I read a book last week that made the breath catch in my throat, made me pause and re-read a dialogue exchange once, twice, and then punch the air and shout “YES AWESOME!” That book was Part & Parcel by Abigail Roux. The scene that affected me so strongly was this one:
“Are you asexual?” Kelly asked carefully.
“That mean I don’t really like having sex?” Digger asked, and Kelly shrugged and nodded. “Then I guess so.”
I’ve discussed this a few times previously here on my blog. I am asexual. I am part of the approximately 1% of the world that is*. Think about that. 1% of the entire world is ace. That’s more than 70 million people. By comparison, only about 2% of the male population in the world identifies as gay. And yet there are thousands of books with gay romantic pairings, and only a handful with ace romantic pairings.
* It’s entirely possible that this number is much higher.
Look, asexuality is a real thing. There are literally tens of millions of people out there who identify as ace (or gray-ace, or demi, etc). So… where are the books about asexual characters?
And more importantly: why are people so upset whenever an asexual character is written?
It is baffling to me that even within the very small M/M Romance community, there are people who find asexuality to be unbelievable. It is the mythical unicorn of the queer spectrum: people have heard the term, but it’s not a “real” thing.
After Part & Parcel came out, I started seeing some troubling tweets from the author. The kind of tweets that left me heartbroken and shaking with rage, because how dare anyone say that someone else’s asexuality (fictional or non) is “real”? Or my favorite, the “Okay, I get that it’s a real thing, but do we really have to mention it in books?”
Pardon me while I vomit.
Here is an actual quote from an actual review for P&P on Goodreads:
We’re all some kind of sexual now: So now characters are demisexual and asexual. While those things are important to see in stories they just felt like they were thrown in out of the blue. Maybe that’s me being a b*tch but it didn’t seem realistic to me.
Or, another “facepalm” moment from a reviewer:
I wonder what will be up next out of left field. [Trans, nonbinary or something else?
I should note here that the vast majority of reviews are positive. Most of them don’t even mention this scene with Digger, and those that do respond respectfully, if not with great enthusiasm.
As someone who is actually asexual, let me pause here to discuss two things: one, THIS WASN’T WRITTEN FOR YOU. It was written for Abigail and for the multiple fans who identify as asexual, or questioning, or who just don’t like sex and don’t know why. And two, this didn’t come out of nowhere.
When I read the scene about Digger (and Kelly) coming out, I was ecstatic. But it also confirmed something that I had suspected for several books now. Yes, I had long-since suspected that Digger was ace. I knew Abi was, and I could see things about Digger that I related with. Subtle thing… perhaps things only someone who was ace, who had gone through the same confusion and frustration as Digger, would see.
“But… all those women?” Owen said.
“Seemed like what I was supposed to do,” Digger answered, pursing his lips and then chewing on the inside of his cheek. “Sometimes I’d go home with a girl, and we’d watch a movie. Or play card games. I never really enjoyed it, thought there was something wrong with me.” He glanced at Kelly with a weak smile. “Never knew there was a word for it.”
YES THIS. ONE THOUSAND PERCENT EXACTLY THIS.
And then I thought, “Wait. If people are saying that Digger’s asexuality is unrealistic, or that it comes out of left field, or that it ‘didn’t fit’ with the scene… what do they say about other asexual romances?”
So I took a deep breath, and dove into the Goodreads reviews for How to Be a Normal Person by T.J. Klune. One of my favorite novels of 2015, it’s a homoromantic asexual romance about defining normalcy and being comfortable with who you are. And while most of what I found was overwhelmingly positive, there were a few eyebrow-raising moments.
Not sure how I feel about dating an asexual person (I know TJ Klune doesn’t write books with much sex scenes, but I am perfectly okay with it), but this book just failed to make me feel their chemistry. Maybe because they just talked and hugged all the time and it felt more like bromance than romance.
And a romance about an asexual character is as boring as it sounds. The story felt incomplete. It was like a story about friendship.
Okay, so there’s clearly an issue with the understand of what sexuality is, and what asexuality in particular is.
Thirty second lecture: sexuality and romantic attraction are NOT THE SAME THING. You can be bisexual (sexually attracted to both men and women) but heteroromantic (only able to form a romantic bond with someone of the opposite gender.) Or you can be panromantic (romantically attracted to anyone, regardless of gender), but asexual (experiencing no sexual attraction). And then there are demisexuals (who only experience sexual attraction after forming a deep emotional bond with a partner), and gray-aces (who sometimes experience sexual attraction).
Lecture done. (These are rough definitions, and do not necessarily apply to everyone who may choose to use these terms to describe themselves.)
So what I’m gathering here is that people expect everyone in books to reflect what they know and believe to be true. They expect every relationship to contain sex (or at least the future or off-screen possibility of sex). They expect sexual and romantic attraction to go hand in hand. And, in the case of Digger, they expect a person who has had sex to be sexually attracted to other people… otherwise, it “comes out of nowhere” when they announce that they’re ace!
And I’m just so. Fucking. Sick. Of. This.
