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The Erotics of Asexuality

This past year, a number of students in my gender and sexuality studies classes asked if we could discuss asexuality in class. In all of the vast literature in LGBTQ studies, there is relatively little on asexuality, especially as compared to other identity categories. And like other marginalized sexualities, the writing on asexuality from medical, psychological, and sociological fields has historically pathologized or dismissed it. But asexuality studies is a growing field, and I was excited to look into it, especially because more and more young people identify as asexual. I wanted to make sure my students didn’t feel invisible or ignored in classes that are specifically designed to value subjugated knowledges, histories, and identities.

I began asking friends and colleagues what they were reading and teaching on asexuality. This led me to books like Ace by Angela Chen and articles by Eunjung Kim and Brittney Miles (all of which I highly recommend!). I was particularly excited to talk to Ela Przybylo in July, an Assistant Professor at Illinois State University, about her book Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality.

Asexual Erotics explores how representations and analysis of asexuality can expand our understanding of sex and sexual attraction. Przybylo critiques the relative absence of asexuality in feminist and queer theory. In a series of fascinating case studies, she demonstrates how various queer and feminist texts — manifestos, activist movements, film, art, and literature — are full of asexual possibilities, or what she calls “asexual resonances,” that can broaden our cultural archives of asexuality.

Przybylo looks at asexuality as both an orientation as well as a lens through which to examine “compulsory sexuality,” or how “sexuality is presumed to be natural and normal to the detriment of various forms of asexual and nonsexual lives, relationships, and identities.” The term is derived from Adrienne Rich’s concept of “compulsory heterosexuality,” which describes how heterosexuality is reproduced not only through individual relationships but through our political, economic, and social systems and institutions. By examining compulsory sexuality, Przybylo can “place asexuality in direct dialogue with larger power structures and patterns of injustice.” In other words, asexuality is not just about an identity, but about a way of relating to the world that can call into question and resist compulsory sexuality in all its forms.

When we talked in July, Przybylo shared with me that her work has often been dismissed since she began researching asexuality as a college student in the 2000s, including by her feminist and queer colleagues. “I had a person who was also in a mentorship role talk about asexuality not existing. It’s really weird to hear someone who’s in a role of authority tell you that the thing you research, which you also feel akin to, doesn’t exist.”

While she notes research on asexuality has increased in the last 10-15 years, “asexphobia,” or negative attitudes and myths about asexuality, are still common. Many still believe that asexuality is a medical disorder, a mental illness, a phase, or a sign of sexual/emotional immaturity. (For those interested in learning more about asexuality, Przybylo recommends checking out the website Aces and Aros, which offers a lot of helpful tutorials, information, and resources.)

Przybylo tells me that when she gives talks about her research, she often provides her audience with “asexuality 101″ to dispel this misinformation. “That really is the goal of a lot of work…making yourself known to people who hopefully are not skeptical, but who might not be educated. But the goal is always that you have spaces, or that you’re working towards a space, where you don’t have to do that translation work anymore, at least not all the time, because that becomes, as we know, really exhausting.”

Przybylo’s book helpfully provides some basic asexuality 101 for unfamiliar readers in the Introduction but quickly complicates and nuances these ideas. When I ask her about the title of the book, she jokes, “this is like 201!” Przybylo explains that the title purposefully evokes Audre Lorde’s 1978 Black lesbian feminist classic “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” (Side note: This is one of my favorite essays to teach!) Lorde’s poetic essay imagines an expansive understanding of “the erotic” that, as Przybylo puts it, explores “forms of intimacy that are simply not reducible to sex and sexuality.”

Whereas racist patriarchal social structures have historically wielded sex as a weapon to oppress women, Lorde sees the erotic as a potential resource that women can access to pursue social change. The erotic is multiplicitous: Lorde writes about “dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea” as possible expressions of the erotic, and later says, “there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into the sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” Throughout her definitions and examples of the term, it becomes clear that the erotic is expressed and practiced as deep relation to oneself and others, whether sexual or not.

For Przybylo, the concept of “asexual erotics” emphasizes non-sexual intimacy and ways of relating to one another. She explains the term in these key sentences:

““Asexual erotics,” drawing on this rich assemblage of writing but especially on Lorde’s formulation, is a phrase I use to think about the critiques, forms of reading, and modes of relating that are made possible when asexuality is centralized. Much like heterosexuality is presumed to be the default for our socially enfleshed lives, so too the sexual—by which I mean being drawn to sex through sexual attraction and desire—is presumed to be our default orientation. This book in turn asks, 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?”

To answer this question, Przybylo looks at a variety of feminist and queer case studies. Subjects of her chapters include 1960s and 1970s political celibacy in feminist movement organizing, representations of “lesbian bed death” and the “aging spinster” in film and art, and queer asexuality in intergenerational familial relationships. This is not an all-encompassing set of case studies; she adds, “this list of asexual erotics could be extended to platonic love, Boston marriages, first-wave feminist chaste erotics, aphansis, so-called sexual desire disorders, frigidity, the figures of the prude and virgin, and religiously situated chastity.”

