Symposium Introduction

Ela Przybylo’s Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality is an inaugural monograph in the field of asexuality studies—or rather, to take up one of the key claims of the book, the field of “asexualities, plural” (11, 14). Its title cues readers to one of the book’s significant achievements, which is to retune our frequencies towards erotics in ways that displace “compulsory sexuality” from its hegemonic role in academic, community, and pop cultures. And this retuning, which takes place in almost every passage of the book, exemplifies Przybylo’s understanding of erotics: relational (28), queer (8), and replete with all manner of relations, affects, and attachments. “Erotics,” Przybylo explains, drawing on Audre Lorde, “help to hone a distinction between sexuality as we know it and sexuality on different and other terms” (24). 

As a book-length exploration of asexual erotics, the book also models a beautifully generative way of engaging queer studies from an insider’s position, modelling what we could call “critique from within.” Sexuality as we know it, in other words, might refer to shared social and cultural sensibilities, found across television, film, visual arts, and internet memes, that anyone might find familiar and worthy of rethinking; the book’s liveliness stems in part from the bounty of genres and media that occupy its attention. In addition, sexuality as “we” know it refers to the sexuality that those of us formed and trained by queer studies will recognize: informed by the sexologies of thinkers like Freud and Kinsey, shaped by the ethics of Foucault, and connected to political movements that suffuse the field’s investments. In this way, this book and symposium are in dialogue with additional queer studies symposia hosted by Syndicate, including the forthcoming symposium on Matt Brim’s Poor Queer Studies

I love the phrase, “critique from within” because it underscores a contrast with approaches that enact “critique from without.”1 From without, for example, a critic might launch arrows at targets far afield from their own kin or community and feel no shared injury when they land. From within, in contrast, a critic holds such intimacies with their subject matter that they all share in the stakes of critique. And so, when Przybylo asks, “where are all the asexuals of queer theory?” (97), this question is one that holds ramifications for the book’s own concerns, as well as for the many thinkers, texts, art-projects, and theoretical positions that the book is investigating. This gets right to the heart of queer studies, especially in terms of its ongoing Foucauldian inquiries. “Tomorrow,” as Foucault’s famous ventriloquy has it, summing up the normative promise of sex and sex-discourses, “sex will be good again” (1990, 7). A turn to asexual erotics, Przybylo explains, enables “a commitment to unpacking sex’s promises” (88), furthering the project of queer studies. 

As a critique from within, this turn also solicits marvelous rethinking of queer theories and communities. Przybylo asks, for example, “how can we rethink relating when we read it asexually, rather than with an investment in the promises of sex and in the sexual universal?” (26), and it’s this focus on relating that makes the book especially wide-ranging in its import. The book’s case studies include, for example, the trope of lesbian bed death; in addition to examining this trope in pop culture, Przybylo invites us to consider how queer theory’s investments in compulsory sexuality belie anxieties (lesbian bed death as “the living memorial for the anxiety of sex’s failure”) that are just as noteworthy as different sexualities on other terms (“lesbian potentiality for asexuality”) (77).      

The four exchanges in this symposium bear witness to the stakes of a critique from within, stakes that are conceptual, existential, and political. In the first response, Kristina Gupta points to the limits of its reach, asking: who belongs within the bounds of asexual erotics? This query invites us to consider the positioning of examples within the book: if “acidic erotics” and “erotics of failure” do fall within its bounds and are thereby implicated by its critique, then on what basis does Przybylo draw boundaries that exclude examples like incels, as suggested by the book’s epilogue?  

Conversely, if we understand ourselves to belong within the broader bounds of asexual erotics, then how might we feel and transmute the impact of the book’s critique? Kyler Chittick’s response takes us here. Making use of a confessional mode, which brings the liberatory promises of queer theory to life, Chittick admits to the difficulty of navigating the critique-from-within. What happens to the emancipatory promises of sex (“good” sex) when asexual erotics provides a larger, pluralistic framework in which compulsory sexuality is displaced as a site of emancipation?  

In the third response, Yo-Ling Chen recasts this question as a political one. As Chen lays out, the significance of asexual erotics is bigger than simply expanding the kinds of identities available for queers. Indeed, on Chen’s reading, it’s the attachment to identificatory-frames itself that no longer holds legitimacy, given its whiteness and its entanglement with settler norms. As a lovely inversion of Gupta’s query, Chen wonders if asexual erotics might hold universal import by providing an account of relationality rather than “identity” or “identities.” 

The fourth response, by Maralyn Doering, furthers the political valence of asexual erotics. As Doering explains, noting the specifics of culture, geography, and histories of colonization, nonsexuality might itself be understood as compulsory in particular communities—until it isn’t. Drawing on Przybylo’s close study of the developmental logics of sexualities, Doering offers a first-person affirmation of asexuality as a life-affirming identity. 

My own sense of this symposium is that it lends itself to teaching, in addition to stimulating and reflecting important scholarly insights. Przybylo’s responses are frank and moving, and they include contextual details about the making of the book itself. Asexualities, plural, becomes a resource for affirming creative and critical thought, as well as for exploring orientations and erotics.  

References:

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books. 


  1. I explore this distinction in more detail here:  Ada S. Jaarsma, 2021. “Fleabag’s Pedagogy of the Gimmick,” Open Philosophy 5(1): 90-104. https://doi.org/10.1515/opphil-2020-0156.

Kristina Gupta

Response

Elaborating Asexual Erotics

Ela and I have been colleagues for over a decade now, thinking together with a small group of other scholars interested in analyzing contemporary asexual identities from intersectional feminist and queer perspectives. It is a pleasure to be able to read Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality (2019) as a sustained expression of Ela’s thinking about asexualities and compulsory sexuality, thinking that has evolved over the course of a decade. In this brief response, I will reflect on Ela’s evocative and thought-provoking explanation of the concept of “asexual erotics,” as well as ask a few questions that I hope will give Ela the opportunity to clarify and elaborate on certain aspects of this concept.

Ela’s most notable inspiration for her concept of asexual erotics is Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978). Not surprisingly, this essay has been useful for a number of scholars interested in asexualities (for example, Owen 2022). In the essay, Lorde introduces her concept of the erotic, which she uses to describe feelings of pleasure, joy, energy, and power. For Lorde, these erotic feelings are a source of knowledge about justice and injustice—once someone has experienced the erotic, they will want to experience it more often and more fully, so they will observe the conditions of the world that impede the erotic (injustice) and the conditions that allow it to flourish (justice) and will be inspired to engage in collective political action to transform the world from injustice to justice. Importantly for scholars of asexualities, Lorde considers sexual activity as only one of many activities that can produce erotic feelings—and sexual activity is not a privileged erotic activity for Lorde either. Famously, Lorde writes that she experiences the erotic in not only sexual activity, but in “dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea” (Lorde 1984, 57). Lorde argues that there is only a difference in quantity, not quality, between the eroticism experienced as a result of one of these activities compared to another.

