In case my job title of “sex and relationships reporter” isn’t a clue, I’m a sexual person. Since coming of age, I’ve thought about sex, watched sex (either pornographic or simulated in mainstream media), talked about sex, written about sex — and, as you can assume, had sex.
I can’t say whether my interest in sex is more or less than the “average” person — whatever average even is — but I do know for certain that I’m allosexual. An allosexual is someone who experiences sexual attraction and is the counterpart to an .
While I’ve known about asexuality for awhile, I only learned of the term “allosexual” from the new book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by journalist Angela Chen, out Sept. 15.
In Ace, Chen doesn’t just describe allo and asexuality. She explores the nuances of desire and passion and how we as a society have created a hierarchy of love, where romance is considered superior to friendship. Chen examines how our culture isn’t just one of compulsory heterosexuality — the assumption and enforcement of straightness — but one of compulsory sexuality at its core, the assumption that everyone wants sex whether straight or not. What’s more is that she frames asexuality through an intersectional lens, pointing out the ways the ace movement has been whitewashed and dismissive of disabled people.
Ace is an illuminating look into the asexuality spectrum that I’d recommend to anyone, allo or ace. It’s a read that won’t just teach you about asexuality, but it will also position you to ask your own questions of desire and love and passion.
Read my interview with Chen below.
Mashable: What inspired you to write Ace?
Chen: I wrote this book because I had started to identify as asexual and because asexuality is so misunderstood, it’s one of those things that you have to go searching for to understand. If you’re straight, you don’t have to search to discover what heterosexuality is. Asexuality is very much hidden.
When I started to think about identity and what it meant about my life, I couldn’t find much about asexuality. Everything I found was either in an academic anthology — which is great, but not that accessible — or it was on Tumblr, which is also great but not mainstream. It was a subculture and by definition, not that available.
I’m also a journalist. I was a journalist before I identified as asexual, so [this] felt like something I could do because I knew how to report and had connections. It just felt important to me because learning about asexuality really clarified so many things in my life personally. Also, when I was talking to my friends who are asexual and I would tell them what I learned, it seemed interesting and important to them, too. It helped them think about their own lives and their own relationships and what desire felt for them versus romance versus sex, and I want everyone to have those conversations.
I really don’t think that the ace lens is only valuable if you happen to be asexual — just like if you’re straight, there’s so much value in learning about queerness. I wanted to make that more accessible.
I completely agree. I’ve had friend breakups from years ago that I still think about and beat myself up for it. I wasn’t dating this person, why am I still upset about this? The chapter in Ace on romantic and platonic love was really helpful to see that platonic love is legitimate love and the hierarchy [that romantic love is superior] is fictional.
In the second episode, one of the first people to leave the sex cult talks about how she reached out to someone who also left and she said something like, “I reached out to her because I didn’t know intellectually what I was looking at, I knew how I felt.” When I was watching this, I felt like that’s such a good metaphor for the experience of learning any kind of new lens. You know how you felt — you have these confusing feelings that don’t make sense. And then once you have intellectual grounding, all of a sudden your life makes so much more sense, or your feelings make so much more sense. I think that’s really powerful.
That does make a lot of sense. Going back to what you said about Tumblr, the site was definitely like that for me, too. People on Tumblr would describe what I was feeling as a bisexual person. Do you think that’s still the case for Tumblr as a source of learning, or do you think the internet has moved on? I looked at the asexual tag on TikTok today and there’s over 200 million views. For teens today, what resources do they have?
Tumblr, TikTok, the internet remains a huge resource. There was a study where a huge portion of people first learned about asexuality on Tumblr, and I think that continues. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. You learn so much on Tumblr and TikTok and Twitter and because of that, asexuality is often considered to be this kind of “internet orientation” in the same way that everything that teen girls do is seen as stupid. Everything that has a huge following on various corners of the internet is seen and dismissed as something just for young people and not worthy of the mainstream. That’s part of what I wanted to do with the book — there’s so much more about asexuality than in my book, but I hope that asexuality will reach people who are not in these places.
I think that there’s a lot of ageism issues with that. The average age of someone who’s asexual is quite young, and even after we a few months ago, people who are older — in their 30s — reaching out to me saying, “I thought I understood what asexuality was but I didn’t really and this really spoke to me… I didn’t feel connected to the culture.” The internet culture of asexuality is very specific and if you’re not a part of it, you just don’t vibe with it. I think asexuality can be so much broader than that; the thoughts don’t have to be connected to an aesthetic or a vibe.
While I was reading Ace, I felt a sort of kinship [as a bisexual]. In the broader LGBTQ community, I sometimes feel like I don’t belong. With terms like gold star [lesbians or asexual], there’s a certain wanting of being an archetypal example of what you “should” be. As the queer community is essentially counterculture, being counterculture to the counterculture is a weird place to be in. What are your thoughts on this? Is education like your book the answer to, say, a gay person not wanting to date someone who’s bisexual, or someone who’s aromantic [has no interest or desire for romance]?
