A conversation with Angela Chen, author of “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex.”
In a coffee shop, you notice someone new. Their hair, you think, or the way they wear their jeans, or the way their eyes crinkle when they smile. You can’t deny you feel some kind of attraction. But what does that mean?
There are innumerable kinds of attraction, but the three biggies are sexual attraction, where you feel physically drawn to a person and want to be sexual with them; romantic attraction, where you want to have a committed, emotionally intimate relationship with them; or platonic attraction, where you want to be close friends. How often do you really take the time to distinguish which or how many of these three you’re feeling when you lock eyes with someone and feel your world shift?
In Western society, we assume that everyone experiences the feeling of sexual attraction—but that’s simply not true. Allosexual is the term for people who do (“allos,” for short), but asexual people (who call themselves “aces”) don’t, or feel it rarely. We’re still exploring the science behind these differences: A 2014 study of 924 people found that 40% of self-identified aces reported never having sexual fantasies. That said, a 2010 study of 38 women found that self-identified aces and allos showed similar levels of genital arousal—both measured and self-reported—when they saw sexual imagery, even though the ace women reported feeling less sexual attraction. But as we know, physiological sensations are a small part of sexual attraction; it’s culture that teaches us how to interpret them and what we are allowed or supposed to do about them. There is still neurological research to be done, but from a place of curiosity, not as a problem in need of fixing.
Instead of accepting this lack of desire as a shortcoming, aces have claimed their identity and developed a community around it. Just because aces don’t feel sexual attraction doesn’t mean they all avoid sex entirely. Some aces are flat-out sex-repulsed. Some find sex neutral and don’t do it. Some find sex neutral but engage because they like feeling closer to their partner, while others find sex is all right but not as fun for them as Netflix or mountain biking. Some aces enjoy sex but experience actual sexual attraction rarely or never. Aces can be either romantic or aromantic. Many aces come to strongly value platonic relationships and structure their lives around them in ways we might all learn from.
Angela Chen is an asexual tech journalist who seeks to normalize—and lionize—asexuality. Her new book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex explores what life is like for people who largely don’t experience sexual desire. It uses asexuality as a lens through which we can sharpen our images of what we want and how we arrange our lives; an impetus for everyone, no matter their sexual drive, to better understand their own desires. In this bold and fascinating book, Chen interviews people across the asexuality spectrum and delves into the ways that asexuality can help us clarify what we mean by romance, consent, and relationships.
proto.life sat down with Chen to discuss attraction, social norms, and what we’d gain from treating our friends more like lovers—and our lovers more like friends.
proto.life: How did you figure out you were ace?
Angela Chen: I came across the definition of asexuality in my teens. But I thought I was a straight woman, essentially because I wasn’t sex-repulsed. I hadn’t had sex yet but I expected that I would one day, and I would enjoy it “just like everyone else.” In my early 20s I was in my first relationship. That became the impetus for me to realize I was ace, not because of anything to do with actually having sex, but because there were all of these issues around [my partner] seeing the world and sexuality differently than I did. I had never understood or experienced sexual attraction the way allo people do, so when he said things like, “Everyone is always sexually attracted to everyone else all the time,” I imagined what I felt toward him, which … wasn’t sexual attraction: It was love that maybe could be expressed sexually, but it wasn’t just physical attraction. So I was imagining him experiencing [love] toward everyone, and it made me so jealous and threatened.
Once I realized those were very different things, I started asking myself: What is attraction? How is it that I could be in my early 20s and not celibate and not understand what attraction is? And how could all of us think about attraction and romance and desire differently? Why do we always put them together when they don’t have to be together, and what could be gained from separating them?
NL: What do we gain from separating attraction into categories like sexual, romantic, and platonic attraction?
AC: It gives you a better idea of exactly what you want. It gives us more options to think creatively about how we can get the things we want. For example, I think most people think that if you want a romantic relationship, that means you have to have a sexual relationship—but what if that weren’t true? What if there were other ways of living and other ways of being? I recently interviewed someone who is ace and is in a three-parent family with two other parents. I think most people think that if you’re going to have a kid, then you need one romantic partner. But what if we separated childcare from romance from sexuality? What other configurations could be possible?
