I’ve got to hand it to Angela Chen: The woman knows how to whip up a food metaphor.
Take this nugget: “It is possible to lack the experience of sexual attraction without being repulsed by sex, just like it is possible to neither physically crave nor be disgusted by a food like crackers but still enjoy eating them as part of a cherished social ritual.”
And another: “A person can feel physiological hunger, which would be like sex drive, without craving a specific dish, which would be more like sexual attraction.”
These explanatory gems glint throughout Chen’s new book, “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex,” which reads as part memoir, part ethnography. A journalist by trade who identifies as asexual, Chen charts her own complicated journey to naming her sexual orientation while interlacing anecdotes and insights from scores of other asexual, or ace, individuals — alongside an abundance of research. She unspools the concept of sexuality, revealing various threads, like romantic, aesthetic and sexual attraction, nudging the reader to consider not only how sexuality is regarded in the asexual community, but how it plays out in each of our lives, regardless of how or whom we desire.
Chen talked with us about how exploring asexuality upended her views about consent, whether she thinks we have the capacity to escape our cultural conditioning, and David Foster Wallace.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nneka McGuire: To get us started, can you talk me through the impetus for writing “Ace”?
Angela Chen: So when I was discovering and understanding my asexuality, there was a sense of frustration that it had taken until my mid-20s to understand. Not only that, but I had to go looking — it wasn’t something that was just in the air the way heterosexuality, for example, is just in the air. No one has to go looking for heterosexuality, right? Whereas asexuality felt like something that was very hidden and that was very difficult to find, but that once you did, regardless of whether you were ace or not — and, of course, I do happen to be ace — it felt like it was this lens and framework for looking at the world that had so much to offer about disentangling sexual desire and attraction, aesthetic attraction; for thinking about health; for thinking about consent in relationships.
I felt like there was so much richness that the ace lens offered, but that it was so difficult for most people to find. And at the same time, I’d been a journalist all my career. I was a journalist before I identified as asexual. I knew how to report, I knew how to write, I knew people in the industry. So it seemed like this very natural way to bring my skills and this interest in asexuality together.
NM: You did this quite adeptly in the book, but was it difficult to weave your personal trajectory thinking through your asexuality with all of the researching and reporting you did? As a journalist, sometimes it is difficult to meld those two worlds.
AC: I think it was tricky to get the balance. I always knew that the book was going to be reported because one of the goals was to show how diverse asexuality could be, how many different kinds of experiences there are and how many different ways there are to be asexual. By definition, you can’t have that when you’re just writing about your experience, right? I always knew that I was going to talk to a lot of people who were sex-repulsed and celibate or who were sex-favorable and they were in relationships. I think what was difficult was figuring out how much of my own story to tell. The difficulty for me was that, as I was learning my sexuality, I had thoughts that were maybe judgmental; I had misconceptions, too. And sometimes it was hard for me to be honest, because a part of me wanted to be this great role model. But, of course, I think it’s more important to show growth — and that included showing the times when I was less shiny, and the times when I felt more ambivalent, and the times in which I still remain confused about some aspects of asexuality.
NM: There’s a section in the book where you talk about ever more specific terms surrounding asexuality — like “gray-asexual,” or only occasionally feeling sexual attraction — and how some people find that precision comforting and others find it less than legitimate. Why do you think that tension exists?
AC: I think it has to do with the level in which you feel you need that terminology. So I identify as asexual, of course, but there are many other more specific terms that I could use. But I don’t feel the need to look more deeply into those specific terms, I feel pretty comfortable with asexual, that’s fine for me. Whereas some people, they might identify more with an even more specific term.
At the same time, it can also be really overwhelming to keep up with everything. So I think that there should be more generosity, too, in understanding that not everyone will understand every specific term.
NM: At one point in the book, you write, “Here is something else that aces want to tell everyone: sexual attraction is not the only kind of attraction.” Are there other messages that you really, really hope people take away from this book and carry with them through the world?
