This book claims to provide an important perspective of what asexuality can teach us about intimacy and sex more generally. Boy does it deliver.
I picked this book up on recommendation from the cannonball brain trust and am only too happy I did. I heard about asexuality first a few years ago and it made very little sense to me. I didn’t know anyone personally who identified that way, so I sought out documentaries to help fill me in. These did not help clarify what, precisely it meant and how this experience affects the lives of asexuals in a way that is sufficiently similar to the hardships of other 2SLGBTQ folks to join the parade so to speak.
Enter this book.
Chen goes to great lengths to not only explain a bit of the asexual experience (since there is a huge variation and Chen and her interviewees do not speak for all asexual experiences), but also what it means to exist as an asexual person in an allosexual world. Specifically, it helped me broaden my understanding of sexuality, learn a little bit about myself and my husband of 15 years in the meantime which was super neat, and help contextualize why at least some asexual people really struggle to find fulfillment in a world that is structured to prioritize sexual relationships over all others.
The real crux of this book and its most significant contribution is its dissection of intimacy and the way in which we have tied intimacy in the modern world to sexual relationships, and even then often only in the context of sex or sex adjacent activities. Chen spends a chapter discussing fiction and the immense difficulty of finding any stories, in any media, that do not have a significant romantic element to them. I thought a lot about how much alcohol I drank as a teenager because I grew up in a society where your ability to withstand alcohol was not only a mark of respect but of trust, and I imagine that isn’t far off from how an asexual person feels growing up in a society that places a thing they don’t care for at all at the centre of how relationships are formed and maintained.
The book also has a fascinating discussion of consent. Chen argues very compellingly that insisting on enthusiastic consent erases valid areas of consent, and that the valid distinction is not a person’s level of enthusiasm but whether there is possible coercion present. Effectively, any consent that is not coerced should be treated as valid consent (and should be withdraw-able at any time of course). The suggestion that only people who are 100% DTF are providing legitimate consent erases reasons other than sexual fulfillment that people might engage is sexual activity, such as connection, intimacy, or to make the other person happy (in a non-problematic way). Indeed, if you read guides to maintaining intimacy in long term relationships, one of the suggestions is to sometimes agree knowing that you will enjoy yourself once things get going (and stop it at any time if you don’t get into it obviously). This kind of consent does not meet the standard of enthusiastic consent, but it is genuine and valid nonetheless.
And this is really the magic of this book. While Chen obviously focuses on the experiences of asexuals living in an allosexual world, she absolutely delivers on making the connections between how shifts in society that benefit asexual people will benefit everyone. In the same way that changes made to make the lives of people living with disabilities has benefitted others (snuggies were developed for wheelchair users, not reading nooks; ramps for baby carriages and ease of moving; dictating software for the hearing impaired helping advance voice recognition for all sorts of technology, etc etc etc), a paradigm shift that allows sexual activity to be a great, fun thing that people can do if they want to rather than the lynchpin tying our society together will allow everyone to have better, stronger, more intimate relationships with more people and with less shame around what they do or do not want at any given time in their lives.
There is one part where I think the discussion goes a bit off the rails. Chen argues that there should be a marital equivalent for non-sexual partners. With the exception of the fact that a lack of consummation can be used as grounds to dissolve a marriage early on rather than file for divorce, at least in North America, I see no systemic barrier to a person from marrying any consenting adult of their choosing. No one is asking you if you plan to bone when you get your marriage license. To be fair to Chen, the focus of the book is on education and cultural changes, but this piece still felt like creating a legal solution to a non-legal problem.
Nevertheless, that discussion was also a very urgently needed exploration of the ways in which we expect family to take care of one another in old age, but don’t actively encourage people to see “family” as more than just sexual partners and offspring, which leads to a lot of very lonely people in dire need of public aid in their twilight years because they couldn’t form the “right” kind of family to care for them.
This book isn’t long, but you’ll probably need to take breaks to digest stuff. It’s a moderate but very dense meal and a must read, y’all.