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How Asexuals Could Change Our Idea of Desire

Science writer Angela Chen on her interviews with ‘aces’ — and the infinite kinds of attraction

In the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey began interviewing hundreds of subjects on questions related to sexuality. These years of study culminated in what became known as the Kinsey Reports and advanced the idea of thinking of sexuality on a spectrum, rather than as rigid, inflexible categories. This idea manifested as a scale that measured sexual orientation from 0 to 6, wherein 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual. Kinsey’s scale, which is still in popular use today, discredited the idea that women aren’t sexual beings and helped set the stage for the coming sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. But it also erased a group of people who didn’t fit neatly into Kinsey’s scientific model. Kinsey referred to these people as “X.” Today, we would call them asexuals or “aces.”

Aces have been around long before Kinsey and his studies, and yet, asexuality remains somewhat obscured and poorly understood by the general public. In her book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society and the Meaning of Sex, Angela Chen attempts to rectify this, maybe most importantly by showing what the unique perspective of aces can offer to an oversexed society largely organized around questions of sex and gender. “The ace view of the world can be enriching for everyone,” Chen tells me, “but before we can even get to the interesting parts of what asexuality tells us about gender or disability or race or consent, we have to lay the basic groundwork of what asexuality is.”

To that end, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network uses the definition: “An asexual person is a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” Whereas others might have involuntary thoughts about sex, asexuals have an easy time imagining a celibate life. Sex simply isn’t a priority. Nevertheless, asexuality, like pansexuality or homosexuality, is still a sexual orientation. Chen is quick to note asexuality manifests in different ways and aces exist on a spectrum, but at its core, asexuality de-centers sex. In this configuration, sex isn’t central to one’s identity nor in one’s relationships. Instead, asexuals may value other forms of intimacy, such as hand-holding or a shared hobby. Basically, Netflix and chill really is just Netflix and chill.

We often think of sex as something natural or primal, something that bubbles up inside of us involuntarily, but sex, too, is shaped by social forces. Chen describes this as “compulsory sexuality,” a term adapted from the poet Adrienne Rich, which, in asexual discourse, means “a set of assumptions and behavior 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.” Sex is generally assumed to be positive and good. It’s viewed as a sign of a healthy relationship and used to measure one’s self-worth. Conversely, if someone isn’t having sex, something must be wrong. This is one facet of the stigma asexuals face in daily life and is a source of anxiety for many while growing up before they discover that they aren’t alone in their feelings toward sex.

That said, some aces do have sex. To explain these variations, Chen uncouples the idea of sexual attraction from sex drive, two notions we often conflate when they’re in fact distinct phenomena. Sex drive, or libido, “is the desire for sexual release, a set of feelings in the body, often combined with intrusive thoughts.” Sexual attraction adds a specific target to these feelings. In other words, sex drive is feeling horny, and sexual attraction “is horniness toward a specific person.” To make this distinction even more concrete, Chen employs a food metaphor: “A person can feel physiological hunger, which would be like sex drive, without craving a specific dish, which would be like sexual attraction.”

Aces, then, may feel hungry from time to time, but they never crave a specific dish. Moreover, there are other kinds of attraction related to touch, emotion and intelligence. “The separation of attraction into smaller and smaller components challenges us to think more about the building blocks of desire,” Chen continues.

Chen is highly attuned to the power of language and values specificity, and as demonstrated above, she goes to great lengths to parse out the subtle nuances and distinctions between terms. “That which is not available in language is often ignored in thought itself,” writes Chen. “A shared vocabulary makes ideas more accessible while a lack of language can render an experience illegible.” For someone unfamiliar with the lexicon of desire and sexuality (“sex-indifferent,” “gray-asexual,” “demisexual,” to name a few), reading Ace can be a dizzying experience, but Chen’s insistence on specificity is ultimately illuminating and helpful — not only in understanding the ace community, but sex and desire at large.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews conducted with asexuals as well as her own personal experiences, Chen takes care to ground these theoretical concepts in human narratives. Chen, who works as a technology and science reporter, was hesitant to introduce this personal element, but felt it could be a useful tool. “Being asexual helps me write from a position of understanding and authority,” Chen explains. “It’s not just me parachuting into a community. It’s me writing about people I know and issues that affect me personally.” Veering into the personal also felt necessary, to some extent, because “there’s very little scientific and empirical research on asexuality and, when that’s the case, we do have to rely more on narratives.”

Researchers like Kinsey erased asexuals from scientific literature while others sought to diagnose them as an aberration or disabled. With no recognition from the scientific community, many aces turned to the internet where like minds congregated on messaging boards, blogs and so on. This was knowledge-making from the bottom-up. Jamie Lauren Keiles described a similar process in her New York Times Magazine feature on “How ASMR Became a Sensation,” wherein individuals posted online to describe a “tingling head and spine” feeling or “brain-gasm” and what triggered the unnamed sensation. “The internet,” Keiles writes, “revealed the existence of a new feeling.” Similarly, asexuality, also bypassed the gatekeeping of science and expertise thanks to the internet.

Although the ace community skews white, Chen deliberately includes marginalized ace individuals who intersect with other identities such as being Asian, trans or disabled. Cynics might call this a tokenizing roll call, and while at times it feels belabored, it’s actually an argumentative strategy. Again, Chen repeatedly pushes for greater specificity in her writing to help advance a more nuanced understanding. By discussing individuals who occupy unique intersections of identity, she leverages that position to give a comprehensive overview of the ace community, the challenges they face and the variations on larger societal problems such as fetishization, oppressive sexual norms (or “scripts”) and exclusionary politics.

The demand for greater representation in culture and politics is common to nearly all social justice movements, especially when helmed by marginalized people. Interestingly, Chen takes this a step further when she calls for greater variation not in casting, but in the kinds of narratives we tell. In particular, she takes aim at the ubiquity of romance, a cornerstone to many narratives (and even those narratives that don’t center around romance, often have romantic subplots).

Personally speaking, I found Chen’s nuanced discussion of desire, romance and sexuality incredibly helpful in thinking through my own relationships. I find it taxing to talk freely about my emotions and articulate my desires and quickly become uncomfortable in such conversations, which, no doubt, partially stems from my Nebraska upbringing, where a tight-lipped masculinity prevails. That was the script I inherited. Aces, on the other hand, Chen writes, “have been questioning sexual and relationship scripts for a long time. You have to, when your starting point is on the outside of most scripts.”

Essentially, when there is no script you can default to, you must do the hard work of articulating for yourself what you want, need and envision. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely easier once you’ve seen how Chen has done so with such compassion and precision.