🎤 Interview: Aline Laurent-Mayard
Aline Laurent-Mayard (they/them) is a Journalist, author, and podcaster. They have written for publications such as Le Monde and Slate, and published two books about gender in pop culture. The French version of their podcast Free From Desire received critical acclaim and Aline was featured on the cover of Telerama. Their second podcast, Welcome Baby, is about raising their child in a gender-open way and it is out in France now.
I was super excited to talk to Aline about their show, a show that speaks to me because of my own exploration of identity along the asexual spectrum. It’s clear that Aline’s work is well received from their recent win at Tribeca, but I hope you will read for yourself why this show needed to exist and what it has meant to Aline.
Our interview was conducted on June 20th, before episode 3 of the show aired. This interview was also edited and condensed for clarity; there is no audio this time.
Content Warning: This interview discusses rape culture, so there are resources included at the bottom of this interview. Please take care.
Congrats on winning the Narrative Nonfiction Audio Storytelling Award at the Tribeca Film Festival! You recently premiered Free From Desire there, and obviously reception to your work was positive. For those who have not been introduced to your podcast, how would you describe it?
I feel like it's two things: It's a narrative story about how I came to discover and accept that I was asexual, and at the same time it’s an investigation into the space that sexuality takes in our society. Specifically, how obsessed we are with sexuality and how we could change that to make our society less constrained so that we have more freedom to be ourselves.
You mentioned in a recent Forbes interview that there are often misconceptions about asexuality, and that’s why it took you so long to embrace asexuality and why you created this show. What are some of the things people are getting wrong in asexuality coverage?
I think the main misconception is that asexuality means no sex, no sexuality. So, people assume that ace [asexual] people don't have any kind of sexual desire or arousal, which is wrong on so many levels.
Sexuality is a spectrum, which means that some people can have little sexual attraction; but it's very personal, there's no official way to measure it. They just feel like they're having less sexual attraction than other people, or than what is “required” from society. So that's the first thing.
But also you can feel feel sexually, without being attracted towards someone sexually. You can feel aroused in the morning just because. Or if you have a menstrual cycle, and it’s the time of the month where your hormones are all crazy, you know. I get into that in an upcoming episode where I interviewed three ace people talking about their sex lives and the when and how. They feel like they want to masturbate or they feel aroused or they feel like they want to have sex because the other part is that even if you don't feel attracted to someone, you can still have sex.
Sometimes of course it's like forced sex, so you didn't give your consent; or, you gave it, but you didn't really want it. So that's what I explore in episode two. But also, sometimes you just want to be close to someone or you just want to feel that intimacy, or maybe you're just curious, or maybe it's just like you enjoy sex a tiny bit and so you want to give that to your partner. Like, there are so many reasons why you'd have sex without being sexually attracted to someone.
What I usually say is, can you name one person, asexual or not, that has never had sexual relationship without being attracted to someone? Like everybody has had sex at least once with someone that they were not attracted to. This is a main issue with sex. We're never on the exact same page with our partners. It is impossible to want sex every day, at the same pace, at the same moment, for the same kind of positions, or whatever. It doesn't work like that, it's two people who don't want the same thing at the same time.
That's one of the reason why I decided to do that podcast. It's first off, because I wanted to give content to ace people, or people who didn't know they were ace. But also because in my discussions about asexuality with allosexuals, I realized that this was a big topic that no one was talking about.
The fact that you can never be in sync with your partner, it's just doesn't happen like that. And so we need to discuss more about what we want, whether it is like we want a lot or we don't want a lot; or we want like this or vanilla; or we don't want it. We need to discuss, and that's one of the takeaways that people will get from this podcast.
In that same interview, you disagreed with the idea that French people are big romantics, and that sex and rape culture are part of French culture, so I guess the antithesis of romanticism. Can you talk a little more about these ideas, and how your show fits into this conversation?
So your question when I read it, it got me like wondering what is it being romantic, you know? And so I asked on Instagram and like 28% of 70% of my followers said French people were not romantics. But also, what does it mean?
I think to French people, Americans are really romantic. Like they're into grand gestures and like big proposals and flowers and dressing up for dates. We don't do that at all. We don't ever dress up. Maybe at weddings and even barely. We don't give gifts. We don't do big gestures like all of this. If we do that, it's because we learn that from American movies.
