Asexuality & Aromanticism in Fiction

This was originally posted early 2011 in response to questions. Some of my musings may no longer be relevant but there is only minor addenda.

What are my thoughts on asexuals in fiction?
Favourite and least favourite thing to read about asexuality in fiction?
(I’m gonna answer these things together.)

NB: Some of this is second-hand stuff — I have never read or watched more than five minutes of any Sherlock Holmes, for example. Additionally, I’m not going to talk about fanfiction because I don’t read or write it.

Okay! I want you to think of an asexual character in fiction, whether that’s in a book or on TV. Just: the first one that pop to mind.

Was it the Doctor? …Who is an alien.

Was it Dexter? …Who is a serial killer, and (in the books, at least) says he’s not human.

Was it Sherlock Holmes? …Who is a drug-abuser and kinda sociopathic (in some adaptations).

Was it Sheldon? …Who is described as an alien and a robot.

Was it a normal human who is well-socialised and humane and positively characterised? No? Oh.

Asexuality is the invisible orientation, so it’s not a huge surprise that there isn’t a lot of asexual representation in fiction. What might come as a surprise to allosexual people, however, is that usually asexuality is a marker of non-humanness and inhumanness. Your alien isn’t quite alien enough? Make them asexual. Your psychopath or sociopath is a too sympathetic? Make them asexual. Your genius detective/scientist is too relatable? Make them asexual.


(Also there is the horrific tendency to desexualise the non-white, non-straight, non-cis, non-able-bodied, non-neurotypical.)

And then there’s the representation of aromanticism in fiction. Oh, oh wait. No, there isn’t. There’s allosexual aromanticism which is often misogynist (guy players are cool! girl players are hoors who need a man to settle her down!). Asexual aromanticism, however? That’s what you pull out when all your inhumanising methods have failed. The most normal thing in media is wanting a (hetero)romantic relationship. If someone doesn’t want an alloromantic relationship (and if they’re not just waiting for the right man~~) they are probably going to commit genocide.

On the flip-side: alloromanticism is often used to humanise and/or reward a character. It’s lazy and it’s cheap, but it works. Robots want to be human? The thing they want the very most is an alloromantic relationship. Ex-villain is being rehabilitated and redeeming themself? They’re gonna start dating. Previously creepy/whacky side character starts being more important? Get them a significant other stat. Saved the world? Get a prospective girl/boyfriend. Realised they don’t need someone to be happy? Suddenly: someone to make them happy.

:psyduck: :psyduck: :psyduck:

(This is why so many aces have a difficult adolescence. We know we’re different, but so often we don’t have the words for it, and no one understands when we try to explain. And then we finally recognise ourselves in a character on TV and… and they’re a serial killer or an alien, and a lot of people go “well no, they’re actually probably totes gay”. Media told me that — just because I didn’t feel like dating or having sex — I didn’t have the right to consider myself human. I am still — more than ten years on — dealing with the venomous headspace that created.)

The most common complaints about asexuality in fiction are the offensive/incorrect portrayals, the “asexuals are alien/sociopaths/just in need of a good fuck” stories. Aces’ favourite things about asexuality in fiction all boil down to: inclusion, portrayal as normal people, dealing with ace issues in a positive and sympathetic manner. There just aren’t enough aces in fiction at the moment to be more specific than that.

As time goes on, there are more asexuals and aromantics in fiction. I… don’t really know whether the positive portrayal of aces in fiction is increasing, though? I had a look down TVTrope’s page on Asexuality, and lot of the examples involved “played for laughs” or “traumatic childhood” or “possibly just celibate”. I would absolutely love for there to be more nuanced, sympathetic, humane, positive portrayals of asexuals and aromantics and demis and greys of all different sorts just being normal people on TV and in books, but I recognise that it’s gonna be a slow and uncertain thing.

Even more slow and uncertain: the discussion of asexuality in media. Those big names at the top of this segment? How many of those characters (or their creators) have come out and said “yep, they’re ace”. How many other characters/creators have said this (in a non-offensive way, I mean. thanks JK Rowling, thaowling.)? Are there many characters that you can show to an allosexual and go “see, this is an ace character!” and they will immediately agree, rather than going “oh I always thought of them as gay/repressed/too busy at the moment”?

