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"We Are More Than a Lesson"
Angela Chen on ace identity beyond the trivia trap
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First things first: aces, if you’d rather not read the preamble that accompanies so many pieces about asexuality, please skip to the bold section below.
For others less familiar with asexuality, here’s how journalist (and ace!) Angela Chen describes it in her book, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. When she first encountered the simple, dictionary-style definition — experiencing no sexual attraction — it didn’t seem to match whatever she was trying to identify in her own experience of attraction. It took a decade (and a relationship) for her understanding to clarify.
“I had long known that sexual attraction and sexual behavior are not the same and that one does not necessarily limit the other. I knew that, generally speaking, sexual behavior is under our control while sexual attraction is not. It was always clear that a gay man or a straight woman could each have sex with women without that affecting who either is attracted to. I had understood that asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction while celibacy is the lack of sexual behavior.
Reading more, I understood for the first time that it is possible to lack the experience of sexual attraction without being repulsed by sex, just like it is possible to neither physically crave not be disgusted by a food like crackers but still enjoy eating them as part of a cherished social ritual. Being repulsed by sex is a fairly obvious indication of the lack of sexual attraction, but a lack of sexual attraction can also be hidden by social performativity or wanting (and having) sex for emotional reason — and because the different types of desire are bound together so tightly, it can be difficult to untangle the various strands.”
And, as she clarifies:
“Aces today are not concerned with how to have sex, but we are not anti-sex either. We don’t ask people to stop having sex or feel guilty for enjoying it. We do ask that all of us question our sexual beliefs and promise that doing so means that the world would be a better and freer place for everyone.”
I wanted to talk to Angela because her book is exquisitely written, deeply empathetic, and challenging in the best possible way. But I also wanted to talk to her because I wanted to do something slightly different with this interview, namely, position it with the understanding that it was for an audience of ace people, not just allosexual people (aka, people who feel sexual attraction for other people) who are curious about how aces think and feel and understand the world differently. So when I DM’ed her, and her immediate response was to ask that I not begin the interview by asking her to define ace — and to presume an ace audience — I knew we were on the same page.
What follows is an attempt to discuss not just what being ace is, but the particular insights of an ace perspective, the thrills and challenges of increased visibility, the “trivia trap,” and Angela’s own experience with interviewing hundreds of aces over the course of writing her book. (The first few questions are from me, but the second half of the interview is filled with questions from ace members of the larger Culture Study community.)
Regardless of your sexuality, I hope you’ll seek out Angela’s book — it really is fantastic — and heed the words she uses to end its first chapter: “I hope that ace readers see themselves here and feel understood. I hope that non-ace readers also recognize parts of themselves and gain concepts and tools to help them puzzle out their own confusions around how to be in the world. We are all still figuring it out.”
In your writing about aces’ relationship to sexual attraction, you point out that “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.” And then you add: “To many allos, this is unexpected. Their surprise reveals a failure not in naming, but in the fact that few people think about sexuality and sexual attraction closely enough.”
It’s such a great compliment to the anecdote that opens the book, when you describe meeting a friend and asking her to describe what sexual attraction feels like — and she struggles mightily to put it to words. Most allos are so accustomed to feeling like the way they experience the world (particularly in terms of sexual attraction) is the status quo. You can exchange “allos” for all sorts of postures of privilege there — whiteness, bourgeois/middle-class-ness, citizenship status, the list goes on. Making the “natural” specific and even strange is so useful, in so many different ways. Did thinking through your own sexual identity challenge you to examine other parts of your identity you’d taken for granted?
I really like that you started with that quote about examining sexual attraction because I keep telling everyone that, on some level, my book is about language and experience and how one can obfuscate the other. It’s true that many allos feel that the way they experience the world is the status quo, but I’d say that some aces also think that at first—and that’s why, for so long, they can never quite put their finger on why exactly they seem “different” or where it’s coming from.
In the book, I give the example of how, in middle school, I’d use the same language as everyone else—he’s hot, he’s not hot, he’s cute, I’d date him—and not realize that what I meant by these words was different from what my friends meant. There are so many examples like this, in every realm. Say you’re really tired but then everyone you know is tired, so you think it’s nothing. But not talking in detail about the specificity of your fatigue can keep you from going to the doctor and realizing that you actually have a medical issue going on. You’re not experiencing the same thing as everyone else, it just seems like you are, and once you dig deeper so many things make more sense.