Asexuality destabilizes the border between romantic and platonic attraction, because many aces are sex-repulsed but still feel romantic attraction. My allo friends are like, “This makes so much sense: In college I had this friend, and I felt like I was in love with them in this very romantic way—but then I thought maybe it wasn’t romantic because I wasn’t sexually attracted to them.” Once you start breaking down these feelings that were kind of confusing or ineffable, a lot of patterns become more legible.
NL: Have you thought about platonic relationships more during the pandemic? I feel like I miss my friends so badly right now, and they’re on my mind all the time.
AC: I think I have. Often we just lean on our significant other, if we have one, to provide all of the social and emotional benefits. Then once the pandemic happens you realize, “Oh, that was never feasible.”
I’m not aromantic, but a lot of aromantic aces talk about how much we need to reconsider what’s important in our lives and the roles that our friends play. Why is it that we always privilege our romantic relationships? Why does it seem so normal to move for our romantic partner but it doesn’t seem normal to make life changes for “just a friend”? Why is it that community and friendships are not often prioritized in the same way? Is the feeling different, or is it because there are different social norms?
I talk about how important it is to believe in the importance of our friends, but I fall into this trap, too. Currently I’m in a bit of a fight with a friend, and I caught myself thinking the other day that if she and I were in a romantic relationship, there’s no way I would have let this fight go on for as long as it has. I would have brought it up to her much earlier and talked it through, and instead I’m kind of being a coward, and we’re both avoiding each other.
Being ghosted by a friend can be just as painful as being ghosted by someone you were dating, but we don’t have the language to talk about it in the same way.
NL: Yeah, we don’t have models for having fights with friends the way we have fights with romantic partners. Instead of making up, we just let things drift away.
AC: It just can be so uncomfortable to be the one to have to break the social norm. Being ghosted by a friend can be just as painful as being ghosted by someone you were dating, but we don’t have the language to talk about it in the same way. And none of us wants to be the person to care too much. Of course I love my friends, but I don’t want to feel like I’m putting in all the work and they’re not putting in the work. I think there’s just so much self-consciousness about taking some things more seriously, and I think that there’s a lot of vulnerability in there, too.
NL: In January, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts began recognizing domestic partnerships that don’t require a romantic relationship and aren’t limited to two people. What are the benefits of this kind of legal structure?
AC: For me I would flip this around: Why should it only be limited to people that you’re romantically attracted to? That implies that the care you have for the people you’re romantically attracted to is always more important than the love that you’d have for a sibling or even just a friend. Why is it that these other forms of devotion are not valued as much? Why should I be banned from sharing health insurance with someone who is just as important to me? I think it is good to have benefits where you can provide for those that you care about. They shouldn’t only be limited to a very specific kind of caring.
NL: In the book you write about how asexuality doesn’t need to be a rigidly defined or permanent identity—you say that it has “porous borders.” Why do you think that the ace community is fluid like that?
AC: I think that people don’t talk about sexual fluidity enough. If you think you’re a lesbian for most of your life and you start being attracted to men, that shouldn’t mean that you were a fake lesbian. People think about “phases” as this kind of derogatory term, like you were never the real deal, but I think most people go through different phases in terms of personality and in terms of exploration, and I don’t think that needs to be denigrated.
With asexuality, because it’s so challenged still, because people still love to say, “You’re not ace—you’re just shy, or you’re just not old enough, or you haven’t met the right person.” I think maybe that has affected the ace community. It’s OK if you’re part of the community and one day you realize that you did meet the right person. It’s fine—go on and just be happy, and we were glad to have you here! And I think that’s a lovely way of looking at the community. I like the idea of ace-ness as a tool, a set of frameworks, a set of concepts, and you can apply them when they’re useful, instead of it being an obligation.