Excerpt: Refusing Compulsory Sexuality by Sherronda J. Brown

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In Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture, author Sherronda J. Brown breaks down the ways in which cultures (mostly Western ones) force sexuality on everyone, regardless of orientation. This state of affairs is normalized and seen as the status quo, but that doesn’t make compulsory sexuality normal or right.

Creators who build worlds and futures should always interrogate their own culture’s “norms” in order to consciously create narratives that challenge, or are in sync with, said norms. The introduction to this book, excerpted below, is an excellent start to interrogating sexuality and the status quo.

Introduction from Refusing Compulsory Sexuality

COFFEE, ICE CREAM, AND ALCOHOL. These are three things that always elicit a look of shock, horror, and disbelief or even an audible gasp whenever someone learns that I do not enjoy them. How can you not like coffee? But everyone likes ice cream, it’s delicious! So you don’t like any kind of alcohol? They either instantly pity me or become irrationally angry about my aversions— which I did not consciously choose to have. They try to convince me that I simply haven’t tried coffee, ice cream, or alcohol in the correct way, that I should just try it the way they like it. Then, they often pressure me to say that I will commit to trying it again at some undetermined point in the future. Sometimes, I lie and say I will.

Sometimes what they display feels a lot like moral outrage, and maybe it is. People tend to attach morality to peculiar things. They instantly take offense, and in turn become defensive, because they either assume that I am insulting something that brings them great pleasure, comfort, and joy or because they think I am judging them for their indulgence in it. Neither assumption is true. I have simply tried these things—on multiple occasions, with different flavors, and in various situations—and I have determined that I do not like them, and I currently have no interest in trying them again, in any iteration. This is apparently a difficult thing for many people to grasp when it comes to coffee, ice cream, and alcohol—a few of our society’s favorite things that we are all encouraged to love, to one extent or another—and I have experienced and witnessed similar reactions when people learn about the existence of asexuality.

This is not a book about sex and food and the connections between social attitudes toward them. Although, the connection is worth mentioning, as examples continue to show up in our everyday lives. Not the least of which is the widely held belief that Black people are given to excess and have poor impulse control concerning both sex and food, a myth that continues to inform anti-Black and anti-fat attitudes and policies. In this way, and many others, purity culture and diet culture are indeed siblings. They are the offspring of colonialism and capitalism, and shame is integral to them both. Diet culture attaches morality to food as a way to police the way people eat and to bring bodies under colonial and capitalist control. Purity culture attaches morality to sex to do the same. Beneath it is the assumption that sex will inevitably occur and that everyone desires it. In fact, that assumption is an essential part of purity culture—the idea that we are all “sinners” continually battling sexual urges, and resisting those urges until we are bound in heterosexual marriage “ordained by God” is what makes us pure. It doesn’t seek to hinder people from ever having sex at all; it seeks to control the conditions under which people do have sex. But I digress.

This is a book about compulsory sexuality and asexual experience. People on the asexuality spectrum, also called ace, experience little to no sexual attraction and/or little to no sexual desire, and these things are not evidenced by either the presence or absence of sexual arousal or activity. Even though “lacking sexual attraction and/or desire” is the widely accepted general definition, I do not understand asexuality to be defined by this “lack.” It is not about being without sexuality, though some may choose to describe themselves this way. I believe it is more true to say that asexuality is defined by a relationship to sex that is atypical to what has been decided on by society at large to be normative, and that atypical nature is marked by varying degrees of sexual attraction and desire. Asexual experiences stand outside what has been accepted and approved of as “normal” sexual experiences for both the queer and the heterosexual communities.

Here are just a few things people “know” about sex, attraction, and desire:

  • Sexual attraction and desire, whether queer or heterosexual, are universal; everyone experiences them and should experience them in the same way.

  • Sex is a necessary, unavoidable part of life and inherent to human nature.

  • Everyone is allosexual—experiencing sexual attraction and desire in normative ways. Anyone who does not have sex is merely celibate or abstinent, suppressing their sexual urges for moral, spiritual, or religious reasons, and people who claim not to want sex are disordered or stunted in some way.

    • Sex occurs because sexual attraction and desire signal that we actively want to have sex with someone.

    • Desire for sexual contact is sustained, especially within committed romantic relationships.

    • Partnered sex is more important, more valuable, and more mature than solo sex.

    • These ideas are immovable and not influenced by societal expectations, permissions, or other environmental factors.