In her chapters, Przybylo suggests that “asexual identities and politics are inextricably knotted with each other—they are co-constituting terms.” Przybylo doesn’t necessarily make identitarian claims that any particular historical or literary figure was asexual. Instead, she explores how applying an “asexual reading” to these texts can help us rethink feminist and queer history, theory, and sexuality to understand how it has always been entangled with asexuality. She also occasionally uses the term “nonsexuality,” an overlapping term but one that is less tied to identity categories, in order to describe her case studies.

Throughout the book and our conversation, Przybylo makes it clear that discussions about asexuality belong in queer spaces:

“Asexuality is undeniably queer and definitely belongs under the umbrella as “A” and a part of the acronym, which can also be, of course, agender or aromantic. I really do think that folks should get interested in how asexuality offers all these ways of thinking, even for folks who aren’t asexual, about the role that sex has come to occupy, the way it’s given this unfair weighting,  the way that certain communities and people are expected to have sex in particular ways, at particular frequencies. There is no, like, natural level of sex that people should have. This has all been culturally invented.

I think one thing that’s really important for folks to understand is that, as an ace person, you can also be lesbian or gay, or bi or pan, in addition, obviously, to any set of genders or gender [identity] you have. That’s really important ‘cause a lot of people think of asexuality, when they’re predisposed against it, as a sort of island apart from everything. And that’s just not the case. A lot of ace folks are poly. They build relationships just like allosexual, or not asexual people, based on being drawn to people of the same gender or any number of genders. There’s so much overlap. 

A lot of young people are also, like you were saying, increasingly interested in, but also increasingly identifying as asexual. So, older generations, or even for folks who are 30 plus, this doesn’t make any sense. For young folks, asexuality is making a lot of sense. Not only on a theoretical level, but as something that makes sense to them as an identity.” 

Critiquing the centrality of whiteness to asexuality studies and in asexual spaces is a key project for Przybylo as well. She complicates studies that focus on white asexual subjects and draws on histories of Black feminist and Indigenous anti-racist struggle and theory in the book. (She recommends the book Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on our Sex-Obsessed Culture for a deeper dive.) This is most forcefully discussed in her Epilogue, in which she rails against the violent rhetoric and actions of white supremacist incels. As she writes, “Incel rhetoric speaks acutely to the existence of compulsory sexuality as a system that presumes that everyone is sexual—that is, desiring of sex—and it also fortifies tyrannical forms of hatred in which…some white cisgender heterosexual men assume they are entitled to an endless flow of sex from women.” Przybylo makes it clear that asexuality as an identity, a way of relating in the world, a political strategy, and a frame of analysis is not aligned with incel ideology, which is “a politics of hate, entitlement, and misogyny.”

While she still writes and researches about asexuality, Przybylo has just finished a new short book tentatively called Ungendering Menstruation that looks at menstruation and menstrual pain through a feminist, queer, and disability studies lens. She shares, “It is very much in a different direction, but still, you can see overlaps with the idea of like, why certain things are silenced, why certain things are disbelieved even as ample evidence suggests them, even as people speak from their own perspectives on them. And then, you know, discourses of the body and how those are used against certain groups of people.”

Przybylo’s ongoing work exploring the body, queerness, feminism, and disability encourages us to think about how gender norms and compulsory sexuality operate in the world around us. As research on asexuality grows, hopefully my current and future students will have more and more texts to engage. And hopefully folks like me, who teach these subjects, will be willing to listen and learn, so we can unravel how asexphobia operates in our own disciplines and create a world where asexual students aren’t marginalized in our classrooms.

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Lauren Herold

Lauren is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College, where she teaches Women's and Gender Studies and researches LGBTQ television, media history, and media activism. She also loves baking banana chocolate chip muffins, fostering cats, and video chatting with her sisters. Check out her website lcherold.com, her twitter @renherold, or her instagram @queers_on_cable.

Lauren has written 14 articles for us.


  1. i really enjoyed this book and am so glad you covered it, lauren! thanks as always for the insightful review / conversation :)

    (and as always, love so much the ongoing coverage of academic texts alongside commercial publishing; thanks, lauren and kayla!)

  2. This is fantastic, thanks for shining a light on this work !

    My personal journey has shown me that asexuality is rich and complex and highly subversive. And sneaky as heck, quietly hiding right under my nose for all these years I tell you what.

    While I’m busy reinterpreting my self and my life through the asexual lens, I’m looking forward to this book turning my formative upbringing on its head. Through the looking glass go I !

  3. Also really been appreciating these reviews of academic work – it’s a lot harder to find so I’m glad to see coverage here! I especially enjoyed this one, thanks for the thoughtful writing on this complex topic.

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