Writing From Factor X

November 7, 2010

What Fictional Asexuals Say About Us

Filed under: Visibility — Sciatrix @ 1:46 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

The recent popularity of Sherlock in fandom and in the ace community as a whole is making me think: Why are so many asexual icons written as totally alien? This is particularly true of aromantic asexuals. We are sociopaths, or uninterested in connecting with others. Or we are aliens, or we are robots.

I’m not speaking only of the new Sherlock adaptation here. We have Sheldon Cooper, who is consistently described as an alien or as a robot in a human body. We have Rorschach, who is quite literally friendless. I remember when it was Dexter, who is not only a sociopath but a serial killer. Even the iconic Dr. Who is, when you get down to brass tacks, an alien.

(I have tried to figure out whether this is a specifically aromantic or asexual stereotype, with little success because romantic asexual characters are so rare and aromantic sexual characters are essentially nonexistent. SlightlyMetaphysical has pointed out that this may simply be because mainstream culture tends to promote an extremely fused view of sexuality, such that romantic asexuality is not immediately intuitive to people who are not intimately familiar with asexuality. Aromantic sexuality is even less so.)

The fact that many, many portrayals of asexual characters are found in speculative fiction is not, I feel, a coincidence.

Again, the message: You are, to us, unable to connect with us. You are without emotion, without love. You are, in short, inhuman. This is a stereotype. It reflects mainstream society’s belief that experiencing sexual and romantic attraction is central to emotional connection. More, it claims that because of who we are, we wouldn’t have any interest in connecting with other people anyway–and I think the discussions currently happening in the asexosphere put the lie to that.

Why is this important? After all, they’re only stories, and stories written by people who have almost certainly never heard of the asexual community at that. They’re not written for us, after all. They’re written for sexual people.

But they reflect ingrained attitudes about sex and about romance which can hurt us. They reflect and ingrain ideas about what it means to experience intimacy which imply that we do not experience these things. And those ideas written into the heart of mainstream culture can most certainly hurt us. Those ideas can make it harder for us to connect. They can create assumptions about who we are in the minds of those we come out to. Those assumptions can make it so much harder to be out in the first place, or to be out and find intimacy in whatever shape we most crave.

What’s more, these stories help to ingrain those ideas in the first place. We learn about what the world is like through stories. Oh, certainly, we might as adults demand hard statistics and numbers, but the most hopeless rhetorician knows that to really make any lesson or argument take hold, you tell a story to illustrate it. We humans are social creatures. Telling stories about people can humanize them, make them real in the minds of the listeners–and just as surely stories can dehumanize people, too, and make them less real in the minds of the powerful. For in this lens, asexual people–we are not the powerful.

If anyone has ever met an asexual who managed to scrabble to adulthood without hearing the stories of nonasexual people told over and over again, in infinite variety and detail, showcasing the diversity inherent in nonasexual lives–well, I’d love to meet that person, although I confess I would wonder whether they grew up in a windowless cell. By contrast, the number of nonasexual people who have heard the stories of asexual people at all number considerably fewer. You really have to seek us out to find anything at all, and we often live in subtext when we find analogues to ourselves at all. And if you’re part of the mainstream, why would you be seeking out subtext to begin with?

Stories are important. The stories which get told about us reflect the way the storytellers see us. And I for one am not necessarily pleased by the implications I see.


  1. I agree with you about the whole aliens thing. And, to expand on the ‘fused’ thing, it’s not just that sexuals often don’t even think of love and attraction as different (which they don’t), but also, I think, because asexual romantics are middling, and thus less extreme to write about. “Here’s someone who is in a romantic relationship who doesn’t have sex”- well all that means is the same romance, without the excuses for the fanservice. Wheras aromanticism is used as an easy shorthand for either lovably messed up or exciting lone wolf.
    Also, I’m not sure I agree with you about there being no sexual aromantics. I think they’re often coded as ‘players’. For example, I was going to write about How I Met Your Mother at some point, how all the others are very much romantics while Barney is actually quite aromantic. Where you turn for representation if you’re sexual aromantic but not a one-night-stand-loving stereotype is still a mystery.