This book will challenge every one of these, and more. Asexuality itself—the utmost “abnormal” sexuality, according to many—is already a challenge to these “truths,” as it recognizes that we do not experience sexual attraction and desire universally or uniformly precisely because some of us do not experience them at all. It acknowledges that desire for sexual contact with others will not always be sustained, that it is possible for desire to never even be present, and more importantly, that boundaries should always be honored when desire is not present. The asexual lens reveals that sex can and does occur in the wake of mutual sexual attraction, but that it also occurs for a myriad of other reasons, and there are a whole host of negotiations, rationalities, and compromises that take place— sometimes in a split second—when we decide to have sex. It understands that sex can be technically consensual, but still unwanted. Asexual consciousness recognizes that none of the things we “know” to be true about sex are immovable, and they are always influenced by societal expectations, permissions, or other environmental factors.

What we call asexuality is only one type of multifaceted experience along a vast spectrum of experiences with sex, attraction, and desire; it is simply another way of being. To be asexual in a world that privileges normative sexual partnership is to be atypical, Other, queer. It is to exist in such a way that many allosexuals perceive us to be lacking because asexual relationships to sex do not align with theirs, with what we have always been told is “normal” and right and required. In their eyes, seeing the world through the prism of compulsory sexuality, asexuals must be lacking in joy and satisfaction, intimacy and connection, emotional intelligence, maturity, sanity, morality, and humanity.

Asexual Realities

As a diverse group, asexuals have varying experiences with asexuality, as well as varying ways of defining and talking about those experiences. Asexual is an umbrella term for those who exist on a spectrum, with a myriad of observations, perspectives, and conclusions about asexuality itself, how we relate to it, and how it fits—or refuses to fit—into the existing world. It is not always synonymous with having rare or absent sexual attraction, nor is it always synonymous with having rare or absent sexual desire. Whether or not aces choose to participate in sex and masturbation, and to what degree, is also not the defining factor. Asexual queerness is always transgressive of normative sexuality, in one way or another, but that transgression is not so clearly demarcated that it can be universally applied to the entirety of the spectrum. That being said—even if one might resonate with one or multiple descriptions of asexuality and asexual experience, there is never any obligation to label oneself as asexual if it does not feel comfortable or ring true.

Asexual is a descriptor that has been adopted by many people who identify with the definition of “having little to no sexual attraction and/or desire” while others might gravitate toward “varying levels of sexual attraction and/or desire” and others might find themselves “experiencing only secondary sexual attraction and/or desire” in acutely specific contexts or only with specific people only after forming emotional bonds. Meanwhile, others might describe themselves as someone who “experiences sexual desire but has little to no inclination to ever act upon it (with another person)” or they might say that they simply “prefer not to have sex, have opted out of sex, never want to have anything to do with sex, just never cared about sex, or like the idea of sex more than sex itself.” Some may not have pinned down the best language to describe or talk about their personal relationship to sex, attraction, and desire, but they find a home in asexuality nonetheless because they recognize their experience as being atypical, as outside the “normativity” of allosexuality.

People on the ace spectrum can also fluctuate in their feelings toward sex as a characteristic of their asexuality. While some remain firmly in the position of either sex-repulsed, sex-indifferent, or sex-favorable, there are aces who are more fluid between two or all three. Fluctuation can also take place between asexuality and allosexuality, with some people finding themselves falling somewhere in a gray area with a notable amount of flexibility or neutrality. In other respects, ace people can and do experience other types of attraction, and some seek out relationships and partnerships based on those attractions. Regardless of how we might come into asexuality and claim the term as something that describes how we relate to sexual attraction and desire—whether it be absent, rare, secondary, or contextual—it’s all valid.

“The Asexual Manifesto” was published by Lisa Orlando in 1972. In it, she offers this definition:

“Asexual,” as we use it, does not mean “without sex” but “relating sexually to no one.” This does not of course exclude masturbation but implies that if one has sexual feelings, they do not require another person for their expression. Asexuality is, simply, self-contained sexuality.1

For the purposes of this book, I follow Orlando’s lead, understanding asexuality to be “relating sexually to no one” and a “self-contained sexuality.” Though I recognize and honor all asexual experiences, my discussion here will center an asexuality characterized by rare or absent desire for sexual activity with others as I interrogate compulsory sexuality—the enduring belief that sex is desired by everyone. Discourse and educational resources about asexuality often work to reassure readers that some asexuals still engage in “normal” amounts of sex for an array of reasons, regardless of their actual relationship with sexual attraction and desire, and many of those reasons are not about the asexual’s needs but their sexual partner’s gratification and comfort.

