Thursday, February 16, 2023

Totally Baffled, in an Asexual Way (or, my review of "Let's Talk About Love")

Book cover for "Let's Talk About Love" by Claire Kann. Image source.

The Carnival of Aces topic for this month is "Representation in Fiction". I recently read the book Let's Talk About Love [affiliate link], which is a romance novel about an asexual character, so for this month's carnival I'll write my review/opinions on it.

So, this was the first time I went and read a book specifically because it's ace fiction and was recommended by ace bloggers. ("ace" means the asexual spectrum) Usually I don't really seek out fiction with ace characters. I read a lot of fanfic, and typically the ones I like are fanfics where the characters have to have sex because of some contrived external reason, which I wrote more about in my post Let me tell you about a fanfic that reminded me of my marriage. Usually they're not ace characters. 

(Maybe I should read more ace fiction...?)

All this is to say, maybe I'm not the right person to be reviewing ace fiction? I can only talk about how much it related to my own experiences. I can't really talk about what the ace community as a whole needs from ace fiction. The ace community is big and diverse, and we need fictional characters representing all of that. I'm just 1 person.

So this isn't, like, an Ace Review of "Let's Talk About Love." This is, like... Perfect Number's Opinions.


Ace concepts

Ah actually I do have 1 thing to say from a more general "this is an ace review" perspective: This book includes a bunch of concepts which aces talk about a lot, such as

  • aesthetic attraction
  • romantic attraction/ romantic orientation
  • strong friendships which can be even more important than romantic relationships
  • experiencing arousal unconnected to attraction/ being confused about how arousal connects to attraction

This is great, I'm glad these concepts were featured in the book. The way these concepts fit as completely normal aspects of Alice's life felt very real to me. (Alice is the main character. She is a biromantic asexual.)


My overall feelings

It was an enjoyable read! I liked it! Could be useful for people who are younger than me and trying to figure themselves out.

But, my overall feeling was... I just feel very confused about why the question of whether or not Alice is going to have sex with someone she's dating is such a big deal. Like, why would you have sex just because you're dating? Why would that even be a thing? She's 19. 19 is way too young to be having sex, right? (Uh the statistics say that around 55% of people have sex for the first time by age 18... so... I'm wrong... this is a true fact but it just makes no sense to me...) Why is everyone in this book acting like her unwillingness to have sex is this huge obstacle that makes it impossible for her to date?

I just can't get my head around it- but actually, this is a really common ace experience. I have read blog posts from aces who said things like "I had a boyfriend/girlfriend in high school, and I didn't want to have sex but I thought I had to, because that's what you have to do when you're dating, so I had sex." (Which also happened to Alice.) 

This is just so completely different than the ideology I believed in at that age. I 100% bought into Christian purity culture, which said "of course no one is supposed to be having sex before marriage. Yeah, sure, statistically most people do, but you shouldn't pay attention to that because it's bad and wrong. You're better than them." (Which, yikes, feeling superior to other people because of what sexual experience you do or don't have is NOT COOL.)

I just have so much trouble comprehending the concept of high school kids having sex. Or college-age kids having sex. Sex is complicated and weird and confusing, and I was not at a place where I had the emotional maturity to deal with it, until I was done with college and living on my own. (Though honestly in my case this probably was less related to age and more related to the fact that that's when I was questioning purity culture.) I'm glad I never actually considered the question of *me* having sex, when I was in high school or college. It's just too big of a question, and I didn't have the information back then to make good decisions about it.

I'm not trying to judge anybody... I have friends (who aren't asexual) who had sex in high school or college and they feel like that was fine, they were emotionally mature enough for it. Probably "emotionally mature" isn't even the term I should be using here, because "mature" sounds like a positive thing- kind of makes it sound like it's "good" if you're able to choose to have sex, and "bad" if you don't feel like you're at a place in your life where sex makes sense. Maybe what I actually mean is being emotionally mature enough to make good decisions about sex- and "yes" and "no" can both be good decisions depending on your situation.

And yes, this is a common ace experience- feeling like you're "supposed" to have sex with the person you're dating. So it's good that this book is talking about this. Even though it's so far from my experience and I was just completely baffled at how this could possibly be enough of an issue to be the main conflict of the book.


The plot

Here's my summary of the plot: Alice's girlfriend breaks up with her because the girlfriend thinks Alice isn't performing the right emotions during sex. This makes Alice feel like as an asexual she shouldn't date someone who can't accept her asexuality. 

Then Alice meets this guy, Takumi, who is SO CUTE she can't even believe it. They get to know each other, they start spending time together every day, he tells her she's beautiful, she tells him she likes him, they often hug, etc- at this point I thought that added up to "they are dating" but apparently not? At this point in the book, Alice is all worried about "I want to date him, but how will I tell him I'm asexual? And maybe I shouldn't date him at all because he'll want to have sex and I just don't want to be in a relationship that has that expectation."


Eventually she tells him she's asexual. He says it doesn't change his feelings for her, but that makes her confused because there's still the issue of how they can date if she's not willing to have sex, and he hasn't really said anything about that. Eventually they have more conversations about it- she says there's a possibility that someday she would have sex again, but she doesn't want to be in a relationship where her partner expects that from her. And eventually Takumi decides that he loves her enough that he's okay with being in a relationship where they're not having sex. Hooray, the end.


