Reviewing: Refusing Compulsory Sexuality by Sherronda J. Brown

I’ve noticed quite a few books coming out this year around asexuality and the asexual spectrum. This is a completely different take, and a much-needed one! Author Sherronda J. Brown goes beyond simply defining asexual identities, or even describing personal Black asexual experience, and instead approaches the topic from the lens of how compulsory sexuality is harmful along intersecting axes of anti-Blackness, misogyny, and acephobia. Brown presents asexuality not as an identity alone, but as a lens.

I found this approach refreshing, as Brown flips the common script of “why are you ace-spectrum people the way you are?” This is a challenge to the demand of the normative gaze: as the author states, “We don’t have to perfectly understand Black asexuality to make way for it.” But Brown also broadens the scope of inquiry, essentially saying: look at how society is fucking everything up—you wouldn’t even ask that question if you didn’t normalize investment in a particular understanding of race, gender, and sexuality.

Brown shows how compulsory sexuality as a system is bound up in compulsory cisheteronormativity, as well as white supremacy, and how asexuality is just one of the things viewed as a threat under its reign (alongside, for example, blackness, queerness, and feminism). Readers who have experienced marginalization and are not themselves on the ace spectrum are thus likely to find connections they hadn’t considered in this text, and to broaden their understanding of how sexuality and desire operate and how they intersect with oppression.

Readers familiar with a womanist lens, for example, will be familiar with the discussions around anti-Blackness and misogynoir in particular, but the asexual lens adds an additional layer. Brown digs into, as one example, the complexities of how compulsory sexuality, inextricably blended with white supremacy, both encourages white men to tie their masculinity to fetishization of Black women and leads white sympathizers to fetishize Blackness when we attempt to participate in racial justice struggles, rather than practicing a true ethic of care.

Brown historically roots Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes and then considers the double bind of Black asexual women and femmes, whose experience is erased by hypersexualization but who also risk playing into into the misogynoir of the Mammy stereotype when claiming an asexual identity. While Black girls are typically “adultified” and sexualized, risking sexual violence from a young age, those who fall on the ace spectrum are also infantilized, seen as incapable of full maturity without meeting cisheterormative milestones. This “rock and a hard place” characterization, which ultimately erases Black asexual women’s experience, is also part of a broader practice of using sexuality to both humanize and bestialize: punishment and ostracizing come whether one is having the “wrong” kind of sex or not having it at all.

Just as Black women and femmes in general experience racism from white feminists and misogyny within male-dominated Black communities, Brown highlights asexual exclusion from queerness, Blackness, and normative ideas of gender. Brown shows how this exclusion is often based on erroneous assumptions: that asexuality isn’t a vector of discrimination and violence, for example, or that asexual people are somehow straight by default or don’t understand our own experience. But Brown’s arguments also illustrate potentials for solidarity, and the importance of intersectional awareness in all of these overlapping communities.

This book offers a particularly nuanced consideration of sexual self-determination and agency, through considering how these rights are denied to a range of different people under the norms of white supremacy. Brown compares “Female Viagra,” for example, to anti-queer conversion therapy, and digs into how the medical establishment’s framing of “low libido,” particular among women, is decidedly not neutral, both centering masculinity and pathologizing varying experiences of desire. While ace-spectrum folks experience particular harm here, women’s desire in general is seen as “outside the norm” of spontaneous desire (more commonly found in men), let alone the additional layer of a racist medical establishment for Black women and non-binary folks.

A comprehensive history of “impotence” further reveals how “medical science” gets tangled up with harmful norms and beliefs including gender normativity, the myth of queer women “just not being satisfied by the right person” yet, and a general pathologizing of sexual variance. The narratives of impotence and low libido allow for the erasure of asexual women and non-binary folks from history, as our actual desires and interests are ignored in favor of treating authentic experience as a medical problem. Through this historical treatment Brown shows how normative sexuality, defined as white and “civilized,” excludes all Black folks, all queer folks, and of course everyone on the asexual spectrum.

Threads of solidarity with trans folks are especially obvious in the medical discussion, given the shared challenges of framing experience as an identity vs. a disorder, and the way both gender non-conformity and asexuality are seen as threats to fragile masculinity. There’s a connection with the saviorism of particularly toxic strains of feminism like those espoused by TERFs or Anita Bryant, where gender essentialism is used as a bludgeon to protect “real women” from the threat of lesbianism or asexuality. And from a cultural lens Brown points to how ace-spectrum characters, like lesbians and trans women, are often portrayed as villains to reinforce this narrative.