There will be no such reassurances here. I find them often to be more harmful than helpful, especially when these reassurances are presented as a means to make asexuality more palatable—or at least more tolerable—and more legible to allosexuals. Not only does it demarcate a hard separation between sex-repulsed and sex-favorable/sex-indifferent asexuals, painting the former as true deviance and the latter as a more acceptable form of asexuality, but it also presents even further opportunity for people to misunderstand asexuality as a binary rather than a spectrum. When there is a constant, urgent cry for it to be known that “some asexuals still have sex”—while this is a fact—there must also be an equally urgent accompanying affirmation for those who prefer not to. Here, I want to make sure to affirm those who rarely or never desire sex with others. I also refuse the idea that asexuality is not a normal way to experience sexuality. I name allosexuality as normative—as in embodying what society has merely deemed “normal” sexual interest—only as a means to juxtapose it against the distinct ways that asexual queerness has been determined to be “abnormal.”

Additionally, many of the things discussed here will also be applicable to aromantic people—those who experience little to no romantic attraction and/ or desire—as aromanticism and asexuality often overlap, with many people being both asexual and aromantic. This, too, is a spectrum of people who resist societal expectations and demands surrounding intimacy and kinship. Aros, like aces, are relational misfits. Therefore, there will be moments throughout this work on compulsory sexuality and asexual experience that will also be relevant to compulsory romance and aromantic experience.

This book is not concerned with proving whether or not asexuality is a real orientation and identity. That is not up for debate. Nor is its aim to definitively name what asexuality is, to make it unassailable to detractors and rebuttals. As with other orientations, asexuality carries multiple meanings outside of its dictionary definition or the generally held consensus. Across the spectrum, asexuals articulate their own meaning and make their own determinations about what their asexuality signifies for and about themselves. Every one of us possesses that right, regardless of identity.

In “Asexual and Autoerotic Women: Two Invisible Groups”—one of the earliest academic texts to explore asexuality, published in 1977—Myra T. Johnson asserts that a significant challenge to asexuals has been the lack of available language to talk about our asexuality, which contributes to our invisibility. She writes,

There appear to be few really appropriate words in the English language to describe the individual who, regardless of physical or emotional condition, actual sexual history, and marital status or ideological orientation, seems to prefer not to engage in sexual activity. Oppressed by the consensus that they are nonexistent, these are the “unnoticed.”2

As with other identity labels, asexual is not prescriptive of behavior; it is a tool. People are free to use the term to help better understand themselves and find community with others who also find the label to be accurate. It is unfortunately quite true that labels can sometimes feel as carceral as they do liberating. But labels don’t put us in a box. Ideas do. For so many of us, it is in asexuality that we find the affirmation we have always needed but were never afforded by any other language. We have taken hold of the part of our being, or our becoming, that has long been nameless, and we have given it a name.

Compulsory Sexuality

Content note: sexual violation, coercion, r*pe and r*pe culture

Compulsory sexuality is the idea that sex is universally desired as a feature of human nature, that we are essentially obligated to participate in sex at some point in life, and that there is something fundamentally wrong with anyone who does not want to—whether it be perceived as a defect of morality, psychology, or physiology. Therefore, it creates barriers to seeing asexuality as a valid existence. As Kristina Gupta asserts in “Compulsory Sexuality: Evaluating an Emerging Concept,” it is an “assumption that all people are sexual and [describes] the social norms and practices that both marginalize various forms of nonsexuality, such as a lack of sexual desire or behavior, and compel people to experience themselves as desiring subjects, take up sexual identities, and engage in sexual activity.”3 And this ideology “regulates the behavior of all people, not just those who identify as asexual.”4

When sex is compulsory, it fosters the sense that we are each duty-bound to consistently engage in a certain arbitrary amount of sexual activity—regarding it as something that should be weighed, measured, and quantified, rather than an experience that people should engage in only when all involved have the desire and ability to do so, regardless of how frequent or infrequent that may be. Removing it from the center and the pedestal in our relationships—or, in some cases, our mere existence—would better serve everyone, not only asexuals.

