I want stories about asexuality

I’ve seen people say they want stories with ace characters that aren’t about the person’s asexuality. But… I do want books/movies/TV shows with ace protagonists that focus on their asexuality, and all the posts saying they don’t want this make me a little sad. Asexuality is so underrepresented in mainstream society that when it is represented, I want it to be A ThingI mean, not always, not every time; I definitely get the value of works about ace characters that aren’t about them being ace. But I also want some that are.

All my life I’ve consumed media that doesn’t acknowledge my existence, let alone show other people like me. So stories that are actually about experiences like mine—feeling different but not knowing you’re ace, discovering your orientation, dealing with the stress of being closeted, coming out and handling the repercussions—are exactly what I want. I understand other GSRM people getting frustrated that media featuring people like them is always about the character’s queerness, but with asexuality, it’s not like we’ve got a glut of media that focuses on characters’ aceness and everyone is sick of it.

Here’s one other person saying the same thing.

Is it unreasonable to expect sexual content warnings in ace spaces?

I’m sex-repulsed—not only when it comes to the idea of engaging in sex myself, but also as far as seeing sexual content in films, reading about sex, or hearing sexual references. While encountering these things doesn’t make me physically ill, and my level of tolerance does depend on the context and purpose and how explicit the material is, in general I have a strong aversion to all sexual content.

Because of that, when I’m watching or reading something I like to know beforehand if it contains any sexual material. Film ratings are great for this; I can see before I start a movie that it’s rated R for sex, and factor that into my decision of whether to watch it or not. If I do watch it, I’ll know what I’m in for and can be prepared to fast forward the sex scene(s) or look away. Even when I can’t avoid the content or choose not to, just having that mental preparation makes a big difference.

In my time in the ace blogosphere and Tumblr, though, I’ve come across sexual images posted on ace blogs with no warning beforehand. I’ve seen recommendations of ace-friendly or -relevant media that I’ve happily sought out, only to be startled to find that it contained sexual content. And… I’m kind of tired of that. While, in my experience, blog post-type writing by aces does tend to carry sufficient warnings about mentions of sex or anatomy (and I really appreciate that), I don’t feel that ace spaces are entirely safe for sex-repulsed people.

I write this wondering if I’m asking for an unreasonable accommodation—is this just an individual quirk that I should deal with on my own? You can’t have content warnings for everything anyone could possibly dislike or be bothered by. But in ace spaces—spaces for people who don’t experience sexual attraction, many of whom are sex-averse or -repulsed—I am surprised that warning for sexually explicit content isn’t more of a thing.

And, I think it should be. Sexual content is everywhere in western society, and apart from movie ratings, it’s not warned for at all. There’s nothing I can do about that but deal with it, but after having to deal with it so often, one reason I turn to ace spaces is that I expect them to be a refuge from sex-saturated mainstream culture. So it’s really disappointing when they just repeat the same patterns.

I’m not asking that all sexual content be removed from ace spaces; I’d just like to see a note mentioning it before graphic images, or in parentheses after a recommendation, or on the homepage of a website. Putting up warnings has so little cost; it just requires a little extra time and doesn’t take anything away from those who are interested in or like sexual content. It would be such a small effort to make to help ace spaces become more friendly to repulsed and averse aces. I feel like anyone who’s ace themselves should be fully on board with that goal.

I strive to make this blog a safe place for sex-repulsed and -averse aces, so I always mention if there’s any sexual content in the media I recommend and will put content warnings before posts containing sexual material (if I ever write any). But if you ever feel that I haven’t adequately labelled something—which applies to trigger warnings, too—just let me know and I’ll fix it.

“No love interest = not straight”

The Asexual Agenda’s latest question of the week is about contrived romance in movies, and it got me thinking again about something related that I’ve pondered on and off before. As many people have already pointed out, the majority of mainstream movies have a romantic storyline or subplot, which means that it’s downright strange to see a film’s main character reach the end without having had a romance or love interest. And it’s always great to see films like that, as they challenge amatonormativity and lend credence to asexuals and aromantics. But a lot of people explain these characters’ lack of love lives by saying that they’re queer, which can actually lead right back into supporting amatonormativity.

