ELIZA BREWER interviews ANGELA CHEN
Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex is Angela Chen’s first book: an incredible feat considering the breadth of topics that Chen covers with the adroitness that only an experienced journalist could bring. This is a book about asexuality, the often overlooked ‘A’ in LGBTQIA, and the ace community. But the book also challenges everyone, regardless of sexual identity, to interrogate their own relationship to romance, sex, desire, and culture. Chen is particularly interested in the phenomenon of compulsory sexuality, which, in her own words, describes, “a set of assumptions and behaviors that support the idea that 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.”
With this book, Chen creates a platform to discuss how compulsory sexuality harms not only the ace community, but anyone wanting to engage seriously with the idea of sexual liberation. For Chen, “true sexual liberation means having many choices—no sex forever, sex three times a day, and everything in between—that all feel equally available and accepted, and that all can lead to happiness if they are right for you.” By centering ace stories, Chen allows asexuality to speak for itself, to make its own case, telling the story of a group who has historically had to carve out places for themselves and their unique joys in a world which more often than not views them as lacking, lying, or nonexistent.
The Common’s editorial assistant Eliza Brewer spoke by phone with Chen about the role of place in developing one’s relationship to sexuality, writing for a diverse audience, and being ace in spaces dominated by narratives of compulsory sexuality. The interview has been edited for length and flow.
EB: I was really excited when your book came out. I’m ace myself and the literature on asexuality is remarkably limited. The canon is being written right now, and you’re a part of that. To start out, I’d like to know how this book came into being.
AC: The short answer is that I have always been a professional journalist, and at one point in my twenties I discovered that I was ace. That discovery made me realize that there’s so much that the ace perspective has to bring to the rest of the world regardless of how you identify and that these very vital and core conversations were happening but that they weren’t being brought to the mainstream. Because I’m a journalist and because I knew a little bit about the publishing industry, it seemed like maybe I would be a good person to write about it.
In terms of not having the canon, I think that every book, ideally, is trying to do something new, and so even when there is a canon you are in some ways on your own.
What was difficult for me was the enormous pressure the lack of a canon put on this project. Because there were so few ace books published, I knew that my book had to be really thorough. I also knew that no book, no matter how long, could ever cover all of the ace experience. It would be ludicrous to think that the ace experience could be captured even by 10 books because there’s so much to say. Think about how many books have been written about being heterosexual, right? And so, I really felt keenly the sense that I had to do right, that I had to try and cover as many facets as I could and at every moment I had to say, there is more to say, please don’t let this be the end of what you think asexuality is or think that you’re experts just because you read this.
EB: Yes, I can imagine the pressure was enormous. And I could tell as I was reading your book that you tried to incorporate as many diverse voices as possible. You interviewed nearly one hundred ace individuals for your book; what was it like to interview aces all over the world? Can you talk about something unexpected you learned while interviewing people?
AC: I think what transformed me when writing the book was emotional more than cognitive. Going into this, I had done a lot of research, I’m part of the community, I know and I knew a lot about the arguments that I wanted to make. So, it’s not as if talking to people necessarily taught me any new facts about asexuality. I already had that grounding. What was really powerful was that before doing this book, I didn’t even know one hundred ace people. I had gone to some ace meetups before, but over all of my life I did not live in an ace world and so, even though this was a professional relationship in many ways—it was not friends hanging out—getting to talk to aces from around the world and aces who are similar to me and different from me, it’s like I was finding my own visibility and finding my own sense of representation.
Another thing is that because of who I am—I’m a little bit self-conscious, I am a bit of a people pleaser—I think that at times when relating to my own asexuality, it’s coming from a place of defensiveness. I interviewed people who simply did not have that sentiment about asexuality. They modeled ways to embrace it. They modeled ways to not care about the allo (non ace) gaze, and I think that just showed me that what I had thought was kind of the price of being ace was not that. That I could relate to my own asexuality in a different way. So that was what was really powerful and unexpected.
EB: You said you’ve attended ace meetups before. I’ve never attended an ace meetup that was larger than maybe seven people, and I’m wondering if you have attended any larger ones. Where did they happen and what were they like?
