In “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex,” journalist and science writer Angela Chen uses interviews, research and personal experience to offer a framework that loosens stigmas about relationships, emotion and sex in a culture that operates on “compulsory sexuality.”
That term, borrowed from Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” is one Chen uses to describe “the belief that lust is universal and to be otherwise is to be abnormal.” The idea that sex is the ultimate connection between two people and the narrative that sex is a sign of maturity almost always go unquestioned. A person who has no desire for sex, even if they are in a monogamous romantic relationship, is regarded as somehow broken under compulsory sexuality. Even the most progressive feminist and queer spaces almost always center sexual liberation in their narratives. But, Chen writes, we have a lot to gain from “thinking more critically about whether these stories [are] true and, if so, what they might imply about how we connect sex and politics and power.”
“Because sexual variation exists,” Chen continues, “there is no universal vision of liberated sexuality.”
The population of ace people is thought to hover around 1 percent, but, Chen writes, “because there are so many misconceptions about what it means to not experience sexual attraction and so few positive examples of aces in popular culture, I suspect the number may be much higher.”
How can asexuality and the ace perspective challenge the biases of compulsory sexuality and relationship hierarchies? This is the central question of the book, and Chen expertly and beautifully nudges this discussion forward. For many, this will be an introduction to the concept, and there is a bit of 101 here, but it will also be a balm — and a learning experience — for aces. Chen writes about more expansive ideas of connection in a world that values romantic partnerships above all others.
“The concept of sex itself is constructed,” Chen writes. Ace people “interrogate the ways that these norms make our lives smaller,” and in so doing, “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.”
The relationships between someone who is ace and someone who is not, writes Chen, “like all relationships, take creativity, patience, and vulnerability, and require both partners to investigate and then violate the lessons we are taught about sex, to interrogate and reframe their own beliefs and desires and beliefs about desires.” Every person benefits from this kind of examination. “Ace” is a fantastic starting point for dismantling harmful sexual narratives and reimagining human connection as a broader, more equitable, enjoyable and free experience.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic.
What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex
By Angela Chen
Beacon Press. 224 pp. $26.95