Saturday, 22 December 2012

When Sexual Authors Write Asexuals

Square Asexual FlagWhen sexual authors write asexual characters, my reaction often falls into the category of, "Oh dear." Sometimes with an added, "I'm never going into a room alone with you, ever." This generally isn't how authors hope anyone will react to their story, so I thought I'd talk a bit about why many of these stories are sigh-inducing. And why some are downright scary.

Asexuality isn't a binary thing. It's more like a scale of sexualness, with highly sexual at one end and highly asexual at the other. Some asexuals won't want to have sex at all. Some may do in relationships or other specific situations (terms like grey/gray asexual and demisexual are sometimes used for people in these areas). But in general, it's people at the end of the scale who are not that interested in sex and are unlikely to find people sexually attractive.

But here's the thing that doesn't get included in any formal definition: saying you're asexual, of any variety, means a radical increase in the number of sex questions people ask. It means more attempts to pressure you into casual sex, because sexual people create a fantasy where they're so awesome at sex, the asexual person will stop being asexual.

The result is I don't usually tell people I'm at the asexual end of the scale - I tell them I'm bisexual. Both are actually true, in the sense that I use them to identify myself, but it's a partial truth to miss off the asexuality. However, it means people leave me alone.

How does this tie in to fiction? Most asexual characters are written by sexual people, and it goes the same way as announcing asexuality in a room of sexual people. Stories often fall into these two groups:

  • The asexual will have lots of sex for plot-related reasons - The asexual will say "yes" because they're coerced, blackmailed or otherwise forced into the situation. Often the author doesn't show it as rape (even though it is) and plays the scene to arouse sexual readers. But even if they avoid this, it doesn't change the fact it's about an asexual person being repeatedly raped.
  • Other people have lots of sex - Though the asexual isn't having sex directly, it's a strong focus in the story. Bonus points if some of this other sex involves images, reconstructions or clones of the asexual.

The same authors wouldn't have any issues writing a story with a sexual character who doesn't have sex, in a story where sex is not the focus. But the moment the character becomes asexual, everything turns to sex. It often comes across as a fetishisation of asexuals.

If everyone realised that, it wouldn't be as much of an issue, but they don't. These stories get promoted for inclusiveness ("look, an asexual character!"), but they're not written to be inclusive. They're written to arouse sexual readers, rather than being written for asexual people, or to provide an accurate representation of asexual people. They reinforce the idea that asexuals want to have sex really, if only you keep hassling them about it, or maybe rape them, so they can see how great sex is. When an asexual person tells you they want to see more asexuals in fiction, chances are very high these story tropes are not what they meant.

There are ways to avoid looking like you have a squicky fetish for asexual people. You can basically sum it up with these:

  • Write a story about asexuals that don't involve sex in any way. Look at how you mention being sexual in stories that aren't about sex. Apply the same principle to asexual characters.
  • If romance is your thing, you could have two asexuals in a romance and not need sex at all, whilst having all that romantic tension malarky.

However, if you're determined the story will have sex:

  • De-focus the sexual aspects. Your asexual character doesn't have to live in the sex-bot district.
  • Avoid rape. It's an easy thing to get wrong in general, but when the target is someone who explicitly doesn't want sex with anyone, there are connotations when the author sets things up to get that character raped.
  • For consensual sex, demisexuals and grey asexuals aren't a bad starting point for search terms (though note an asexual doesn't have to identify in these ways to want to have sex... it's just these terms are more likely to bring up something useful). Google is your friend*.
  • ...and avoid writing the scenes graphically. Asexuals vary in their reaction to sex scenes, but you'll increase the chances of asexual readers if you tone down how much you show.

But really, if you don't want to be that author, try thinking about a story with an asexual who doesn't have sex.


* For a lot of marginalised groups, you'll be told to ask a friend. I'm telling you to use a search engine if your questions to an asexual are about their sex life**. The reason is as explained in the early part of the post - asexuals often get asked a lot of sex questions, and for people who range from disinterest to aversion to the idea of having sex, this is very uncomfortable. It's not something to do to a friend. Or to anyone else.

So head to the search engine of your choice and read everything you can find. And chances are, you'll find someone offering to answer a few questions. By now, you'll be past needing the basics, so you can ask one or two focused questions.

** If you want to know things like what they want to see in stories, how people react when they say they're asexual, do they use the word "sexy" to describe people, and those sorts of things... then ask the friend (and you're welcome to ask me that level of question). Just don't add to the whole, "Hey, you're asexual! Let's talk sex!"


cat_hellisen said...

"If romance is your thing, you could have two asexuals in a romance and not need sex at all, whilst having all that romantic tension malarky.:"

This in particular.

There's a weird assumption that all asexuals have no interest in romantic relationships, as if the two concepts could never be separated.

Good post.

Polenth said...

Yep, people often seem to assume that aromantic and asexual always go together (or are the same thing).

cat_hellisen said...


Or that asexual people are incapable of having sex, or that having sex (or working in the sex industry) means you cannot be asexual.

Or, even better (and this is on par with "why women turn lesbian" *eyeroll*) that there has to be a reason for your asexuality - abuse or rape or something, and you somehow have to be "cured" of it, if only the right person comes along.

Anyway, I better not get ranty on your blog :) Have a good holiday season.

Polenth said...

Though it's true that asexuals may have sex, and that people don't always realise that, I can't say I've seen that as a big issue in fiction. It does tend to be the reverse - that authors are obsessed with the idea of asexuals having sex, to the point of not writing anything else. The author might not believe it to be true in real life, but they've no problem writing it into their fantasies.

So for me personally, I've no interest in any more stories like that. I want stories where asexuals tame dragons, or go into space, or gain superpowers, and don't need to have sex to achieve those things.

cat_hellisen said...

Sorry, yeah, I was thinking less about fiction there, and just people in general.