    Comment by SlightlyMetaphysical — November 7, 2010 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

    • I actually also think that part of it is that generally, the discord between romantic and sexual orientations tends to be something that gets talked about primarily in the ace community. Which means that if you’re a mainstream nonasexual/nonaromantic writer and you know enough about asexuality to know there’s a difference and you write a romantic asexual character, you’re probably trying to do your homework and accurately represent a minority sexual orientation. Which itself usually means that you’re a) trying not to be offensive and stereotypical, and b) you’ve actually spent some time in the asexual community and have listened to all the discussion about intimacy that tends to go on, whether trying to find traditional romantic relationships or trying to fit in as aromantic asexuals.

      (I also think that’s why of the three characters I can think of in which you have characters actually coming out as asexual within the story, two have been described as romantic asexuals. And those are pretty much the sum total of the canonically romantic asexual characters I can think of.)

      Aromanticity itself is trickier, because outside of a few blogs there really is not very much at all in the way of an aromantic-specific community, and what there is tends to focus heavily on aromantic asexuals. And I think a lot of aromantic sexuals probably conflate their sexual orientation with romantic orientation, especially since an extremely common explanation of romance that I come across a lot is that romantic relationships should be like friendships, but with sex. I feel like it’s a lot more difficult to find out about aromanticity except through the asexual community, but the asexual community is small and obscure enough that it’s not easy and obvious to find.

      You might be right about the whole “player” thing, which is itself not a flattering depiction, since if I have the character archetype right we’re pretty much describing someone who could care less about nonsexual intimacy as long as their sexual needs are getting met. And almost never a character who sits down and is verbally open and honest about what they’re looking for, too.

      I find it also somewhat interesting that both these stereotypes are heavily, heavily coded male.

      Comment by Sciatrix — November 7, 2010 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

    • I agree, there are some aromantic sexuals in fiction, although they’re not necessarily labeled at such. Look at James Bond for example, or any other male action lead. Although there is usually some romantic element in the films, I always get the impression that this male character, while interested in sex, is fairly indifferent to the romance. I can’t really think of any aromantic sexual women characters either. I think Summer in “500 Days of Summer” could have been aromantic, but the writers stepped away from that in the end. I also wish that some aromantic characters could be portrayed as more caring. I’ve known some people I suspected to be aromantic sexuals, and none of them were the “player” type.

      I’m not sure that these asexual “alien” characters are intended to be asexual in the way asexuals understand it. I think they’re meant to be alien first, and asexuality is just an extension of that that no one is really thinking about besides us (although I agree that it gives certain implications to the larger audience about sex and love). The only asexual character that I think research had actually be done on was Gerald. I also saw an interview with the writers from “Huge” that implied they did some research on their asexual character. So I think the lack of research and the inhumanity do go together.

      Comment by Ily — November 7, 2010 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

      • With respect to your second paragraph: Well, yes. That’s what I mean when I say “they’re not written for us.” I don’t think that they’re at all interested in catering to actual asexual people. They’re more interested in using us, or something which is meant to be like us, as a metaphor. I definitely think they’re intended to be asexual, but they’re caricatures of asexuality–what these mainstream writers think asexuality is like, without bothering to go and find out for sure. I don’t think that just because their understanding of asexuality is horribly wrong and offensive that they’re not trying to describe a fundamentally similar concept. Like stereotypes of any other group–the stereotype doesn’t suddenly not apply just because it’s not a good way of describing the group.

        Damn, I forgot about the girl from Huge. She struck me as not at all an example of this trope, either. (I think that Guardian of the Dead struck me as having had some research done, too, and I heard things about a Brazilian soap opera in 2009 that seemed like someone had been paying attention.)