AC: I’ve attended a few in New York City, which is where I live, with the Aces NYC group. Those essentially function like social meetups. At the ones that I went to, there wasn’t that much discussion about asexuality itself; it was mostly people hanging out and talking about movies, which was really fun. Similar to what you’d imagine other meetups are like.
What sticks out in my mind is that in 2019, I went to a conference on asexuality in Vancouver, British Columbia. There were a lot of academics from around the US and Canada discussing their work and many people were either ace themselves or were ace-friendly and already knew a lot about asexuality both in terms of what it’s like and in terms of the theory and the research. I thought that was really interesting, to be talking so deeply about these ideas beyond “Ace 101.” To talk about ace kinship, to talk about how asexuality makes us think differently about law and about society, and also to be able to talk about our own experiences. Now, I’m actually part of a virtual meeting group with a lot of, again, academics. There’s so much space for ace possibility in this group because there will be people talking about asexuality in the classics or asexuality in Shakespeare, not just trying to explain what asexuality is for people who don’t yet know.
EB: We think a lot about sense of place at The Common and you mention in your book that you are from Silicon Valley, what was generally considered a sexually accepting environment. Even so, it didn’t make space for your experience. I’m wondering if you could speak more about where you grew up and how it affected your relationship with sexuality?
AC: Silicon Valley was not hostile to my experience; I think it was just hidden, though it’s a little hard to evaluate because I didn’t realize that I was ace until I left Silicon Valley and was living in NYC. If I had said that I was ace back when I was living there, I don’t know if people would have been openly hostile. The place just didn’t present that option to me. I think that’s also the case for many places.
Silicon Valley nowadays is really thought of as a place that is very sexually progressive when it comes to BDSM, or polyamory, or queer acceptance, and I think that’s definitely true, but I don’t think that means Silicon Valley is any less exempt from being complicit in often not presenting the option of asexuality.
EB: This leads me to another question, which is about a man you interviewed for the book, Hunter, who grew up ace in a religious community. And he talks about experiencing a strange mix of purity culture and compulsory sexuality, which is something that I related to having grown up in Texas. How does compulsory sexuality operate differently in different places? How can something like purity culture exist alongside compulsory sexuality?
AC: I thought that was really interesting too. Hunter was very religious growing up. The way he put it was that even though nobody talks about sex except to warn against temptation, there was this idea that sex was good within marriage and that as long as you did everything right, you were pure, you waited until marriage—marriage being heterosexual, monogamous marriage—then you would be rewarded with the gift of sex. For him, it was purity culture right up until he was married, though even then the assumption that everyone was fighting sexual temptation all the time came from compulsory sexuality. Then, after marriage, compulsory sexuality kicked in even more. He had been told all his life—not explicitly, but through coded signals—that sex is going to be great, you’re going to love it, it’s going to be the best thing ever, and he didn’t experience that. He ended up feeling infantilized. He felt like, was he not really an adult, was he not really the man he was supposed to be?
I find that to be a really fascinating example of how these types of contradictions can live together. Hunter has also said that growing up, even though religion was important to him and he essentially followed purity culture rules, he would still watch pop culture movies. And in those movies, he still absorbed the message that sex is cool, sex is good. So, that’s another way in which compulsory sexuality manifested in all of these complex ways.
I think compulsory sexuality is the reason my book exists. If there were no compulsory sexuality, if everyone were allowed to do what they want without questioning, without making all of these assumptions about someone’s identity based on their level of sexual attraction or who they’re sexually attracted to, no one would find my book interesting because we already would have so much more freedom to choose what we want.
Going back to the defensive point, I often feel like I have to over-explain asexuality. I want to point out that aces aren’t prudes and we actually are not anti-sex and many aces are sex-positive. Compulsory sexuality makes me feel like there is a deficit within me and I need to prove to others that that’s not the case. I’ve been in a long-term relationship for five years now, and I don’t think that compulsory sexuality exists in terms of my relationship, but exists in terms of how I relate to the world and how I question myself.
EB: I was wondering if this defensiveness, misconceptions, or assumptions that people make about asexuality affected your ability to promote this book and pitch it. How have readers responded to your efforts to illuminate asexual experiences?