An anti-capitalist thread also runs throughout the book. I particularly appreciated, as a relationship anarchist on the ace spectrum, the discussions of chrononormativity and how ace folks’ rejection of a normative timeline bound up in sexual and romantic relationships defies capitalist expectations of how we’re supposed to contribute to the economy. Brown connects the rigidity of how capitalism expects us to organize our family structures to the rigidity of the workplace, and posits that lacking desire under capitalism is not so surprising, while also exploring how masculinity in particular gets tied to worker productivity through toxic narratives around sex.

Despite all the challenges, the picture Brown presents of Black asexuality also suggests tremendous possibility! Black ace-spectrum experience, especially that of Black women and nonbinary folks, clearly offers a site of resistance against the twisted logics of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. By framing the narrative with this level of complexity, engaging extensive academic evidence but also personal experience and the stories of other Black asexual folks, Brown shows what is possible and how consideration of those multiply marginalized along these axes demands revolutionary shifts in how we think about sexuality but also in how we imagine our collective futures more broadly.

From this space of possibility, Brown includes the direct voices of other Black ace-spectrum folks, as well as a beautiful love letter tot their peers. But I especially loved the chapter on the beloved hero of Black liberatory imagination, Octavia Butler. In considering how Butler presented herself during her life, Brown challenges the narrative that non-disclosure of sexual practices automatically suggests internalized homophobia and a closeted gay person. Instead, Brown opens up possibility for reading non-normative takes on love and relationship at face value.

This particularly struck me as a writer on the ace spectrum who experiences many facets of intimacy through worldbuilding and love of words, as I’ve always found Butler’s description of her own preference for solitude and her relationship with her words deeply familiar. In my late 30s, I’m coming to accept that I meet many of the needs most people meet through relationship through reading and writing—and that there is, in fact, nothing missing in that. But it took a lot of development of my imaginative capacity to get there, given the weight of what’s considered normal!

Reading about Butler again got me thinking about what I’ve termed “legible identity privilege” in the context of non-binary identity, and how that plays into the right “to be unknown and unknowable,” as Brown terms it, in the context of asexuality. I also love that Brown digs into the idea of “single at heart” in the discussion of Butler, because this was a concept I understood even before I had the language of the ace spectrum to apply to myself, and I’ve noticed many ace-spectrum folks resonating with similar discussions. I see this concept showing up as well in my approach to solo polyamory, another potential connection for solidarity.

While I was initially a little challenged by Brown’s heavy focus on those who do not have any interest in sexual intimacy, and I think some ace-spectrum readers who are familiar with the split attraction model may be similarly challenged, it’s clear that this choice to focus on those most harmed by cultural norms is rhetorically effective. Since the goal of this book isn’t to educate allosexuals, this distinction may not be as important, and as Brown points out, focusing too heavily on the range of possibility within the spectrum often has the unintended consequence of reassuring allosexuals that we can be palatable by their standards, leaving sex-averse folks in the lurch.

One thing I found myself reflecting on in this context is how “desire” itself isn’t always a clear term. Desire for intimacy is much broader than the experience of sexual desire, let alone attraction, and we don’t often make room for this. I remember as a younger person having this sense from media representations that someone would eventually come along and “awaken” my desire in a more normative way, which is obviously super fucking toxic, playing into some of the violent viewpoints Brown describes in both queer and heteronormative contexts. And also, I think part of the challenge was that I didn’t have language for how my own desire was valid exactly as it was, that it got to “count” as desire, and didn’t require the additional component of sexual attraction to be valid.

As is likely obvious, I would recommend the hell out of this book to pretty much anyone, but especially folks who are interested in justice and liberation and haven’t deeply considered how asexuality threads into that picture. As Brown writes, “A world that allows for Black asexuals to be seen as possible, to live more freely in our asexuality, would also be a revolution for all others racialized, gendered, and queered. Such a world requires us to combat white supremacist ideologies and the very idea of ‘human.’”

ARC provided through NetGalley. Purchases through the above button support me as well as local independent bookstores!