The two movies that I’m specifically thinking of are both recent Disney/Pixar films. Merida in Brave shows no desire for romance. The internet says, “Merida is gay!”* Elsa in Frozen has no love interest. The internet says, “Elsa is gay!”** In ace/aro communities, people may headcanon Merida or Elsa as ace and/or aro. And I’m all for aces and aromantics, and queer people of all stripes, finding and appreciating characters who look like us, especially when there are so few in mainstream films. But my problem with assuming that any character who isn’t proven straight must be queer is that that idea says, “If you don’t have a romantic relationship at the moment and aren’t actively pursuing one or making it clear that you want one, you can’t be straight”—that everyone who is straight is going to be seeking romance all the time. It says that romance is the most important part of every straight person’s life story, that they can’t have periods of their life that don’t involve it but are still interesting.

Why can’t Elsa be straight, but too busy dealing with the anxiety and guilt she feels about her power to be thinking about finding a man? Why can’t Merida be straight but interested in a different trajectory for her life than a traditional marriage? I’m definitely not advocating for more heterosexual characters than there already are, or saying that we must read every character as straight unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise (for ace/aro people, it hasn’t yet been stated that any mainstream movie/TV character is like us, so our headcanons are all we’ve got!). I just want society to recognize that romance isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, the ultimate goal for anyone, of any sexual or romantic orientation—and the belief that the only explanation for a character not having a heterosexual romance or love interest during the course of a movie is that they’re not heterosexual isn’t helping.

*Merida is also a bit of a tomboy, which apparently also equals lesbian. That’s not a good assumption to make either.

**Although at least with Elsa they had other reasons too.

Asexuality in Guardian of the Dead

I started seeking out novels with asexual characters once I realized there actually were some (here’s one list). I’m always excited when I start one; it’s just so unusual to see asexuality even mentioned outside of online ace communities that reading about a character who’s ace is a big deal. But I was somewhat disappointed in the way the ace character and asexuality in general were portrayed in the young adult novel Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. So this post is mostly about what I wasn’t happy with, but I do first want to start with what I liked. Mild spoilers ahead.

Pros: Kevin is not your typical cold/awkward/unfeeling asexual character (thinking of characters who aren’t explicitly ace but are widely speculated to be, like Sherlock, the Doctor in Doctor Who, and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory). He’s the main character (Ellie)’s best friend, is quite likeable, and is an attractive, non-white guy who multiple girls are interested in. His asexuality is also accepted by the other characters, and seeing them treat it as valid and not question its legitimacy was nice. The book starts soon after Kevin has told Ellie about his orientation for the first time, and while her initial reaction is to say, “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” she stops herself, knowing that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Now, the cons: When Kevin comes out to Ellie the conversation pretty much ends there. Asexuality looks so different for each person—some are repulsed, some have a libido, some are also aromantic. But in Guardian of the Dead, what Kevin’s unique experience of asexuality is isn’t discussed or revealed at all. “I’m ace” is the beginning and end of the conversation; Ellie just makes her own assumptions about what it means and doesn’t ask Kevin any thoughtful questions.

Further assumptions are made when it comes to the relationship between Kevin and another good female friend of his, Iris. Iris has liked Kevin for a long time, but he’s never reciprocated—because he’s ace. Eventually, so that Iris won’t keep hoping in vain, Kevin tells her about his orientation, and while we don’t see this scene and thus don’t know exactly what’s said, by this point we’ve gotten the message that the reason Kevin and Iris won’t be having a romantic relationship is Kevin’s asexuality (as opposed to Kevin just not being interested in Iris in that way). However, we don’t know why exactly his asexuality is stopping them. It seems to be implied that either asexuality is always accompanied by aromanticisim, or else that an allosexual person would never want to be in a romantic relationship with an ace. Both of which are inaccurate and not ideas that should be spread.  Maybe the author didn’t intend either of these, but readers don’t know what the truth actually is (is Kevin aro? Does Iris feel the need for her relationships to include sex?), because what being ace means for Kevin is never discussed.

The last thing that bothered me is that Kevin’s character is never really developed. This is because he’s not actually around for most of the main part of the story, and when he is he’s either under a magic spell and kind of in a daze, or being lied to/kept in the dark by the Ellie. So the book starts by introducing an ace character, and then proceeds to basically remove him from the rest of the story, and not let us get to know him much more.

Some aces like the book’s portrayal of asexuality better than I did—see this and this (and here’s a review that mentions some of the same problems I saw, but also talks about other ways the book was well done). The author is also actively seeking to do representation better, and I am really glad that she’s aware of asexuality and chose to include it in her novel; at this point, I’ll take whatever ace characters I can get, and I’m sure plenty of people who might never have heard of asexuality otherwise were exposed to the concept through this book. But I do just wish that it had been represented a little better.