While I remain uncommitted to the choice of the word “erotic” specifically, I personally find Lorde’s discussion of the erotic useful for thinking about asexualities because she offers poetic and searing support for the argument that experiences, relationships, and, indeed, lives can be joyful, pleasurable, energizing, and/or knowledge-producing whether they contain a great deal of sexual desire and activity, some sexual desire and activity, or no sexual desire or activity. Put another way, Lorde’s discussion of the erotic suggests that the presence or absence of sex cannot not be used to judge the quality of an experience, a relationship, or a life. Joy, knowledge about justice and injustice, and inspiration for political action can come from sexualities and asexualities alike (Gupta 2013).

I believe Ela shares this understanding of the relevance of Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” for thinking about asexualities. In her introduction, Ela discusses in depth her choice of the term “asexual erotics” as well as her definition of it, writing, “…an emphasis on the erotic is thus only an attempt to think sexuality beyond sexual and bodily regimentation, an attempt to think through the well-known fact that there are many ways to love and be loved, to touch and be touched, to desire and be desired, to attract and be attracted, to arouse and be aroused that are not reducible to sex or encompassable by sexuality. ‘Asexual erotics’…is a phrase I use to think about the critiques, forms of reading, and models of relating that are made possible when asexuality is centralized” (26). Ela then proceeds, in the remainder of the book, to identify and analyze the workings of asexual erotics in a series of case studies.

Many of the cases Ela discusses provide elegant examples of asexual erotics. For example, in her chapter, “Growing into Asexuality: The Queer Erotics of Childhood,” Ela adeptly demonstrates the value of thinking about intergenerational relationships (for example, between parent and child or aunt and niece) as asexually erotic, thus avoiding the forced desexualization of these relationships by conservatives who insist on the sexual innocence of children (and thus view any hint of sexuality in these relationships as criminal, monstrous, and disordered) as well as the forced sexualization of these relationships by some sex radicals (and psychoanalysts) who can only see relationships that involve joy, sensuality, touch, and arousal as inherently sexual. As Ela suggests at the end of the chapter, we need to be able to acknowledge a variety of erotic possibilities in intergenerational relationships that are “not distillable to the sexual” (111).

Many of the specific cases within her chapter, “The Erotics of Feminist Revolution: Political Celibacies/Asexualities in the Women’s Movement,” also offer powerful examples of asexual erotics. For example, Ela demonstrates that the “political celibacy” advocated for by radical feminist separatist groups in the 1970s “constituted a form of erotic engagement” as it served not only to remove the sexual and reproductive labor of women from men, but also (and more critically in regards to erotics) to develop new types of relationality and to energize collective political action. I was struck, however, by some of the cases in this chapter and their fit or misfit with the concept of asexual erotics. For example, Ela argues that Valerie Solanas’s text, SCUM Manifesto (1967) offers an example of a “nihilist asexuality” that elucidates an “acidic erotics that was based in a raging dissatisfaction with the conditions of her life” (50). Ela goes on to write, “Solanas’s radical feminist asexuality is a nihilistic asexuality, an asexuality of death, decay, and social extermination – an antisocial thesis” (51). While I agree with Ela about the relevance of Solanas’s work for thinking about asexuality and with her reading of SCUM Manifesto as a text of nihilistic asexuality, I did begin to wonder how nihilism fits within the concept of asexual erotics.

These questions were heightened for me by the following chapter “Lesbian Bed Death, Asexually: An Erotics of Failure.” In this chapter, Ela examines the concept of lesbian bed death and how it has been used pejoratively to deride asexual-like lesbian relationships as failed relationships. I fully agree with Ela’s argument that the term lesbian bed death is used to deny asexual-like relationships through associating them with loss, death, and failure. However, I was intrigued by Ela’s argument that the trope of lesbian bed death itself (and not just actual asexual-like lesbian relationships) can be a form of asexual erotics, specifically an erotics of failure. She writes, “‘asexuality without optimism’…traces the darker affective undercurrents of sexual lack, low levels of sexual desire, and forms of nonsexuality articulated in popular parlance as ‘failure’ or failed sexuality” (87). Again, I agree entirely with Ela’s rejection of the idea that asexualities, in order to combat stigma, must always be visible as happy, satisfying, etc. I fully agree that there also needs to be space for asexualities that are experienced as depressing, painful, lacking, and failing. However, I remain curious about the fit of lesbian bed death—as a pejorative—within an erotics of failure as well as the fit of an erotics of failure within asexual erotics.

From her discussion of incels in her epilogue, it is clear that Ela does not place all forms of nonsexuality or asexuality under the label of asexual erotics. “Incels” is a term used by misogynistic and racist (usually white) men who describe themselves as celibate against their own desires because women refuse to have sex with them. About incels, Ela writes “in these racist and sexist uses, ‘involuntary celibacy’ emerges as an anti-erotic tool intent on speaking against feminist and antiracist progress, building a world within which white men can continue to have unfettered access to the bodies of others…Erotics, in turn, inform the decentering of compulsory sexuality, challenging anti-erotic deployments of hatred” (141). This statement left me wondering why incels are classified as “anti-erotic” while ‘lesbian bed death’—a term that reinforces compulsory sexuality—is classified as an asexual erotics of failure.

In the epilogue, Ela returns to Audre Lorde’s formulation of the erotic, again noting that it structures her book. She writes, “Lorde, we can recall, positioned the erotic as a powerful source for addressing racism and sexism and as an energy that women can access toward leading more full and self-determined lives, even within contexts of patriarchy. The erotic provides strength and fuel for living a life of self-determination and satisfaction, and for challenging racism and sexism at the deepest level” (140). Given Lorde’s understanding of the erotic, I would appreciate hearing more from Ela about how she sees concepts like “acidic erotics” (Solanas) and an “erotics of failure” (lesbian bed death) fitting within her concept of asexual erotics.

In general, given the potential importance of the concept of asexual erotics for scholarship in sexuality studies (and not just in asexuality studies), I would appreciate hearing more from Ela about her understanding of asexual erotics. I am curious to know, for example, how the concept of asexual erotics (dis)articulates with other terms, such as joy, pleasure, relationality, connection, sensuality, energy, inspiration, and intimacy. I am also interested in the relationship between asexual erotics and embodiment. And, as suggested above, I would like to know more about how the concept includes “negative” affects and experiences such as failure, anti-sociality, and nihilism. In Asexual Erotics, Ela has given us a beautiful gift with her elucidation of the concept of asexual erotics and I look forward to its adaptation, expansion, and elaboration.

 

References:

Gupta, Kristina. 2013. “Compulsory Sexuality and Its Discontents: The Challenge of Asexualities.” PhD, Emory University.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. 1st ed. Crossing Press. 

Owen, Ianna Hawkins. 2022. “More: Cake, Feedism, and Asexuality.” Social Text 40 (2) 151: 93–111. 

