Talk about Sex therapist, Ruth Westheimer, once said, when asked about the possibility of a “sex recession”: “Here is an activity that is free, here … is an activity that makes people happy, and what’s the matter with all of you not to engage in it?” Like Dr. Ruth’s dozens of books, most literature on the topic presumes that sexual attraction and desire do, in fact, exist in everyone, that sex is therefore a critical part of everyone’s life, and that there must be something wrong with people who don’t have it. Self-help resources like “The Joy of Sex,” mountains of Cosmopolitan tips and even the work of popular queer writers like Dan Savage focus on how to parlay that attraction and desire into satisfying, meaningful sex. There is something of a Freudian quality at play: the pervasive idea that sex is a critical part of fostering intimacy and personal attachment.
But for many, who do not talk about sex, that’s not reality. “It’s almost like there’s a slow-moving unorganized sex strike of people who can’t find good partners or don’t desire relationships and are just opting out instead,” one 28-year-old tells Maria Yagoda in “Laid and Confused: Why We Tolerate Bad Sex and How to Stop” (St. Martin’s, $27). Yagoda’s fresh book is the latest entry in a subgenre that seeks to illuminate why people may not be enjoying the sex they’re having or, in some cases, why they might be choosing not to have sex at all.
In “Laid and Confused,” Yagoda chronicles her quest to understand why she and Americans writ large have historically consented to unsatisfying sex. It excels as creative reportage, as Yagoda — who briefly quotes me in her book as a source on asexuality — gamely chats with sex therapists and sex toy creators alike. She keeps an open mind about improvement in her own life and offers tips to readers who may be in the same boat.
Editor and sex columnist Nona Willis Aronowitz explores similar themes in her 2022 book, “Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution” (Plume, $28), a multigenerational memoir and manifesto that weaves together her own thoughts and feelings around sex and romance with those of her late mother, the feminist writer Ellen Willis. Specifically, Aronowitz recounts her marriage and divorce, including her reluctance to break up with her husband (in part) on the basis of what she considered bad sex.
The talk about sex books of Yagoda and Aronowitz both veer far away from what is more traditionally considered “sex writing.” And three more books, all by asexual authors and published since the start of the pandemic — “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex” by Angela Chen (Beacon, $26.95), “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture” by Sherronda J. Brown (North Atlantic, $17.95, paperback) and “Sounds Fake but Okay: An Asexual and Aromantic Perspective on Love, Relationships, Sex, and Pretty Much Anything Else” by Sarah Costello and Kayla Kaszyca (Jessica Kingsley, $19.95, paperback) — show that when it comes to consensual, partnered sex, voicing displeasure is slowly becoming more accepted.
In “Ace,” Chen, an acquaintance of mine in ace — short for “asexual” — circles, dives into what life is like for people who do not experience sexual attraction, but also how asexuality can be used as a framework for reevaluating all types of platonic and romantic relationships, as well as one’s sense of self. In a particularly compelling chapter, she challenges the way most people, consciously or not, arrange their lives around a hierarchy in which romantic and sexual relationships, especially marriages, are valued above all else, emotionally and legally.
Asexuality (albeit often known by other names) is not a new orientation by any stretch — in fact, evidence of people’s lack of sexual attraction goes back centuries. But in the digital era, asexuality has gained more recognition, in part because of Julie Sondra Decker’s 2014 book, “The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality” (Skyhorse, $16.99, paperback). Chen, Brown, Costello and Kaszyca all build off Decker’s resource to present a more nuanced way of thinking about sex. The proliferation of these and similar talk about sex books is also a long-overdue acknowledgment by the publishing world that topics related to asexuality and the de-prioritization of sex will interest asexual and allosexual readers alike.
As Brown’s title, “Refusing Compulsory Sexuality,” indicates, questioning and ultimately casting aside “compulsory sexuality” is a huge theme of their work. The term is a riff on “compulsory heterosexuality,” the idea that societal norms force a politically constructed heterosexuality on everyone from birth — those who identify as straight and those who know they don’t fit that bill. “Asexuality exists as a refusal of compulsory sexuality, in defiance of cis-heteropatriarchal mandates, and as an opportunity to deeply interrogate how sexual scripts connect with and inform conceptions of gender and race,” Brown writes. Their book pays particular attention to the way Black people are cast aside or maligned in conversations about (a)sexuality, and how the very idea of sexuality in the West is interlaced with anti-Blackness and white supremacy. Most public leaders of the asexual movement are White, but there’s room aplenty within the aspec lens (aspec is short for “asexual spectrum”) to broaden our understanding of who can be ace (anyone) and who in the community faces the most oppression (Black people, especially those who are gender-nonconforming).
As Costello and Kaszyca, creators of a podcast called “Sounds Fake but Okay,” write in their conversational book of the same name, the aspec lens is in part about “decentering the romantic-sexual relationship in our broader conversations about human connection.” It considers the flaws of putting romantic and sexual attraction at the top of our collective and personal hierarchies of needs, even at the expense of biological and chosen family, platonic friendships, and self-care. The aspec lens, Costello and Kaszyca warn, can make everything seem tinged with hopelessness, but it also offers a way to see our surroundings as they can be: beyond what was dictated in talk about sex (aka, sex education) classes, modeled by family members or portrayed in pop culture.
By questioning why we go through the motions of sex we don’t find rewarding, we can start to demystify the grip that compulsory sexuality has over our lives. Whether or not the readers who pick up these titles are asexual, there’s a lot to be learned about the merits of taking a step back from sex to reevaluate its place on a societal — and, in many cases, a personal — pedestal.
(Written by Julie Kliegman and reprinted from The Washington Post.)