Male-female relationships in fiction

I enjoy reading young adult books (I’ll write more about one of the reasons why in a future post), and I was listening to one recently, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in which—spoilers—a friendship develops between a guy and the main character, a girl. It was the typical “they start out hating each other and then find out they actually enjoy being with and talking to each other and become friends” thing, which was nice if unoriginal. And then it became even more typical because the relationship turned romantic. And I was disappointed, because why couldn’t we just have a good male-female friendship story? Why couldn’t we leave it at “they actually found that they liked each other platonically and became good friends”?

That got me thinking about male-female relationships (between people who are roughly the same age and unrelated) in fiction in general, and it seems like for the most part they always do end up romantic, even if they don’t start that way (in mainstream movies even more so than in books). It’s frustrating, but it actually does kind of make sense. If a story were to end with the main male character and the main female character in a purely platonic relationship, that would be unsatisfying, because the relationship wouldn’t feel solid or lasting. There would always be the possibility that one of them would enter a romantic relationship, and if (or when) that happened, that relationship would replace or at least diminish the friendship (especially if both characters were heterosexual). And who wants to read a story where the focus is on a relationship that’s so fragile and easily dissolved? In fiction—and quite possibly in real life too, generally—to last, and thus to provide a satisfying ending to a story, a male-female relationship has to be romantic.

I found this to be true when I tried to write a story focusing on a non-romantic male-female relationship. Years ago I wrote a retelling of Cinderella in which I, typically, got around the love-at-first-sight issue by having Cinderella and the prince know each other before the fateful ball. The way my story was unusual is that their relationship never became romantic, not even after Cinderella realized that her best friend was actually the prince in disguise and he took her to the palace to live with his family. (Although when my mom read the beginning, she commented, “Ah, a romance,” and I said, “Nope! No romance here!” and she countered, “Of course it’s a romance! It’s Cinderella, and the girl is giggling at something the guy said.” I don’t know if that speaks to the flawed nature of my mom’s assumptions about male-female relationships, or the flawed nature of my portrayal of one…). I don’t remember what inspired me to keep the relationship platonic—maybe it was just a desperate attempt to bring some originality to a story that’s been told and retold so many times already. But I’m guessing that at least part of my motivation was a desire for a different kind of story—a less heteronormative, more ace-friendly one, even though I had never heard the terms “asexual” or “heteronormative” at the time—from the ones I had been told all my life.

The problem was that my ending, with Cinderella and the prince living together as best friends rather than a couple, no romance involved, was unsatisfying even to me, the author. Because yay, when the story ends they’re together and happy, but the prince at least will be getting married at some point in the future, and then what happens to Cinderella? Is the prince’s wife going to be okay with his female best friend living in the castle with them? Is the prince still going to care about Cinderella and want her around as much as he does now? Probably not. So even though the end of the story was seemingly happy, it felt wrong, because if I looked beyond the written ending things really weren’t going to be that great for Cinderella. Her happiness likely wouldn’t last; she’d probably eventually lose her friend (and her nice new life), and after he’d been the most important person to her during the story, and their relationship had been the main focus of it, that made the ending just feel sad. Maybe it was realistic, but I’d been going for a platonic happily-ever-after.

Maybe such a thing doesn’t exist, though. While I didn’t want to do the stereotypical romance thing, my platonic relationship-focused story kind of failed and would have been much more satisfying, if also more cliché, as a romance. But it’s sad that stories of platonic male-female relationships just can’t be as satisfying as romances, because it locks people into telling just one kind of story—and the fact that romantic male-female relationship stories are the only ones that get told may be part of what makes people think that men and women can only relate in a romantic way.

Right now I’m rereading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, which is about a friendship that forms between the two titular characters, who are both married to other people. It’s great to read a story about a non-romantic male-female relationship—but a lot of the story is about the two main characters trying to decide if they do actually have romantic feelings for each other, and people making assumptions about their relationship (that it is sexual and/or romantic in nature), and their spouses having issues with it. So when stories of platonic male-female relationships actually are told, the idea of romance is still very much a part of them—and if it’s that hard for a fictional woman and man to have a platonic relationship, think how hard it must be in real life.