“I do not necessarily believe that I was born asexual but rather that I have asexual tendencies, that I came into asexuality in the way I came into queerness: because it provided me with meaningful self-narratives and held open theoretical, activist, and erotic possibilities,” Ela Przybylo wrote in her book: Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality.
I interviewed Ela about the political, communal, and erotic possibilities of asexuality she explores throughout her book.
Jera Brown: There’s some hypocrisy in the way I’ve been thinking about the ACE spectrum compared to the sexuality spectrum. For some reason I’ve assumed there’s a hard line that you jump from being a sexual person to someone in the ACE community, which really isn’t true.
Ela Przybylo: Thinking about asexuality and sexuality, as well as romanticism and aromanticism, each on a separate spectrum, can be so useful because that’s the way we have already been talking about sexuality, so it’s not a big jump to then think that there can also be a variation of people on the low end of experiencing sexual attraction or romance. On the other end of the spectrum, you can have people who have strong sexual or romantic interests. With spectrum models, where you are on the spectrum/s becomes more of a neutral aspect of a person rather than a moralistic one in which one extreme is better.
Also, I think a lot of people do fall in the in-between as is true of most spectrums. Recognizing this, people are then also more willing to think of themselves as potentially asexual, which can be very positive. Instead of just thinking of it as this one unchanging attribute of who you are, you can think of gray-sexual or demi, and there can be more opportunities for taking what makes sense from the way it has been articulated and applying it to your own life and relationships.
These spectrums can layer your sense of who you are, so instead of just thinking of yourself as let’s say asexual, you can also think about how that plays into your sexuality whether you’re bi or lesbian or gay or pansexual and romantic or aromantic.
You write about how your identity or concept of your own sexuality also changes throughout time.
We can, at one point identify as asexual and then not identify in that way anymore. And that doesn’t mean that the asexuality was invalid or wasn’t real.
Some people’s identities and sense of themselves might remain consistent throughout a lifetime but, for the most part, that’s not how it works. And especially for LGBTQ folks, I think there is a lot of fluidity because so often we’re encouraged not to act on the desires and the sense of ourselves we have in the first place. With the contributions of asexual community, we can also make sense of, “Maybe I am a lesbian, but I don’t have to discard all those relationships I had with men. Maybe there was an attraction but it wasn’t sexual or it wasn’t romantic.”
One of the challenges that we’re seeing with different types of spectrum identities and orientations is people trying to figure out when it’s okay to adopt the label for themselves: Am I queer enough to call myself queer or to be a part of this community? How do you see that playing out as it relates to asexuality and adopting labels like asexual or demisexual? When you assume a label, you’re finding community, but you’re also adopting many assumptions that come with the label.
We think about identity as only being able to include one set of behaviors and desires and exclude others. But identities can never hold all of who we are. We use certain words for ourselves because they make sense to us and because they help us find each other and form communities, and also to explain ourselves to other people.
I am, for one, very excited about the terms that have been born of people just thinking about themselves through asexuality and aromanticism and whatever else ace and aro discussions of identity might generate.
In your book you define various “attractional modes” that are explored through the asexual communities, including romantic attraction, aesthetic attraction and sensual attraction. The point here being that there are many ways of being attracted to someone that are not centered around physical sexual contact. It’s just as important for sexual folks to understand that there is an expanded perspective you can have around all of this: relationships, sexuality, attraction. It’s multilayered.
On the one hand, describing multiple forms of attractional modes is nothing new because queer communities have always been about fostering other modes of relating and queer friendship has always been so important to queer community. But, unfortunately, sex is still assumed as a given in many ways. When we first come out, sex can function as a way that we “prove” our sexual identity. Sexual attraction is a huge part of queer bonding and queer theory and the articulation of queerness. All the while there are other forms of relating and forming queer community that have been just as important, but sometimes left out of discussions. Asexuality does present us with another opportunity to value all the ways we form relationships and are attracted to people and seeing those things as just as valid.
In a relationship between an asexual person and an allosexual person, it’s often the case that the asexual person bears more of the burden of adapting to the relationship.