Just recently, I was with a couple of friends and one was talking about how she found someone physically attractive but not sexually attractive, and the other was asking what the difference was. (The first friend said, “You know how you can find someone hot, but then you make out with them and it’s horrible?”) Both of these friends are allosexual—so it’s not an “ace thing” to make assumptions and have questions about the enormous spectrum of sexuality and experience. It’s very common. And broadly, many people still don’t understand that sexual attraction isn’t the same as sex drive, or get the difference between sexual and romantic and aesthetic attractions, or that it’s possible to not experience sexual attraction but want sex for other reasons. There are lots of people out there who don’t yet realize they’re on the ace spectrum.
But back to your actual question about whether realizing I was ace made me question my other identities. In many cases, I wouldn’t say it made me question, but it did help me clarify. I’m Asian whether I’m ace or not. But some of my initial aversion to identifying as ace had to do with thinking that it confirmed stereotypes of docile, submissive Asian women, and that reaction made me think more about the existence of such stereotypes.
Investigating asexuality made me rethink what I believe, even if these beliefs are not necessarily tied to my identities. Aces have been—and should be—at the forefront of a lot of important cultural conversations.
Along those lines — can you talk a bit more about the role of aces in sexual politics just generally and sexual liberation more specifically?
True sexual and romantic liberation is not possible without incorporating the ace and aromantic perspectives. Full stop.
I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember. But certain strains of feminism have presented the idea that all women are naturally horny and if they’re not, it’s always because they need to work on themselves to break the chains of patriarchy and overcome shame, or else they’re broken or not truly liberated. And on and on.
The conversation around this has been changing recently, as shown by the trend pieces on Gen Z thinking sex positivity is overrated—and these are similar to critiques that aces have been making for a long time. It was never “leftist sexual pressure is only bad for aces.” It’s “leftist sexual pressure is bad for everyone, and often especially so for aces.” It’s also not “let’s go back to purity culture,” but “true sexual liberation means no sexual pressure in any direction.”
Of course sexual double standards and such are responsible for a lot of sexual shame, and a lot of these messages to work on yourself are well-meaning. But it seems eminently reasonable that humans simply vary in the amount of sexual desire or sexual attraction we experience, and shame is not always the reason that people don’t care about sex. It’s exhausting to constantly be worrying that you’re a bad feminist for being indifferent to sex, or that you’re old and boring if you don’t care about it that much and have other pleasures that make your life just as full and exciting.
I thought about this recently while reading this piece on nocturnal ultra-introverts. It’s the same pattern: there’s an experience that challenges how people are supposed to be, and then well-meaning folks think, “for their own good, we should push them to change themselves.” I think we should generally let people be the authority on themselves, especially when the overwhelming pressure is already coming from the side that says to keep trying to be different.
Aces have important perspectives on consent, too. For example, aces prove it’s possible to consent to sex with someone you’re not sexually attracted to. Since that’s the case, any framework that makes enthusiastic consent (“I want you because I’m horny”) the only “real” consent is hollow; after all, many aces cannot give enthusiastic consent but certainly can still consent overall. Aces are breaking down the yes/no consent binary and further challenging the belief—which seems archaic but exists as an undercurrent—that entering a relationship means giving up a measure of consent. (Many people, even otherwise progressive folks, think that “no” is a complete sentence when it comes to strangers but don’t believe that within the context of loving relationships.) And aromantic folks, who have a lot of overlap with aces, have done so much questioning of what romance is and questioning of the centrality and elevation of it.
For me, personally, I’m still intrigued by basic questions over what attraction even is. (I’ve spoken to the scholar Luke Brunning about this and he says that philosophers don't even have a simple, consensus definition, which I find comforting.) I’m interested in asexuality and race—Daniel Yo-Ling runs a reading group on this and I’ve been enjoying the texts—and asexuality and health.
I have so many questions around beauty and power and asexuality and what casual reactions to asexuality reveal about what people prioritize culturally. For instance, it’s common for people to joke that aces must get so much done because we’re not sexually distracted, but why would you assume that any extra time, if that even exists, would be spent on productivity and not other forms of joy?
From my corner of the internet and world, it seems like asexuality is receiving a lot more media attention and coverage — what are the upsides and downsides of this sort of visibility?
I try to center asexuality in my work and I’m grateful that there’s more general interest in the topic. But it’s necessary to simultaneously highlight ace identity and see where ace issues fit beyond identity.
Asexuality is the identity category. Compulsory sexuality—the belief that every normal, healthy adult should experience sexual attraction and desire—is the structural force that affects so many people, including but not limited to aces. (Of course, compulsory sexuality varies over place and time and it can exist alongside purity culture. One of the people I interviewed for the book, Hunter, grew up within purity culture and then experienced intense compulsory sexuality after marriage.)