We need Ace101 in texts to help raise the visibility of asexuality — for both asexuals and allosexuals. But Ace101 is tedious and often difficult to neatly slide into narrative without a Suddenly A Soapbox effect (especially in a non-modern setting). We need Ace102 and Ace202 and even more advanced ace stuff in texts, but we need that foundation of Ace101 first.

As an aside: I really like nakama stories. One Piece, Soul Eater, Firefly — I lap that shit up like it’s going out of fashion, you have no idea. Why? Because alloromantic relationships (if there even are any) aren’t seen as the most important sort of relationships. They are… my ideal, where platonic relationships are the forefront, where platonic relationships are strong and amazing and valued. As an aromantic I want a nakama.

Although queerbaiting is of course terrible, I can’t help but love that I can ignore all the subtext and just see the characters as good friends. I can’t ignore textual romances, and het UST never lasts forever — god forbid you mention in public that you never imagined a pair like Scully and Mulder to be romantic/sexual. Ideally, of course, there would be more canon gay and bi relationships and more canon aromantic relationships, but I’m not gonna hold my breath for that. :/

What are the common total fail scenarios for writing about asexuality, and how to avoid them?

  1. Asexuals and aromantics are humans. Their asexuality and/or aromanticism does not make them inhuman or non-human, and should not be used to de-humanise them. There are aromantics who are not serial killers or aliens, honest.
  2. Asexuals and aromantics are, again, humans. They can and do have casual and strong friendships, acquaintances, relationships with co-workers and classmates and neighbours and parents and siblings and friends-of-friends… And these relationships are as varied as any allosexual/alloromantic person’s platonic/familial relationships. Aromantics might place more importance on platonic relationships than alloromantics might, however.

3a. Asexuality and aromanticism are not things to be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’ by other characters, magic, or drugs.

3b. Asexuals and aromantics don’t require testing or experimenting to come to the ace/aro conclusion.

3c. Asexuality and aromanticism are not necessarily things that require compromise in a relationship. Some asexuals are happy having sex with a partner, others are not. Some are in open/poly relationships, others are not.

  1. Asexuality is not celibacy. Asexuality is not a choice. Asexuality is not just a low libido. Asexuals are not frigid. Asexuals are not repressed because of religion. Asexuals are not just prudes. Asexuality is not a hormonal imbalance.

5a. Not all asexuals hate sex. Not all asexuals are virgins. Not all aromantics have never dated. Some asexuals masturbate. Some asexuals have sex. Some asexuals tell dirty jokes.

5b. Some asexuals do hate sex, are uncomfortable with or repulsed by sexual activities, sometimes without having tried such activities. Some asexuals will not have sex.

  1. Not all asexuals are alloromantic. Not all aromantics are asexual. Asexuals can happily (and unhappily) be romantically involved with allosexuals.

7a. Some asexuals and aromantics are non-neurotypical and/or disabled and/or depressed. Being non-neurotypical or disabled or depressed does not automatically equal being ace/aro.

7b. Some asexuals and aromantics were physically and/or emotionally and/or sexually abused in their youth. Being abused in your youth does not automatically equal being ace/aro.

7c. Some asexuals and aromantics have had bad sexual and/or romantic experiences. Having had bad sexual and/or romantic experiences does not automatically equal being ace/aro.

7d. Some asexuals and aromantics are “married to their work”. Being interested in your career/vocation does not automatically equal being ace/aro.

7e. Some asexuals and aromantics are trans, agender, genderqueer, genderfluid. Being non-cis/non-binary does not automatically equal being ace/aro.

  1. Do not desexualise bi/homosexuals due to the ‘icky’ and call them asexual. (Do not desexualise bi/homosexuals!)

How to avoid these shitty things :: research, of course! Read ace blogs and communities, talk (respectfully! we are not your google app!!) to aces, look up critique (by aces) on fictional asexuals. Write lots of aces, not just a token one, and mix it up a bit — write about alloromantics and aromantics and demisexuals, about asexuals dating asexuals and asexuals dating allosexuals, about asexuals having sex and asexuals not having sex, about aces who are confident and sure of themselves and aces who are still discovering themselves! Write your aces as complex and motivated as your other characters (just not allosexual and/or alloromantic like your other characters). Write them with respect and love. We are different, but we are not Other.