But yeah, like I said, I was just so totally confused because, why do they have to figure out whether they're going to have sex before they even start dating??? I view sex as an extremely far-off thing... to me this feels like trying to figure out if you want to marry this person, before you even start dating. (Which, yikes, I'm an ex-purity-culture girl, and that's a little too real... in purity culture I really did believe you should know if you're likely to marry the person, before you even start dating.) Like, why not just have fun together and see where it leads? Who even says the relationship will go far enough that having sex becomes an actual possibility? 

I mean, hey, maybe Alice is thinking much more long-term than me? Like eventually the person she's dating will want to have sex with her, and will break up because she refuses, and she wants to avoid that altogether. Is that it? Or is it, like... like people have the expectation that people who are dating are having sex, more or less right from the start of their relationship? (??? This is so confusing to me.)

It's like... if someone was so totally worried because they have a crush on someone and want to date, but what if their crush wants to go rock-climbing? Like, oh my goodness, I have to decide right now, before we can even start dating, if I'm *ever* willing to go rock-climbing at all. Making it into this huge issue. Why is it such a huge issue? Why is rock climbing even associated with dating at all? And actually, we're not even talking about rock climbing, we're talking about something even weirder: exposing your genitals to each other. And then touching them together. And then moving around vigorously. ?????? Why on earth would that be something you're expected to do, just because you're dating someone?

I'm married. When I started dating my husband, I didn't know I was ace, and I believed unmarried sex was a sin. I've never had the experience of trying to get into a relationship, knowing that I'm asexual, and knowing that most people have sexual attraction and view sex as a normal thing. Other aces are in a totally different situation than me. What Alice is dealing with in this book definitely is a real ace experience. I do want to understand it more. I just feel very boggled.


Takumi's view of sex


At the end of the book, Takumi says that he's not asexual, and for him, sex is a way to express his love to someone. This is an idea I've heard before- perhaps a lot of allosexual people feel this way? Like you want to passionately express your love to your partner, and sex feels like the way to do that.

I'm actually really curious about people's opinions on the connection between sex and love. (Feel free to leave a comment on this post!) Takumi's opinion here is not intuitive to me at all. And actually, he says that he realized Alice still has those passionate feelings for him, even though she doesn't want to have sex with him, and that's why he finally decided he's okay with dating her without sex. This also strikes me as weird- do a lot of people think being uninterested in sex means that you don't love your partner? How odd... Do people really think that?


You know... I dated a few guys when I was in college, and I never sat them down for a "we're not going to have sex" talk. It never even occurred to me, because the idea of *me* having sex was just so outlandish. (And also, purity ideology teaches that good moral people are of course all trying not to have sex but sometimes it "just happens" because they "fall into temptation"- so, the idea of having an honest conversation about what each person wants doesn't really figure into that anywhere at all.) But, they knew I wasn't willing to have sex with them, just because I was very involved with Christian groups, and "purity" would come up in conversation pretty often. For me, it was this very abstract theoretical thing. I never ever thought of it as "and therefore, I *specifically* will not have sex with you, my boyfriend, *specifically*" because I had no awareness that anybody was having sex at all, except married couples.

Now that I know I'm ace, occasionally I think back to those relationships and I wonder if the guys I dated wanted to have sex with me. It always strikes me as such a surprising and odd question to ask. I definitely never thought about it back then.

Alice is only 19 years old. When I was 19, I would not have been able to handle the information that people I knew were having sex and it was fine for them. I would not have been able to handle the question of whether *I* could or should be having sex. I mean, obviously I did not want to have sex- but if I had known it was an actual possibility, I would have endlessly worried about whether I was "missing out" on it, like maybe there's some *reason* that most people are interested in sex, and I can't figure out what the reason is but apparently it's a really big deal, and I need to understand this reason, and maybe I should be having sex too, if I don't understand the reason then how can I be so sure it doesn't apply to me, and on and on and on. Back then, I wouldn't have been confident enough to say "yes, most people my age are having sex, but I know myself well enough to know that I don't want to, and therefore it is right for me to not have sex." Ugh, just gives me so much anxiety, imagining this alternate universe where high-school-Perfect-Number wonders if she is supposed to be having sex just because most other people are.

(Instead I had purity-related anxiety, which is also bad! And instead of "you're supposed to be having sex if you're dating", I was taught "you're supposed to be having sex if you're married" which is bad too!)



Overall, I thought it was a fun read. Takumi and Alice were cute together. I think the way the book explores Alice's asexuality can be helpful for readers who are trying to figure out their own asexuality. 

But, also, I am so confused about why it was such a big deal, this question of whether or not Alice can date if she's not willing to have sex. I'm just so baffled at the idea that sex and dating would be so closely bound together like that- which everyone in the book seems to just take for granted. But, apparently this is a real thing. I have heard aces say they had these same experiences- having sex they didn't want just because they believed you're "supposed to" if you're dating, worrying about how or when to tell a potential partner that you're ace, feeling like dating isn't even worth trying at all because you'll be expected to have sex, etc. These are real ace experiences (which actually seem to be pretty common- I've seen a lot of these things discussed on ace blogs) but are so incredibly different from my experience as an ace in purity culture.


Blue Ice-Tea wrote a post related to this one: Do Ace Stories Contribute to Compulsory Sexuality?



Let me tell you about a fanfic that reminded me of my marriage

On Purity, Asexuality, and Timing

"How Far Is Too Far?" My Story, And What I Wish I'd Known 

We didn't know what sex was, just that it was bad

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