The many “rules” compulsory sexuality generates keep many people committed to (sometimes willfully) misunderstanding asexuality, and also often keep many asexuals from recognizing or honoring our own asexuality. Compulsory sexuality allows for a tacit refusal or inability to accept the idea that we all have the inherent right to govern our own bodies and make our own decisions about whether or not to engage in sex, and that we can do this based on whatever criteria we deem fit. This right to total sexual autonomy is central to consent, and society’s inability to properly honor consent and interrogate rape culture—and the ways it is upheld by misogyny and racism—is central to the denial of asexuality.

This book will take a particular focus on people socialized as women—those assigned female or perceived to be women regardless of their actual gender identity, alongside cis women. While the writers I quote here speak only of (presumably) cis women, when I speak of people socialized as women in this work, I am referring both to people who are self-affirmed as women and those merely assumed to be women through a cisnormative lens. This includes those who are nonbinary, trans, intersex, genderqueer, or genderfree; who may consider themselves to be woman-aligned, woman-adjacent, or to have no connection to womanhood at all, but who are nevertheless marginalized by and experience the oppressive effects of misogyny, patriarchy, male supremacy, and the gender binary. I write with this focus in order to emphasize how compulsory sexuality and cisheteropatriarchy both impact our (a)sexual experience as marginalized genders or genderfree people, namely through the expectations of “dutiful sex” and sociosexual submission to men, both of which uphold rape culture. Within rape culture, sexual violation becomes trivialized and normalized, victims are made to carry the weight of the blame, and those who commit these violations are not held accountable. People who are socialized as and perceived to be women are often especially vulnerable to being victimized in this way; we too often have our entire lives undone by rape culture and the abuses it permits.

It’s important to understand that asexual experience is not monolithic. However, sexual violation is a common reality for people on the asexuality spectrum. For that reason, this book must discuss sexual violence and coercion at various points. Some of the pages that follow explore the ways compulsory sexuality promotes rape culture and how this, in turn, creates barriers to understanding and respecting asexuality. Compulsory sexuality and rape culture result in people being pressured into sexual situations because of the assumption that they should want to have sex and that there is something wrong, unnatural, and inhuman about not wanting it to the extent that others expect or not wanting it at all. Sex is so often regarded as a property and a “right” owed, as a demand that we are obligated to fulfill, that many people feel entitled to sex—and not just the men we easily recognize as incels, or “involuntary celibates.” These are male supremacists who fail to form romantic and sexual relationships or connections, blame others for their social and sexual ineptitude, and believe that women should be required or forced to have sex with them. Several have even become mass killers because of their frustrations and misogyny. Violent, angry men inhabiting incel circles, perhaps more than any other subset of people, demonstrate how dangerous compulsory sexuality fused with rape culture can be.

Under compulsory sexuality, the desires of those with normative sexual urges are prioritized. It’s a belief system that eschews consent and preaches instant gratification for people who want sex, but cares not for the safety, comfort, health, or autonomy of people who do not. It doesn’t just ask us to comply. It makes way for others to demand, manipulate, coerce, and force us into situations in which we are expected to disregard our own well-being for the sake of “normality.” It keeps far too many people tethered to an existence wherein having sex when they would rather not or enduring sex they do not enjoy is a common and normalized occurrence. We have to acknowledge the damage that is done when we don’t admit that our society views sex as compulsory, as an inescapable obligation, largely because it is viewed as something owed to men. We have to contend with how that contributes to both rape culture and asexual discrimination, which are often one and the same.

Throughout this book, I often name how cisheteronormativity and cisheteropatriarchy inform compulsory sexuality and asexual discrimination. As queer theorist Cathy J. Cohen writes in “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” heteronormativity is “both those localized practices and those centralized institutions which legitimize and privilege heterosexuality and heterosexual relationships as fundamental and ‘natural’ within society.”5 I make the addition of cis—to say cisheteronormativity—to acknowledge how these practices and institutions also legitimize and privilege people who are cis while oppressing trans, nonbinary, and otherwise genderqueer identities as well as intersex people who “fail” to perform their assigned gender according to societal standards. Meanwhile, I use cisheteropatriarchy to refer to the political-social system that provides institutional power to cisheterosexual men through the exploitation and subjugation of women and other marginalized genders, as well as people of sexualities that do not align with heterosexuality.