It's not that every article about aceness needs to be about compulsory sexuality. We are not defined by that and already know about compulsory sexuality anyway. I would love more coverage of ace identity that focuses on ace joy and ace creativity and possibility. But right now, a lot of mainstream coverage focuses on ace identity in a narrow way without discussing structural forces either and therefore falls into a series of traps.
One is the “trivia trap”: you learn about something and it becomes a fun fact that you never think about again because it seems irrelevant to your life. Asexuality is often presented like this: a word that Tinder can blog about and then everyone who’s not asexual can memorize the definition but not absorb the implications. This is how you get salacious headlines about “the people who’ll never have sex” or, Daily Mail-style, “the ASEXUAL people who STILL HAVE SEX.” These only ever seem to be talking about ace folks, never talking to us. It focuses on identity in a blunt, gawking way.
Then there’s the “for thee but not for me” trap, which I wrote about in this article about sex therapy. In that context, the idea can be, “if you’re ace, let’s stop pressuring you to have sex, but if you’re not ace, let’s keep pushing for more sex.” This leads to so much questioning—self-questioning and others questioning you—about which one you are, because there is this belief that being ace can give you permission to be yourself, but otherwise, you gotta keep trying to be like everyone else. Then people torture themselves trying to figure out where they fit. Instead, what if we challenged the idea that there have to be normative levels of sexual attraction or desire for anyone? As I wrote in the article, “more important than categorizing clients [into ace or not ace] is starting from a place where everyone is okay” and from that place you can ask more questions about what people want and don’t want and why.
Yet another failure mode (there are so many!) in thinking about these issues is believing that ace or aromantic experience only has value when it teaches something to non-aces. I reject that; we are more than a lesson.
I don’t want aces to be seen as separate from everyone else, or always discussed in the context of negative forces, or viewed extractively in terms of offering life hacks for others. I want to hold the discussion to a higher standard: I want coverage of ace joy and discussion of compulsory sexuality; our value is inherent and we have been on the forefront of conversations that can open up a better world for everyone. Aces and aros are not the only people questioning these issues—that’s ahistorical and erases other groups—but we have an important part.
Thinking about your book — what was the experience of interviewing so many aces — and becoming familiar with, as you put it, so many “ace worlds” like for you, personally? Did it feel like fellowship? Overwhelming? Please take this wherever you’d like.
It can seem like many aces are young, white, and extremely online. Nothing wrong with that, but I’m young-ish, Asian, and try very hard to be only semi-online. So getting to talk to older aces and aces of color, particularly, was wonderful. So was talking to aces who are part of many other queer communities.
I really liked talking to people who were just very different from me in personality—loud and showy and attention-loving, whereas I’m quiet and don't really like the spotlight. It made me realize that some of the more negative experiences I had thought of as the price of being ace, like being self-conscious or defensive about asexuality, were actually just…me. Having the opportunity to meet a lot of different people that share an identity will always complicate and expand what that identity means, and which parts you think are inherent to it and which aren’t.
I’m going to turn it over now to a few questions from ace members of the Culture Study community:
“I’m noticing way more ace content and discussions about non-traditional partnerships and questions society’s obsession with romantic love and amatonormativity. Have you noticed this? Do you think that society at large is getting a teeny tiny bit closer to unpacking the obsession with romantic love and coupledom?”
Oh, absolutely. Just in the past couple of weeks, there was a big feature on friendship and a piece on platonic life partners. There has been a New Yorker feature about communal living and a Substack on the same topic. This conversation is moving into the mainstream, and there’ll be a book out on platonic partners soon, by Rhaina Cohen, that I am excited about.
There are so many parts of coupledom worth unpacking, even beyond questioning the traditional monogamous romantic relationship. I’ve talked to folks with people who do want a monogamous romantic-sexual relationship—but one in which they don’t see each other that often, and they’re tired of being told that this means they should be poly or that they secretly don’t like each other that much. There are relationships in which people are long-distance and don’t ever intend to live in the same house. There are co-parenting relationships of many types.
There are even the smallest things to question. I’ve had multiple conversations with friends who say that they sleep better when they don’t share a bed with their partner, but their partner gets upset because sleeping in separate beds would send the wrong signal somehow, even if the request is just about tossing and turning less at night.
I hope this conversation about rethinking coupledom will be expanded into a conversation about rethinking bonds and care in general. There is more to care, and to love, than horizontal relationships. As someone with a disabled and mentally incapcitated parent, I think constantly about the crushing costs (financial and otherwise) of eldercare. I think about the costs of childcare. You can subvert the traditional romantic relationship, but you might still have parents or want children, so how does that fit in? It’s all connected. Reimagining the big-tent structures that govern care and cost in these seemingly other realms will make horizontal relationship alternatives feel truly possible to put into practice.
