So as I mentioned on the Question of the Week on Tuesday, there’s a new book on asexuality coming out soon! The Invisible Orientation, written by Julie Decker, AKA Swankivy, will be coming out in the US on September 2nd. There have been quite a few other reviews of this book posted in the last few weeks, and I actually haven’t read any of them; I got my review copy quite recently and wanted to read the book and write this review before I read other opinions. Finally, I’m going to refer to the author as Swankivy as I write this piece because that’s the name I’ve known her by longest. If she would prefer I use a different name, I’m happy to change it!
My first impression is that this struck me as a very carefully written book. Swankivy took the time to get perspectives from a lot of aces with varying backgrounds as she wrote and to check her work in sections, and it shows. Notably, her treatment of repulsed versus sexually active asexuals is extremely well crafted, as is her discussion of asexuality and disability. It doesn’t cover anything particularly new or groundbreaking, but it does cover some contentious topics that sit over old community tensions with particular grace and sensitivity. I was very impressed with the care taken to be inclusive to all aces, regardless of other aspects of their identity.
This is a book that is very clear on who its intended audience is: people who have never heard of asexuality before, who may or may not identify as asexual. (Sections 1-3 are for everyone new to asexuality; Section 4 is tailored to people who are newly identifying as asexual or questioning; Section 5 is for allosexual people who know or think they know an asexual person.) Its tone is very engaging and friendly, with occasional flashes of humor.
Because it is aimed at a 101 audience, a lot of care is taken to gradually introduce ace-related jargon and terminology. (The term “ace,” for example, does not appear until page 83 in my copy, and then only in the context of a discussion of ace culture.) In one or two places (notably the grey-a section), the jargon might be a little overwhelming for a reader new to asexuality, but overall the book does a good job at framing concepts in language that’s easy to understand. The other benefit of that framing is that this book should age quite well, even allowing for the speed at which aces change models and preferred words for specialized concepts.
In general, the book takes care not to tell questioning people what they are. It also repeatedly encourages people to take up labels or put them down as they fit (or don’t!) and emphasizes that just because someone changes a label, that doesn’t mean they were wrong to use the original label. I was very pleased by the care taken not to be pressuring to questioning readers, and the way the book tries to convince allosexual readers not to be judgmental about label changes in other people.
One thing I particularly appreciate about it is that it uses a footnote style of citation, so that all citations are easy to see and glance at as you go. It’s a very well-cited work, introduction to sexuality guides go, and it makes use of both academic sources and notable public discussions of asexuality. (For example, there are a couple of Dan Savage quotes where useful to make a point.) The book also integrates questions and answer breakdowns from the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week community census at various points so that the reader can see how the ace community (or at least, the online community in 2011) breaks down.
There’s a couple of things I really like about this. One is that I like to see citations for assertions in general; it makes it much easier to track down what “really” happened or to look for historical commentary or place a work within a greater context. But the other reason is this—it’s really hard to dismiss asexuality as a thing that one person came up with, or ignore its context and history and reality, when you see the weight of all these other referenced discussions laid out before you. This is a friendly and engaging little book written for the lay person, but it’s also clearly a book written by someone who intimately understands the asexual community as well as the academic writing and general discussion that have swirled around asexuality in the last decade.
Another recurring theme I was pleased to see is that the book repeatedly pointed out that asexuals, given a particular situation, behave… pretty much like allosexual people in that situation. For example, some asexual people are repulsed by sex with people they are not attracted to! The book explicitly points out that hey, so are some allosexual people. Likewise, some asexuals have disabilities; so do some allosexual people. And so forth. These comparisons are actually a little more subtle than I’m making them out to be, but they build an enduring theme that I like very much. It’s important to remember that asexual people are first and foremost still PEOPLE, and while our asexuality makes us different, there’s a lot of things that still stay the same.
That all being said, of course the book isn’t perfect (what is?) and there were a few things that bothered me a little. In the discussion on whether aces belong in LGBT spaces, which was otherwise well done, I felt the lack of discussion from the perspective of aces who fit into both worlds. It came across as if all of the ace side that discussion had been coming from heteroromantic and aromantic aces, and that really wasn’t true! I think the point of leaving LGBT asexuals out for that part of discussion was so that Swankivy could focus more on those perspectives in the dedicated “Gay/Queer and Asexual” and “Transgender and Asexual” sections, but I also think that the discussion of aces in LGBTQ spaces would have benefited from a brief examination of the effects of gatekeeping heteroromantic and aromantic aces on LGB-romantic aces, or at least a discussion of the things that those aces have to say.
One final thing to note is that this book is a little unusually expensive, selling for about $30 in hardcover and $20 in eReader format at most of the locations I found it in. I’m a little concerned about its accessibility for that reason, and hope that as the book continues to sell and that the new-publishing hype settles out that the price might drop in the future.
In the meantime, if you want to read this book—and if you have any interest in 101, I think you should—or you want to get it in the hands of people who need it, I encourage you to ask your local library to buy a copy. Many libraries have a streamlined system by which you can request books for their collection. I tried mine out last week, and it took perhaps ten minutes to put in the book’s information and a brief explanation as to why I thought it was worth buying. The next day I got an email saying that the book wasn’t out yet but that the library would purchase it as soon as it was. It was a really simple process!
Overall, this is an excellent resource and introduction to asexuality. I’m really excited about seeing it used in the future, and I would recommend it to anyone who finds they want to introduce people to asexuality without having to personally do 101 for them.
For the purposes of transparency, I received a free copy of the book in exchange for this review, and I’m quoted a few times within it. The Agenda as a whole is also cited as a source of asexuality discussion.