A Q&A with Angela Chen
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex is the first book of its kind to offer an in-depth examination of asexuality, contextualize it within the queer community, and resist characterizing aces as a monolith. Journalist Angela Chen centers Ace on the experiences of asexual people and traces a path to understanding her own asexuality through a blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir. She candidly explores the misconceptions around asexuality and challenges us to rethink the meaning of pleasure and intimacy. Our intern, Priyanka Ray, caught up with Chen to chat with her about it.
Priyanka Ray: In Ace, you argue that the experiences of aces can outline the constrictive system of compulsory sexuality and reveal alternate forms of eroticism. What does a world without compulsory sexuality look like, and what steps can we take to dismantle this system?
Angela Chen: A world without compulsory sexuality doesn’t mean desexualizing everything. It means removing the “compulsory” part. It means removing pressures and presenting more ways of how to live. It means more choice. People will be able to choose what they want—a lot of sex, no sex, and so on—without pressure or shame or judgment and without feeling like they need to explain themselves to doubters. People will be encouraged to really question what pleasure is and whether it has to be sexual and find what other forms of pleasure exist in their lives. There will be many types of relationships and relationship models, both in real life and expressed in popular culture. Drug companies won’t prey on people’s fears about low desire to sell medication; there will be more equality in relationships when it comes to desire and consent; and sex ed will include the ace perspective too.
It’s wonderful when people learn about asexuality and the ace lens and see things differently, but it’ll take so long to get anywhere if we wait for people to discover this way of thinking one by one. I really do believe that it’s important to politically organize, to lobby and campaign and work together to show that there are many ways to live a full life and we should all get to choose the way that works best for us.
PR: You write that performing sexuality is often a prerequisite for male identity and social inclusion. How do the experiences of asexual men encourage us to deconstruct gender expectations?
AC: There is a pervasive message that “real men” have a lot of sexual desire and are supposed to be able to score with a lot of people. Especially in the cis and hetero context, men are encouraged to speak about women sexually as a bonding activity and as a way of proving their masculinity. Ace men say that this has made them feel like outcasts, encouraged them to “play along” and pretend to have crushes they don’t, encouraged them to have unwanted sex with partners, and at times made them question their gender. One trans man I interviewed said that before his transition, people were fine with what they saw as his sexual hesitancy, but afterward told him that he needed to just “get out there.”
It’s not a secret that these pressures exist, especially because there’s been a lot of discussion about incels (involuntary celibates) in the past couple of years. But the experiences of ace men show that the same pressures that affect incels affects this seemingly opposite group of ace men. In fact, ace men say that people sometimes think they’re actually incels who are just pretending to be asexual because they’re bitter that they can’t get laid. I’m not an incel apologist—plenty of people feel unattractive and excluded without becoming entitled—but this shows how just deeply the idea that men have to be sexual is ingrained. It also shows that working to reduce this pressure would help a lot of different groups of men.
PR: With the advent of sex positivity, sex has become viewed as a way to perform feminist politics. Therefore, women who do not want or enjoy sex are seen as conservative and repressed by patriarchal control. How can we acknowledge that women’s sexual liberation is political while decentering sex from feminist politics?
AC: Sex is political, of course. Many women are shamed by double standards and don’t feel comfortable exploring their sexuality. I would never contest this. But sexual variation also exists. People are different! There are asexual women out there who simply don’t experience sexual attraction, and it’s not because of shame or repression or because they need to try more sex positions or sex toys. And there’s nothing wrong with that. (It’s also true that you can be both shamed into feeling disconnected from sex and discover that you’re ace. A lot of nuances exist.)
It’s important for people to walk the line between encouraging women to explore, which is good, while also believing them and not being pushy if they say that they’re apathetic about sex and simply not that interested. Don’t assume that, deep down, every woman has a high libido and just needs to throw off the chains of repression to discover it. In general, I advocate letting other people be the experts on themselves.