When our society largely accepts sex as a mandatory practice—and also remains deeply invested in cisheteronormativity, cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, healthism, ableism, fatphobia, anti-Blackness, rape culture, and more—it is imperative to examine how compulsory sexuality impacts the most marginalized. For this work, it is also necessary to examine how various power dynamics work to paint asexuality either as an impossibility, or as not queer (enough), or as somehow both at the same time. Cohen states that she is “interested in examining the concept of ‘queer’ in order to think about how we might construct a new political identity that is truly liberating, transformative, and inclusive of all those who stand on the outside of the dominant constructed norm of state-sanctioned white middle- and upper-class heterosexuality.”6 I am interested in doing the same. Specifically, I am interested in situating asexuality and asexual people within this queer political identity and praxis.

I believe that an asexual consciousness is necessary in the exploration and analysis of compulsory sexuality. Here, I affirm asexuality beyond an orientation label or umbrella term. It also provides a lens through which we can view, take in, analyze, and understand the world and how we exist within it. In my understanding, asexuality exists as a refusal of compulsory sexuality, in defiance of cisheteropatriarchal mandates, and as an opportunity to deeply interrogate how sexual scripts connect with and inform conceptions of gender and race.

Savage Sexuality

Content note: racial fetishism, sexual and reproductive violence, r*pe culture, Black death

Western social thought associates Blackness with an imagined uncivilized, wild sexuality and uses this association as one lynchpin of racial difference. Whether depicted as “freaks” of nature or as being the essence of nature itself, savage, untamed sexuality characterizes Western representations of [people] of African descent.

—PATRICIA HILL COLLINS, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism7

Sex has utility and can be used for many things, and white supremacy often utilizes sex to both carry out and excuse its racist violence. I do not mean only the act of sex itself, as in the colliding and touching of bodies. I also mean everything surrounding sex—one’s sexual desirability or appeal, one’s sexual “preferences” or proclivities, one’s reproduction as a result of sex acts, stereotypes about one’s sexuality. The ways sex becomes gendered and racialized become clearer when we understand sex as a utility, especially when we acknowledge the relationship of gendered and racialized people to the nation-state and to the systems of cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy. This is how sexual violence becomes a tool of war, terrorism, control, and various other interpersonal and systemic abuses.

Black sexuality, as well as reproduction, become heavily policed on interpersonal, social, and judicial levels, as myths of Black sexual deviance are cited as proof of the superiority, purity, and humanity of whiteness. This is why this book is concerned with how Blackness and (a)sexuality fit together. It’s also why one of the things this book will do is demonstrate how sex is utilized as a weapon against Black people in one instance and used to show “solidarity” with us in another. In either scenario, entire sexual lives are imposed on us and written onto our bodies without our consent, and both utilizations of sex are driven by the same anti-Black sexual stereotypes. These stereotypes have always been used as justification for the incremental genocide of Black people—for terrorizing Black people and communities; for trafficking, enslaving, torturing, and exploiting Black people; for creating policy and law that specifically targets Black people and Black families. These things are always at work in our sexual lives and in how others engage us sexually. Blackness negates the need for consent in the social imagination since we are constructed as always consenting—either passively or enthusiastically—to the sexualization imposed onto us.

This ever-present “consent” was integral to sexual and reproductive violence on the plantation, the centerpiece of the industry of slavery and Black genocide. White slaveholders, of course, used their own beliefs about the sexual deviancy and subhumanity of Blackness to justify and rationalize their brutalities. Ianna Hawkins Owen writes, in “On the Racialization of Asexuality,” a seminal piece on the subject,

The image of the Jezebel, a stereotype of the black female as erotically deviant, insatiable, and sexually savage, required the disciplining structures of slavery. The reduction of the black female to her libido rationalized the use of her body as a breeder for slavery and offered a more palatable explanation for nonconsensual sexual relations between enslaved women and their masters.8

Under the (il)logic of white supremacy, the sexual and reproductive violences against enslaved Africans, which stripped them of control over much of their own sexualities and family planning, could never be recognized as a violation of consent; white rationale intentionally disallowed access to true consent for Black people by denying Black people access to the category of human. These ideologies have lingered for centuries after, continuing to manifest in how Black sexuality is perceived in contemporary society. Compulsory sexuality and rape culture both work to help keep alive anti-Black sexual stereotypes, which means they both are and always have been tools of white supremacy.

