A new book by Illinois State University’s Ela Przybylo challenges long-held misconceptions about asexuality.
Asexuality is generally defined as not experiencing sexual attraction. That definition still places human connections and intimacy in terms of sex, leaving asexuality and aromanticism (low levels of romantic attraction) on the outside.
In her new book, Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality, Przybylo seeks to redefine how we look at asexuality. “There are so many negative stereotypes. That someone is simply repressed, lazy, conservative, or ‘has not met the right person.’ These undermine the legitimacy of the orientation,” said Przybylo, an assistant professor of English at Illinois State.
Instead of viewing what asexuality is not, Asexual Erotics employs a new way to view intimacy—through a lens of feminist and queer theory. Przybylo aims to help the reader understand asexuality using the framework of erotics.
“The concept of the erotic used by antiracist, lesbian, feminist writers such as Audre Lorde doesn’t centralize sex or sexuality,” Przybylo said. Queer feminist writers instead define the erotic as an energy that can create connections, which stands in direct contrast to the theories of Sigmund Freud that define life energy as sexual in nature. “The erotic could be about sex and sexuality, but it is also equally about doing work together, coming together with friends, challenging oppression, and sparking revolution,” said Przybylo. “The erotic gives a space for asexuality where sharing and connections are not necessarily sexual in context.”
Redefining intimacy and connections as separate from sex bucks a traditional way to create identities, said Przybylo, who noted that many people still have to “prove” they are asexual. “In Western society, we almost have to claim a sexual identity to prove we exist. If we use an erotic lens, we can decenter sexual attraction in how we define intimacy.”
As an editor of the online, peer-reviewed, open-access journal, Feral Feminisms, when Przybylo began exploring asexuality over a decade ago she found very little research existed. What she did discover either dismissed or objectified asexuality as somehow broken, or outside the norm. “The work in the past was questioning whether asexuality was real or a legitimate orientation as well as whether it was a pathology,” she said. “This book is a totally different articulation, it is a feminist engagement that takes for granted the intrinsic realness and queerness of asexuality,” said Przybylo. “This monograph on asexuality is feminist, queer, and not apologizing.”
Przybylo noted asexuality carries a fluidity just like other identities. “Everyone falls somewhere on a sexual spectrum, and asexuality lives on the spectrum and can intersect with other sexual identities.” She noted an asexual person who identifies as a man can also identify as gay, forming intimate, asexual connections with other men. “There is a great graphic in the zine Taking the Cake by Maisha that says ‘Asexuality comes in a lot of flavors,’ said Przybylo. “You can be asexual and gay, asexual and biromantic [romantically attracted to both men and women], demisexual [only experiencing sexual attraction once a strong emotional bond forms]. We need to find models that are more reflective of people’s actual experiences.” Asexuality also intersects with other identities including race, nationality, class, gender, and ability, meaning there is no one type of asexual person, she added.
Przybylo became interested in asexual research during her time as a student at the University of Alberta, and later at York University, both in her home country of Canada. In 2019 she hosted the international conference “Unthinking Sex, Imagining Asexuality: Intersectional and Interdisciplinary Perspectives” when she served as the Ruth Wynn Woodward Fellow in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Przybylo joined the faculty at Illinois State this year, working with the publishing sequence, English, and Women’s and Gender Studies.
She noted there is a slowly growing acceptance of asexuality as more than a perceived flaw, and that mirrors other efforts in feminisms and queer theory. “We’re looking at what has been unspoken,” said Przybylo, “and becoming interested in knowledges that have been present but not always widely celebrated. Looking at asexuality reminds us that there are many ways to be queer and many ways to express intimacy with others.”