  • Ela Przybylo

    Ela Przybylo

    Reply

    Response to Kristina Gupta’s Engagement

    I wrote Asexual Erotics over a span of great change in my life and the process of exploring my own erotic attachments and disattachments to both academia and who I was in the context of queer communities. I became interested in asexuality itself in the first decade of the 2000s, noticing like other budding asexuality studies thinkers that feminist and queer sexuality studies demonstrated a silence on the lives of people with low or no sexual attraction, desire, or interest in sexual practices. Asexual Erotics was an adaptation of my PhD dissertation which continued to hone that personal and academic interest on how asexuality challenges and troubles what has been identified by Elizabeth Emens (2014), and then described so well by Kristina Gupta (2015), as compulsory sexuality, and which I made sense of on my own terms as sexusociety earlier that decade (2011). 

    Writing a book on something one cares about deeply and is invested in personally, but which insufficient interest has been paid to, is a demanding task for a young person grappling with the becoming work of both queerness and academia. In the first instance, one academic monograph cannot fully, completely, or even partially speak to the extent of a structure such as compulsory sexuality nor can it fully render the flourishing of asexual cultures, representations, identities. On another level altogether, a monograph for someone hustling to keep afloat on the job market is embedded also in all sorts of hopes, ambitions, and wounds that indubitably make their way into a text, whether or not they are at the heart of that text. 

    Asexual Erotics was such a book for me. It had a layered synapsis. It had layered hopes and anxieties, the materiality of which I now know it could not escape. First, I had collected a varied selection of materials on asexuality—varied because of the creative ways I had to search for asexuality in the archives due its low coverage historically: I had historical materials—such as made it into the first chapter on political resonances of asexuality that Kristina mentions, I had interviews with ace folks that never made it into the book, I had asexual zines and internet materials, as well as queer and feminist surprise appearances of “asexual resonances” (Cooper and Przybylo 2014), and then when I would go on research trips to queer archives, I would find at most one folder with one or two newspaper clippings that themselves were written from an acephobic perspective. 

    In the context of my own personal—and what felt like infinite—archive, other archives had barely considered the need to create dossiers for asexuality. I was writing from a social context that felt fully attached to acephobia and sexist, racist, and ableist ideas about the function of sex as simultaneously salutary for some and life-defeating for others, as Gupta (2015) and other scholars writing on asexuality, namely Eunjung Kim (i.e., 2014) and Ianna Hawkins Owen (i.e., 2014), have spelled out. 

    And then, also, there is the stuff of life—death, love, bad decisions, heartache, chronic illness, and the thrill of being a queer person in a city full of other queer people—and the dawning realization that academia was deliberately constructed for some and not others, and that as an immigrant from a working class family with unrealized autism, it was unlikely that I would get to live out my academic ambitions on terms that felt just. A first book is loaded with the materiality of these and many other concerns, as perhaps is every book or piece one ever authors. How does a book help us become who we are and how does it stand in our way? What is the book, under the book, the unwritten or implied parts of what we write? These questions and thoughts animate my response to Kristina’s thoughtful and generous feedback. 

    Several years ago I received an email from two sound artists, marika niko and Nia Wilson who created a sound choreography exploring asexual erotics. Their piece, Caress, is sadly no longer available online, but it asked listeners to partake in a series of sounds and corresponding movements—such as boiling water, holding an egg or nectarine to your skin, and feeling wetness on your skin. They hosted an event on “Performance, Asexuality, and Alternative Modes of Care” at which we discussed some aspects of what the erotic might include and how that might relate to asexual erotics. 

    One things that came up from their end, and which they developed in their art, is that the erotic is not necessarily a “safe” feeling, it is one that can surprise, thrill, shock, and feel deeply uncomfortable. It is a tangled modality. Audre Lorde’s piece “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978/1984), as I understand it, also explores an erotic field that might include many different sensations and calls to action, including perhaps negative affects. 

    This helps me think about Kristina’s questions around “how the concept [of asexual erotics] includes ‘negative’ affects and experiences such as failure, anti-sociality, and nihilism.” Looking back to what I wrote in Asexual Erotics, I might say that some level of crankiness is visible, and on some register I was trying to articulate cranky affects in relation to academia. 

    Perhaps this is one of the book-under-the-book moments. For example, without defending any particular aspect of Valerie Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto” (1967), I was fascinated at the time of writing the book and leading up to it by how she refused to be placated by any gifties that the popularity of her manifesto among feminists might have offered her. She just refused. She was fundamentally cranky, definitively poor and dissatisfied with the life she had, but also just refused to climb any social ladder through niceties and attempts at joy. While her articulation of nihilist asexuality is not anything like contemporary asexual identification and while it is unlikely she herself was asexual, her manifesto does have resonances with critiques of compulsory sexuality and it also informed many other feminist articulations and enactments of political asexuality. 

    I guess what I mean is that a Lordean erotic can most definitively be cranky and that an asexual erotics can likewise be grounded in a distrust of sexusociety, a refusal to conform to its limiting ideas, and a charged crankiness around any and all forms of acephobia. And to me, that is erotic and the stuff of Lordean erotics as well as the stuff of building rich, nuanced, and surprising asexual archives.

     

    References:

    Emens, Elizabeth F. 2014. “Compulsory Sexuality.” Stanford Law Review 66.2: 303–386. 

    Gupta, Kristina. 2015. “Compulsory Sexuality: Evaluating an Emerging Concept.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41.1: 131–54.

    Kim, Eunjung. 2014. “Asexualities and Disabilities in Constructing Sexual Normalcy.” In Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, edited by KJ Cerankowski and Megan Milks, 249–82. New York: Routledge.

    Lorde, Audre. 1978/1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. 1st ed. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

    Owen, Ianna Hawkins. 2014. “On the Racialization of Asexuality.” In Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, edited by KJ Cerankowski and Megan Milks, 119–35. New York: Routledge.

    Przybylo, Ela. 2011. “Crisis and Safety: The Asexual in Sexusociety,” Sexualities 14.4: 444–61.

    Przybylo, Ela and Danielle Cooper. 2014. “Asexual Resonances: Tracing a Queerly Asexual Archive.” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 20.3: 297–318.

    Solanas, Valerie. 2000. “SCUM Manifesto (1967).” In Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, edited by Barbara Crow, 201–22. New York: New York University Press.

     

Kyler Chittick

Response

On the Cusp of Reparation and the Edge of Paranoia? 

Convinced as I am of the power and importance of “reparative reading,” coined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as a mode of critique that emphasizes surprise, positivity, and pleasure in critical analysis (2003, 123), I am amazed by how often I must be dissuaded from a “paranoid reading,” a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and “negative affect” that is defensive, expository, anticipates bad faith, and reinforces binary thinking (2003, 128). Perhaps I shouldn’t be. Where sexuality is concerned, I have long been a paranoid and a reparative reader, and many of the most renowned queer theorists, including the late Sedgwick herself, argue this is not a bad thing, as paranoia and reparation form a dialogical set of “changing and heterogeneous relational stances” (2003, 128). 

