This interview was co-authored with Maddy.
We were fortunate this week to have the pleasure of speaking to Angela Chen (@chengela) about her upcoming book, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, which comes out September 15th.
Angela Chen is a journalist and writer in New York City. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, Guardian, Paris Review, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. She is a member of the ace community and has spoken about asexuality at academic conferences and events including the 2019 NYC World Pride Ace & Aro Conference.
Here’s what she had to say in response to our questions:
Let’s start at the beginning: over the course of the book you actually tell the reader a lot about your sort of process that led you to identifying with asexuality. But I’m curious about once you got to that point, what then led you to think “Oh, I want to write a book about this”?
As I was discovering and grappling with my asexuality, I felt so supported by the ace community, but I felt like I couldn’t translate what I was learning from the ace community to my allo friends. I was wanting to be having these deep conversations about the topics we talk about in the book—like how asexuality relates to gender, or politics, or race, or what it reaches us about consent or relationships—and I think these are conversations that were interesting for my friends who were allo. But it felt like every time we would talk about it, I would first have to do the TED talk, right? You know, I’d have to be like “I’m asexual, but that doesn’t mean I’m celibate, but some people are, and some people don’t want relationships”, and it just felt like that was a huge barrier in us having these conversations, because you need so much time just setting up the basics. And so I thought that so many people could really benefit from the ace lens, whether they are actually ace or not. I think there’s so much to offer; asexuality really makes you see the world, I think, in a new way. And people just weren’t able to access that.
And, on the other hand, I’d always been a journalist. I’d been a journalist before I identified as asexual. And so because I knew that I knew how to write, and I knew how to report, and that importantly, I was already part of the industry, writing a book seemed possible. Even though I had not done it before, it was something that I conceivably could do.
It felt like a way for me to meet other aces, have these conversations, but also bring these conversations beyond ace spaces. Which is of course not to denigrate ace spaces, but I think most of us would agree that if more people were thinking about asexuality, as just part of life, not as some quirky thing that’s apart from the rest of us, then our understanding of so many topics would be enriched, and I hope the book would do that.
Once you had the idea in your head that you wanted to write a book about this, what was the process like of finding a publisher and getting the ball rolling? Was this something where you had to struggle a lot to convince people that this was worth writing about, or was this something that the industry actually seemed interested in once you proposed it?
I think it was more like the latter. So, at the time when I first realized I was asexual, I was a reporter at the wall street journal, and one of the reasons I left was because I wanted to work on this book proposal and sell this work. However, very quickly I just stopped working on it, because I decided—well I didn’t decide, I needed—to make money. And working on a book proposal is not going to make you money until you sell the book, and I needed to freelance and actually pay the bills.
But then a few years later an agent reached out to me for something completely unrelated, and then he said “Do you have a book or anything that you are interested in writing?” and so I took out my half-finished book proposal and we started talking about it. He is queer, and he liked the idea and thought there would be interest, so we finished the proposal and started the process of talking to editors and publishing houses.
I think that at that time, there was less interest in the book than there may be today in 2020—for context, that was in the year 2017—and a lot of people said, oh, maybe this is good for an academic press but not for a trade or a mainstream press. And there was one publishing house, a pretty big publishing house, that said, “Oh, what if you made this a book about just desire, and then asexuality could be one chapter of it, but it could also be about stuff like menopause.” At the time I remember thinking there’s so much to talk about and I know that one book can never cover all of it; There needs to be a whole canon, yet these publishers saw it as something niche. My whole point was to show not only what it’s like to be asexual, and how many ways there are to be asexual, but that it’s not something that’s seperate; That these are questions that are relevent to everyone and that we should be thinking about these questions from all these different perspectives, including an ace perspective. But I think some publishers maybe didn’t think it was something that would appeal to the “average reader”.
This is your first experience writing a book, and on top of that you were writing about asexuality, which is a topic that is not well known. How daunting was this as a first project, and did the fact that you were writing about a subject that was so little known present any additional challenges? Was there a big learning curve for you and the editors you work with in terms of kind of figuring out how to translate this into book form?
It presented a lot of challenges, but I don’t think it was about the learning curve. I think it was about just the immense pressure and responsibility that I felt. Because there’s not that many books about asexuality, and I felt like if I didn’t get this right, then I was going to mess up something, and that was very important to avoid.
If you were going to read a book about Trump, for example, and if it were in some ways a bad book, you can still read 60 other books about what happened with Donald Trump, right? But I just don’t think that was the case here.
