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Aced: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
As tiny babies, so much is decided for us before we've lived our first full day of life. Some of these decisions will start to question as we age, and make again on our own terms like gender - a spectrum on which how we choose to identify may change - also a spectrum, sexuality. My young hormones helped me quickly understand some of my preferences when it came to sexual attraction. Back then, it was mostly brown haired boys who didn't smell too funky, or make fun of me for my oversized red, speckled glasses. For others, it's people of the same or either gender - and sometimes, it's no one. Asexuality is the A on the LGBTQIA spectrum, but it's long been ignored, minimized and misunderstood. In a world where sex is talked about all the time, that often without much nuance, it can be hard to find the language to describe how you don't feel sexually attracted to anyone, and how love doesn't equal sex. This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Folks in the asexual community encounter a lot of assumptions about what their sexual identity means about their interest in relationships, romance and intimacy - and the simplest and most truthful answer is: It depends.

Angela Chen
I was 14, and I read the definition: Doesn't experience sexual attraction, and I thought: Great, that's interesting. And it had zero impact on how I thought of myself. I did not think I was asexual from reading that definition.

Anita Rao
Meet Angela Chen. She's a writer and editor, whose personal story led her to write a whole book about asexuality. She investigated how her own experiences compared to others.

Angela Chen
I had thought that being asexual meant that you were repulsed by sex or didn't care about it. And that's why it didn't seem to apply to me, but the more thinking I did — and the more I talked to others — I realized there was this huge diversity of experience from people who are repulsed by sex, but also people who are sex-favorable. And many people like myself didn't even realize they were asexual because there is this emotional desire for sex, and people can't separate that from the physical attraction, the sexual attraction. So, I think I really learned that the way we talk about sexuality and attraction is so tangled up, and that really clouds the way we think about our own identities.

Anita Rao
You have such a helpful analogy that you use in the book, which is that we're really comfortable with this idea of a one-night stand — the idea that there can be an interaction that is really all about sex and not really about anything else, but we really struggle to think about the opposite of that. The inverse of that: a relationship that is romantic, but not sexual. Can you unpack that a bit more for me? Because I feel like that's a really helpful framework.

Angela Chen
Absolutely. So, by definition, people who are asexual don't experience sexual attraction. However, a lot of people still experience romantic feelings towards someone. And if you say that, then most people will say I understand, but then sometimes they'll say: Oh, how is that possible? Isn't wanting to have sex with someone how you know something is romantic? And that's just not the case. The experiences of aces show that's not the case, that it's entirely possible to be in love with someone without there being that sexual component, but because we often collapse sex and romance, we use those words, often interchangeably, to separate them to many people sounds confusing at first.

Anita Rao
Collapsing sex and romance. It's what every 90s teen movie taught us was a terrible idea. And yet, it still happens. As Angela said, romance can happen without sex. Also important to note as we expand our definitions of sexuality: love can happen without either of these things.

Yasmin Benoit
Being aromantic, which means I don't experience romantic attraction either — I just place all the emphasis on platonic love, or just having friendships and loving your friends and loving your family, and just loving all kinds of different things — just not in a romantic way. So, that's the kind of love that I'm drawn towards. That's how my love manifests.

Anita Rao
Yasmin Benoit is a model and asexuality activist. She identifies as asexual and aromantic and has since she was in her early teens.

Yasmin Benoit
I mean, I definitely don't approach anything with a category in mind. I never really try and categorize my friends or kind of apply terminology to any of my relationships outside of being asexual aromantic, which are terms I use out of convenience. I'm not really much of a labeler, so I don't really bother putting that kind of emphasis on it or thinking: This is going to turn into this, or I want it to go this way — you just kind of see how you vibe with someone.

Anita Rao
A recent study showed that 1 in 10 LGBTQ plus teens identifies as asexual. And these young folks, and their adult counterparts, end up having to do a lot of re-education of their peers and their parents. A listener in her early 20s, named Maren, told us that she doesn't talk about it much with her parents or grandparents, but it does come up a lot with friends.

