Why Aren’t There More Books About Asexuals?
Angela Chen's "Ace" finally takes a clear look at a group that's often ignored by both nonfiction and literature
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Science journalist and debut author Angela Chen remembers the first time she saw the word “asexuality”—online, on the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). I don’t remember the first time I saw the word, though I know I first used it in the negative—as in, I may have “weird” views on sex, but I’m not asexual. (This came up after a friend and I spent a night guzzling old-fashioneds and talking about sex. “I’d rather analyze a good book,” I said, and she nearly fell off her barstool.)
But in fact, I am asexual—I just wasn’t really sure about that until I found Chen’s book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. In July, deep into this global pandemic and a personal, exhausting reexamination of my identities, I stumbled on an excerpt from the book in BuzzFeed called “How I Discovered My Own Asexuality Without Knowing It.” I clicked on it because I was starved for narratives that modeled how people navigated the grey waters of self-discovery beyond just afterschool specials about honoring who you are. And yet, as I read about Chen’s discovery, there it was—that “shock of recognition,” as Chen describes the experience in her book.
How sexuality and romance and desire and intimacy intersect and intertwine is complex, perhaps more so for aces (a common nickname for asexuals) like Chen—and like myself—who don’t fall into a part of the spectrum that’s commonly understood. (The popular image of the asexual, a person with no sexual interest whatsoever and who may even be repelled by the idea, simply doesn’t describe all of us.) We have so few stories, so few books, so few characters to look to for guidance or support. I spoke to Chen on the phone about her book, the painful lack of asexual representation in all mediums but specifically in literature, and why we need narratives to help us discover ourselves.
Kirin McCrory: I told you this when I first reached out to you, but I clicked on the BuzzFeed link to your excerpt sort of offhandedly, not expecting to have a world-shattering revelation—but upon reading it, I really felt punched in the face, or that “shock of recognition” that you talk about in your book. It is a shock, a punch, the feeling of finally being seen by someone and seeing yourself in someone else, and we’re going to be talking about that throughout this interview. What made you want to write your book?
Angela Chen: After I wrote the book, I read Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, and there was a quote that made me wish that I had read that book before I wrote mine: “…the logical next step, we both knew was for us to fling ourselves at one another and end up on the sofa. We were among the thousands who didn’t know how to do anything but that, especially when a little bit drunk or just lonely. Sex to pass the time, or for lack of imagination, or out of fatalism. Sex, for want of anything better to do.” I felt like that was such a good distillation of some of the ideas that I had and that I kept thinking about, the way that sex can be valorized as such an important and intimate act, but often is merely “the logical next step,” something you do because you can, and it’s out of a lack of imagination. Something rote.
I really only saw asexuality mentioned either in academic books that were dense and cost $300, or on Tumblr, where subcultures are very vibrant but it’s very niche. I have read a lot of articles about asexuality, but all of them felt like they were only skimming the surface. When every article needs to spend the first third explaining what this sexuality is and isn’t, and establishing that it’s not some joke or some kind of disorder, how deep can you really go? Asexuality helped me not only to understand myself and personally why I was the way that I was, but it helped me look at the world in a different way. I decided that I wanted other people to be able to see things that way, too.
KM: It is one of those books that I would recommend everybody read regardless of their sexual or romantic identification. Because as you mentioned several times in the book, specifically in the U.S., sex really is the only thing that means intimacy. Everything intimate, everything romantic is acquainted with sex. It’s very hard to parse out the different aspects of connection. And the byproduct of that is that it does diminish what you are capable of—as you write in your book, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
AC: I didn’t come up with that line—it’s from Marian Wright Edelman—but yes. Some people are visionaries and they make it happen, but most of us are constrained by imagination. I am fully aware that I, in many ways, am not as imaginative as I wish I were, and I need a little bit of guidance. And in some ways it feels like popular culture is not guiding me in interesting and varied and complex ways, it’s actually just showing me the same three doors over and over. In really good literature it’s the specific, the details that really create that shock of recognition.
Literary fiction is often very specific, but it often seems very specific about a narrow range of things: what it’s like to be a middle-aged white man who has a drinking problem and his history and his life, or a professor who is lusting after one of his college students. There’s a lot of specificity there, but I think literary fiction misses specificity in so many other areas. I’d love to see more ace characters in literary fiction—but even more important than that, I want to see those specific details that makes it seem realistic rather than a caricature.
KM: I loved this quote from your book: “I’m not surprised by their existence, yet being exposed to their attitudes feels like it changes me in real time.” This has always been my experience with reading, where if I read something that feels super specific to me, it doesn’t feel like learning something new—it feels like identifying something that I previously had no framework to identify. And this idea that literary fiction is supposed to sort of be pulling from humanity and also giving back to it—you do still need that exposure, right? To be able to change what you’re doing?
AC: Yeah, absolutely. I think that having these conversations is breaking the script. I think there are people who don’t actually even want to write plots [with sex or] romance, but because they know they want to write literary fiction, they think, “Oh, it has to have a [sexual or] romantic plot.” [Asexuality is different from aromanticism, which is not experiencing romantic attraction, but in non-erotic literature sex and romance are often conflated. In this case I’m referring to “romance” as it exists in literary plots.] It’s not about forcing people who want to write about these topics to not write romance—it’s about showing people who maybe don’t even want to write about romance that they don’t have to.
When it’s done well, you don’t even notice it. Some of my favorites don’t even have romance, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or the play People, Places, and Things by Duncan Macmillan. I didn’t read those wondering where the romance was. I didn’t put them down and think, “Oh, I’ve now read a book without romance, give myself a gold star!” I didn’t even notice it because it was so rich in other ways.