Like Ela Przybylo, whose work I discuss here, I attended the University of Alberta as an undergraduate student and took classes in women’s and gender studies. In my introductory queer theory seminar with a professor whom I will call “L”, my paranoia was on full display. Granted, I was too young for the class and only skimmed the readings, and so was woefully unprepared for the onslaught of Judith Butler, the destabilization of identity categories, and the trenchant critiques of marriage by my more senior classmates. But I was also paranoid, and largely so by way of fear and loathing. I feared sex and therefore loathed it. I romanticized romantic relationships, and still do, and saw gay men’s proclivity for casual sex as a sign that I would never “find someone.” Believing that marriage and monogamy would end my loneliness, I did not react positively to non-traditional discussions of kink and public sex. Indeed, while trauma makes for some of the best paranoid readers, so do projection and misrecognition. My stubbornness with L, who taught me that learning is a form of affective labour and that knowledge is not always powerful, morphed into a hunger for queer theory. As I “matured” into an honours program and delved deeper into the archive of the sex wars, I became more amenable to sex-positive/radical feminisms. 

By the time I met “FF”, who was finishing up as Przybylo’s dissertation director as I arrived at York University for a master’s degree, I was on the cusp of admitting my kinks, exploring my first gay bathhouse, and declaring my personal and intellectual allegiance to those who, like FF, resisted the legal approbation of anti-pornography feminism in R. v. Butler (1992) and beyond. My paranoia re-emerged. When FF told me she had supervised a dissertation on asexuality, I thought back to L’s course and my former peers at OUTReach, the U of A’s queer student group, where an incipient asexual consciousness, or resonance, had emerged during my time there. Despite my own effective asexuality at OUTReach—my self-imposed virginity under the guise that sex “should be” with a boyfriend—something about asexuality seemed culturally backward and politically milquetoast. While I wanted sex—the “right” kind—these people didn’t want it at all. 

What’s more, the contours of asexual identity often spilled over into paranoid moralism. One student scandalized OUTReach by advertising an amateur male strip night at a local gay bar on the group Facebook page. The OUTReach executive removed the post because high school students were known to peruse the page and would be “harmed” by sexualized images, and because the executive did not want the group to be “all about sex.” It became difficult to separate asexuality from “desexualization,” defined by Przybylo as that which renders certain groups “such as people with disabilities, lesbians and transgender people, children and older adults, people of size, and some racialized people as ‘asexual’ by default” (15), but I define as our culture’s effacement of sex and sexuality under the pretence of “protecting” people from “harm.” I will return to the idea of desexualization, but for now, know that during my first year of graduate study, a thesis on asexuality seemed at best odd, and at worst, regressively apolitical. 

When Ada Jaarsma asked me to contribute this response to Przybylo’s book, Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality (2019), I had to talk myself off the ledge of a paranoid reading. I remembered my training from L and FF to read reparatively—to not project my own anxieties and experiences onto the text, to admit that I can be (and am often) wrong, and to meet the author halfway. And how could I not do the latter? Przybylo remains something of a distant intellectual cousin. While we attended the same institutions and have nearly two dozen mutual friends, we have never met, and yet I feel like I know her from numerous stories and glowing reviews of both her work and personality. I’m glad I was able to overcome some of my skepticism. 

Asexual Erotics is on the cutting edge of contemporary queer theory, as well as film and cultural studies. Those who, like me, expected this book to attack sexuality studies will find themselves pleasantly surprised (or perhaps rudely awakened). Like any queer theorist worth their salt, Przybylo asks her readers to check their assumptions and investments. The central premise of the book is not that queer theory has an “obsession” with sex, as Jennifer Tyburczy proclaims on the back cover, but that it in certain intellectual quarters, it is overdetermined at the expense of queer analytics and erotics wherein sex is not a central referent (22). This is a valid point, as Przybylo’s analyses of various cultural objects attest. Proposing a distinctly reparative mode of analysis that “involves undertaking an asexual reading of texts that may not be obviously asexual,” but contain asexual traces or “resonances” (26), Asexual Erotics probes film and culture for iterations of kinship and erotic possibility that imbue a certain “nonsexuality,” or that abjure “compulsory sexuality”—the myriad “ways in which sexuality is presumed to be natural and normal to the detriment of various forms of asexual and nonsexual lives, relationships, and identities” (1). 

Engaging the political celibacies of Women’s Liberation, lesbian bed death, the figure of the child, and the trope of the spinster, Przybylo offers “intimate readings” of texts ranging from The Argonauts (2015) to the Oscar-nominated dramedy The Kids Are All Right (2010) and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha (2012). By “intimate reading,” Przybylo means a “feeling based” approach to textual analysis that is semi-autobiographical—or that factors in her “asexual tendencies” (3)—and is attuned to the ways in which her objects are haunted, as it were, by asexuality (30). I was convinced of all of Przybylo’s analyses and thought that her framework of an “intimate reading” worked well. Formulating a coherent analytical approach to examining texts, particularly those of this range, that includes autobiography is challenging. However, I consider it a resounding success in this book. 

Before I offer a provocation to Przybylo by way of a return to my earlier narrative, I will first offer something of a cautionary disclosure. Having recently come to consciousness about my neurodivergence, it has become clear to me that I am often literal and tangential, consumed by small details and asides, and caught up in the minutiae of what I read. Identifying the difference between a paranoid reading and what I call a “neurodivergent snag”—getting overly hung up on a single word or concept to the detriment of the “bigger picture”—eludes me. All of this is to say that when I tried to formulate a response to Asexual Erotics, I once again had to interrogate my paranoia. 

In Asexual Erotics, Przybylo critiques compulsory sexuality, or “sexusociety,” a “society organized around sex” (17). Her main concern is that compulsory sexuality forecloses on relational and erotic potential outside of sex and can be experienced as oppressive by asexual and nonsexual bodies. While our society is certainly organized around reproduction, as Lee Edelman argues in the polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), at no point while reading Asexual Erotics was I fully convinced that compulsory sexuality has, or continues to have, the charge that Przybylo attributes to it outside of fictional representations. Put otherwise, I do not feel like the “compulsory” in compulsory sexuality was sufficiently elaborated. Why? 

Because the very identification of “compulsory sexuality” can be a paranoid stance, one that tacitly reinforces de/hypersexualization. To be sure, Przybylo is aware of the damaging effects of de/hypersexualization, especially when paired with ableism, homophobia, and/or racism. She acknowledges the ways in which being construed as inherently devoid of sexuality can be oppressive and downright hurtful, and understands compulsory sexuality to prohibit certain populations, like gay men, from having “too much” or the “wrong kind” of sex, while also rendering certain groups, like persons with disabilities, asexual by default (16, my quotations). 

