Review of Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture by Sherronda J. Brown
Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture
by Sherronda J. Brown
Sometimes being asexual (and in my case, aromantic) can feel very lonely, for reasons perhaps obvious but which I will elaborate on in a moment. In particular, it feels like we are usually an afterthought when it comes to research about queer people and sexuality. I know that’s not entirely the case, though, and am always looking to broaden my knowledge about those who study and write about asexuality. So of course I leaped at the chance to read Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture by Sherronda J. Brown. Not only does it discuss the ways in which our society privileges allosexual people and pairings, but it also challenges some of my understandings as a white person, getting me to think about the intersections of racism and acephobia.
The book comprises twelve chapters (plus a foreword, introduction, and afterword). Each chapter explores a different dimension of compulsory sexuality, which is a term Brown uses to build on top of the more well-known compulsory heterosexuality, which is the idea that social pressures encourage and reward heterosexual expressions of love and desire and punishes those who deviate from that norm. In uplifting voices on the asexual spectrum and research into asexuality, Brown wants to emphasize that beyond compulsory heterosexuality, there is a wider idea that sex itself is a requirement for full admittance into the human experience. Hence, compulsory sexuality: moving the gatekeeping goalposts so that queer people are OK as long as they’re having sex with someone, but if you don’t actually care all that much about sex … well, that is just a bridge too far!
This privileging of sex as a determiner of identity has long bothered me, and I’m glad more people are calling it out. Your sexual orientation is whom you’re attracted to, not who you do, if you know what I mean. Yet even in queer spaces, the performance of sex and sexuality often become more important than the underlying attraction. Brown argues that this is inherently exclusionary of ace people:
In order for asexuality to be understood and recognized as the queer identity that it is, sex acts and sexualization would first have to be removed from the center of dominant conceptions of queer identity.
This can be a touchy subject among queer rights activists, and understandably so. A great deal of the queerphobia lobbed our way these days comes in the form of accusations that we are predatory, as the recent co-opting of groomer by far-right activists demonstrates. I get why allosexual queer people are very invested in celebrating non-normative sex and sexuality in a healthy, sex-positive way. Yet I appreciate that Brown is unyielding on this point:
Hyperfocus on queer sex and sex roles is a direct result of the oversexualization of queerness as a means to construct it as nothing more than sexual deviance and also to reassert heteronormative gender roles within queer relations….
That is to say, the way our mainstream society oversexualizes/hypersexualizes queer people is an intentional form of controlling and minimizing our queerness as a political and personal identity. It is a radical act, therefore, to reposition our queerness along those axes—and in doing so, realigning allosexual queers and asexual queers.
Brown’s unrelenting grounding of asexuality in the history and politics of queer liberation is refreshing. She makes it clear that we have always been here, always been a part of queer movements. It’s gratifying to see it all spelled out this way in black and white, for so often, asexual exclusion takes the form of asexual erasure. This is a book that is determined to make us feel seen.
Then we have the way Brown discusses how compulsory sexuality overlaps and interlocks with anti-Black racism, especially misogynoir, along with fatphobia. She relates well-known stereotypes of Black people, such as the Jezebel, Mammy, Mandingo, etc., to compulsory sexuality, demonstrating how white supremacy has long set up a correlation between hypersexualization and race (at least in the eyes of white people). Hence, Black asexual people face additional challenges that white asexual people like myself don’t because they also carry the burden of numerous racist stereotypes. Something I really like about Brown’s presentation of these ideas is the way she works them into every chapter, truly ensuring that this important element receives thorough examination instead of, say, a token chapter like it might be given in another scholar’s work.
Indeed, while I would have read this book even if it was solely about asexuality, the intersectional component is what truly got me excited. As a white person, it’s important to me that I understand not just the privilege I have in terms of how society treats me but also the ways in which our society has shaped my very thinking. Brown does not mince her words:
What is true of whiteness in every space, even in “progressive” and “inclusive” spaces, is that it will always work to create some form of exclusivity as a means to reassert white superiority. Therefore, white asexuals often claim asexual queerness as a property, just as whiteness itself is claimed as a property, as a space that others are barred from entering into.
I’m being called out—and I appreciate it. I think this is one of the most pressing challenges that white queer activists face right now, i.e., acknowledging how we inadvertently work against the overall cause for liberation by refusing to acknowledge the presence of race and role of racism in our spaces. This book is a direct challenge to any claims on asexuality as a bulwark of whiteness and white supremacy. While we white asexuals might not be intentionally perpetuating those ideas, we have grown up with them and internalized them. So this book, in addition to validating us, will challenge us in the best possible ways.
And Refusing Compulsory Sexuality is so validating! The older I get, the more that compulsory (hetero)sexuality bothers me. I used to think that I had escaped it, having grown out of the dating-heavy period of my twenties wherein all my peers seemed to be hooking up and then shacking up. I thought that once I reached the refuge of my thirties, I could start my inevitable evolution into the “cool spinster aunt,” the friend who would take your kids for a night when you wanted to fuck, the perpetual bachelorette sipping tea on her deck, ready when you called to vent about your partner. That was supposed to be my life!
But I am realizing that compulsory sexuality will continue to stalk me through my decades, evolving as I evolve yet ever present. Nowadays it’s the gentle but hollow caress of loneliness as I watch more of my peers pair off and embark on a new phase of their lives that I have opted out of. (Brown introduced me to chrononormativity, coined by Elizabeth Freeman, to identify this idea that our lives should unfold along a particular trajectory as determined by social and cultural norms.) I have no desire to have a partner of any kind, to have children of my own; I enjoy living by myself—yet I live within a society that is constantly telling me such a state is unnatural, pitiable at best and deviant at worst.
Please believe me, my allosexual readers, when I say that you don’t truly understand how much of our world is built upon this assumption that sex and sexual attraction are required and normative. You don’t. It isn’t just the idea that our society itself has become over-sexualized, the so-called “raunch culture” that other books I’ve read have tried to unpack. It goes so much deeper than that, intersecting, as Brown notes, with forces like white supremacy. For us asexuals, it’s a world that holds us at arm’s length, misunderstanding or mistrusting us.
But maybe if you read this book, you can get a glimpse into my world. Truly the most fulfilling part of this book for me is Brown’s unapologetic tone. Early on she calls out how we asexual writers often attach disclaimers and qualifiers to our statements: oh, some ace people masturbate; some of us choose to get married or even have sex; some of us might even enjoy sex! Partly we do this because the asexual spectrum is incredibly diverse, ranging from people who experience zero sexual attraction, like myself, to people whose attraction fluctuates based on factors ranging from time to connection to someone. But we also do this because of internalized acephobia and this idea that we need to make ourselves more palatable to allosexual readers, reassure you that we are actually Just Like You! Brown recoils from this, as do I (though I freely admit I am guilty of acceding to the pressure to do this in my blog posts), and it endeared me to her writing immediately.
Refusing Compulsory Sexuality is not just a succinct and edifying work of Black asexual scholarship: it’s an unyielding assertion of the belongingess of asexuality in our society and sociology. Not only does this book make me feel seen, but it makes me feel valued and recognizes my humanity. It centres me in a way that many queer conversations do not, even when they are inclusive of me. If you have any interest in a more scholarly read about sex and sexuality in our cultures, you need to read this. I received an eARC via NetGalley and North Atlantic Books, but I’ve already ordered a copy from my indie bookstore.