Another reader question:
“I’m glad you’re talking about the stigma that aces face, even within the border LBGTQ community. I’d be interested in learning more about how aces can better navigate a world that isn’t designed for them — and a community that doesn’t always understand them. What might a more ace-friendly future look like?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of vision, in the context of my job, my writing, and my life. It’s common for people (including myself) to have taste, and critical thinking skills, and dissatisfaction with the status quo, and still be primarily reactive. There is a difference between knowing something is wrong and having a detailed vision for what would be better. Vision isn’t just “a future without this bad thing”—it’s knowing what that looks like and feels like, intellectually and viscerally.
When people learn about asexuality, the first thing they’re told is “still”: you can still have a relationship, you can still be married and have kids. That’s important because oftentimes, people are really looking for that comfort first and foremost. But we also have to move beyond “still” and go to “what else is possible that we didn’t think was possible before?” Beyond fitting in? To go back to what I was saying earlier, it’s about the specifics.
I bring this up because having a specific vision for the future—and of course not all ace and aro people can or will agree on that vision—is key for helping navigate the world as it is now. It gives you something to hold on to, and can make the work of navigating obstacles in service to that larger goal, not just another frustrating interaction. It’s meaning-making. And that can provide a sense of agency that’s important when structural issues feel suffocating.
More concretely, it can be helpful to flip the way that aces often think about these conversations around our needs. The typical stance seems to be, “this is something that I would like, are you willing to accomodate this for me?” That’s fine and often accurate. But what if it weren’t always about us being the supplicants? What if it were framed more as “here are some other options, some you may like trying, what do you think?” Plenty of people who can fit into traditional relationships would be happier with different arrangements. The framing doesn’t always need to be “I’m weird, can you work with that?” but “we all want different things, how can we, together, navigate and deconstruct and try new things?”
As to what I think an ace-friendly future would look like: more choices and less stigma. That is probably the most concise way to put it. More ways to find connection and more types of connection available. Many different routes to meeting people and dating beyond the apps and questioning what dating even is, and what people are looking for. Various forms of co-parenting and co-living. As I mentioned earlier, different conceptualizations of care and bonds, including on a policy and tax level. All of us deciding what brings us pleasure and being fine with whatever it is or isn’t.
And one more:
“So much of the narrative around medical transitioning for trans people is framed in terms of “but will it make sex better?” or “will it make me more sexually attractive?” Have you encountered any strategies for Ace trans folk navigating their changing bodies?”
I’m a cis woman, so do take this with a grain of salt. Some non-binary and/or trans aces I’ve learned from are Sherronda J. Brown, who has a book about Black asexuality out in September, and Lily Zheng.
I remember interviewing a trans woman for the book and she said that many people assured her that once she transitioned, she wouldn’t be ace anymore. People do sometimes want to explain away asexuality in this way, or really focus on the “better sex” part of it.
Better sex might be important for other people—but if it’s not for you, it’s just not for you, and that doesn’t mean that your reasons for transitioning are any less important. To be flippant for a second, someone told me that in these kinds of sentences, they will replace “sex” with some random other word—like “lemons” or “Squid Game”—to take some of the weight off. I think about that a lot. Because of the place that sex has in our society, it’s hard to read the word and listen to the narrative without attaching this bundle of meaning. That baggage can be automatic even if these things don’t actually matter to you. But if you think, “but will transitioning make lemons better?” it’s like, well, I don’t care about making lemons better, I’m doing it for my own, other reasons and that’s fine.
And finally: Which beloved characters, “real” or fictional, past or present, are totally low-key (or high-key!) ace?
I am the worst person to answer this! I’m a huge pedant when it comes to real historical folks and my friends all make fun of me for being out of touch with pop culture. For thoughtful engagement with ace rep in culture or queer history, you’ll want to look to folks like Julie Kliegman, Sara Ghaleb, Lily Herman, and Michael Waters. (That said, I was in an ace studies reading group last summer with some wonderful academics who study Shakespeare and classics and they had great ace readings of those texts.)
I do think about ace literature and ace movies and what I want from that going forward. The coming out plot that doubles as ace 101 has been helpful, but I hope ace works can also explore ace relationality and all the things I’ve been talking about. Not just having an episode where someone says “an asexual person is someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction, but they can still have sex and relationships,” and leaves it at that. I’m thinking, plotlines around how aces and aros think about friendship differently, aspec family, caretaking, all of that. What I want, always, is true multiplicity.
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