KM: You talked about this in your book, but it does seem like any novel we can cite that doesn’t have romance gets identified as a different genre, like YA or science fiction or fantasy. I think there’s something interesting about asexual characters being relegated to these genres, or to cartoons, as in the case of BoJack Horseman and the asexual character Todd Chavez. What does it do for—or to—a person who identifies this way, to only see themselves in fantasy or sci-fi or made-up worlds for children?
AC: I think, broadly, that it does marginalize people. Genres like YA and sci-fi often have very respectful treatments of asexual characters—but when you see asexuality in a mainstream context, like the “House” episode that I write about in the book, it’s often far less respectful. Electric Literature had a piece on this a couple years ago about non-binary characters and how we need more non-binary characters who aren’t aliens or robots.
It does something to you, if you only see yourself represented as an alien, right? And of course this is not to knock cartoons or genre or anything—some people love finding themselves represented there because they love those genres or they like those cultures and genre is often ahead of the mainstream when dealing with social issues. But for other people, maybe genre is less accessible in some ways, and it’s certainly less of a shared cultural touchpoint. There’s a sense that your story is not important enough to come into the mainstream.
The cultural spaces in which asexuality exists affect the culture of asexuality itself. And the culture of asexuality affects who has access to it and who might be able to find a place in it and find helpful resources. And that is true when it comes to age and gender and ability and race. So I think that if sexuality were more broadly portrayed in “mainstream” culture, dominant culture, then the culture of asexuality would change, and a lot of the lens and the ways of thinking would reach so many more people.
KM: Even within the literary fiction category, books without sex or romance get relegated to subgenres like “war novels,” right? Like if there’s no romance in a war novel, nobody really thinks about it because it’s about war. Literary fiction is supposedly that realm for important “human stories” that aren’t about an event or in a genre or anything else, books about the human experience, but they can be so limited in terms of representing other experiences–and this is maybe the biggest black mark on literary fiction as a highly respected, intellectual, adult genre with zero representation of this sexuality.
AC: When you turn inward and you think “what is an exciting, rich multilayered experience I can write about?” the first thing most people land on is romance. That’s often how it happens.
I had done some research for the book that didn’t actually didn’t make it in, but at one point I was interested in the narrative of sexual awakening, because of course the narrative of sexual awakening is very, very present, and the idea that it is universal and always happens is in contradiction with the existence of asexuality. I spoke to a scholar, Alison Moore, one of the authors of a book called Frigidity: An Intellectual History.
She told me about how sexual awakening is an old narrative trope. You have these novels from the early 1900s in which there’s these beautiful, sexually unfeeling women who are just “naturally cold” until they meet the right person. And that was interesting to me. I hadn’t read any of these 1900 novels, but of course that trope and that idea has carried on, right? “You just need to find the right person. You’re only cold until someone else is there.”
Moore told me about this 1922 French novel called The Bachelor Girl that describes this career woman who has these “aberrant desires” to work and be active in the world and drink and socialize as a man would. And she can’t feel desire, and she can’t be “penetrated.” The book links her frigidity with her ambition.
So it’s interesting to me that even though I hadn’t read any of these specific books, these tropes and these ideas of frigidity or asexuality as a violation of female gender norms—and the idea of asexuality being this kind of aberrant part of you that is fixed or cured when the right person comes along—has really been successfully passed down .
KM: Narratives really point out just how simple our cognitive abilities are. It’s easy to look at asexuality being relegated to sci-fi or to fantasy and say you should be able to read that and apply it to yourself because you’re a human and you’ve got this big ol’ brain that should be able to make that connection. But if you only ever see depictions of something you identify with as non-human, or as set in the future, or as animated, there literally is no direct connection to who you are as a person, as an introspective being. We’d all like to believe that we’re capable of understanding things about ourselves without direct examples of it—but we aren’t.
AC: For the book I interviewed someone who is Black and ace and they said, basically, “It sounds very stupid, but I only saw white gay people [in popular culture]—for much of my life, I didn’t think that that’s something that was possible for people who are Black.” And of course, now that they’ve learned more about queer culture, it seems so obvious that this is not true. And yet it’s also so simple and so easy to understand why they would have thought that way. I’d like to think that we’re all smarter than that, but I’m not convinced we are.
KM: Are you working on anything else now?
The project that I’m working on now is not explicitly about sexuality at all, and I don’t really talk about asexuality in it, but there is a romance component to it. And I feel very conflicted, to be honest—there is a little bit of “why don’t you walk the walk? If you think that you could see more ways of being, why don’t you write a novel or a short story that has no romance in it?”
And I, frankly, have not been able to reconcile that. Part of me thinks I alone should not have to have that burden, if I have this idea that I wanted to write about for a long time. But then another part of me thinks, well, who’s going to do it? I think, ultimately, this is a structural issue. It’s making sure that the people who want to write those stories without romance will get agents, and the agents will have publishers who believe that those stories can sell.
I am hopeful that representations of asexuality will move beyond 101. I feel like asexuality is slowly gaining in the culture, and better representation of both ace writers and ace characters will help take us beyond the “this orientation exists” storyline and think creatively about stories that involve people of all kinds—mature or not—and relationships with all kinds. I want to see more, I want to see deeper, I want there to be a plethora of options, instead of the same three doors.
Editor’s note: We’ve updated the piece to clarify Chen’s use of the word “romance.”