But while reading Asexual Erotics, I couldn’t get the removal of the OUTReach post about an amateur male strip show out of my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the post seemed to symbolize a certain sexual compulsoriness that simply wasn’t there, how sex was overdetermined  in Gayle Rubin’s sense (1984), and how its removal simultaneously de- and hyper-sexualized particular populations. When the post was removed under the guise of “protecting” high school students from the “harm” of seeing a half-naked man, these students were desexualized, or understood to be too young to freely explore or see sexuality reflected in a public forum, while gay men were desexualized and hypersexualized—desexualized in the sense that a reflection of our sexuality was censored, and hypersexualized insofar as the post, according to the pan-/asexual majority OUTReach executive, made the whole group seem like it was “all about sex.” 

Not insignificantly, it was the symbolic presence of gay male sexuality that ostensibly made the group seem unitarily hypersexual. Moreover, the removal of the post reinforced the idea that transgressive sexual representations are “harmful.” If we look to the examples of YouTube deleting the entire Cornell University Library account over posts of lectures and panels by Rubin and the sex-radical feminist publication On Our Backs (1984–2006),1 and Aneil Rallin,2 this idea has gained traction in recent years. 

While asexuality certainly cannot be blamed for these events, there does seem to be a compulsory desexualization, or dare I say, asexualization happening in our society at present that makes it difficult to see “sexusociety” as a legitimate concern and to see anything about sexuality as compulsory. Undoubtedly, it would be frustrating to be asexual and live in a society where “sexuality is presumed to be natural and normal to the detriment of various forms of asexual and nonsexual lives, relationships, and identities” (1), but if the sociosexual trends of Millennials and Generation Z are any indication—that we/they have less sex than previous generations—sex no longer seems natural, normal, or compulsory. Am I off-base here? Have I missed something? Paranoia “knows some things well and others poorly,” as Sedgwick writes, but sometimes people are “delusional” and “simply wrong” (2003, 130). Am I paranoid? 

References:

Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 

Rubin, Gayle S. 1984.. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance, Boston: Routledge and & Kegan Paul, 267–319. 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 


  1. Susie Bright, “‘Terminated’: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” 2022, https://susiebright.substack.com/p/terminated.[/footnote] as well as the censure of queer professors Saul Levine[footnote]“MassArt Embroiled in Controversy Over Resignation of Filmmaker Saul Levine,” 2018, https://www.artforum.com/news/massart-embroiled-in-controversy-over-resignation-of-filmmaker-saul-levine-74966.

  2. Colleen Flaherty, “University Could Fire Writing Professor Over Deviant Pornography,” 2022, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/05/16/university-could-fire-writing-professor-over-deviant-pornography.

  • Ela Przybylo

    Ela Przybylo

    Reply

    Response to Kyler Chittick’s Engagement

    Two themes or forces grab me in Kyler’s engagement with Asexual Erotics. The first is what I might perhaps gently call a misreading of asexuality as “something else” (as something it is not)—or as Megan Milks wrote over ten years ago (in a piece that in part also critiques my own first publication on asexuality), as “a form of misrecognition” (2014, 110). The second theme that arises for me from Kyler’s reflection is that of academia and familial relations, genealogies, and spheres of influence. I will look at each in turn.

    The first requires some clarification. As many readers will know, but as I will stress for clarity, asexuality is an orientation. Orientation, can of course be taken to mean many things, and I understand it broadly, drawing on Sara Ahmed (2006), as a direction we are drawn in for reasons structural as much as felt. But the reality is that in terms of popular parlance, orientation comes to mean something very specific, innate and self-characterizing; sexual orientation all the more so signifies that inner truth of who we are. This is especially crucial to remember as asexual folks have time and time again had to argue and defend themselves under this framework of orientation and sexual attraction, and as one of my favorite resources on asexuality that I like to share with students, the Aces and Aros website, indicates: “Asexuality is a sexual orientation where a person experiences little to no sexual attraction to anyone and/or does not experience desire for sexual contact.” 

    What is important here, and what will become relevant, is that asexuality is not, really, a political designation, nor is it an attitude towards or about sex. For example, as many asexual folks relate, aces can and do have sex, sort of like how someone might be orientated as a lesbian but have had sex with people who might seem, on the surface, to not adhere under that formula. Similarly, ace folks can be into practices that are considered “sexual” (but that are not necessarily so), such as BDSM. There have been a handful of studies that suggest that aces are actively involved in BDSM, kink, and fetish communities (i.e., Sloan 2015; Winter-Gray and Hayfield 2019), and my own book and the concept of asexual erotics has been picked up the Leather Archives and Museum of Chicago on their social media. The incredible activist and educational work of model Yasmin Benoit also demonstrates this, as she challenges the idea that certain forms of clothing (such as lingerie) are “sexual” by nature; as an aroace, Benoit asserts her right to wear whatever she wants without it having to reference any desire for sex or romance— clothing after all is not intrinsically “sexual,” even if certain forms of clothing have become coded in that way in certain social and cultural contexts. One further example: ace folks have varying attitudes and responses to sex, with at least four dominant modes being identified: sex-positivity, sex-neutrality, sex aversion, and sex repulsion (Carrigan 2011; “Sex Repulsed” 2022). All that is to say that asexuality is not really a political position nor is it “against sex,” while it is commonly misread in these ways. 

    This is all important because the instances that Kyler is pointing to that suggest that compulsory sexuality might be over, such as that fewer people are having sex (maybe?) or that a post in a city we both lived in was taken down, due to fears of sexual panic, do not actually have anything to do with asexuality. They point instead to a kind of binary formulation of sex negativity and sex positivity that is actually at the heart of compulsory sexuality. Compulsory sexuality, like other frameworks for analyzing social structures, points to dominant patterns that are enforced through discourse, relationships, community, and sociality. These use both soft and hard power—for example, soft, in the sense that people are expected to have sex to be “healthy” as they grow up into adulthood, or in specific relational formations (such as monogamy), and hard, such as the actual enshrining of sex in marriage through the law of consummation (Emens 2014). Importantly, compulsory sexuality has effects on everyone, but it can be particularly punitive for asexual folks—hence “acephobia” (see for example, Brown 2022; MacInnis and Hodson 2012). 

    Also, importantly, as with any set of discourses, compulsory sexuality can be confusing and messy, such that we have hypersexualization and desexualization of marginalized folks in conjunction with white supremacy, ableism, ageism, cisheteronormativity, and sexism, and such that sex is—paradoxically!—encouraged but also reviled. Hence, we have right wing contexts where sex among queers is despised, queers themselves are sexualized, forms of virginity are upheld (like among unmarried youth), but, and ultimately, there is an expectation that sex needs to happen, that it is central to certain relationships, to conjugality, to monogamy, etc. So, sex negativity is actually still part and parcel of compulsory sexuality. 

    The idea that certain forms of sex are seen as excessive and dangerous—inciting panic, as are bodies seen to symbolize those types of sex (like queer people), coexists with the idea that certain forms of sex are necessary, healthy, integral, meaningful, connected with love, with meaning, with social flourishing. In a queer context, compulsory sexuality looks different than in a cishet or right-wing context, but it is still harmful. Compulsory sexuality in queer contexts suggests that sexual attraction is the thing that makes queerness, to the exclusion of other forms of relating. One of my other favorite teaching tools, a zine by Maisha called Taking the Cake (2012), illustrates all the straight up offensive comments that ace folks face and have faced, including in queer communities that have sometimes failed to see asexuality as “real.”