I also don't think that, you know, romantic is the antithesis of rape culture. I think it's very hand in hand, and I think just being romantic is just like a certain vision of what love is and it's very much rooted in the same patriarchal ideas as a sexual relationship.
It's like, when you see the trope of the nice guy who is always like, “I'm so romantic, why does no girl want me?” Well dude, you're stalking them, you're forcing them. And so I think those dynamics, you just find them in both in the romantic and the sexual aspect of our lives.
I mean, when it comes to experiences of ace people or for teenagers, I think it's pretty much the same. I know you, you guys [in the U.S.] care more about virginity in some parts of the country. In some cultures we don't have that mentality that you should not have sex before marriage. And also one of the tiny differences I think is rape culture is more present in France.
In the podcast I explore the sexual liberation movement in the sixties in France, which you all had too. To be a strong woman, independent and freed, you needed to be very open-minded about sex. You needed to want to have sex. But what we actually saw is even during the sexual liberation there was a very uneven dynamic where women were just having sex the way men wanted to have sex as opposed to having it for themselves. And we still see that now.
It is no surprise that so many rapists still have, literally, the red carpet rolled out for them. Of course not everybody is like that, but the people in charge of the institutions are very much supporting this rape culture, and this is something that I felt deeply, especially when I was younger and I didn't know how to say no, because no one taught me how to say no.
I too am a child of the 90s, and I appreciate how you have woven in references to various pop culture, much of it from America, such as American Pie, Cruel Intentions. To that point, I don’t think we have any mainstream character on-screen that identifies as asexual. How did pop culture help you come to terms with your identity?
It didn’t, would be the short answer. But the real answer is that I remember precisely when Glee came out and this was exactly when I left my parents' home. Growing up, I was part of a generation where as a teenager there was no LGBTQ representation. Suddenly going into my twenties, there were more and more [representatives] and they were sometimes very happy. And so that happened exactly at the right time because that's when I was like, I don't think I'm straight. And so it really helped me understand the queer culture.
Then when I was ready, I got into the queer communities that I could find. And getting into the LGBTQ community was very helpful because first of all, it surrounded me with people who didn't care that much about norms. It showed me that you could live your life in so many different ways, and that there was not just one path. That has helped me a lot. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the two people that I dated while I was coming to terms with being asexual, the two people that helped me to sexually accept what I was, were women.
[Those relationships] got me to realize that if I wanted, if I was in love, I could be in a relationship, even in my own sexual terms. And actually one of [those partners] came out to be non-binary after that. But to me, it's like I don't think I could have gone another way. I could have explored and accept my asexuality that much if I were dating straight men. So yes, it did help me in the sense that it, it helped me see what the queer community was and that helped me a lot.
Thankfully now we do start to see ace characters on tv. And every time I do, I just like start sobbing. In one of the episodes I talk about Sex Education and how like I was already out, but just seeing that scene that everybody knows…I don't even need to introduce it in interviews.*
Everybody knows it and I was just sobbing so much. Like I honestly didn't know I could sob that much. It was just like full on for like, I don't know, an hour. I think it was just insane. And even though I was already out, it just fixed something in me. Just seeing representation, just seeing someone talk to a teenager; it's like, you are valid. Sex doesn't define us. It was just really helpful to just fix what was broken inside, you know? So yeah. I'm really happy that we get to see more ace characters.
Actually as you were saying that, I was like, oh yeah, there was a storyline in Sex Education. It's been so long. We need another season immediately.
They just got rid of that character as soon as she came out because there are more and more ace characters, especially in teen shows and superhero shows, like fantasy shows. It’s like we don't exist in the real world as grownups and it's all focused more or less on on coming out. There are very few shows, very few shows that keep us after the coming out. We're just part of an ensemble or one episode, and you got the coming out and just like, oh, that's strange, what is this new thing?
And then we're just not there anymore because people still think that without sex there is no story, as if life is not exciting without sex. So writers don't yet write ace characters or even stories that are not focused on compulsory sexuality. They still put sex everywhere and sexual tension because they think that it's the only way that they can make a story interesting. I think that's very lazy because there are so many more ways to make life and a story interesting.
A reveal in the show–but not quite a spoiler, folks!–is that you decided to become pregnant on your own. You actually released Bienvenue Bébé–Welcome Baby–this month, a podcast about raising your child outside the confines of the gender binary. What are you hoping to accomplish with this show?
