Notes from my experience of writing an asexual character

This is my post for the March 2015 Carnival of Aces, which I’m hosting on the topic of Writing About Asexuality.

So I wrote a first draft of a novel with an ace protagonist and have been revising it recently. As I’ve worked on it I’ve had various thoughts/worries/concerns about writing an ace character, and I thought it might be useful to share them (even the ones that are kind of extreme or probably unfounded). Any thoughts or advice you may have is definitely welcome!

  • [trigger warning for sexual assault mention in this bullet point] My protagonist’s straight boyfriend doesn’t really get her asexuality, but he doesn’t try to force or convince her to have sex with him. But I’ve wondered if I should make him worse—I don’t want to unrealistically portray the experience of being ace as “Everyone will respect you and be decent about it (even if they don’t understand)!” The idea of “there should be more sexual assault in this novel” seems kind of horrible and makes me decidedly uncomfortable, and of course there are plenty of mixed relationships where that doesn’t happen, but I wouldn’t want to gloss over the danger that some people face from partners who don’t respect their boundaries.
  • My protagonist eventually comes out to her family, and it’s a big moment and a big choice for her (although it’s not the final resolution of the story and isn’t as satisfying as she’d hoped/expected). But I’ve second-guessed whether I actually want to make it that big a deal. Does doing so imply that coming out is an essential part of the ace narrative? Am I overemphasizing its importance? Queenie wrote in this post about YA novels where the gay main character’s eventual coming out to his parents is portrayed as an important step for his personal growth, and how that could influence GSRM kids/teens into thinking they have to come out to their parents. Even though my novel isn’t YA, in writing the coming out part as such a major thing, am I enforcing that idea? (And/or is the big coming out scene kind of boring/overdone/predictable at this point, and not something people will want to read again?)
  • My character has a lot of internalized sex-normativity to unlearn, so in her darker moments she gets down on herself about her orientation. This eventually gets better, but I feel like it might not be read as positive representation by aces who want to see stories of people who are fine with their asexuality and not agonizing over it. While it is realistic, because a lot of aces do go through that, I feel like it might make the story unappealing to some aces.
  • As Aqua said in her carnival submission, if you’re writing an asexual character, you also have to take on the job of educating. So I have to explain what asexuality is in my novel, and I also have to give my character an accurate, nuanced understanding of it, so that she doesn’t say things like, “I’m asexual, which means not interested in sex.” But what if it’s not realistic for her to completely understand the complexities of the definition? What if she would naturally equate her sex-repulsion with her asexuality? Well, even if that is the case, realism can’t win out here. Education has to trump the story, because I definitely don’t want to write a book that propagates harmful, erasing definitions of asexuality. But avoiding that might cause the story to suffer a bit. This is another example of why, with asexuality so little known, it’s hard to write about in fiction. Too little explanation and you end up equating asexuality with aromanticism; too much and you’re hurting the story with awkward info-dumping (Siggy discussed his solution for the latter in this post).
  • I’ve worried about my character playing into stereotypes in any way—like if she’s a little nerdy, is that bad? In the post I just linked to, Siggy also mentioned the idea of having two ace characters so that one person doesn’t have to be the representation of asexuality. But at this point, inserting another ace into my novel just for the sake of having more than one would be artificial and forced, and even if it would make the representation better, that’s a little farther than I’m willing to go.

In conclusion, a big part of the problem is that with every choice I make, I have to worry about whether I’m somehow misrepresenting asexuality. Because there are so few books with ace characters, and even fewer where the ace is the protagonist, when writing a novel about an ace it’s hard to escape the pressure of needing to do it just right, in a way that won’t somehow portray asexuality negatively or inaccurately, or leave aces disappointed or unhappy.

But, of course it’s impossible to write a perfect ace character who’s going to the one ultimate representation of our orientation… which is exactly why we need more ace characters!

Why having sex you don’t want is different than not having sex you do want

This may be pretty basic stuff for some people, but until recently I didn’t have the words to explain it, even after spending a while lurking around the ace blogosphere, so I thought it was worth writing out my conclusions here.

I’ve always believed that, in an ace-allo relationship, the ace shouldn’t have to have sex with their partner if they don’t want to. But whenever I thought about that idea, I struggled to articulate why what the ace wants should trump what the allo partner wants (assuming that the allo would prefer to be having sex).

I finally realized the difference, though, through the way Aqua phrased something in a recent(ish) post. Going without something extra that you want, like sex, is completely different from having your boundaries violated, even if you accept/agree to that violation. If someone doesn’t want to have sex, having it would be a violation of their boundaries. They could say they’re moving the boundary, or making an exception, but if it isn’t fully their choice—if they’re only doing it because of their partner—then it is still a violation. (What this means when it comes to consent and sexual assault is a whole different conversation, one that’s been happening in the ace blogosphere lately and that Aqua’s post is a part of.)

Aqua also mentioned the idea of one person’s desire for sex versus the other’s bodily autonomy, which is another good way to think about it. In this hypothetical relationship, each person knows what they want to do with their body—the ace to stay as they are, not having sex, and the allo to engage in sex. Some people might say the allo not having sex is a sacrifice, that the allo is giving something up. But that’s not true. Both people are currently in a state of not having sex. If the allo continues to not have sex, they’re just continuing as they are; they’re not sacrificing anything.

On the other hand, if the ace were to have sex, they would be doing something differently, changing their behavior from what they had been doing. Not having sex isn’t new or unusual for the allo; they’re used to going hours and days without it (or weeks or months or longer, especially if they’re dating an ace who hasn’t had sex with them). But if the ace in this situation were to have sex, that would be a huge step. If they’ve never had sex at all (or just never with their current partner), asking them to do so means asking them to do something new and possibly scary, something that they probably anticipate not liking. Even if they’ve had sex before, with their current partner or someone else, doing it again when they don’t want to would mean giving up control of their body.

Everyone has a right to not have sex—to not do things with their bodies that they don’t want to do. No one has a right to have sex—to do something with their body that involves another person’s body. Sex requires making yourself vulnerable to another person. Doing it when you don’t want to is completely different than going without it.