    Yet, there is one other element to this discussion. One of the moves of my book is that, in addition to affirming asexuality as an orientation, it also develops a series of critiques for studying compulsory sexuality. Here is maybe where problems might arise. As a parallel, various queer theories talk of and to queer people, but also develop frameworks for studying cisheteronormativity. In a similar way, I wanted to develop a queer, asexual series of frames for thinking about different contexts. The hazard here is that the orientation could be confused for the frame, though they are not one and the same. For studying compulsory sexuality, I use the frame of asexual erotics in order to assert tangled, joyful, pleasurable ways of being in the world asexually. But it is true that asexuality is not the same thing as a critique of compulsory sexuality, though I believe that the two are necessarily in dialogue. Hence, there were critiques of sexusociety or compulsory sexuality developed in the 60s or 70s that were not necessarily made by asexual people but that do resonate with contemporary critiques of compulsory sexuality coming from asexuals and asexuality studies. The hazardous thing with the potential of looking at these parallels, resonances if you will, is that a reader could misread asexuality as a set of critiques or worse as a political orientation at the expense of recognizing the personhood of ace folks as people with “little to no sexual attraction …  and/or … desire for sexual contact” (Aces & Aros 2022). 

    The last thing I would like to say is that I am so tickled at the idea of having academic relations. As someone from a low-income immigrant family I have had to be so scrappy as an academic, often feeling like I was DIY-ing my way through, sometimes with what felt like little support and very hacked tools. It was not until pretty recently that someone shared with me a model of mentorship that was web-like rather than one-on-one and this shifted a little how I understood my academic journey and self. The idea that I have intellectual cousins, aunties, and so forth, is so delightful to me. This extended academic kin perspective feels both very immigrant and asexual to me. Rather than the idea of having intellectual parents and descendants that extend a legacy in a kind of middle-class Western frame, aunties and cousins suggest a looser model, people we know, but not necessarily people we replicate. It feels very much like a potentially asexually resonant model where kinship is defined as so very important to life flourishing and also to academic survival. 

     

    References:

     

    Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Brown, Sherronda J. 2022. Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

    Carrigan, Mark. “There’s More to Life than Sex? Difference and Commonality within theAsexual Community.” Sexualities 14.4 (2011): 462–78.

    Emens, Elizabeth. “Compulsory Sexuality.” Stanford Law Review 66.2 (2014): 303–386. 

    MacInnis, Cara C., and Gordon Hodson. 2012. “‘Intergroup Bias towards “Group X’: Evidence of Prej- udice, Dehumanization, Avoidance, and Discrimination against Asexuals.” Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 15.6: 725–43. 

    Maisha, Taking the Cake: An Illustrated Primer on Asexuality. 2012. https:// acezinearchive.wordpress.com/ace-zine-list/101-informational-zines/taking-the -cake-an-illustrated-primer-on-asexuality/. 

    Milks, Megan. 2014. “Stunted Growth: Asexual Politics and the Rhetoric of Sexual Liberation.”

    In Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, edited by KJ Cerankowski and Megan Milks,100–18. New York: Routledge.

    “The Asexual Umbrella.” 2022. Aces & Aros. https://acesandaros.org/learn/the-asexual-umbrella

    Przybylo, Ela. 2022. “Asexuality and Compulsory Sexuality.” In The Palgrave Encyclopedia of

    Sexuality Education, edited by Louisa Allen, Mary Lou Rasmussen, et al., 1–10. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Sex-Repulsed. 2021. LGBTA wiki. https://lgbta.fandom.com/wiki/Sex-Repulsed#:~:text=Sex%2Drepulsion%20can%20take%20many,may%20identify%20as%20sex%2Daverse.&text=Aversion%20to%20the%20idea%20of,would%20fall%20under%20sex%2Drepulsion.

    Sloan, Lorca Jolene. 2015. “Ace of (BDSM) Clubs: Building Asexual Relationships through BDSM Practice.” Sexualities 18.5: 548–63. 

    Winter-Gray, Thom and Nikki Hayfield. 2021. “‘Can I Be a Kinky Ace?’ How Asexual People

    Negotiate their Experiences of Kinks and Fetishes.” Psychology & Sexuality 12.3: 16379. 

Yo-Ling Chen

Response

Asexual Identity Erotics and Relations

The Question of Universality

Dear Ela,

When I first read Asexual Erotics (2019) back in the summer of 2021, I was immediately struck by the book’s “refusal to be bound solely by identificatory frames” (3). At the time, it had been almost a year since I relocated from the United States to Taiwan and I was trying to figure out how much of myself to devote to asexual organizing and advocacy. Though I had developed a self-concept as graysexual towards the end of college back in the States, I never interacted with any aspec communities there (both online and offline) due in large part to how overwhelmingly white these spaces feel. In fact, the entire structure of sexual minority identification felt, at the time, overwhelmingly white. Let me share an anecdote that will hopefully explain what I mean: 

During my graduate studies at the University of Virginia, I was doing my WGS seminar reading at a coffee shop near campus, and on National Coming Out Day of all days. An old white man, presumably retiree age, came and sat next to me. My reading materials must have outed me to him, because when I started to pack up my things to leave he struck up conversation by asking me if I was gay. I said yes, trying to be sensitive to the possibility that his generational relationship to my preferred public identification as queer (at that point, I only shared and discussed graysexuality with close friends) might be fraught. He then proceeded to tell me about his experience of being gay in New York during the seventies and eighties, attending some of the first Pride events there and participating in die-ins. It was interesting to hear his albeit long and spontaneous account, but halfway through this twenty-minute exchange, he abruptly paused and asked me if I was “out.” I said for the most part, but not to my extended family, especially all of my family back in Taiwan. He immediately, and rather vociferously, replied: “Well, fuck em’!” 

His response jolted me. And it still sticks out in my mind today as an example of why “identificatory frames” feel so inadequate and, frankly, white. There is something about the audacity of casually telling a complete stranger to “fuck off” their family relations for the sake of membership in some out-loud-proud fraternity of gay men that strikes me as symptomatic of a certain kind of whiteness. What I mean is this: Imagine relating to your own experience as transparently universal, relating to the experiences of others under the normative assumption that their experience should reflect your own, and demanding conformity when said experiences diverge. If this sounds like the logic of colonialism and empire, that’s because it is. When I critically analyze the framework of identification and the Euro-American construction of “asexual identity,” I can’t help but wonder how much of this logic is at play. It’s not that there are white aces running around foisting their supposedly universal experiences on others through the form of asexual identity, but rather the hegemonic role that identity takes in aspec discourses. Is the vast expanse of nonsexual or asexual ways of being really reducible to the semiosis of an artificially colored vanilla layer cake? 