70 million asexual people on earth. Based on the Asexual Agenda stats below, rough math says that maybe… 56 million asexual people in the English-speaking world. More than fifty million people who pick up a romance novel written in English and do not see their version of a relationship reflected. Fifty-six million people who are potentially hurt when they see someone say that asexuality isn’t believable, or it’s boring, or it’s just an author being politically correct and it makes them want to roll their eyes.
In the end, I’m just really fucking sick of people turning their noses up at asexuality. I’m frustrated and furious that people are able to read and enjoy a novel with gay FBI agents going on adventures, but can’t comprehend a character who doesn’t want to have sex at all. I’m hurt that anyone would call anyone’s coming out, fictional or real, unrealistic.
The Advocate did a series earlier this year, where they asked Asexual people across the US a series of questions about the way the world sees their asexuality. A few of the comments shook me. When asked to share the biggest misconceptions about their sexuality, they said:
That we are never sexual. That we cannot be sexual.
That it’s not real or just a phase. My family all thought I was a lesbian because I didn’t date as a teen. I tried telling one of my brothers I was asexual, and he said I was full of it. In hindsight, he was really hoping I’d come out of the lesbian closet first and pave the way for his emergence from the gay closet. Asexual didn’t even factor into his reality, and it wouldn’t really make his coming-out any easier.
When asked if they feel included in the LGBT community:
People often forget that invisibility is not privilege, it is a coping mechanism. I am frequently too scared to tell lesbian and gay individuals for the same reason bisexual people don’t come out. When every show on television is centered around sex and every advertisement uses it as a selling point, you tend to feel alone, especially when your LGBT friends don’t even accept you.
Most alarmingly is a 2012 study that shows that asexuals are the most likely to be discriminated against by people of all sexual orientations:
“Most disturbingly, asexuals are viewed as less human, especially lacking in terms of human nature,” the study authors wrote. “This confirms that sexual desire is considered a key component of human nature and those lacking it are viewed as relatively deficient, less human and disliked.”
You should read the entire article, because it’s truly heartbreaking. People in the LGBTQIA+ community focus on the homophobia and bias against gay people, about bi-erasure, about negative stereotypes and discrimination and a lack of equality. And all of these are real, serious issues! But what people don’t realize is how the “A” in the alphabet soup gets hit just as hard, just as often.
In a recent investigation… we uncovered strikingly strong bias against asexuals in both university and community samples. Relative to heterosexuals, and even relative to homosexuals and bisexuals, heterosexuals: (a) expressed more negative attitudes toward asexuals (i.e., prejudice); (b) desired less contact with asexuals; and (c) were less willing to rent an apartment to (or hire) an asexual applicant (i.e., discrimination). Moreover, of all the sexual minority groups studied, asexuals were the most dehumanized (i.e., represented as “less human”). Intriguingly, heterosexuals dehumanized asexuals in two ways. Given their lack of sexual interest, widely considered a universal interest, it might not surprise you to learn that asexuals were characterized as “machine-like” (i.e., mechanistically dehumanized). But, oddly enough, asexuals were also seen as “animal-like” (i.e., animalistically dehumanized). Yes, asexuals were seen as relatively cold and emotionless and unrestrained, impulsive, and less sophisticated.
Asexuality really is the mythical unicorn of the queer spectrum. And in a community that already faces more criticism and phobia and biased remarks than it should, it hurts all the more to see people roll their eyes at asexuality, or to say it’s unrealistic, or to criticize an author’s decision to include an ace character or relationship in a novel. It hurts to see (mostly female) readers who are able to enjoy a novel with two men having sex, but who find a relationship with two men not having sex to be boring.
And on another note, WHERE THE HELL ARE THE ACE LADIES? Because more than 70% of people who identify as asexual also identify as female, and yet I cannot think of a single asexual romance novel where one of the characters identifies as female. (If you know of one, I will buy you a cake if you tell me about it.)
It’s amazing that there are openly ace characters in literature these days. Growing up, I didn’t even know what was “wrong” with me, but the inclusion of ace characters and relationships in fanfiction and published novels has shown me that I am not, in fact, broken as I once believed. But when the representation doesn’t even begin to match the statistics, it makes me wonder if this isn’t the entire root of the problem. Maybe, with more asexual characters in our LGBTQIA+ romance novels, we’ll see more understanding and less eye-rolling in the future.
A really excellent comment that I read on Tumblr sums up what I think is the correct response to finding yourself surprised or confused by an asexual character in a novel:
Point is, after I realized why this part of the book felt “out”, I also realized how important it was. That we need to reclaim these terms, to move them out of the world of science and studies and put them into fiction, into stories that can reach everyone. To normalize them. To make them as easily accepted as talking trees and spaceships and superheroes and FBI agents who fall in love with each other.
This post is dedicated to A and D, my amazing, beautiful friends who have come out to me as ace in the last few months, and shown me that I’m not alone in the world. And it’s dedicated to the brave authors who write about characters like themselves, who are willing to face public scorn and cruel words from others.
Tweets used with permission of Abigail Roux. Images are from AVEN.org. Many of these images were saved previously by myself, and therefore I do not have proper credit for them; if you recognize a graphic as belonging to you or someone else, please let me know so I can credit appropriately.
Check out my other posts about asexuality!
Sites Referenced in this Post: