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Come as you are: Compulsory sexuality and the importance of Ace representation for sexual liberation

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Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric / Pexels
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric / Pexels

To anyone who's familiar with the Asexual (or Ace) spectrum, it's no mystery that the community is both misunderstood and underrepresented.

The most common estimate puts "Aspecs" (anyone on the Asexual/Aromantic spectrum) at just 1% of the global population. Still, that's roughly 78 million people, and I would bet money that, like me, almost all of them have at some point felt like they were broken. In a world that centers sex not only as a crucial experience for a fully lived life but also as an identifier that orients you within society, "I think I might be broken" has become an unofficial Ace slogan.

Since coming out as Ace about nine months ago and learning what I know now, I believe the population is much higher than the estimates. Further, the Asexual experience tells us a lot about how social and cultural narratives have warped the way we understand our own happiness and pleasure, and how we can begin to reclaim them.

First, we need to look at a fundamental concept within the Ace world: compulsory sexuality.

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric / Pexels  

What is compulsory sexuality?
First coined by poet Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," compulsory heterosexuality (or "comphet") is a term that many members of the Queer community are familiar with. In her writing, Rich argued that heterosexuality doesn't just happen to be the orientation and experience of most people within society, but rather that it is a majority because it is learned, conditioned, and enforced.

Borrowing from this language and conceptual framework, compulsory sexuality can therefore be seen as the assumption that every normal and healthy person is sexual and that sex is an utterly necessary part of a complete and happy life. Compulsory sexuality thus establishes allosexuality (which is used to describe anyone who experiences sexual attraction to others) as the norm and makes anything else (i.e., anywhere on the Ace spectrum) a deviation from a norm rather than an experience equal to any other.

Let's be clear: compulsory sexuality didn't develop by accident. Sex sells, and as it becomes increasingly commercialized for profit, asexuality has been largely dismissed as "other," because it's not profitable to include. When sex is a commodity (think Playboy, Pornhub, Viagra, etc.), having sex becomes a form of consumption and serves as a way for people to tell the world that they're fun, passionate, and orgasmic. Compulsory sexuality, then, has been intentionally developed as an economic tool. It doesn't help us understand our own happiness any better; it only tells us where to put our money.

Where asexuality meets sexual liberation
Recent decades have witnessed an ever-growing movement of sexual liberation. Women are reclaiming their sexual freedom, and members of the Queer community fight for visibility every day. Historically, these groups have been sexually repressed by patriarchal and heteronormative structures, but now they are taking back their power by advocating that everyone have freedom to have as much sex as they want. But this is where the movement falls short and would benefit from Ace inclusion.

Whenever sexual activists advocate for "as much sex as you want," it is automatically assumed that they mean "a lot of sex." In both female and Queer communities, being sexually repressed is a symbol of a time before freedom and a reminder of why we need progress. In the past, not having sex life that is active, dynamic, and expressive made me feel a like a political failure. As a Queer woman, having sex didn't always seem like my private business but rather a way for me to express, perform, and embody the liberal politics that I agree with.

Not wanting to have sex, then, didn't just make me feel childish or passionless — it also made me feel like a social and political failure. When being sexually liberated is equated to being sexually expressive, new rules are put in place, and the idea of having "as much sex as you want" shifts from being freeing to being restrictive.

The act of having no sex at all (or very little) is just as much an embodiment of sexual liberation as having sex multiple times a day with whomever you want. The freedom of choice includes the freedom to say, "No thanks, I'm good" and just walk away. To honor the true sentiments behind our quest for liberation, we must remember that sexual variation includes those who don't want any sex at all.

There is no right or wrong way to be liberated. Sexual freedom can look like promiscuity, but it also look like celibacy.

The choice is up to you.