AC: Readers have responded in lovely ways. I’ve received so many messages from people who are ace but also from people who are ace and didn’t realize it before reading the book because there were so many misconceptions about what it means. And I’ve received messages from parents who said it helped them understand their children and from people who said it’s helped them understand their partners. There is often so much explanation involved in coming out as asexual. Ace readers who recommend the book to their friends and family say that the book plays a role in doing that explanatory labor so that the ace person doesn’t have to.
At the same time, I’ve received quite a few questions that come from a mindset of, why do you need community? What is bothering you? Some allo people don’t seem to believe that compulsory sexuality exists. And so I often have to give allo people examples of emails sent to me; many people are still so oblivious to how much compulsory sexuality shapes us. Because they, not being ace, have not felt that as acutely.
EB: I’m sure you were conscious of the fact that your readership would be both asexual and allosexual as you were writing. What was one of the most challenging aspects of writing about asexuality for a diverse audience?
AC: The question for me was how to center asexuality and ace experience while also making this a bridge. I thought a lot about the politics of explanation because I think that’s a question that’s often in the air. We hear about how it’s not the job of people of color to educate white people about racism, for example. There’s a part of me that thinks, how do I make this a resource and how do I make this thought-provoking without pandering to the allo gaze? That question was always at the top of my mind. I think that what I tried is just letting aces speak for themselves. I think that, as kind of a necessity in marketing, there’s a lot of language about how everyone can learn from this. For a while, I had some complicated thoughts about that. I was wondering, does this make it sound like the book is not for aces but is just trying to water down asexuality?
But ultimately I do truly believe that everyone can gain so much from ace discourse, and I do think that using this book as a way to explain helps aces and I also think the book goes beyond basic explanation to talk about structural factors and complex topics. I also think that the populations of people who are ace and allo are not completely distinct. As I mentioned, many people who thought they were allo read the book and realized that they were ace. Overall, I think I did an okay job of balancing telling diverse ace stories while also broadening it out and showing how this is important to everyone.
The book is about asexuality but it’s also about compulsory sexuality. I do genuinely believe that compulsory sexuality impacts a lot of people whether they’re ace or not. And so, I think that thinking about the book as being about compulsory sexuality with the focus on asexuality helped me think about how to frame it.
EB: You discuss asexuality in relation to feminism, racial identity, and eugenics, and that’s just in part two. How did you arrive at the decision to embark on such a dense journalistic project?
AC: As I mentioned, the decision to write about it was because I had realized I was ace, which gave me language to really interrogate and think deeply about things that I hadn’t thought a lot about before. Once I started thinking about what is the difference between platonic and romantic relationships or what are the differences among aesthetic attraction and romantic attraction and sexual attraction, I thought that was so fascinating. It helped me evaluate relationships in different ways. I really feel like I was gaining a superpower in a way and I wanted others to be able to do that.
At the same time, I realize that ace experience is diverse in the same way that any group’s experience is diverse, but because of the lack of visibility it would be especially important to tease out, as much as I could, the nuances that exist. So, that’s why I knew from the beginning that I had to talk specifically about aces of color, I had to talk specifically about disability. Especially because they were topics that even the ace community sometimes stuffs under the rug.
EB: Before we finish, do you have anything else you’d like to say?
AC: When I give interviews I tend to talk a lot about feeling defensive et cetera, so I want to always make sure that I also emphasize ace joy, that I don’t only discuss asexuality in terms of the struggles of compulsory sexuality. I think it’s definitely true that compulsory sexuality should be dismantled and so on, but I think that aces don’t lack anything. And if anything, I think that being ace helps us see things more clearly. I think it helps us evaluate our relationships in different ways. It often helps us be more creative in how we want to live our lives and be more honest about what we want and what we don’t want and question norms and scripts. Asexuality can bring so much.
Angela Chen is a journalist in New York. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Paris Review and more.
Eliza Brewer is an Editorial Assistant at The Common. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Circus, Outrageous Fortune, Polaris, The Allegheny Review, and Glass Mountain.