By Mason Quah
ANGELA Chen’s ‘Ace’ gives an insider perspective to one of the lesser understood sexual orientations.
Through dissecting the worldview of people who don’t experience sexual attraction, questions are raised about how sexuality has seeped into other aspects of our daily lives.
While the narrative focus is around the author’s own journey and the struggles it caused her, Angela Chen makes full use of her talents as a science communicator and journalist. The progression of her own account is interspersed with interviews from nearly a hundred people across the spectrums of sexual and romantic orientation.
In much the same way that white hegemony is most visible to people outside of it, the asexual community are granted a view behind the curtain of compulsory sexuality – the normative ideas that heterosexual love is the norm, and that sexual relationships are more intimate than non-sexual relationships.
The crux of the book is how sex and desire infiltrate every aspect of everyday life, and the only people who are able to fully perceive this are people who aren’t able to see it in the same way. Each chapter broadly focuses on how asexuality changes and magnifies other aspects of personal identity.
Sexuality interacts with race and racism through the way racialised stereotypes push sexual narratives onto ethnic groups.
It interacts with gender, through the linkage of sex to masculinity and the use of sexual attraction as the measuring stick by which some people appraise their own gender identity.
It interacts with physical and mental impairments where people are left wondering where the boundary exists between their sexuality being innate or being a result of medical circumstance.
Religion and spirituality are also drawn in, as churches preach of sex as both a sin and a pleasure.
One challenge that often goes unspoken is the impact on economic security, in a society where marriage is both a measure and source of financial stability. There are few aspects of civil society that are not in some way influenced by our trained perspectives of romantic and sexual norms.
It is the stereotypes and perpetuated misunderstandings that result in different groups seeing the ace community in very different ways, as they can find themselves ostracised from both the left and the right.
Sex positive left circles sometimes make the mistake of seeing asexuality as a sign of repression, a defensive posturing to conceal the prudishness that society imposes on women and minorities. While critical of the presentation of sex positive messaging, Chen is still very much on the side of the sex positive movement.
Far-right circles, by contrast, view asexual women as prizes. The celibate groups within the asexual community are conflated with traditional conservative views on femininity, often intersecting with racialised stereotypes of submissive Asian women. Both perspectives view asexuality as something to be ‘cured’, through finding the right mechanisms of sexual expression.
The book is not targeted to only be useful for asexual people. The asexual perspective is used as an analytical lens for dissecting problems in how all of Western society views sex, consent and romance.
The books shortcomings are acknowledged upfront. In Chen’s own words “there is no one asexual story,” but most of the interviews included originate from a somewhat homogenous perspective of middle class American liberals.
The language and culture around sexuality can only be viewed from the contemporary perspective of a specific time and place, but this means that the book’s relevance is limited by these same constraints. Asexuals in Africa or Asia might find the experiences and language to be incompatible with their own experiences. Readers a generation on from now may find the cultural landscape of the book to be unrecognisable.
Similarly, there are limits to how an asexual author can interpret the experiences of people outside the ace spectrum. Part of the asexual experience is recognising the existence of something intangible that only allosexual people are able to see. A full dissection on the meaning of sex cannot come solely from an asexual or allosexual perspective.
Perhaps the greatest success of ‘Ace’ is that Angela Chen’s journey allows for asexuality to exist outside of being an absence of normality and instead focuses on how that norm is viewed by people excluded from it. Where asexuals are traditionally defined as the people without a sexuality, here they are presented as different but equally valid.
Featured Image: Public Domain
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