AC: I’m trying to think of a way in which to say this that is not hokey, but I might just have to go the hokey way. So everyone always quotes that David Foster Wallace speech, “This Is Water,” right? Where the fish asks, what is water? I think that in society, more and more, we’re discovering so many things that are water, and that we’re swimming around in it and we don’t even realize it. I think compulsory sexuality often is one part of that. It’s complex, because this varies by where you live in the world and maybe a particular culture, but so often we are hemmed in by these assumptions about how it’s normal to want sex and we should put sex at the center of our lives, and sex is the greatest way to have pleasure. Many people don’t even realize that we are hemmed in by that, and it takes the ace lens to help us realize the extent to which that is another form of water. So I think that’s something that I would put out there: that compulsive sexuality is a very potent force, one that many people don’t notice. And that once you do notice it, I think it will free up the way you think about yourself and your relationships and other people.
NM: When you were able to identify as asexual, did you feel more freedom? Did it feel liberating personally for you?
AC: I don’t know if it actually felt liberating for me. I think that in many ways, the things that I want are the same for my own life. I do experience romantic attraction and I do want a romantic partner, and being asexual didn’t change that. I think identifying as asexual, for me, was about the clarity that it gave me. Even though what I actually wanted in life didn’t change that much, I was able to see things that I wasn’t able to see before. I was able to think and question romance and friendship and attraction and the roles that they play in our lives in ways I wasn’t before. And I think it was valuable, even if that didn’t necessarily change my goals for my life. It was freeing in terms of it helped me see further.
NM: I wonder if you think that we really have the capacity to break free from our cultural conditioning about sexuality being at the center of our lives. Because it seems to me like you’re saying that if people, regardless of their sexual orientation, adopt some aspects of the ace framework, they might be able to have better relationships all around. I’m curious if you think we can get there.
AC: I think that we can get there, but I don’t think it’ll be done individually. That’s something I write in the end, that we are so constrained by norms. So, for example, one of the ways in which it is common to privilege a romantic partner over your close friends is that it’s pretty normal to move for your romantic partner, right? But it’s not normal to move for a friend, even if you love them just as much as you love your romantic partner. Now, say that you’re one person and you’ve decided, oh, I’m going to buck this trend. I’m going to feel comfortable moving for my friends. That doesn’t do much if none of your friends feel comfortable moving for you. Relationships, by definition, they’re so interpersonal, I feel like it requires this network effect where we need to get enough people to see things in the same way. One person deciding they’re going to live in this radical way is great, but it won’t get us very far.
NM: How has exploring asexuality, both personally and in your work, affected how you think about consent?
AC: It has really affected how I think about consent. I think that it is very common to just think that in relationships, the lower-desire partner is broken somehow, it’s their job to fix their sex drive and women especially need to be managing their sex drive and be ready to go. There’s all of these gendered stereotypes and all of these expectations. Exploring the ace framework has really made me see how fundamentally unfair that is and how there’s this double standard in which you’re supposed to be able to say no to any stranger, but you’re not allowed to say no to a partner. I don’t think that’s right. And I think it’s very hard to internalize that. Even if you completely believe that intellectually. But I think the first step is getting your mind there and then hopefully your emotions will follow.
NM: In another, say, 20 to 30 years from now, looking back, what would make you feel like the ace movement is really thriving? Would that be more visibility? Less explanation when talking to a group of people about asexuality? A diversity of relationships being the norm in society?
AC: I think it would just be less assumptions. Right now, if you meet someone, usually the assumption is that they’re straight. And if they’re in a relationship, you assume it’s a monogamous relationship. I think that what would make me happy, even more so than specifically asexuality or aceness being more visible and everyone knowing all these terms that I talk about in the book, is just having fewer assumptions. You don’t assume that someone is gay or straight, they could be ace. You don’t assume that, for example, liberated women love sex and that if someone doesn’t love sex, that’s because they’ve been oppressed. You don’t assume that someone is monogamous.
You don’t assume that if your sexual desire is changing, then that’s your problem. I want to see more acceptance of sexual diversity and more acceptance of diversity in different types of relationships. And I suppose I hope that one day aces will take it for granted and read my book and be like, “I don’t know what she’s complaining about. She’s so sensitive.”