Guest post written by Sara Parker, the asexual activist behind the Asexuality Blog.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation in which one does not experience sexual attraction toward any genderAsexuality is a sexual orientation in which one does not experience sexual attraction toward any gender, and while many people identify as such, it is difficult to find accurate representation in fictional media. As the asexual (or “ace”) community gains recognition and visibility, the amount of asexual characters in media and fiction increases. Representation for our burgeoning group is imperative, however, there are criticisms to be made on many existing ace characters and, as asexuals, it comes down to us to educate and guide writers, both inside and out of our community, who would seek to shed light on who we are as people.
Common Stereotypes and Misconceptions
Asexuals are very often portrayed as celibate, cold, manipulative, loveless, childish, repressed, traumatized, undesirable, and/or secretly allosexual (usually gay). While there are absolutely asexuals in the community who may fit into some of these stereotypes, I don’t believe that, as a whole, they are an adequate representation of the community at all. We end up as either a Dexter Morgan type of character, a Sheldon Cooper, a Sherlock Holmes (as much as I love him), or a character who the author wants to show as villainous in some way. All of these characters are often cold, manipulative, and unrecognizing of human emotional concepts. I think this stems from a significant misunderstanding of the orientation itself and of an asexual’s ability to be just as multifaceted as any other person. Regardless of the reasoning, the implications can be hurtful and perpetuate negative stigmas toward the people who identify as asexual.
Some common misconceptions to avoid when writing asexual characters are: the assumption that asexuality is the same thing as celibacy, that there’s some sort of medical issue that we must have that “makes” us asexual (which, again, is certainly the case for some asexuals, but while medical issues don’t invalidate asexuality, it’s not an across-the-board experience), and that being asexual means we inherently hate sex (most asexuals are sex-averse on some level, but that doesn’t equate to a hatred of sex, it just means that usually we don’t want it for ourselves. There are asexuals who engage in sexual contact/relationships for intimacy or libido satisfaction, as well). Others are that asexuality and aromanticism are synonymous; that asexual individuals are just as disinterested in romance as we are in sex, which is by no means the case for everyone of our community, and that asexuals are inherently juvenile – that at some point we’ll “grow up” and start experiencing sexual attraction, and thus be “normal”. Blame the fairy tales for this last one. The idea that the “right person” can come along and change everything is a very popular trope and one that is applied to asexuals frequently. Romance is all well and fine with an asexual story, but sustaining the belief that asexuals need to be fixed is not the way to go about it.
Romance is all well and fine with an asexual story, but sustaining the belief that asexuals need to be fixed is not the way to go about it.
It’s also very important, when writing asexual characters, to adequately portray aspects of asexual life. One such aspect that I have personally not seen written is the frustration and hardship of being asexual in a sexualized world. Things like trying to explain what asexuality is and is not to allosexuals and having them look at you like you’re crazy or tell you that your orientation is not real, etc. Things like trying to watch a television show or a movie and having to uncomfortably sit through sex scenes or sexualized advertisements, or dealing with the feelings of brokenness and abnormality that come so often with growing up asexual.
Romance Without Sex
So, now you may be wondering: if a character doesn’t have sex, how exactly would a romantic relationship work? I’ve seen a great many responses to the concept of non-sexual romance which allude to it being anywhere from boring to downright impossible. The issue is that, for a lot of allosexuals, intimacy equates to sex. If writers could focus more on forms of non-sexual intimacy, I think they’d see ace characters as much easier to fathom. Acts like sharing sleeping space, intimate conversations, cuddling, etc. can create intimacy and pair-bonding without sexual contact playing a part. A romantic relationship with an asexual can be exactly the same as relationships of other orientations, it just usually lacks the sexual aspect. We can still go on dates, cuddle on the couch, kiss, embrace, form commitments, etc. Just like sex without romance is possible, romance without sex is possible. If the writing is done well, the plot won’t suffer for a lack of sexual attraction.
Acts like sharing sleeping space, intimate conversations, cuddling, etc. can create intimacy and pair-bonding without sexual contact playing a part.
As an example: there’s a fantastic fanfic series for the BBC television show Sherlock (there’s a lot of good writing to be found in fan fiction) by 221b_hound called “Unkissed” that I think is a great example of non-sexual intimacy for the most part (there are a few sexual situations). It describes the relationship of an asexual-spectrum Sherlock with an allosexual John Watson and how they mutually respect one another’s needs and desires and make sure they are both adequately fulfilled. There’s a lot of explicit talk of boundaries and concerns, which is vital in any ace/allo relationship and the writer of the series accomplishes the balance between the two without shaming or having either party appear to sacrifice more than the other.
In regard to other works containing asexual-passing characters that work out well, Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice is a prime example. She marries because she feels it’s necessary at her age, not because of any real attraction to her husband. It’s a marriage of convenience, but not an unhappy one. She’s never shown to have any attraction to another character, but she is still openly warm, loving, mature, and well-rounded.
It’s not always enough to have a character whose asexuality is implied.
In my experience as an asexual reader, there aren’t many characters that are easy to identify with, and of those who are commonly believed to be asexual, there is a lot left to be desired. I’ve often found myself desperately clinging to characters that one could potentially perceive as asexual, if only to have someone to relate to and not lend credence to the idea that not fitting in with the implied “normal” means something is inherently wrong with you. Often my favorite characters tend to be those who are not fully central to the plot; they’re the supporting cast and as such don’t have the backstory or focus to include sexual and romantic pursuits. Some of my favorite literary characters are those who come across as dismissive of sex or romance (I happen to also be aromantic) at some point in the works. More than anything, though, as I’ve gotten older it’s instilled a motivation to bring more focus on the diversity of characters to include lesser known orientations and identities. I think I may have discovered my own orientation a lot sooner if there had been more asexual characters for me to read about growing up. To this day, I still read Bilbo Baggins, Charlotte Lucas, and Sherlock Holmes (despite the problematic portrayal) as asexual and they’re my favorite characters because of that.
To this day, I still read Bilbo Baggins, Charlotte Lucas, and Sherlock Holmes (despite the problematic portrayal) as asexual and they’re my favorite characters because of that.
It’s not always enough to have a character whose asexuality is implied. Works that exhibit a character coming out and dealing with the responses and repercussions of that will always be vital. I don’t believe that there is any such thing as “too many” coming out stories for any orientation. People need something they can refer and relate to, and no two portrayals are going to be exactly the same, so the more’s the merrier. It’s especially important for asexuals right now, when the movement is still so young in comparison to other orientations and there are so few works available to the asexual community.
The Future of Asexual Literature
I would love to see people in my community writing characters based on their own experiencesFrom what I’ve seen, we’re getting more and more asexual characters all the time. Our community is growing and we’re defining an asexual culture, which includes adequate representation in fiction. While there is obviously room for improvement, and likely will be for awhile, with the right education and guidance, writers can create some truly amazing asexual characters. Thanks to community members like blogger Anagnori, who create amazing resources for people looking to write asexual characters, we’ve got a good system in place to educate. Going forward, I would love to see people in my community writing characters based on their own experiences and using that as a medium to help others who may share our identity find something they can relate to. I’d love to see asexual fiction be a stepping stone in overall societal acceptance of asexuality as a legitimate orientation and if done well, we can make that happen all the sooner.
Sara Parker is an asexual activist and community member. She runs The Asexuality Blog, which organizes asexual community outreach and interaction projects, and is a member of Asexual Outreach, a registered non-profit which serves the asexual community. She can be found on-line at www.theasexualityblog.com.
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