Maren
Sometimes we'll talk about like people they're attracted to. I kind of have to check myself and be like: Oh, the way you're attracted to this person might be like, solely sexually attracted, and like, I don't understand that. Like when people are like: I don't understand how you don't want to have sex and how you think that isn't an important part of relationship or whatever. On the flip side, I don't understand what it's like to want to have sex with someone, so it's always kind of a weird conversation with friends when they're like: Oh, like this guy, I really want to ... you know. And I'm like: Can't relate man —like that sounds so un-fun to me. I don't even know why you'd want that.

Anita Rao
Camille, another listener, gets more direct and constant pushback about her ace identity.

Camille
One thing I think a lot of asexual people deal with is this idea of: Oh, well, you just haven't met the right person. Or in my case: Oh, you're so young, you don't even really know what's out there. I see that a lot with my transgender and non-binary friends as well. Their "choices" are being called into question from such a young age. When in reality, it's very brave to make a statement about your identity and know who you are at such a young age.

Anita Rao
Knowing and living out who you are at a young age, when you have a marginalized identity, means taking all kinds of big risks and fighting for the right to be taken seriously. Sebastian Yūe is a writer, editor, model and voice actor, and they too came out as asexual when they were in their late teens.

Sebastian Yūe
There is this pervasive idea of: Well, how do you know if you haven't had certain experiences? And to that, I would say: How old is old enough to know? I think that if you do come out and make a statement about your identity ... I think that you really want to trust somebody else when they say that this is who they are, and even if it turns out that they changed their mind later, or they have discovered new ways to describe themselves. And I don't think it necessarily means that they were uncertain the first time that they came out and said that. I think that the freedom to learn more about oneself should be a kind of open possibility forever. I don't think there's a limit on that kind of thing.

Anita Rao
I know that you're a model and a photographer, and have experimented a lot with photography and image throughout the course of your life, and I'm curious about how that process of kind of seeing yourself in new ways has shaped how you understand your sexuality?

Sebastian Yūe
I think that, especially with regard to my own identity — I identify as gender queer, so that has been a really cool way for me to try out new ways to express myself. And I think, in relationship to asexuality, it's not something that tends to come up a lot while I'm producing that kind of content, but for me, personally, I like knowing that I am participating in it as an asexual person - and that really everything I do has to be kind of highly scrutinized from that lens. If that makes sense.

Anita Rao
That totally makes sense, and I guess it raises some questions about some of the intersections between sexuality and gender, and Angela, I know this is something you've touched on a bit in your book. Kind of looking at how asexuality challenges some of our assumptions about gender and about the gender binary. Could you talk a bit about that as it relates to femininity and masculinity and asexuality?

Angela Chen
I think that we have strong assumptions around the type of sexual desire that people have and these are based on gender. So, for instance, when interviewing for the book, a lot of ace men would often say: Discovering I was ace that felt like that threatened my gender, because men are supposed to be sexually aggressive. They're supposed to always want to be chasing women in a heteronormative context, and so someone told me that when they realized they were ace, they had the thought: Oh, am I actually trans? And they realized they weren't, but that idea that men are this specific way — [that] they are very sexual — was so deeply ingrained in them, and so that's one example in which asexuality kind of destabilizes the ways we think about gender. And it's all wrapped up in the assumptions we have about what genders are supposed to be like. And another thing, and for this, people have told me that being ace has sometimes destabilized their sense of gender in other ways. A lot of folks in the ace community are non-binary or trans or gender non-conforming — and I'm not, so I don't want to speak for them — but many have said that being ace has helped them realize that they were non-binary for example, and that sometimes it was the first step to figuring out other parts of their identity.

Anita Rao
There's so much that's tied together in all of this, and when you talk about assumptions about what it means to be masculine, and have a certain amount of sex drive or desire for sex, it also kind of connects to the images we associate with various forms of gender. And I know, Yasmin, that's something that you have been playing with on your platform of the campaign: #ThisIsWhatAsexualLooksLike. And really pushing back on some of our assumptions about, visually, what it means to associate different kinds of genders and sexualities with certain images. I'm curious about some of the assumptions that you're pushing back on that people assume about visual representations of asexuality.

