This interview was originally conducted for the LGBTQ&A podcast.
On paper, it sounds simple: People who are asexual don't experience sexual attraction. But as Angela Chen reveals in her new book, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, asexuality encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences, each filled with nuances and complexities that contribute to longheld misunderstandings around the asexual community.
Asexuals (also known as "ace" or "aces") can feel repulsed or indifferent to sex; aces can also enjoy sex. There are a myriad of reasons why people have sex, apart from sexual attraction. "Emotional reasons," Chen says, or, "You might be bored, or you really love someone, or you want to feel attractive and desired and sexy. That can hide, for many people, their own asexuality." This was the case for Chen who originally learned what asexuality was when she was 14. She read the definition and like many, equated it as hating sex, knowing right away that that didn't describe her. It wasn't until her 20s that she discovered how wrong she was. Now a science journalist, Chen has turned her reporting on herself and other aces to author Ace,a crucial new book that will expand readers' beliefs about what it means to be queer.
To celebrate the release of Ace, Angela Chen spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about the large diversity of asexual experiences, the myth of sexual liberation, and why the goal of the asexual movement is to tell people: "You're not broken if you're different."
Jeffrey Masters: Many queer people first begin to experience and understand their sexual orientation through sexual attraction. Without sexual attraction, can you talk about how you experience your queerness? Angela Chen: That's something that's really complicated. One thing with asexuality is that, in some ways, the orientation is based around what you don't experience. So then you have to explain what it is you don't experience, which is this weird, philosophical question. For me, when I feel attracted to someone, it's like having a crush on them. I want to date them. I could see us being romantic partners and I even have an aesthetic type. Some people are hot. Some people are less hot, but there's not a sexual motivation for it.
And I also want to make clear that being asexual is not the same as being aromantic because sex and romance aren't the same. Many people are asexual and they are heteroromantic or panromantic or biromantic. And there are some people who are asexual who are aromantic, meaning that they just don't experience romantic attraction to others, though, of course, they might love their friends or their family very much.
JM: Does it pose a challenge that in order to talk about asexuality with parents or coworkers, sex has to be a part of the conversation? AC: Yeah, absolutely. The funny thing is, my parents just don't know what the book is about. If you Google my name, the book's going to come up within two seconds, it'll stay on the jacket copy, "in her own experience as an asexual journalist," but I'm not out to my parents, in part, because it really feels like I'd be talking to them about my sex life in a way. I've talked to other aces about it and they've said the same thing where it feels almost more inappropriate.
JM: Did it take a while for you to become comfortable with the asexual label for yourself? AC: Absolutely. In many ways, I still feel some ambivalence about it. I like talking to other aces and other people in the queer community because I feel like I can be more honest. There are people who still say asexuality doesn't exist. You're just repressed. Or maybe there's something physically medically wrong with you. And because there are so many naysayers, of course, there is this pressure to dig your heels in and say, "Not only am I asexual, I love being asexual 24/7. It's the best thing in the world," because you don't want to give them any room to invalidate you. It's a long process.
JM: Naysayers aside, are you able to say that you love being ace? AC: I don't know if I love being ace. I think I'm at the point in my life where I don't reject it. I don't think I ever rejected it in the sense that I ever thought, "Oh, there's something wrong with it." But I always thought it was maybe something that was inconvenient. I don't say I love it even now, but I think I'm getting much closer to it the more ace people I know. And honestly having written the book, having thought through all of these things in much more detail than before makes me think, "OK, this is a thing. This is what I am."
JM: One of the things that you wrote was that in our public imagination, the opposite of sexually liberated is sexually repressed. And that is an insult. It is a bad thing. It made me think about how sexual liberation is a celebrated part of queer history, and being sexually liberated is framed as something for all humans to aspire to. AC: I think that's part of what makes asexuality's place politically, especially in the queer community, so complicated and nuanced. I don't think we don't need to make these assumptions that everyone loves sex or needs to love sex. Or that if you don't love sex, then you are sexually repressed or sexually conservative. I think sexual variation exists. Some people have higher sex drives. Some people have lower sex drives, but because queer people have been shamed so much, it's so hard to make that argument without feeling like you're the enemy, like you're trying to shame people, that you're trying to tell people to not do what they want to do.
It's really about moving pressures and this kind of normalization of a certain level of sexuality when there should be a multiplicity of different types of sexuality and sexual behavior and sexual desire. But I think it can be really hard to make that argument without sounding like you're just a prude, without sounding like you just don't want people to enjoy having sex, which is not the case.
JM: It can be easy to think, "Oh, I don't want to participate in sex parties. Thusly, I am defective." AC: I think this is often very true, especially for people who are female, because it is true that often, the patriarchy has made women sexually repressed. So there's always this questioning, "Oh, what have men done to me to make me not want to have sex parties and not want to have lots of partners?" And sometimes, it is the patriarchy, but sometimes it's just that people are different. It doesn't always mean that not wanting sex or not loving sex means that there's something wrong with you or that you need to deprogram yourself.
I also think it's such a complicated place because, of course, purity culture exists. Of course, sex shame exists, right? How do we talk about this and reclaim it without being moralistic, without edging into purity culture, without edging into shaming in some way? That is something that we, being aces, need to think about carefully.
JM: Did you find any couples who have navigated sexual incompatibility successfully in your research? AC: I have. I think that when it comes to sexual incompatibility, there is a real bias in how we think about it. There's this attitude that the lower desire partner is the one who has the problem, and so they should do all the work and basically just somehow make themselves want sex more.
Even for me, when I think about asking the lower desire partner, "You should have more sex," that feels more natural to me than asking a higher desire partner, "Maybe you should try having less sex." I think it really makes it clear that there is a bias that we really do see low sexual desires as a problem of one person, instead of as a problem of compatibility. When there's a mismatch, most times, we think it's the lower desire partner's fault, but there have been people have been able to make it work.
For some, it involved open relationships, even though of course, even open relationships, you need to keep having these conversations so you don't become resentful. For some, I think it's involved accepting that maybe, sure, sex is a source of stress and they're not super sexually compatible, but all the other things about relationships are worth it for them.
JM: Historically, I find it really compelling that we have an online record of the naming of the asexual community. Words like nonsexual and antisexual were considered. Was there debate about anchoring the word within sexuality? AC: At the beginning of the asexual movement in the early 2000s, there were a lot of discussions about what it meant to be asexual. And in the beginning, it was more about celibacy. It was mostly about behavior. "Oh, I don't have sex. I also don't want sex." And there were all of these side conversations about, "Oh, if you masturbate, are you still asexual or does that disqualify you?" And eventually, I think the decision was to make it based on attraction because that's the way all the other orientations work, right? And so it felt like this was a sexual orientation.
It felt like this should be something that could be a coalition-building and a way to be part of the greater LGBT community. I think it was very strategic. The movement has been around for 20 years and that's recent enough that it's still growing and it's still very much evolving quickly.
JM: There were so many people in the book who are nonbinary and identify as asexual. Were those connections something you knew before beginning to work on the book? AC: I was surprised by the amount of people that I talked to who were nonbinary. But as I spoke to them, it made sense. Many people said that for them, so many things felt related. They were questioning their gender and I think gender and sexuality are often very connected. And then they're also kind of questioning their sexuality.
One person said that to them, asexuality was the clearest idea of how they were "different." And once they understood that, it was like unlocking these other identities. Once they were like, "Oh, I'm asexual," it helped them understand, "Oh, maybe I'm not whatever gender that was assigned to me." And so, yeah, I think the way that gender and sexuality combine, and once you unhook one of them, it can be easier to question and unhook many other things.