And the truth is, I am sure there is something where I messed up. I know that there are things that I could have included that I wish I could have, but in some sense I don’t think that all that pressure should be on me.
One book should not be responsible for representing all of ace experience—and that’s not even possible, you know? We need this ace canon. I want there to be this vibrant collection of books on asexuality that challenge and criticize mine and hopefully also agree with parts of it too—there should be this conversation. I think from a marketing perspective, people will want to say this is a definitive book, but I don’t think any book should be the definitive book because the conversation is always changing.
I’m in some sense worried about criticism from the community too. And of course there will be, because the community is not a monolith and there’s different perspectives on everything and that’s okay. But these are the factors that create the pressure. Knowing that because of the way the publishing industry works, knowing that because this will be one of the first, that also means that if I mess something up there’s a greater change of doing harm.
And backing up to get even more meta, there is part of me that wonders to what extent is the book—which is partly trying to explain asexuality [to general audiences]—to what extent should we even be caring about that? With all the racial justice stuff happening in the US, there’s all this talk about how it’s not the role of people of color to explain racism to white people and it has me thinking…do we need to make aceness palatable to allos? I think I centered aces in the book; I think that I did my best to make aces a centerpoint and not be begging for the acceptance of allos. But I don’t think I can get around the fact this book has both an ace and an allo audience, and there are some interesting implications to that decision, and trade-offs, that I am still thinking about.
One of the things that I noticed about your book is that instead of just explaining a bunch of terms and concepts in the abstract, you focused a lot on personal narratives, both your own as well as those of the people you interviewed. When you were putting the book together, how did you balance the desire to present these personal stories with the need to explain some of these specific community terms (because as you know, the ace community loves making up new terms?)
I think to me it was always about the fact that I think narrative is the best way to explain. I think that if you just explain an idea, but you don’t give any examples or metaphors—or if you don’t show how the idea plays in someone’s life—people kind of nod along and they say they get it, but they don’t really get it. Whereas if you have someone’s story, then it’s just a much better way to explain so they understand.
I think this is the first reported book on asexuality: like you said, there’s a lot of academic stuff, and some very accessible books that explain the concepts, but this is the first time that a journalist just talked to a lot of people and explained how asexuality affected their lives.
Something I’ve heard in the early feedback is that people will say “Oh yeah, of course I agree that there can be this pressure to be sexual, but it was reading the specific story of someone who had been affected by that that really brought it home.” It made something that was abstract really understood as real. It helped them emotionally understand it as well.
You have a lot of your own personal story in this book, and that made me curious: is this part of your life something that you were already very open about with family and friends, or is putting out your story in the book also a kind of coming out moment for you? What is it like to be putting all these very personal topics out in the world?
I will say honestly that I don’t like it that much. I’m a science and technology writer and there’s not much of my personal life involved at all in most of my work, let alone my personal life as it relates to identity, or sexuality, or relationships.
It’s funny, the question of whether I am out or not, because of course if you google my name then the book’s going to come up, and pretty quickly you will realize that I am writing about this as a person who is asexual. At the same time, though, my parents don’t know – they don’t follow my career that much and I just feel zero need to talk to my parents about this, so in a sense I’m not out to them. In many ways, when I meet people for the first time, I don’t think it’s something that I really foreground.
I think there’s a part of me that feels a bit anxious about having so much personal stuff in there and having written an entire book about my sexuality, because there’s so many parts of me, right? Just like there’s so many parts of everyone. I don’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed. I don’t want people thinking this is the most interesting or even the most important part of me, even though the book has been important, and the identity is important. I don’t think anyone wants to be stereotyped or reduced in any way.
On the level of writing the book, I think that many times as I was writing the book I really had to force myself to be honest. I don’t mean that I was tempted at all to lie, it’s just that since I am in complete control of the narrative, everyone desires to tell the story that makes them look, you know, very good, and present themselves in a flattering light. Throughout the book I talk about, for instance, how I felt ambivalent toward being asexual, or I talk about some judgemental thoughts that I had toward asexuality; these are all things that I don’t intellectually endorse, but that I emotionally felt them. I eventually decided that I wanted to include them because I think it’s important to express the complexity of people’s feelings around asexuality.
I think because people who are asexual are often marginalized, there can be this pressure to really dig your heels in and be like “I’m happy about being asexual all the time, and I love it!” and that’s true but at the same time it’s not always true. And I think presenting a more realistic example of that was important to me, even though it maybe made me less of a “good representation” of asexuality in the eyes of allos.