You’re right, there’s so much gatekeeping in so many ways. Even in the queer community, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions and questions about whether aces should be part of the queer community.
I don’t have an easy answer. People will sometimes say to ace people, “What kinds of discrimination have you suffered? It’s so easy being ace.” There’s these misconceptions about what the ace experience means from people who are allosexual and some other people who may be queer but not asexual. In the end, I think there’s a lack of understanding about specific experiences.
In the book, you talk about your own personal history. Partway through, you mention not wanting to be honest about some of your experiences. How did it feel to share these details about your self-discovery in such a radically honest way?
It made me confront the extent to which I’ve internalized many forms of acephobia. Like I write in the book, intellectually and morally I believe everything I write, that being asexual is in no way inferior and all of that. But as I was writing the book there were parts of me that were defensive — and of course that’s part of my personality, some of which has nothing to do with my identity whatsoever.
I’d write parts of this and would feel myself wanting to be like, “Oh but you know, I’m not a prude. I like ‘WAP’!” I wanted to prove myself before anyone could dismiss me because of what I thought they believe about what it meant to be asexual. So it really showed me the extent to which I struggled to not be defensive, the extent to which I struggled to prove how ‘down’ I am, so ironically the extent to which I actually believed all of those things emotionally. I didn’t, and I don’t, intellectually.
Several asexual people you spoke with were also members of the kink community. From what I gleaned, there’s a lot of emphasis on consent in kink, and there’s intimacy in kink. Why do you think some asexual people may be drawn to the kink community?
One reason is because, for them, it’s just interesting. Obviously for some people, kink can be sexual. I’m not saying kink is inherently non-sexual, but I don’t think it has to be. People have said they like the dynamics of it, they like the feeling of interesting sensations, the same way some people like the sensation of wearing velvet. It doesn’t have to be sexual. They like the emotional dynamics of it even if it’s not sexually gratifying to them. There are so many parts of kink that, while they can be sexual, it doesn’t have to be for them.
The other reason many people have said is because they do think that the norms in kink often make it safer for them because there’s better consent practices — which is not to say kink is perfect, every person in every culture can improve. But what people have said specifically is that it’s encouraged to negotiate beforehand. If you’re doing a scene together you’re supposed to talk about what’s okay and what’s not. One woman I spoke to said something like, “I can say, ‘I don’t care if you get hard, I don’t care if you get wet, I’m not going to do anything about it.'” And she felt like she could say that in the kink context. It was okay, it was encouraged, whereas she said that she felt less safe in the vanilla context because it was considered kind of libido-killing to negotiate these things. She would feel like if she stopped them, then it wouldn’t be okay and she’d feel pressure. The norms [in kink] felt safer and better for her, even though I think many people have this erroneous assumption that kink is a dangerous place.
What advice would you give someone questioning whether they’re asexual or aromantic or both?
The first thing I would say is that it’s okay to question. There’s so much pressure on aces to be different, like we’re encouraged to question too much. We’re encouraged to be like, “Oh, I’m not actually ace. I’m just shy, I just haven’t found the right person.” That’s not what I’m saying. But I do think in general questioning is good because all of us change and all of us have different experiences. Don’t feel bad for questioning, even though you don’t have to question if you feel you already know who you are.
Give yourself a sense of space. I think it takes people a lot of time to understand this kind of lesser-known orientation and what it might be, and what integrating in the identity might mean for them. One thing that’s interesting about ace identity is that everyone always says very specifically: Only you can decide if you’re ace. I can’t “diagnose” you as asexual and people will often say if this doesn’t work for you — if identifying as asexual is harmful for you — then maybe you don’t have to do it. I think giving yourself that kind of space is important.
People have reached out [after reading excerpts] and they’ll say things like, “I feel so conflicted. In some ways, thinking about identifying as ace makes me feel so free. In other ways, it just makes me feel kind of bad about myself.” And that’s okay, too. Most of us have been conditioned to think of asexuality as something inferior — it’s okay if you maybe have that reaction. Give yourself the time and the space that you need. You don’t have to commit to anything right now.
What broader hopes do you have for Ace?
Many aces know a lot of the basic stuff, but I think it’s rare for them to see actual narratives of other ace people. And of course, just because you’re ace doesn’t mean you necessarily know what it might mean to be an ace person of color if you’re white, or to be disabled. There’s many intersections and I hope that’s illuminating.
I also really hope it makes people just question and think about themselves as they’re reading it, regardless of whether they’re ace or not. Some people who’ve read galleys said, “You know, as I was reading this I started thinking, how do I define desire? Where am I on this ace/allo spectrum? Are there relationships that I thought were platonic but they were romantic but not sexual?” These are questions that people can all think about, especially questions regarding consent which I think is super important.
I hope that regardless of whatever someone’s orientation might be, that they read this and apply it to themselves. Hopefully they can open up and think about the way we combine sex and desire and love and romance. A lot of times, they’re all very separate things.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.