You know that I have some degree of appreciation for Joseph Massad’s work, despite the many important criticisms that have been raised over the years. When it comes to my unease with sexual identity, I find that Massad’s provincialization of sexual identity within what he calls “Western sexual epistemology”—the demand of truth upon sexual desire and the use of confession to extract said truth in the process of producing one’s “self”—helps me to articulate why I, at times, get so tired of the inward-facing discourse around absence or paucity of sexual attraction that can saturate aspec spaces. Like, yes, this discourse does describe the experiences of a certain community of people, but it also fails to account for the experiences of (racialized) others, as Alok Vaid-Menon (2014) and Ianna Hawkins Owen have pointed out (2018), as well as the diverse forms of nonsexualities that people engage in across the world (Singh 2022, 148; Wong 2015). 

When I first read Asexual Erotics back in the summer of 2021, I was trying to figure out how to balance my criticisms of (a)sexuality and my growing involvement in aspec advocacy in Taiwan. I recognize something of a shared sensibility in the pages of your book: a deep appreciation and respect for what has been able to gather under the sign of “asexuality” qua sexual identity since the turn of the century (the community, the terminology, the zines, the inventiveness), but more importantly, a yearning for something broader and more capacious that can hold together all of the myriad relations and intimacies that exceed the sexual. And of course, these two commitments aren’t necessarily in conflict with each other, as your writing so beautifully demonstrates. For instance, you write: “Asexual elaborations of other forms of attraction implicitly question the basis of grounding identities and orientations in sexual desire, thereby also questioning, more broadly, modern systems of sexuality that have been taking shape since the late seventeenth century in Western settler contexts” (5).  Your work, broadly, and Asexual Erotics, specifically, have taught me how to both speak in the register of asexual identity without letting my exasperations get the best of me and speak about asexualities in a way that exceeds identificatory frames. 

In terms of my aspec advocacy in Taiwan, I’ve done a mix of identity-focused asexual visibility work and public talks that attempt to shift the conversation to examples of asexual erotics and resonances such as the radical feminist and lesbian separatist politics from the late sixties and early seventies you write about in chapter one of your book. I find the discussions arising from the latter to be the most engaging. Another anecdote: 

In my one of my public talks on asexuality, I spent a little more time unpacking your larger argument in Asexual Erotics for moving beyond Freud towards a Lordean understanding of the erotic underpinning all creative activity and moments of deeply felt connection. I took time to explain more fully Lorde’s distinction between sensation (the pornographic) and feeling (the erotic), as well as her understanding of the erotic as “sharing deeply any pursuit with another person” and unlocking the capacity to “feel deeply” all aspects of our lives. During the Q&A discussion, a woman who explicitly introduced herself as not being asexual shared about her frustrations navigating other peoples’ perceptions and assumptions about an intimate friendship she has with one of her male bandmates. Having been accused on multiple occasions of “stringing him along,” she rejected the presumption of sexual interest and instead emphasized the life-giving pleasures she feels when making music with this friend or spending long hours by the riverside conversing with him deep into the night. Under the sign of asexual erotics, this participant found space to finally voice the experiences of artistic, conversational, and platonic erotics that she shares with her bandmate. 

In moments like these I feel, at the level of Lordean erotic potential, splashes of possibility in the conversation space in and around asexuality being taken up by a broader world becoming more hospital to aspec flourishing. And the thing is, I consistently encounter people throughout my advocacy work here in Taiwan who are clearly not on the asexuality spectrum but who nevertheless “feel it” too, like one of the other core members of Taiwan Asexual Group who doesn’t identify as aspec but nevertheless has continued doing aspec advocacy for over eight years now. My own position is that all of these experiences and people who may not conform to the contemporary logic of aspec identification are all a valid part of this larger conversation and community at the edges of compulsory sexuality. Asexual erotics strikes me as a framework that can gather these supposed “anomalies” together in a way that asexual identity cannot. 

Like Kim TallBear and her platonic polyamorous triad with Noriko and Jun. In a keynote talk, TallBear shares: “I may be more dedicated to my triadic relationship with Jun and Noriko than I have ever been dedicated to a dyadic romance” (2021). The three of them do regular visits across Canada and Japan, TallBear spending December and New Years in Toyko, Nori and Jun doing sabbaticals in Edmonton and requesting that TallBear “keep a room for them” in the future. I was especially excited to see you engage TallBear’s scholarship further in your most recent work because there are so many resonances between TallBear’s relational practices and your articulation of asexual erotics. Here’s an excerpt from a 2019 podcast interview she did that I think we can both appreciate together: 

I think if we defetishize sex and we get away from sex as an object … that will enable us to acknowledge that we’re already in multiple kinds of relations; we have multiple responsibilities, and by the way, that can carry over or loop back into what we would now call our “sex life” or our “love life.” I should also say there are asexual polyamorists. Asexual people have taught me a lot. And why should they even have to identify as asexual? Because you’re categorizing sex into genitalia probably at that point, right? So that’s what I mean about objectifying sex. So why do they have to out themselves as asexual? Why can’t they just say “I’m in multiple loving relationships” or “I’m in one loving relationship”? … [T]here are many different people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that are engaged in all kinds of relations with other people and with non-humans, but they are compelled in a settler society to categorize themselves as monogamous, as straight, as queer, as this, as that. You know, there’s all these silos and categories that are anti-relational. If we are really thinking about being in good relation, that will actually deemphasize our need to categorize ourselves like we do and like settlers tell us we have to do so they can manage us (TallBear 2019).

There’s a similar movement here from identity (“Why do they have to out themselves as asexual?” to erotics (“Why can’t they just say ‘I’m in multiple loving relations’ or ‘I’m in one loving relationship’?”) like we’ve been discussing throughout this letter. There is even the bold suggestion that the will-to-identity is “anti-relational” (“Well, fuck em’!”)—but let’s not get stuck there. 

I think that it’s fair to say that, while (a)sexual identity cannot be taken as a universal, perhaps relations—or what some philosophers might call our “constitutive relationality”—can. I read Asexual Erotics as moving away from identity and towards a space where relationality and the erotic overlap, a space that is much more open to capacitating all nonsexual ways of relating regardless of aspec identification. Though you rightfully question “the validity of seeking a transcendental erotics ‘as a concept that can be universally applied to various communities’” (26), I wonder whether this caveat is premature given all of what is already gathering under the sign of asexual erotics, such as writing in epistolary voice, making music with friends, and spending New Years in Tokyo. If asexual erotics refer to “the ‘asexual’ currents, moments, and erotic energies in all lives” (27), then what exactly is the limit of “all”? I think that asexual erotics has the potential of wielding a degree of universality in a way that asexual identity fails to do. What do you think?

Sincerely,
Yo-Ling 

 

References:

Owen, Ianna Hawkins. 2018. “Still, Nothing: Mammy and Black Asexual Possibility.” Feminist Review 120 (1): 70-84. 