I mean, first of all it was really selfish. I cannot raise my kid in a cis-hetero, binary gender way; it's not something that I like, that is not something I can do. I don't even know how I could do it, and I just wanted to have answers, you know?
I wanted to know more about it, like the science behind it. I wanted to know how people acted with their kids because I've heard a lot about kids not being assigned a gender in the U.S. and in Canada and in other places; but I couldn't do that in France for so many reasons, including just our language, which makes it impossible to not gender someone.
And so I was like, what can I do to make sure that we don't, I don't, and my people surrounding my kid don't project ideas onto them. To not try to push my kid, without even realizing, into one of the two boxes; and then linking them to a sexuality too, and compulsory sexuality in general.
We tend to sexualize kids so early on. Sometimes you’ll hear adults of newborns saying, “Oh, I got a newborn the same age of the opposite sex, maybe one day they'll marry,” you know like as soon as the babies are born. Or, “You two are not best friends. You are lovers. You don't know yet because you're three, but you're lovers.” Sometimes people joke, but it's still something that kids hear, right? It's just insane.
And I think compulsory sexuality is not just in movies like American Pie, or teenagers pressuring each other and all of that. It's very deep in our subconscious. It's deep in our culture. It's the way we talk, the way we socialize our kid. And I do truly believe that the less we gender our kids, the freer they'd be, the happier they will be, but also the less they will feel that pressure to be in a straight relationship and have sex and all of that, you know?
Can we also expect this podcast to be adapted in English?
I don’t no. It's definitely something that we're hoping for, so we'll have to see how well Free from Desire does.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to understand whether they fall along the asexual spectrum, and especially how to feel confident in this identity in a world that is still insistent about heteronormativity and overt displays of sexuality?
I was asked that question once in France too and I realized I don't actually give tips in the podcast, I just share my story and share other people's stories. I never give tips. Part of it is because I don't want to force people, but also, I just didn't think of it. Or maybe it was not the point of the podcast. I don't know.
But yeah, I did give it some thought after writing it. And I think one of the things, first of all, is just like read about asexuality, even if it scares you. Go onto forums, read stories, read books; we’ve got quite a lot of books that have been released recently in the U.S. notably, such as Ace by Angela Chen, which is wonderful.
So read as much as you can to really understand what [asexuality] is. And don't be afraid to just test it out. Like if you feel like saying that your ace could be comfortable for you right now, just go for it and see how it feels. And know that there are so many different nuances, and it's a spectrum, even if you're not sure where you are on it. There's no fixed definition. If you feel like this word helps you—and reading about other ace people and how they manage their lives and how they reinvent their social life—then go for it. Sexual orientations are just a tool.
Also, I would say talk to people if you can and share that you are open to these kind of conversations. Just talk about it, because I know that's something that helped me a lot is talking with all of my friends, some who thought they were allosexual and actually turned out to be ace.
The more we discussed–even with those who still define themselves as allo people–helped me realize that no one has a sex life or no one feels sexual attraction the way the media tend to let us think. And that actually my way of feeling was not weirder than other people's [feelings]. Every sexuality is unique and I think understanding that makes you feel so much better.
And what would you say being a good ally looks like to people who are asexual?
I mean, the first thing of course, it's not assume that everybody wants sex and not assume that everybody is allosexual. Not assume that everybody is alloromantic. And just having those discussions, you know, if you have a new partner, just don't assume, just ask what do you like, what do you want sex-wise and how do you feel sexual attraction.
But also, if you are a screenwriter, please write more stories that are not about sex and include grownups please. More generally, if you speak or write in your daily life, think about the words and the expressions that you use. I hate when in articles they say “everybody remembers that first time.” I'm like, no, because first off, not everybody had a first time; and why is it called a first time? We think the first time is necessarily sexual. So just try to do less and change the way you talk about sex.
Also, it's not just about sex. In life we are so diverse and so we should never say everybody does X, or everybody does Y, except maybe everybody was born and everybody dies. So just think about the words that you use. Like if you think that people are different, and are uncomfortable with their sex lives, maybe just tell them that it's okay to not want to feel attracted. We need to talk more about the fact that everybody’s life is different.
And to be there, to just be there. I mentioned in the podcast how at the time when I forced myself to have sex, everybody knew I was forcing myself, but nobody said you can stop. Because nobody actually realized, because it was pre #MeToo. And I think now we should say to people, you can stop. You can take a breather.
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