In your experience working on this book, did you ever find that being asexual yourself gave you any extra insights in the process of interviewing the people that you talked to? Did you ever find that people were more willing to talk to you as someone who identifies as asexual? On the flip side, were there any challenges around reporting something that you are kind of in the middle of yourself?
I definitely think that being asexual helped me write this book. At some point it just made it easier for me to talk to people and to gain trust. Being able to say “I’m ace, I get it. You’re not going to have to explain what asexuality is to me; I’m not going to ask you invasive questions about masturbation, or come at it from a skeptical standpoint” just removed one of the big blocks so we could really get down to talking about what it’s like ot be ace: What are some joyful things about it? What were some hard parts of the process? I think it really helped with that emotional connection.
In terms of whether it made it harder, because I was in the middle of it—I don’t think so. This was never meant to be a “gotcha” book. My purpose in writing the book was not to write an exposé, even though at times I am critical of the community because no community is perfect. I think that being part of the community was a position of strength and ultimately the book comes from a place of gratitude and respect.
What was it like finding people to speak to you for this book? What kind of strategies did you use to get the diverse experiences you presented?
The first thing I did was reach out to people I knew in the ace community and I said, “Can you connect me with some people that might be willing to talk? Y’know, go to your communities, share my information, tell them that I’m fine if they want to use pseudonyms.” I also reached out to AVEN, I occasionally posted on reddit, and it was always important to me that I talked to a wide variety of people, who were diverse across gender presentation, or where they fell on the ace and aro spectrums.
Was centering people who are outside the traditional asexual stereotypes—like aces of color, and aces of different genders, aces that are trans, and all of them—was that something you always wanted to focus on or is that something that came up as you were writing or as you were planning?
That is something I knew I was going to focus on from the very beginning. And I think that goes back to the point of the fact that this is going to be one of the only widely accessible books on asexuality out there, and it can’t represent asexuality as something that’s just for people who are white and able-bodied and cis. And so, when I was looking for people to interview—when I was trying to think about who would have more time and less time in the book—that was very much at the top of my mind. Because I think that missing media representations may just keep people from being able to affirm or recognise their asexuality.
As I wrote about in the book, because I’m not sex-repulsed, for a long time I didn’t realize I was ace because all the stories I had seen about being ace were also about being sex repulsed. There’s nothing wrong with being sex-repulsed, of course, but it’s funny, even within the ace narrative, which is already little understood, there is still often a kind of dominant narrative shown to the outside world. I felt that if I wrote about people who were diabled and ace, or trans and nonbinary and ace, or black and ace, then someone who was also in one of those groups could see it and maybe reocgnize something that they wouldn’t have otherwise, if the mainstream media were always writing about the same kinds of ace characters or ace people.
Was it difficult to get people to open up about some of these topics and to go on the record?
I don’t think that it was difficult. I think that it helped that I offered a pseudonym, and many people took that; many people were comfortable using their first and last name but some people didn’t want to be identified, either because they weren’t out, or because they were out but their partners weren’t, and I respected that. I think that I always told people that the first conversation we have could be totally off the record; It could just be me talking about my experiences, and what the book was about, why I wanted to talk to them, and where they might fit. And I think that process of explaining to them what the words would be used for, and what the book was trying to do, really helped gain trust.
Because I think many aces—and just people in general—have been burned, right? You agree to an interview, and then the article does something completely different, and your words are twisted into something that you didn’t think you said. I promised that I would fact-check with everyone. So I think that being really clear about what I was doing—what I would use the interviews for, exactly what the process would be like, when I would check back in with them—helped people trust that I was legitimate, and that not only was I someone who had good intentions, but that I was someone who was professional.
In the process of writing this book and talking to all these other ace people, did that whole process change the way you saw yourself or your own identity and way of thinking at all?
It did. It’s rare for me to just run into another ace person in the wild, and I’ve been to meetups, and I’m plugged into the online community in the sense that I follow a lot of people, but I don’t really interact with people—basically I’m a lurker. So being able to talk to other aces really created just such a feeling of relief.
I found aces who were just not concerned with the things I was concerned about. I think that I am someone who is kind of self-conscious.and I’m very sensitive to “will people think I’m a prude, will people think that I’m broken”? And then I just met people who were like “I don’t care about that at all, why would I care about that?” And I felt like some of that attitude rubbed off on me. It was all things I knew—intellectually I knew I shouldn’t care whether people think I’m a prude or not—but seeing other people just embody that, in a very specific way—not in just the abstract, data-driven way, but seeing people actually talking about their lives and how they’ve come to be where they are, it really felt like it opened up possibilities for me.