These ideas, and many more, are formed through racist understandings of how sexually savage Black people must inherently be, how sexually available we should be, and how we allegedly use sex irresponsibly and immorally, and therefore do not deserve to have autonomous sexual desires. Meanwhile, others are free to project their own desires onto us. This is the historical and social narrative that works to eclipse the possibility of the Black asexual. For Black people, our asexuality will never be fully separate from larger endeavors to excavate Black sexuality itself from beneath dehumanizing white colonial interpretations.

So, what does it mean for Black people as a whole, but especially the Black asexual, when Blackness and Black sexuality are always already criminalized, moralized, and fetishized under white supremacist and colonial thought? This is one question this book asks and attempts to answer—or at least engage with significantly. The myth of the uncontrollable and socially menacing Black libido persists and finds its roots strongly affixed to white colonial and supremacist rationale. Its result has been psychosexual and sociosexual racism, fetishism, and terrorism against generations of Black people of all sexualities, orientations, and genders. Here, and always, I affirm all expressions of Black sexuality. We deserve to embrace our (a)sexualities outside of the confines of myths about the hypersexual Black body and outside of a need to respond to the various anti-Black claims and mandates of white supremacy.

These white supremacist ideologies have long been and continue to be notably present within queer communities and discourse. In 1984, James Baldwin told The Village Voice,

I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to their sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society.9

Though Baldwin spoke specifically of gay men, his assessment applies to and is observable in the whole of queer spaces and in dominant understandings of those spaces. Contemporary society imagines all forms of queerness as being overwhelmingly associated and aligned with whiteness. As such, Black asexuals often find ourselves either left out or pushed out of spaces that should be affirming for all on the asexuality spectrum, usually with the claim that “talking about race will only divide us” or “Black people can’t be asexual.” Another thing this book will demonstrate is why it is past time for asexual communities at large to acknowledge how social anxieties about sexual difference and “deviance” are deeply connected to and informed by anti-Blackness (and anti-Indigeneity), and to recognize how endemic white supremacist thought is to anti-asexual attitudes. Sexual liberation cannot be achieved for those on the margins without challenging both cisheteropatriarchy and white supremacy—systems that cannot be divorced from one another and that Black folks have been writing against for centuries. As Ianna Hawkins Owen affirms for us, “Discussions of asexuality are inextricably linked to the concept of hypersexuality and the consolidation of its discursive attachment to blackness.”10

With Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson demonstrates how Blackness and Black nonheteronormative sexual relations became understood as queer under cisheteropatriarchy. As such, Blackness and Black forms of intimacy and kinship have historically been understood as being outside what is considered “normal” in the white imaginary, and therefore, it has always been demonized and punished. Specifically, the state identified Black queerness as a threat and endeavored to effectively outlaw it as a way to further oppress Black people following chattel slavery:

Emancipation enacted a demand for sexual regulation and the abolition of nonheteronormative practices. In fact, the issue of African American nonheteronormativity was foremost on the agenda of the American Freedmen’s inquiry commission, created in 1863 as part of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts to determine the state’s relationship to newly emancipated slaves. [The] commission’s reports to the secretary of war express an anxiety about the nonheteronormative practices of African Americans, coding those practices as proof of the “uncivilized, degraded, undisciplined, and … wholly unchristian ways” of the slaves. As the bureau attempted to rationalize African American sexuality by imposing heterosexual marriage upon the freedman through the rule of law and as a condition for citizenship, the racialization of blacks as pathologically nonheteronormative tightened the link between citizenship and a racialized heteronormativity. Those newly freed African Americans who rejected marriage and monogamy were imprisoned and/or denied pension payments.11

Beyond this attempt to wipe out forms of nonheteronormativity (and nonmonogamy) among Black people, white queerness became understood as a deviance in line with “savage” sexuality and gender ambiguity, both apparent relics of primitivity and inferior to “civilized” whiteness. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture by Siobhan B. Somerville makes clear how “the formation of notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality [and other forms of queerness] emerged in the United States through (and not merely parallel to) a discourse saturated with assumptions about the racialization of bodies.”12 Sexologists, biologists, eugenicists, and more produced works that “constructed both the nonwhite body and the nonheterosexual body as pathological,”13 with several even comparing the genitalia of white lesbians to Black “female” genitalia in order to prove their deviance. “One of the most consistent medical characterizations of the anatomy of both African American women and [white] lesbians was the myth of an unusually large clitoris”14 and labia resembling “fleshy sacs,”15 which invoked imagery of “male” anatomy present on the white lesbian and Black “female” body. This gender nonconformity was considered “uncivilized,” unevolved, and primitive, with English eugenicist Havelock Ellis remarking that the lack of difference between genders was typically only found in “savage societies.”16