Singh, Pragati. 2022. “Asexuality Activism in India and Its Unique Position.” International Journal of Sexual Health 34, sup1 (2022): 148. https://doi.org/10.1080/19317611.2022.2017618.


TallBear, Kim. 2021. “Love in the Promiscuous Style.” Unsettle. https://kimtallbear.substack.com/p/love-in-the-promiscuous-style.   

TallBear, Kim. 2019. “Decolonizing Sex.” Interview by Matika Wilbur and Adrienne Keene. All My Relations. Audio, 43:24, https://www.allmyrelationspodcast.com/podcast/episode/468a0a6b/decolonizing-sex.

Vaid-Menon, Alok. 2014. “What’s R(ace) Got To Do With It?: White Privilege & (A)sexuality.” Media Diversified. https://mediadiversified.org/2014/05/03/whats-race-got-to-do-with-it-white-privilege-asexuality/

Wong, Day. 2015. “Asexuality in China’s sexual revolution: Asexual marriage as coping strategy.” Sexualities 18 (1-2): 100-116. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460714544812.

 

  • Ela Przybylo

    Ela Przybylo

    Reply

    Response to Yo-Ling Chen

    Dear Yo-Ling,

    I think you articulate it better than I can, pointing to all the spaces of excess and beyondness outside the frame of identity-based frameworks, including asexuality as an identity framework, and how those are tied to—as you pin it—“a certain kind of whiteness.” Of course, that “certain kind of whiteness” is not only about Western identity frameworks presented as the best way to exist in relation to a specific set of feelings, proclivities, and politics, but it is also about the broad frameworks that asexuality studies and asexual (ace) and aromantic (aro) folks have been dynamically discussing and thinking about for a while now—the structures of compulsory sexuality (Emens 2014) and amatonormativity (Brake 2012) that dictate and constrain forms of relating. 

    At its worst, queerness itself can act like a popularity club that predetermines visions for forms of being, both in terms of aesthetics and “types” on narrow terms that can feel like a new pressure to conform and that also harmfully excludes so many people from its fabric. I think for a long time and even today in Western queer spaces, ace and aro folks have felt like they can’t be part of this club because they are not performing a queer sexual and romantic drive in appropriate ways. I know I have certainly felt this too, seeking very actively to be sexually motivated as a way to have an easier time simply being part of the imagined queer community that so heavily relies on forms of bonding that include references to sexual prowess, sexual desire, flirting, going on dates, online dating, etc. So, it makes total sense that identity becomes important for ace and aro folks who have often been left out of queer spaces and also as a way to seek legibility in contexts where, unfortunately, due to acephobia and arophobia, many people continue to disbelieve in the possibility of living life along the orientatory possibilities that ace and aro provide. 

    Yet, as you mention, there is also this other queerness that is not ever encapsulated within compulsory sexuality and amatonormativity—that cultural discourse that rewards not only couple-centrism but also so-called romantic bonding at the expense of other rich relational formations including kinship, friendship, and platonic forms of partnership. This tension between identity and something in excess of identity, that you point to and maybe which we can call in this case the tension between asexuality and “asexual erotics,” is so tangible. Clearly there are so many folks who might not feel inclined to identify as asexual for many reasons, or who may not have that term on their horizon, who might tend toward asexual ways of being and forming relationalities with others. 

    Over the years, my own Polish immigrant mother has been very drawn to the “description” of asexuality, if not the term itself, and has described herself on terms that very much point to something akin to asexuality, if not asexuality per se. In another way, lots of folks talk about activities they are passionate about and which they practice with others as a form of “falling in love” or deep intimacy, an erotic experience, like the person you mentioned who felt strong attraction to someone through making music together. This is very much real intimacy, and it is not uncommon. Such folks may not be asexual per se, but they “feel it” as you put it—really understanding the value of invested, intimate, erotic modes of relating that are in excess of sexual and romantic attraction. I really do not think it is unusual for people to resonate with intimate ways of relating that are either platonic on nonsexual, or both. 

    For that reason, I too have been drawn to the work of Kim TallBear (2018) as well as other Indigenous feminist and queer thinkers, such as Melissa K. Nelson (2017), Qwo-Li Driskill (2004), and Tracy Bear (2016) who turn to the frame of the erotic over and above other languages such as sexuality. For example, in the piece I am currently developing that you mention in your response, I am looking at how Melissa K. Nelson articulates the erotic in relation to the more-than-human world of non-human animals, rocks, and plant forms. Nelson elucidates how in many Indigenous worldviews “other-than-humans are considered ‘people,’ [thus] it makes complete sense that human women (and, surely, men and other gendered people) could fall in love and have relationships with ‘other’ people such as stars, beavers, bears, wind, and sticks” (Nelson 2017, 251). Sometimes these relationalities are sexual and sometimes they are not. 

    What is very interesting for me, as someone who is invested in both asexuality and in exploring queer forms of relating or forms of queered relating, is that these thinkers are drawing on the term “erotic” as one that can possibly hold multiple understandings and manners of kinship. In Nelson and TallBear, in particular, colonial kinship forms are challenged, part and parcel of which is the challenging of amatonormativity and compulsory sexuality as delimiting what types of relationships matter. 

    For example, drawing on Sarah Carter (2008), TallBear (2018) discusses how heterosexual marriage was imparted on Indigenous people by colonizers to break up dynamic family ties and decrease landholdings, undermining land stewardship. Charting this history and discussing monogamy itself as a colonial tool used to dismantle Indigenous kinship ties, TallBear asks, “can we resist naming ‘sex’ between persons and ‘sexuality’ as nameable objects?” (2018, 161). And asexual scholarship and modes of relating, I think, can be a central part of this exploration—the exploration of thinking about modes of making kin and thinking the erotic beyond specific sexual and romantic colonial modes.

    While the erotic is not a cure-all and could easily become itself a co-opted term, I think it does hold possibilities for getting at feelings and modes of relating in excess of identitarian frameworks, and other folks expanding that term such as Lynne Huffer (2013) and Angela Willey (2016) have argued similarly. So while “asexual erotics” is perhaps not universally applicable, there is this quality of relating that for me resonates with “asexual erotics” as a form of relating with others that is not prioritizing romanto-sexual kin above other kin. 

    And I do think that with Western approaches to managing sexual identities—which then get misguidedly “applied” onto people and communities in non-Western settings as you discuss—it has become sometimes difficult to get at that texture of relating, above and beyond assuming what a person “is” in terms of identity. Reflecting on that, I am brought back to that desire you articulated, “a yearning for something broader and more capacious that can hold together all of the myriad relations and intimacies that exceed the sexual.” I am not convinced that one term can do all that work, but I am excited that “asexual erotics” might open the door to help us think about particular modes of relating in excess of identificatory frameworks. 

     

    References:

    Bear, Tracy. 2016. “Power in My Blood: Corporeal Sovereignty through the Praxis of an Indigenous Eroticanalysis.” PhD diss., University of Alberta.

    Brake, Elizabeth. 2012. Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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