Quoting the Polish-American semanticist Alfred Korzybski provides a compass: The map, he once said, is not the territory. What is charted is only the beginning of exploration. Adrienne Rich and critical queer theory provide a framework: Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” sets up Chen’s central argument, which is that asexuality is neither a deviation nor a pathology, but simply a different way of living as a person in the world.
“Ace” is a combination of reportage, cultural criticism and memoir, and the writing attempts the difficult balance between proof and emotion. I was struck most by Chen’s honesty, the sentences of intimate reflection that appear in the margins of her argument throughout: “I believe I am right when I think about compulsory sexuality and its negative effects, but self-righteousness is not as useful an emotion as I once believed,” she admits. “When it comes to the personal, I frequently lack the courage of my convictions.”
THE TRAGEDY OF HETEROSEXUALITY
By Jane Ward
Illustrated. 207 pp. New York University. $26.95.
If the “insight fallacy” Chen cites is “the mistaken belief that understanding a problem will solve it,” straightness, Ward thinks, is perhaps the most misunderstood sexual orientation of all. “The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” wastes absolutely no time getting to the point, but while many of the sentences (including the title) made me laugh out loud, it is at heart a somber, urgent academic examination of the many ways in which opposite-sex coupling can hurt the very individuals who cling to it most.
Ward distinguishes straightness as a practice from straight culture, which is the very heart of society’s most disgraceful failures. It is not, as one popular joke goes, that straight people are “not OK.” It is that heteronormativity creates a powerful, privileged form of sexuality against which, historically and currently, all other forms are compared. In examining the pressure to partner with the opposite gender we find the extortions of capitalism, the misogyny of violence against women, the racist and xenophobic erasure of nonwhite families, and the homophobic hatreds that pervade so much of everyday life.
Our desires may feel beyond our control, but Ward stresses the importance of understanding sexuality as self-identified. “One of the foundational principles of lesbian feminism is that each person’s sexual desire is their own responsibility,” Ward writes, “if not something they can choose, then at least something they can choose to examine and take ownership of.” As such, she argues, a queer theory — influenced by thinkers of the 1970s and ’80s, like Rich, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith; as well as present-day academics such as Sara Ahmed — might be just the thing to rescue heterosexuality from its unearned hegemony in our shared cultural imagination.
When asked by the editors of her “Compulsory Heterosexuality” essay if she could choose between poetry and history, Rich insisted, “I need to see through both.” To look too far backward is to trip over our own two feet; too far forward, and we miss what’s right in front of our face. These books remind us that neither words nor facts alone can protect us from what we want. Still, that might be the last true constant: that the knowledge wouldn’t stop us from coming back for more. It’s almost enough to break your heart.