Yasmin Benoit
Growing up people would always — not even just growing up — to this day people would often say like: You don't look asexual. My response will always be: Well, what does asexual look like? And even though asexuality hasn't been heavily represented, whenever you do see someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction, or their kind of sexuality is like heavily downplayed, or they just don't have a sexuality — it's usually because they're kind of unappealing. And they're supposed to be kind of like nerdy or kind of cliche Sheldon Cooper-types really. And consequently, people find it hard to compute that a Black woman, who is a model would be asexual. And so this is what asexual looks like. It was just to say: Asexual looks like anybody, including me, and there is no one asexual look, and we're a very diverse community — and all the time, I know that it perplexes people to see me modeling and still identifying as asexual, but it doesn't really make a difference. Like there's no asexual dress code. Like lacy lingerie or a trench coat — it doesn't make a difference.

Anita Rao
Whether or not you're sexually attracted to other people, doesn't mean you have no preferences for how you look. Here's Maren again, the listener you met earlier.

Maren
People think that when you dress up to look nice, you're doing it for someone else. Whereas, like for myself, I'll dress up because I want to look cute, and it's exclusively me. I'll send a selfie or whatever to my fiance, and they'll be like: That's true, you do. But it's not like there's an ulterior motive. I'm not like: I want to get laid tonight, so I'm gonna wear this dress or whatever. I'm just like: I want to wear that dress, because my legs look great. I think sort of breaking down the stigma of dressing up for other people versus dressing up for yourself plays into it a lot. I don't dress up for other people. Like I don't care if other people think I look sexy. Like if I think I look sexy, that's really the end game.

Anita Rao
Looking sexy just for yourself is one of life's finer pleasures. And just to say it again, for the cat callers in the back, how any of us choose to dress says nothing about what we do or don't want sexually. But one big, big point: Being asexual does not mean being anti-sex. Listen up to Angela Chen.

Angela Chen
Asexuality is not about being sex negative. It is about dismantling the assumption that everyone is sexual, and it is about people being able to not experience sexual attraction and refuse sex if they want. And if people do want sex, you know, and they do experience sexual attraction — that's fine too. But because there is this long history of shaming and control of sexuality, I think people are very sensitive. And anything that looks like purity culture is put in the same bucket, when the message is actually very different. The message is you can be sexual or not sexual in any way you want. Not everyone should be less sexual.

Anita Rao
So you are in a partnership with someone who is not asexual, and from your book, you also had a lot of conversations with folks about what to do in a relationship with folks who have different desires around sex. So can you talk about navigating that and what you've learned from your research and your own personal experience?

Angela Chen
The first thing I always say is: That these questions are not only relevant to people who are ace. These discrepancies are so common, no matter what your orientation is. And so when it comes to solutions, I think a lot of them are similar to what you might find with a straight couple that's in therapy. [There's] so much about deconstructing the role that sexuality and sex plays in your relationship. Are you communicating okay? What does everyone want? Does everyone feel safe? But when it comes specifically to ace and non-ace couples, I think there are a few other things to consider, and one i— that I've heard over and over — is that the the alo- member of the couple, the not-ace member, will often feel rejected. They'll take it very personally, because I think in society we often think someone's desire for me, it's in some way a reflection of how attractive I am. There's this idea if I were more successful, if I were more physically attractive then you would want to have more sex with me. And so I've interviewed people who said: It was a lightbulb moment when my partner realized that wasn't the case. When I was able to say: It's not about you. It's not about whether you do it for me or anything like that —this is who I am. And it's not a reflection of your worth. And I think that's really interesting, because I think many of us have internalized the idea that other people's desire is about us.

And another thing that's really important is to not pathologize the lower-desire partner. So often, there's this idea that the higher desire partner is the normal one, and the lower-desire partner is the broken one, and they're the one that needs to fix themselves - and they're the one that needs to try meditation and sex toys, and all of that work to bring themselves up. But if you think about it, the real problem is not high desire or low desire, it's just incompatibility. So really, it's the responsibility of both people to find a solution that works for them. And it's not helpful to think about it as one person is, you know, just living their life, and the other person is bringing everyone down. And I think that's a perspective that's often really overlooked in these discussions about negotiation and relationships.

