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Book Review: Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture

In Netflix’s remake of the classic Australian show, “Heartbreak High,” the characters Darren (a non-binary character) and Cash (gay/queer) are trying to figure out where their relationship stands. In prior episodes, we’re shown their growing chemistry, but there’s a problem: Darren wants to have sex and Cash doesn’t. When they finally talk it out, this is how it goes:

            Darren: Do you not want to have sex with anyone or just me?

            Cash: Anyone.

            Darren: Have you tried it, though?

            Cash: What do you reckon?

            Darren: Maybe it was just bad sex or sex with the wrong person.

            Cash: I don’t feel the way you do, Darren.

Notice how Darren immediately jumps to the conclusion that Cash’s disinterest in sex can’t be real. Darren implies if Cash is open to kissing, then he must want to have sex and assumes Cash must not have done sex correctly.

This is one brief example of how asexuality is often viewed in popular media and in real life.

The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ non-profit organization dedicated to suicide prevention among LGBTQ people, defines asexuality (ace) as a spectrum of the ways people see or deprioritize sex in their lives based on “their emotional, spiritual and romantic attraction to other people.”

In their book, “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture,” Sherronda J. Brown expands the definition by including feminist author, Lisa Orlando’s insight, that asexuality is more than just being “without sex,” but rather an expression of “self-contained sexuality” or “relating sexually to no one” with no obligation to label oneself.

Just like Darren’s misunderstanding, popular media often depicts discussions about asexuality as “a mistake” or in the worse, as deviant, sinister, or abnormal behavior. This narrow view ignores the myriad of ways people love and connect beyond sex; the exact opposite of what asexuality focuses on. With the definition from Brown and Orlando, we are urged to see asexuality not as lack, but a deep sense of knowing oneself, despite the [sexual] demands of society.

According to Brown, compulsory sexuality is “A sense that we are each duty-bound to engage in a certain arbitrary amount of sexual activity […], rather than an experience that people should engage in only when all involved have a desire and ability to do so […].”

Compulsory sexuality is present in most spaces, even queer ones, and Brown’s book confronts the prioritization of compulsory sexuality in the United States. They argue without accommodating a range of sexual experiences, we enable compulsory sexuality’s harmful effects, including sexual and racial violence.

Their argument is explored through the complicated history of asexuality in the U.S. and how it affected Black people. In the patriarchy’s construction of Blackness as inferior, hypersexual, and brutish, Black people were presented as being a victim to their impulses. As a result, asexuality symbolized “logical” purity. When used, it was often weaponized as a trait of the subservient, i.e., the Mammy. But that subservience was also a myth because all Black people, including the so-called Mammy, were subject to sexual and racial injustices behind closed doors.

 Brown argues sexuality for Black people has been in the control of the white patriarchal, compulsory sexual gaze. The manipulation of asexuality as “devoid of desire” (like Mammy) was a tool meant to dehumanize Black people even further. By exploring how sexuality is discussed and learning more about the lived experience of asexual people, the lack of agency and lack of desire argument falls apart because it is no longer filtered through an oppressive gaze. Asexuality, then, is standing firm in one’s identity and dismantling the idea that not participating in compulsory sexuality, as it has been constructed in a cis heteropatriarchy , means someone is wrong or abnormal.

Brown’s unapologetic book makes me wish I’d found it earlier in life. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading about sexuality, queerness, and history. If you’d like to learn more be sure to also check out these resources.

Black/Ace people on the internet: Yasmin Benoit, Ahsante the artist, Ace in Grace and QueerAsCat.

Asexual manifesto: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pTtn8Pb5uvtpz1bEhm_22GoCVxlWA_4V5YoXBk2Mnqs/edit

More on Lisa Orlando:  https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2019/08/01/lisa-orlando-author-of-the-asexual-manifesto-1972/

Asexuality in Early Radical Feminism: https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/asexuality-in-early-radical-feminism-part-1/

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