As Charles W. Mills writes in The Racial Contract, “race is in no way an ‘afterthought,’ a ‘deviation’ from ostensibly raceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals.”17 Our world is stratified through anti-Blackness; it often functions as a source of unity among non-Black people. Blackness becomes a benchmark, with all others defining themselves and their sex and gender “normality” in juxtaposition to Blackness and the Black body itself—specifically as antithetical to it. When I say “the Black body,” it is not to depersonalize, dehumanize, or objectify Black people. It is to highlight how white supremacy depersonalizes, dehumanizes, and objectifies Black people by conceiving of us as only a body, as only a monolithic form, as only a meal to be consumed, as only a singular, grotesque vessel harboring boundless sexual dangers and curiosities. Mills explains,

The nonwhite body carries a halo of blackness around it which may actually make some whites physically uncomfortable.… Part of this feeling is sexual: the black body in particular is seen as paradigmatically a body. Lewis Gordon suggests that the black “presence is a form of absence.… Every black person becomes a limb of an enormous black body: THE BLACK BODY.”18

White supremacy and its agents have historically used anti-Blackness to sculpt and define white cisheterosexuality by aligning forms of queerness with Black “savagery” and the Black body. And now, anti-Blackness becomes used to a different end, in efforts to erase Black queerness and promote white people as the most authentic queer projects. Cisheteropatriarchy is a product of whiteness, its delusions of inherent supremacy, and its violent colonial rule. The narcissistic nature of white supremacy means that white queer people often see the subversion of this system as the domain of whiteness as well, rubbing salt in the wounds left by the colonial violence that has tried to snuff out the queerness of Black and Indigenous cultures.

For this reason, Black queer activists have always had to be invested in dismantling white supremacy as the source of both anti-Blackness and queer antagonism.

Meanwhile, white queer activists have been invested in upholding white supremacy, because they continue to benefit from a system that affords power to whiteness and white people, even when they are also queer. What is true of whiteness in every space, even in “progressive” and “inclusive” spaces, is that it will always work to create some form of exclusivity as a means to reassert white superiority. Therefore, white asexuals often claim asexual queerness as a property, just as whiteness itself is claimed as a property, as a space that others are barred from entering into.

The belief that Black people can never disengage from an easily accessible and consumable sexuality is incredibly damaging to Black people as a whole, and uniquely so to the Black asexual. Black asexuality shatters centuries-old beliefs, upheld by caricatures like the Mandingo, the Jezebel, the Mammy, and more. Accepting the existence of genuine Black asexuality would require those who hold so tightly to these myths to do the work of dismantling them. But many people do not want to let go of racist sexual stereotypes because they are comforted by them, they are comforted by the anti-Blackness that is central to their worldview, as it is precisely what affords them their social value. The Black asexual threatens to upend everything they think they know about Blackness, and everything they think they know about themselves as allegedly superior. Black asexuality threatens their worldview, which means it ultimately threatens their world.

I am the descendant of stolen Africans, on stolen land. I came into being within the illegitimate borders of the colonial entity my ancestors helped to build with forced, unpaid labor. As a displaced African born, raised, and living in the so-called United States, the perspective that I write this from will be specific to and reflective of being born Black in a Western society and culture.

I conceived of this book in North Carolina, which has been home to an array of Indigenous peoples, including the tribes and nations of Bear River / Bay River, Cape Fear, Catawba, Chowanoke, Coree/Coranine, Creek, Croatan, Eno, Hatteras, Keyauwee, Machapunga, Moratoc, Natchez, Neusiok, Pamlico, Shakori, Sara/Cheraw, Sissipahaw, Sugeree, Wateree, Weapemeoc, Woccon, Yadkin, and Yeopim. At present, North Carolina recognizes eight tribes: Coharie, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Saponi, Haliwa Saponi, Waccamaw Siouan, Sappony, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

From Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture by Sherronda J. Brown, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2022 by Sherronda J. Brown. Used by permission of publisher.


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4. Gupta, “Compulsory Sexuality,” 135.

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18. Mills, Racial Contract, 57.