Asexuality Is Not Just for White People, Says a New Book
Through her essays in publications like Catapult, author and science journalist Angela Chen has been asking readers to question what we know about sex, sexuality, and interpersonal relationships. Chen identifies as asexual and frequently writes about that identity in her work, showing us that there is no right or wrong way to be asexual. In her debut book, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, Chen tells us, “There is no one asexual (or ace) story and no book can capture all of ace experience.” Nevertheless, Chen embarks on a journey to teach the world about asexuality and show the wide scope of identities that fall under the ace umbrella.
Chen shares her own personal story, talking about the ways she arrived at asexuality, even while being in relationships that did involve sex. She also interviews a wide range of people with varying experiences and identities. Chen’s book is one of the first on asexuality, and so in many ways, it covers just about everything, from race, to disability, to consent, and more. Most importantly, Chen provides us with a fluid, working definition of what it means to be asexual (as opposed to allosexual, meaning someone who does not identify as ace) and tells us that “The world is not a binary of aces and allos. It is a spectrum.”
In a conversation with ZORA, Chen discusses the idea of race in the ace community, and how racial stereotypes and representation can affect one’s sexual identity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Deena ElGenaidi: To start, I want to say that I learned so much reading this book. There’s not a lot of writing out there about asexuality, so what was it like to work on this knowing that for many people, this would be the first text on asexuality that they’ve come across? And did that affect your research and writing of it?
Angela Chen: Yeah, it really did. This is the first reported trade book on asexuality, so there’s so much pressure to be everything for everyone, and to cover all the bases. There are parts in the book where I went broad instead of going deep because I knew that I absolutely had to talk about disability, I absolutely had to talk about race. I absolutely had to have a chapter that’s explaining, what is asexuality? In a perfect world where there was a lot of understanding about asexuality and how it intersects with race, gender, and other things, I wouldn’t have spent so much time setting up what asexuality is.
In the book, you discuss the various reasons that a person of color might feel like they can’t identify as asexual or like there’s some limiting factor. Could you tell me about the differences between being a white person who identifies as ace and a person of color who identifies as ace and whether that intersectionality is at odds?
With asexuality in general, I think this is true. There’s always questions. There’s always that feeling: Am I really ace, or is it just this?
“I really want people to think about sexuality in new ways, even at the level of defining what sexual attraction is, what romantic and platonic attraction are, new ways of thinking about consent.”
But another level of that occurs when you’re an ace person of color. Racialized, sexualized stereotypes exist, and they intersect with all parts of identity. I’ve heard Black aces say they’ve never met another Black ace in real life, and that leads to so much questioning and self-interrogation. I’ve interviewed Black aces who say they’re super alienated by stereotypes of Black people as hypersexual, and them being a Black ace surprises other people, even other aces, because there’s this idea of, how can you be both Black and ace? There’s all this interrogation because the community is so white.
Speaking as an Asian woman, for me, the experience was different. I think I’ve always been really affected by the stereotype that Asian women are kind of already asexual, that they’re kind of submissive, and they’re very well behaved. It felt like another stereotype that fit in too easily. It was like I was confirming the negative things that people already thought about me. I wanted to prove them wrong, even though I’m both Asian and ace.
Overall, what do you hope this book will accomplish for both the ace and allo, or non-ace, community?
I really want people to think about sexuality in new ways, even at the level of defining what sexual attraction is, what romantic and platonic attraction are, new ways of thinking about consent. I recently published an excerpt of my book in BuzzFeed, and it’s about my experience with asexuality, which is a little bit different from the typical experience. The ace spectrum captures so many experiences, but the one we always hear is, someone is sex-repulsed. They always hated the idea of sex. And because of that, when I was younger, I never expected that I might be ace because that did not at all match up with my life.
Right after I published the excerpt, I started having people reach out to me going, “Oh, I’ve heard about asexuality too. And I thought I knew what that meant, but you described it in a way I never heard before, and it resonated with me.” That’s another form of representation. It encouraged people to delve more into what their sexuality is and how we think about it. That’s kind of what I want, regardless of whether someone is ace or allo.
Yeah, I think one really important thing that the book does is show, like you said, that there is no one way to be asexual — that it’s such a broad spectrum. That in itself is something not a lot of people realize, and therefore they won’t claim the identity because they think they don’t fit into a very specific role.
Right, and I think when people are in any sort of group, there’s always the question of are you enough? Like, are you Asian enough? Are you queer enough? And definitely, there’s a feeling of are you ace enough? My experience looks a little bit more like a quote unquote, “normal” experience. And I have had some people be like, “Oh, this is interesting, but everyone feels this way.” My response to that is, I’m not trying to show that ace experience needs to be some kind of niche thing. If there’s anything here that resonates with you, that’s good. And if a lot of the lines between ace and not ace are kind of blurry under a more inclusive definition, a lot of people could be considered ace, and that’s a good thing. I don’t believe in asexuality being this gated community.