It’s funny, because of course I know a lot more ace people than the average person does. But it was still all this interaction with different ace people that made me feel better about being ace myself, and helped me emotionally know what I had for a long time really known mostly intellectually.
Let’s talk about future work: after this book comes out, are asexuality-related topics something that you are interesting in continuing to work on in the future, or do you feel like you need to take a break and work on other subjects for a while? If you do still have interest in writing about asexuality in the future, do you have any thoughts about things—that you might not have had a chance, or had the space to explore in this work—that you think you would be interested in exploring for any future projects?
I’m interested in continuing to write about asexuality, though I don’t think I’ll write any more books about asexuality. Like I said, in some ways the book was a fluke. I really do love science and tech reporting, and I think my next book will probably be more in that area.
But there’s so much more to explore. I think the book is very broad, and I think that’s good in many ways, because when you are still building this canon of books on asexuality you really want to make sure that people don’t think asexuality is just one thing, or that only able bodied people are asexual, or only white people are asexual; you want to show all these different types of experiences. But because it was so broad, in some ways I often couldn’t go as deep as I wanted to. So I think I’d love to explore more topics related to asexuality and consent, asexuality and sexual education, or the medicalization aspects of it. Especially because I’m a science joiurnalist and I was fascinated by everything I learned about, you know, the “female viagra”, and sex drugs, and you know, what does that mean? So those are topics I’d love to talk about.
And [I am also interested in] even more esoteric and abstract topics. I’ve always been very interested in the relationship between asexuality and beauty. I think some aces have heard people say “It’s such a shame you are asexual, you’re some pretty or so handsome” and that’s just such an odd thing to say, because it implies that our beauty is for the sexual gratification of others, when that’s not true. And I want to explore these kinds of topics.
There’s also more personal things that I want to think about, and which I write about briefly in the book, like how even as an asexual person I’ve sometimes felt like I do want to be sexually attractive to others, and what does that mean or have to do with me being a woman who lives under patriarchy? How have I been conditioned, and what is the relationship between beauty and asexuality and aromanticism and power? There’s just so much.
But also, there’s so many ace people out there who could be writing these articles too, and I hope that there’s way more ace writers and journalists who feel like they can be reporting on the subject and the community.
As both both a journalist and an asexual person, now that you’ve been through this whole process, do you have any advice for other journalists who may look to do similar work in the future, or for other ace people who may be interested in reaching out to media?
Absolutely. With asexuality, as with any topic really, the first thing to make sure is that you really understand it and you aren’t making your source explain 101 stuff. As a science journalist, oftentimes I’ll be talking to an expert, and they do have to explain stuff to me. But in that case, it’s like PhD level stuff that I just cannot understand because I don’t have a PhD in chemistry. Whereas a lot of the basics that you need in order to understand asexuality and to have a respectful interview are things that journalists can just research on their own, and not demand that labor of whomever they are talking to. I think it also is important, as I just said, to be clear about why you are writing about this, why you’ve reached out to them, how their words will be used: will they be quoted, or is it just for background? Will they have a pseudonym? As much clarity as possible about your purpose is super useful.
As for aces who are interested in talking to journalists, I always recommend that they reach out. Journalists always love story ideas, and I think there will be increasing interest in asexuality—not necessarily because of my book, but because I think that our attitude towards sex in American society is changing. I think that since the #metoo movement, and everything that’s been happening since then, there’s been this shift where people are starting to become more critical of certain types of sex-positivity, and more aware of the nuances of sex, and I think that will lead to more interest in asexuality now and in the future.
The other thing I wanted to mention regarding what journalists should do is that these are actually just basic journalism standards. That no matter what you are doing you should educate yourself as much as possible, and you should understand what might be a sensitive question. You don’t have to be an expert in asexuality to sensitively report on the topic.
One last thing I wanted to make space for—is there anything that we haven’t asked you about, or that you wish we had asked you about? Or any final messages for people who are interested in your book and wondering whether to buy it?
One think I would say is specifically for aces: I think it can be easy for people who are ace to think “well, why would I read this book, I’m ace, and I know what romantic attraction is, etc.”, and I totally get that, but I really do think that even if you are ace, reading these narratives can be helpful. And I also think that even if you are ace, that doesn’t mean you know what it’s like to be a different kind of ace, right? I guess what I’m saying is don’t think that this is all 101, or that if you already know what asexuality is that you aren’t going to get anything from this. That’s my hope at least.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Angela Chen’s new book “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex” comes out on September 15: click here to preorder it now! You can also follow Angela on twitter at @chengela for more updates.