Anita Rao
The wide range of perspectives of folks in the ace community have long been overlooked. Earlier this year marked the first ever International Asexuality Awareness Day. I'm someone who's generally a little skeptical about how much these days really do — especially when coverage of them overlooks all the bigger structural questions. But Yasmin, Sebastian, and Angela all did have some thoughts on this moment in time, and the big and small progress they see and want.

Yasmin Benoit
I feel like we are in a very similar place to where we were like 10 years ago — or possibly more than that. I feel like we've been kind of in a consistent stand still, and I know people can probably pluck examples from like independently-published books, or like, there might be a character in like a video game or a podcast or something, but in terms of well-known, like mainstream representation in the same way, you could like name about 20-something gay characters off the top of your head. We are severely lacking, and whatever we do to get that kind of representation is usually kind of similar. It's usually just kind of like a girl next door, or just kind of guy next door, usually just kind of white and offensive. It's almost like whenever I talk to people that have been doing activism for a lot longer than me, I would compare our experiences. And it's kind of a Groundhog Day — like the questions I get, and the questions people got almost like 20 years ago - it's like the exact same thing. The conversation has not really moved forward that much, especially when you compare it to other parts of the LGBTQ plus community. We get the occasional bursts of attention, and then people forget again, and then we do it all over again in a few months time. And then we just keep doing that for decades. So personally, I think that's kind of what the issues are.

Anita Rao
Sebastian, how about you?

Sebastian Yūe
I would say that, at least within queer spaces, a big part of it is a lack of solidarity. I think that just because, every so often, there is this one conversation that comes around like every six months or so, and it's whether or not asexual people should be allowed to use the word queer. And I think that it's not a productive conversation to have necessarily. I'm always thinking like: Well, I'm talking with other queer people. I think that we should focus on why it's important to listen to each other. I think that it's important for me to listen to conversations about what's happening in spaces that I'm not necessarily a part of. And I think that if we focus more on ways in which we could help each other as opposed to who is allowed to do what, we would be able to get further. And so I would really like to see more solidarity among the community at large.

Anita Rao
Angela, any closing thoughts? I mean, obviously, writing your book was a helpful bridge builder I know in many ways to get the conversation started. But, now kind of looking at where you are and looking at where this conversation is, and how to make it go in a new direction. What do you think needs to be done to get there?

Angela Chen
It's very easy to think you understand what asexuality is and not understand it at all. Another problem is that there is just structural invisibility. So for instance, recently, I saw a Gallup poll, and it was talking about the percentage of Americans who identify as queer, LGBT. And the poll methodology has no place in which to mark that you are ace — even though many people, we're not heterosexual — but we might not also know where do we fit? So I actually wrote in to Gallup to ask about this, and they said something like: Oh, if you're ace, you can just write in your answer. But how can you know you're ace, if you never see that around you? Many people do not know they're ace, and they don't know of ace because they only see LGBT in these surveys. And so on the structural level, we're not being included. We are being included more and more, I think, in queer spaces. Queer organizations, I think, are doing a lot of outreach, but when it comes to the mainstream, I think there's a real aversion to building us and including us systematically instead of just giving us these bursts of attention.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. Now, incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. The show is also supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop

Kaia Findlay produced this episode with editorial help from Amanda Magnus. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer, and Lindsay Foster Thomas is the Director of Content. Your head is bobbing right now because of Quilla, who wrote our theme music. Make sure you're subscribed to Embodied, so you don't miss a single episode - and if you want to support our show, know that it's really easy for you to do so. Write us a rating or review on iTunes. Tell a friend about us or post about us on social media. Feel free to tag us - we're on Instagram and Twitter at EmbodiedWUNC. I'm Anita Rao, on an exploration of our brains, our bodies and taking on the taboo with you.

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