Book Review: Ace by Angela Chen

Cover to Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
Penguin Random House Website

An engaging exploration of what it means to be asexual in a world that’s obsessed with sexual attraction, and what the ace perspective can teach all of us about desire and identity.

What exactly is sexual attraction and what is it like to go through life not experiencing it? What does asexuality reveal about gender roles, about romance and consent, and the pressures of society? This accessible examination of asexuality shows that the issues that aces face—confusion around sexual activity, the intersection of sexuality and identity, navigating different needs in relationships—are the same conflicts that nearly all of us will experience. Through a blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir, Ace addresses the misconceptions around the “A” of LGBTQIA and invites everyone to rethink pleasure and intimacy.

Journalist Angela Chen creates her path to understanding her own asexuality with the perspectives of a diverse group of asexual people. Vulnerable and honest, these stories include a woman who had blood tests done because she was convinced that “not wanting sex” was a sign of serious illness, and a man who grew up in a religious household and did everything “right,” only to realize after marriage that his experience of sexuality had never been the same as that of others. Disabled aces, aces of color, gender-nonconforming aces, and aces who both do and don’t want romantic relationships all share their experiences navigating a society in which a lack of sexual attraction is considered abnormal. Chen’s careful cultural analysis explores how societal norms limit understanding of sex and relationships and celebrates the breadth of sexuality and queerness.

Introduction and Structure

If you’re looking for my top-line reaction, it’s this: Ace is the book I’ve been waiting for. It’s more complicated than that, but if you take nothing else away from this review, let it be that.

Depending on how you count, Ace is about the fifth or sixth non-fiction book on asexuality to be released, but it is the first in a very important way: it’s the first to uncompromisingly center the perspective of garden-variety aces and their (gray)asexualities. Because Chen is a journalist, the book is very well-constructed to introduce complex topics to the lay reader, and it does not ask you to have a deep background in a particular field or to wrestle with jargon from a specialized discourse. Rather, it seems like one long article one might find in a magazine like The Atlantic: come as you are, but with your mind open and ready to engage.

The other major selling point of this book is the sheer diversity of the aces and asexualities contained in it. It seems like Chen went out of her way to talk to as broad a swath of people as she could, and it shows in the finished product. There are entire chapters grappling with asexuality’s intersection with race, disability, gender, etc. If you are looking for an overview of the main ideas of asexual discourse instead of just a vocabulary lesson, this book has the smörgåsbord set out and ready for you.

That focus on ideas is why I say this is the book I have been waiting for. Even though I have some critiques (don’t I always?), it frames asexual discourse so well, and more importantly, honestly. Chen makes no bones about the fact that the source of the discourse is fallible people who are just doing the best they can, who have worked over the course of years to propose and clarify and refine, but that this process goes on still. It makes a case for what we’re doing here but does not reify or mythologize it.

Chen is also honest about her own journey and her doubts, both in the past and still, and despite the angst she seems to feel over it, I think the book is well served by that frankness. As Chen mentions in the book, there can be a disconnect where aces force themselves to be “palatable,” which leads to aces who are not as perfect as those representatives are pretending to be failing to connect with them. Being a role model is not about being perfect or positive all the time, and I’m glad Chen chose to share her thought process.

The first section of the book lays out the basics of what asexuality is and what it means and the big concepts you need to know to tackle the rest of the book. The second deals with specific intersections, and brings up ace community thought that stems from those places. Finally, section three deals with aces interacting with other people in the world and how asexuality inflects those experiences. The final chapter looks forward to what may be to come in asexual discourse and what directions we should steer it.

Criticism Sandwich

There is definitely a point of view and, in a certain sense, an argument being advanced in this book, and Chen is a very good writer, so I suspect it is only my natural curmudgeon-icity that caused me to sit back and wonder when I had finished reading, who is this book for?

While I stand by the fact that it centers ace experiences, I’m not sure that it’s for aces, if you know what I mean. Don’t get me wrong—I think every single ace should read it. But it mostly feels like an outsider looking in, until the final chapter when it’s about what the ace community should do in the future. It is not “for” aces, but I think it will be. By which I mean, as people come into the community, giving them this book is a way to shortcut to the meat of asexual discourse. It gives a clear framework and raises most of the major questions, and even I learned a new thing I’d never heard of.

But when I say “most” of the major questions… there are some things missing, and some other things that I think are oversimplified.

The biggest thing that is a problem is the essentialism around romantic orientation. I’m not particularly surprised to see it, given how thoroughly it dominates most aro and a substantial number of ace discussions, but it is the thing that I think is most dangerous. There is even a point where she talks to an ace who has opted out of romantic-categorization, but it’s never explicitly drawn attention to, and there are other places where the assumption is baked into the cake. Given that one of the most core concepts to ace philosophy is Orientation Isn’t Destiny, I’m not particularly happy with its (unconscious) reproduction.

Another thing that stands out to me is how sex-aversion/repulsion is portrayed as something uncomplicated. Chen herself is not repulsed, so I can understand why she dwells more on the situations of sex-indifferent or sex-favorable aces, but I am disappointed that there was a line drawn between them that I think is in many ways artificial.

And then, for a book that paints such an accurate picture of the community overall, there were some things that I would quibble with more on a factual level. There is a little bit too much linearity for my taste about the “progress” the ace community has made, and for what progress is has yet to make. For all I praised the realistic portrayal of ace philosophy without glorification, there were places in the book that glossed over the two steps forward, one step back-kind of collective journey it’s been, and I do think failing to take those opportunities does the book a disservice.

In particular, I would point to the conversation around the Unassailable Asexual. Factually, in addition to having a misleading citation for the origin of the concept, I think Chen conflates the Unassailable Asexual concept with gatekeeping. Like, me being forced out of a supposedly ace livestream because the hosts assumed everyone would be as blasé as they were about sexual content? That’s plain old bad allyship to repulsed/aversive aces, but Chen invokes unassailability for situations where less-desirable demographics of aces are forced out.

What is missing here is how unassailibity is about visibility, and how visibility is the all-consuming goal of asexual discourse in most places. What’s missing is that for a long time we were winning the war on exclusion, but that victory doesn’t look as certain today. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the definitive discussion about the Unassailable Asexual took place in 2014 and hasn’t come close to being eclipsed since. This was a place to complicate the narrative, but for whatever reason, Chen chose not to.

Okay, but no, really

Chen herself has talked in interviews about the difficulty in representing all aces in one book and how this should be the first of many, including books disagreeing with hers, and I want to explicitly recognize that difficulty right now (and have made a good start on honoring her wish for disagreement, I think! :P)

I would not write such a long review if I didn’t think this book were completely worthwhile to engage with. I have put out a recommendation on my personal social media accounts and texted my closer friends and family to offer them the credentials to read my copy. This is a book that I would give to anyone and everyone, if for no other reason than I finally have a book that feels like a reflection of my life.

I’ve talked before (and so does this book) about representation in fiction, and I have probably even less trouble than you might think “seeing myself” in fictional characters. Part of this has to do with a very flexible outlook and part a sophisticated fandom education, but I can find books with people who are “like me.” The difference here is that this book reflects what I’m about. The choices I’ve made in how to spend my time, to value my community, to ponder and build and contribute—they are honored in this book.

Thank you, Angela. I don’t know you, but in a lot of ways, I feel like I do. And ultimately, that connection is the reason why I’m here in the first place.

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