        Comment by Sciatrix — November 7, 2010 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

        • Yeah, I didn’t mean to totally repeat your point 🙂 I was mostly trying to say that I wasn’t sure that the characters were actually intended to be asexual. I just have a hard time believing that people know enough about asexuality to do that. Whether intentional or not though, I very much agree that these representations can be troublesome. On another note, are you familiar with “the Bone People”? It has an asexual main character, but is written by an author who is out as asexual. The character, though, is very “alien” and the main theme of the book seemed to be about her learning to care for other people. The funny thing is, personally I do feel “alien” and like I’m outside of society, looking in. I’m guessing that’s true for many asexuals, but that’s not the same as being “inhuman”.

          Comment by Ily — November 8, 2010 @ 12:47 am | Reply

          • Oh, I see. I wasn’t actually sure what you were saying, so I thought I’d take the “disagreeing” interpretation in case it was that. *cough* I do think we’re talking in circles a little–no, I’m not sure they know we exist and I’m very sure they don’t know very much about us if they do, but on the other hand they do seem to be intending to write characters who don’t experience sexual attraction or sexual interest, and that’s… a distorted representation of us, in a way.

            I’ve heard of The Bone People, but I’ve never actually managed to track down and read a copy. I do feel like there’s a difference between feeling alien because the world’s so clearly not set up for you and being marked as alien by someone else, especially someone in that majority group for whom the world is set up. One of those perspectives takes the time to look into what the minority person is feeling, and the other one takes the easy route of sticking with the majoritarian viewpoint and exaggerating all the differences and “strangenesses” of the minority.

            And yes about “alien” feelings not being inhuman at all. I’ve definitely felt really, really alien on occasion, mostly when romance comes into the picture. I’ve had entire stories fall apart for me because I don’t get, on a fundamental level, why the romance between these two characters is such a Big Deal within the story’s context. And when that happens to you enough times, that alone is enough to make you think you might be from another planet. And that’s just one aspect of my personal sexuality–there’s so many other things that reinforce the fact that this culture is just not set up to acknowledge asexuality in any way.

            Comment by Sciatrix — November 8, 2010 @ 10:00 pm | Reply

  2. I really feel this whenever I’m consuming media that has a character who could possibly be interpreted as asexual or aromantic and it’s nice to see someone put it so well.

    There was an almost-explicitly asexual character in a book I read when I was younger, called Spider’s Voice. Spider was a servant in medieval times and at one point pulled back the blanket on his mistress to find her unrobed. He thought, “Well, I love her, but this doesn’t excite me like it would other men.” And that was a really huge moment for young me — but the whole point of the book was really that Spider had been mute from birth, and taken in by people who made him wear like a cast-iron thing that misshaped his body into a spidery shape so he could be displayed as a freak. Which, yeah, *horrible* representation.

    I think there’s also an overlap between characters with disabilities and characters who are portrayed asexually, which is really hurtful to people with disabilities and asexual people (and people with disabilities who are also asexual). There’s just kind of an implication that people with disabilities are automatically nonsexual people, which is a dangerous perception that has really hurt people with disabilities. It also, I think, creates the idea that asexual people with disabilities aren’t actually realizing their own sexuality, that they’re only that way because of their disability. And the “nonhuman” aspect of asexuality is tied up in these instances with a “nonhuman” perception of disability.

    The intersection of disability and asexuality is one of the reasons that I don’t know how to feel about Sister’s Red by Jackson Pearce, which may have an asexual aromantic lead (who still has relationships with family and friends, and routinely kicks ass). But Scarlet was mauled by a werewolf and left with scars and one eye, and I think the book might’ve implied that this incident “broke” her to make her dedicated to the path she’s on, which tends to eclipse other things in her life. But at the same time the ending felt accepting and affirming of her and the path she chose, after she worked out some personal issues with her (romantic sexual) sister. I don’t know, I need to get my own copy and reread it.

    That was long, sorry, but I think this is a really important topic and I really liked this post and wanted to respond to it. You’re so spot on with “We learn about what the world is like through stories.”

