial and social capital to be hip and fun and high status and multiorgasmic.Angela Chen, Ace (page 37)
While asexual is technically “value neutral,” allosexuals often conceive aces as a group to be unnatural or even pitied. A person who doesn’t want sex is “broken,” and various libido-enhancing medications for men and women exist to “fix” this “fundamental flaw.” Others may use words like “boring, uptight, prude, childish or frigid” to describe a person disinterested in sex. The thought process is that no fully satisfied and happy human could exist without generous sex.
Society does center sexuality. In the West today, sexuality is considered an essential part of identity. Sexuality is not merely what you do, it is part of who you are, part of the truth of you… In many ways, the ace movement grew out of opposition to this idea that sexuality must be a cornerstone of both identity and existence.Angela Chen, Ace (page 44)
The plain fact of the matter is this: some people don’t want sex. And that is absolutely okay.
I’m only asexual because there’s a word for it and because people have an objection to me not wanting to have sex. If they didn’t, my life would not have involved very much of talking about it.Julie Sondra Decker, Ace (page 44)
“Let me liberate you.”
Because of the sex myth, aces often receive comments like, “You just haven’t had the right kind of sex yet–otherwise, you’d like it” and can be seen as “repressed.” Indeed, over time, women’s right to experiencing pleasure has been undervalued by society and men especially. Chen writes, “For so long, women have been encouraged to deny our sexual needs and instead serve the needs of men. Our worth is tied to sex. We are sexualized until we are too old, yet shamed and policed for being sexual ourselves, prevented from exploring what we desire or are allowed to desire–and this is doubly true if the women in question aren’t straight” (page 50).
However, while it seems we are amidst an era of “female sexual liberation,” with media focusing on female desire and pleasure, this can send the message that women who don’t enjoy sex are “repressed.” Women reclaiming their sexuality isn’t wrong, “but taken too far, Ellen Willis’s claim that conditioned sexual inhibition is ‘integral to a “normal” woman’s identity’ becomes the belief that sexual inhibition is the only reason women don’t want sex” (page 54). It’s not so much that sexual liberation is problematic, but that sexual liberation is almost exclusively seen as women having a lot of sex, and rarely women asserting their desire not to have sex at all.
The truth of the gender inequality in sexual freedom, and the importance of teaching women to honor their sexual desires, has distorted into the belief that female sexual liberation only looks like one thing–and that’s the opposite of what women’s lives looked like before. Overcorrection doesn’t solve the problem. It only redistributes the shame and the stigma.Angela Chen, Ace (page 59)
For female aces, it can be a little tricky navigating feminism in sexually compulsive society. Chen herself describes her struggle with her asexuality, because she believed that her disinterest in casual sex was a social failing on her part, rather than her honest preference.
The idea that there always exists some secret sexual self to liberate only makes sense if you believe that we are all the same deep down–that everyone wants the same things, only some of us don’t know yet that we get off on being flogged. Because sexual variation exists, there is no universal vision of liberated sexuality.Angela Chen, Ace (page 59)
Aces are not anti-pleasure, and aces do not want to dictate the sexual endeavors of allosexuals. Instead, as Chen eloquently states, “I am pro-pleasure, which does not need to include sex at all, and I am pro-sexual choice–real choice” (page 66).
Asexuality destabilizes the way people think about relationships, starting with the belief that passionate bonds must always have sex at the root.Angela Chen, Ace (page 109)
Much like the narrative that sex is life’s ultimate joy, there is another pervasive message in society that a romantic and sexual relationship is the most significant bond a human can develop.
Yes, humans are social creatures and many crave intimacy, but somewhere in human history we adopted this notion that romantic relationships trump all other relationships. It’s assumed that a person will prioritize their spouse or significant other above all other relationships they have, including relationships with family and friends. And this is clearly the case–as our friends couple off and get married, we tend to see them less, the more involved they become with their own partner. Such is the way of life and ultimate fulfillment, society claims.
But why do we view romance as so much vastly more important than friendship? Why is friendship often perceived as a “lesser” stage to romance? In Chapter 7, “Romance, Reconsidered,” Chen attempts to unpack this assumption and offer alternative ways of thinking.
There are so many relationships humans form in life, between lovers, friends, family, neighbors, community members, co-workers, online friends, and animals, that it seems limiting to deem romantic relationships as the sole fulfilling bond a person can have. While a romantic partner may be the most essential bond many people have (and that’s okay), the issue arises when that expectation is imposed on other people’s life choices. How many times has a single person been questioned, “When are you going to finally get a boy/girlfriend?” “Aren’t you sad and lonely?” Never minding that many aromantic people and otherwise are willingly “single,” enjoying their solitude and the medley of other friendships they may have.
“People think of romantic and platonic love as two distinct categories,” Chen writes, “but, frequently, there is overlap and no clean separation, no one emotional feature or essential component that makes a relationship one or the other” (page 117). Basically, there is no definitive way to say how romantic relationships are distinctly different from friendships. Many people assume that sex makes the difference, but when aces are in a non-sexual romantic relationship, this can turn that definition on its head. So what is the difference?
In this chapter, Chen discusses the concept of a queerplatonic partnership, which is a nonsexual and nonromantic relationship, originated in the ace and aro communities. By using new language, people seeking to describe their special and unique bond with another person can help us reconsider the homogenous way we view important human relationships. People in a QPP may engage sexually with others and have other friends, but the understanding between them is that they both highly matter in each other’s life, and that there will be communication, respect, and devotion to the other person. Much like the famous line from Grey’s Anatomy, “You’re my person.”
“Queerplatonic resets from the unspoken expectations of either friend or romantic partner and forces the relationship into a new place, with the ability to build new obligations and new expectations altogether. The switch to queerplatonic is a change in both language and thought,” Chen explains (page 121). As the language is a guide for our widening perceptions, Chen explains that the word itself is not what’s important, but rather that we begin to view the world and relationships in less of a black-and-white juxtaposition. Words like “queerplatonic” can open the door to what’s possible, and help us all expand the way we treat others, value others, and form meaningful bonds outside of romance alone.
In addition to the topics discussed above, Ace also covers the whitewashed nature of asexuality, the ways in which asexuality can intersect with other identities such as race, gender, and disability, and how we can all learn from the kink community. To read more on this topic, read or listen to Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen.
Please leave a comment recommending your favorite ace-authored book or story with an ace protagonist!
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