Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed blog posts (and I can’t remember now where they were or who wrote them so I can’t link to them) chastising authors for their treatment of asexual (ace) characters, particularly when it comes to the sexuality of other characters in the books and their interactions with the asexual characters. Most of the reviewers stated that it was inappropriate for characters to discuss sex with or in front of the ace characters, while another reviewer was outraged that, in one science fiction novel (that, again, I can’t recall the title of), an ace character accidentally walked in on two other characters having sex. The reviewer stated that this was sexual assault inflicted upon the ace character.
Now, I normally roll my eyes at these statements and move on with my day, but lately, they’ve been getting on my nerves.
You see, I’m asexual.
I’ve never mentioned it here because it’s never been pertinent to my blog. Sexual attraction is not a thing I experience. It’s not something I think about very often, and so it’s not a lens through which I view life, books, movies, or any other media I consume. That fact that I’m short has more of an effect on my life than my asexuality.
So I’ve never written about it.
But as more asexual characters show up in books, I think there need to be more conversations about what it means to be asexual. Sexuality is not binary. It’s a spectrum, and some people (like me) are on the side of the spectrum that just doesn’t experience sexual desire or attraction. They might not experience desire at all, or they’ll experience it at lower levels than other people. They’re not distressed by it. It’s just part of what makes them who they are. Asexuals can be gay, straight, or whatever. They just don’t experience significant amounts of desire. Some asexuals (or ace) feel romantic attraction to other people, but don’t desire them sexually. Some asexuals don’t feel any sort of romantic inclinations toward anyone. Human sexuality is complicated, and it’s no different for people who don’t experience that kind of desire like other people do.
There are no laws against asexuality the way there have been laws against homosexuality, but there is an ingrained notion that sexuality is part of normal life, and that people who don’t really experience it are lying or ill in some way. It’s only been in the past few decades that the asexual community has begun to develop a voice in society. The internet has helped with that, as it has for so many other communities. But there are still those who don’t believe that asexuals exist.
(And yet here I am, existing away…)
So what’s life like as an asexual person? I imagine it’s rather like most other people’s. I get up in the morning, I get ready for the day, I go to work, buy groceries, go out with friends, watch TV, read books. I like trying new things and making new friends. But when my gal-friends– professional women in their thirties– giggle like schoolgirls because Shemar Moore took his shirt off during a television show, I don’t get those giggles. I can recognize that someone like Shemar Moore is attractive and that their face is aesthetically pleasing, but that’s all the farther it goes. A photo of a beautiful person elicits the same response in me as a photo of a beautiful landscape. I’ll think, “Wow! Beautiful!” And that’s it. If I feel a connection to another person, it’s a mental thing. They share similar interests, similar concerns, or have a sense of humor that’s like mine. I don’t feel a physical attraction to them.
Am I aware of sex? Yes. I am an adult. I spend time on the internet. I watch television and movies meant for adults (like Game of Thrones and its ‘sexposition’). I’ve read books that have sex scenes and fan fiction that has sex scenes. They don’t bother me, but I don’t find them very interesting.
While I obviously can’t speak for every asexual person out there, I think I have enough experience as an asexual person in the world to say a few things about asexual characters in books.
- If the asexual (ace) character is an adult, they’ve heard about sex. Talking about it in front of them is probably not going to offend them. You can talk to me all you want about your romantic honeymoon in Cancun. I won’t be offended. I won’t fall to bits or feel like I’m under attack. At some point, though, I will probably get bored since I’ll have nothing to add to the conversation.
- If the ace character encounters other characters engaging in sexual activity, they’re probably not going to feel like they’ve been assaulted. For example, I was at a New Year’s Eve party, and there was a very drunk couple who didn’t realize that they should have gone to the bedroom before the pants came off. My first thought was not, “Oh my god, I’m under attack!”. It was “Well, this is awkward.”
- If you’re writing an ace character is a settled adult who is comfortable with who they are, don’t feel like you have to skirt around the issue. Sure, I’d rather talk about doing my taxes or sports statistics than have a conversation about sex, but I’m well aware that it’s a part of my friends’ lives. If they happen to talk about it, it’s not because they’re out to make me feel uncomfortable. They’re talking about it because it’s part of who they are. I don’t expect them to ignore a major part of their own lives just because it’s not something that I share with them.
- If an ace character is a teenager or a twenty-something, they could be extremely confused about their own identity. Everything in the world from biology class to Netflix is telling them that sexuality is part of being human. So when they don’t feel the same feelings as the rest of their peers (those feelings that every part of culture is telling them is normal), they could end up feeling like there’s something wrong with them. When I was in college, the term ‘asexual’ referred to the reproductive cycles of amoebas and ferns. It hadn’t really become a word for people like me, who don’t feel sexual desire. And so I didn’t know how to communicate to others why I was the way I was. If the vocabulary had been there for me, it would have spared me a lot of distress. Fortunately, things are slightly better now. At the very least, the notion of asexuality as it relates to human desire (or the lack thereof) is there and may help people figure out who they are as human beings that much faster.
The thing to remember about asexual people (and characters) is that we’re people. We’re not robots. We have our likes and dislikes, our talents and flaws, friends and families, just like everyone else. And like everyone else, we’re more than just a particular sexual orientation. If I had to make a list of things that define me as a person, ‘asexuality’ would be far down on the list.