    (This is themistoklis from Dreamwidth, btw.)

    Comment by soundfall — November 7, 2010 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

    • Oh, ah, thank you for the compliment!

      I haven’t read Sisters Red and wasn’t planning to, since I heard about some pretty nasty victim-blaming imagery in it directed towards the girls the werewolves apparently prey on. I had not heard about the Scarlett character’s possible asexuality, though.

      But yes, I think there’s a parallel nasty intersection between disability and asexuality in fiction, just as I think there’s definitely an intersection there in real life. Actually, in some ways I think Sheldon Cooper embodies that one, too. He’s often such a caricature of an autistic person, among other things. I actually like the show, gods help me, but man is it ever problematic.

      I hadn’t thought about the aspect of portraying disabled characters as “inhuman” in the same way that asexual characters more generally deal with, actually. Especially for physical disabilities in stories using tropes like the Red Right Hand or Evil Cripple, where a disability is used to dehumanize a character and show how eeeeeeeevil they are, it seems like it wouldn’t be that unusual. I can’t think of many examples of that offhand, though.

      Comment by Sciatrix — November 7, 2010 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

  3. […] @jonathanaallan, What Fictional Asexuals Say About Us from the X Factor, a blog written by a person who identifies as asexual: The fact that many, many […]

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  4. I get what you’re saying and I don’t want to repeat your argument too much. I just wonder, since you think asexual characters are created in fiction to be used, and to be alien, is the purpose of having them to reaffirm the humanity of the (assumed) nonasexual readers? To create distance between the readers and the character?

    Comment by Mage — November 10, 2010 @ 1:25 am | Reply

    • I don’t think that the purpose of having them is to reaffirm the humanity of the nonasexual readers, because given mainstream social views the humanity of nonasexual people is assumed. It’s never in any question, because they’re not the Other here, the asexual person is.

      I think it’s all about the distance. I think it’s added to create another dimension of strangeness for these characters, of alienness. To make these characters just a little more Other for the readers.

      Comment by Sciatrix — November 10, 2010 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  5. I agree with where you’re coming from, but I think maybe you’ve missed something with the speculative fiction angle. Yes, a lot of ace characters are from the speculative genres, but I don’t think that’s entirely about asexual people being seen as alien. The sci fi and fantasy audience (and authors) tend to be more open minded (seriously, they’ve done studies) and therefore deal with issues that the mainstream media and other genres aren’t ready to address yet. For example, Heinlein had gay and poly characters back in the fifties as well as women who were treated more equal (I say more equal, not equal because although he was ahead of his time, he was also a product of it). Star Trek gave us the first on screen inter-racial kiss, and the bridge crew has both genders, three different races (black, white, aisian), two different species, and Americans and Russians coexisting peacefully. And this in the ’60s.

    I agree that a lot of ace portrayals show asexual people as alien, and I agree that this is wrong, However, I believe it is asexuality is a relatively new concept and is still very much a minority. This sort of portrayal is similar to how gay people were stereotyped by programmes and books to begin with or how race used to be handled, with sitcoms that showed how the white family saw the black family who happened to live next door to them as inhuman and beyond their understanding.

    It will get better. It will just take time and effort. A lot of time and effort.

    Comment by flashwitch — September 8, 2013 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

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  7. […] Having ace and/or aro characters be nonhuman/inhuman – particularly unfeeling types – is one of the most discussed ace (and aro) tropes ever. A lot of ace and/or aro people strongly dislike this trope. Why? Because making only nonhuman/inhuman characters asexual and/or aromantic (especially if they are nonliving, like robots, or not even from this planet, like aliens, or are supernatural, like demons) implies that humans cannot be asexual and/or aromantic, and by extension, our ace and/or aro identities (by ‘our’ I mean ‘human aces and aros’) are false. Furthermore, they also tend to emphasize how unfeeling the characters in question are, and that being ace and/or aro is connected to not having feelings. One can find more discussion of this trope here. […]

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