CJ Chasin, another person who works on asexuality talks about how, especially if you’re a straight monogamous couple, and especially if you’re young and able-bodied, you’re encouraged to seek sex therapy if there is a misalignment in each partner’s level of sexual desire, and if one person is asexual that person essentially will be encouraged to have sex. Chasin thinks of this as a form of conversion therapy. Essentially what a sex therapist is saying is “You need to have sex and we’re going to enforce that because that’s what you need to do to make this relationship ‘healthy.’” At that point, it becomes a big problem. The idea that towards building healthy relationships, you have to compromise something that feels to be at the core of who we are — that doesn’t seem right at all.
But then, on the other hand, the other thing to remember is that you can still be asexual but not mind having sex or maybe even want to have sex for a variety of different reasons. It’s not that being encouraged to have sex if you’re in a relationship with an allosexual (or non-asexual) person is only ever bad, but being encouraged to have sex can be used in ways that are harmful and identity-undermining for asexual people.
You borrow Adrienne Riche’s term “compulsory heterosexuality” to define compulsory sexuality which, “speaks to the 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.”
There are ways in which an allosexual person can also be limited by compulsory sexuality because everyone gets trapped by the standard scripts of how we are supposed to relate to each other. Once again thinking about a relationship between an asexual and allosexual person, I’m wondering if there’s more common ground between the two than they realize once they both get to explore more freely. Does that feel right?
If we understand compulsory sexuality, coined by Elizabeth Emens, or what I also before called “sexusociety,” as something that is systemic and structural, then it’s going to affect everyone. And it’s going to form the fabric of how we think about ourselves and our relationships. For example, many children in a Western settler context, are raised to be nonsexual, to not desire or express sexual desire with the expectation that they will eventually be both heterosexual and sexual. We’re groomed to expect that we’re going to have heterosexual sex mostly, and that affects all our lives so much so that we might even have to build our lives around these ideas. Compulsory sexuality definitely affects everyone just like compulsory heterosexuality does.
Let’s talk about the title of your book. What does the term erotic mean to you?
Audre Lorde talks about the erotic in these really beautiful and playful ways that can potentially be about sexuality but that can also be about other things as well, and that importantly make space for asexuality.
When most people think about the erotic, they’re going to think of something based on sex, but that’s not at the core of what Audre Lorde is saying. For Lorde, the erotic is this life energy that can be manifested as sex but doesn’t have to be. In her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she talks about things like painting a fence, writing a poem, and working with other people towards revolution as all equally erotic. All those things hold the same kind of value for her. The erotic is the expression of our innermost needs–she calls it “the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.” I thought that was such a beautiful way of thinking about how, first of all, asexuality can be seen as part of the queer umbrella, as a mode of queer relating, and an inner expression of our truth.
Also, the Lordean erotic seemed like this term that left space for asexuality to be articulated intersectionally. Asexuality is an identity, but also something that can be politicized and that needs to be thought about in relation to gender, racialization, ability, and other sexual identities. Lorde’s erotic created the possibility for resituating an asexually-inclusive sexual thinking in a black feminist lesbian tradition, redrawing sexual theorizing from a perspective that is welcoming to asexuality and grounded in intersectionality at the same time.
Here’s my personal favorite portion of that same Lorde’s essay:
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire for having experienced the fullness of the steps of feeling and recognizing its power in honor and self-respect. We can require no less of ourselves.
That seems so fitting in the battle for visibility and self-identity that the ACE community is really going through right now.
Yes, definitely. This quote says that “I’m refusing to accept what is on offer by society within a given moment.” This was at the heart of Lorde’e message. This quote resonates with ace struggles and the way in which ace people have been told we are a non-identity, not real, not queer–for example with Dan Savage initially just shutting it down entirely.
If there is more visibility and more world-making possibilities, the option of doing things differently in the face of compulsory sexuality, it’s all because of the efforts of people who have continued to organize and express their views and be asexual even if it wasn’t always widely understood. There is that aspect of integrity and making sense of yourself when there isn’t a rubric for it socially. This is what Lorde’s work was all about. And the inventive capacity of every sexual orientation is carving out that new sacred space, labeling it in a way that makes sense to you, and not in a way that functions to hold you down.