I also think it’s important to have more representations of asexuality in popular culture, especially feminist popular culture. Very few feminists would explicitly say that not having sex makes you repressed or that having a lot of sex makes you more feminist or cool—but the message of sex as liberation and sex as cool and sex making you more fun is still present. It’s a feeling in the air and in the culture. I don’t have a problem with explicit content about desire, but I don’t think it’s good for any one message to dominate, because those messages can and do make ace women (and anyone ace-adjacent or anyone who simply isn’t that into sex) feel ashamed. We can keep those messages and also have different stories and different messages brought to prominence, too.
I always advocate for focusing on the power of organizing and collective action. Ace women can feel like they’re not “feminist enough” because they don’t fulfill this supposed requirement that feminist women personally enjoy sex a lot. But the greater potential of organizing is that you work politically to help others and to change structures around a wide variety of issues. Who cares if you don’t care about sex if you’re writing to politicians and campaigning and lobbying for better pay and domestic abuse protections and uplifting women of color? That’s the work that will change systems and do so much good for so many people.
PR: Throughout the book you illustrate how understanding ace experiences can liberate all of us from harmful cultural narratives, particularly those surrounding consent. What new ways of thinking about and practicing consent do asexual people’s experiences with sex give us?
AC: There are two things I’d like to highlight. One is this often unspoken belief that while nobody should have unwanted sex with strangers, within a relationship you need a “good enough reason” to say no. A good enough reason is that you’re sick or stressed or that your partner is treating you badly. “I don’t want to” is not a good enough reason. It means you’re withholding and selfish. I think this idea comes from the belief that everyone has a baseline of sexual desire; so if everyone has that baseline and nothing is wrong, why wouldn’t you want to have sex with someone if you love them?
This kind of reasoning really makes aces feel like “no” within relationships is not okay, that they can say “no” right now but cannot say “no” forever and have to keep fending their partner off. (Well, this reasoning can make everyone feel this way, but the pressure is especially acute for aces.) My position is this: if we believe that people should never have unwanted sex with strangers, no matter how good of a person the stranger may be, we should believe that people should never have unwanted sex with their partners, no matter how good and loving their partner is. Entering a relationship should never mean giving up a measure of consent. I should add that partners are free to not date someone if sex is a dealbreaker, and that is completely their prerogative. But there’s a difference between setting your own boundaries and feeling entitled to sex without ever discussing it and then shaming the other person.
Similarly, there is also a very common narrative that the lower-desire partner is “broken” and it’s their responsibility to work on themselves to fix their libido. But there are two people in a relationship, and this is a shared problem that needs a shared solution. If one person wants to have sex just as much as the other person wants not to have sex, why is the preference of the higher-desire partner given more moral weight? Shouldn’t they be equal, because they’re equal people in the relationship? There are so many books on learning to desire again, whereas it’s rare to ask the higher-desire partner to have less sexual desire. Asking someone to work on themselves to have more sex seems reasonable, but asking someone to try to be celibate or have less sex seems like asking too much.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course I acknowledge that most people in relationships have and enjoy sex and that having sex is “normal”—insofar as “normal” means “statistically common.” But I argue that “statistically common” is less important in a relationship than carefully considering what the two people in the relationship want and what works for them and how each can feel valued and learn to compromise. In that case, the preferences of both people should have equal weight.
PR: What insights would you want allo (non-asexual) readers to take away from your book?
AC: The questions that aces have regarding sexuality and desire are questions that almost everyone (ace or not) will deal with at some point, and a lot can be gained from the ace perspective. Learning about asexuality can encourage allos to rethink their very definitions of sexual attraction and sexuality. It can help them consider more carefully the ways that sexuality intersects with race and disability and gender; the ways we privilege romantic relationships over friendships; the invisible inequalities in relationships and consent. It can help them think through questions such as the difference between platonic and romantic feelings and the difference between “normal” low-sexual desire and asexuality and a medical condition. The ace lens really offers new ways of evaluating sexual ethics and pleasures and intimacy.
About Angela Chen
Angela Chen is a journalist and writer in New York City. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, Guardian, Paris Review, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. Chen is a member of the ace community and has spoken about asexuality at academic conferences and events including World Pride. Find her on Twitter @chengela or at angelachen.org.