I’ve been thinking lately about asexual romances, and having asexual characters in fiction. After writing about the discrimination that the asexual community faces, and the reactions from allosexual people when they encounter a fictional ace character, I realized something:
Asexual romances are necessary. In fact, they’re essential to maintain the balance in romance genre.
No, wait, hear me out. You’re thinking, “But I don’t want to read a book about two friends who don’t do anything for 250 pages. That sounds boring!”
But not only does that thought process slight the asexual community… there may already be more asexual characters and romances than you know about.
There are two reasons we need asexual characters and relationships in our books.
1. Human sexuality is a spectrum. The romance genre is, for the most part, centered on the spectrum, in the range of ‘average sexual attraction’ for a ‘typical’ relationship. But there are erotica novels. Lots of them, in fact. Books with only sex, and no plot. Books that are textual porn. Books with sex addicts and promiscuity galore. So we should have books on the opposite end of the spectrum as well, right?
2. The romance genre is defined by a few very specific things. Per the RWA (one of the preeminent authorities on romance, I’d say), a romance novel must contain two things: “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” (Source). And many asexual people are capable of both of those things.
How many times have you read a book with tons of smut and thought “okay, but what about the relationship?” or “I don’t get how they say they’re in love, all they do is have sex!” A lot of romance novels lean on sex as a way to build a romantic relationship, and therefore skimp on the actual romance and relationship.
So let’s look at sexual attraction.
I really like the red-purple scale for explaining levels of sexual attraction, although I understand that it’s not a perfect model. Using this, the above scale would go from F on the left to B on right, with most romance novels falling on E. What’s interesting with this scale, though, is that it’s very much at odds with the distribution of romance novels published!
So why not have a romance novel with no sexual attraction? We read YA novels with romances (and no sex) and we enjoy them (well, I assume we do judging by how many people buy them!). And there is clearly a call for adult romance books without any sex in them! Sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Goodreads, and The Regency Reader have all taken the time to create lists with sex-free romances… and those are just the first few Google results!
The number of books with actual asexual characters or relationships, however, is disappointingly thin. Most of them are found in the LGBT+ subgenre. Considering asexuality is now included in the alphabet soup (LGBTQIA+), and many ace people consider themselves queer, this makes sense. And yet, as I said in my previous post, there’s a lot of backlash about asexuality.
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). (Source)
What scares people about asexuality? Why is the word almost a curse word in the romance genre? I think it boils down to one misconception:
Most people associate romance with sex. They think sexual attraction is romantic attraction, and vice versa. And while studies have shown that this is not true (American Psychological Association, Feb. 2007), the majority of people don’t separate the two.
“What turns you on physically is not necessarily what turns you on romantically,” she says.
Maybe we need to explain what asexuality is, then. Every asexual person defines the word differently, but in short it’s a lack of sexual attraction. Some people are also aromantic (A on the red-purple scale), meaning they experience no romantic attraction either. For the purpose of this post, I’m focusing on romantic asexuals (hence the lack of A on the above spectrum, since we’re talking about romance novels).
Your hetero- or homosexuality is not the same as your neighbor’s, right? You’re sexually attracted to brunettes, or people with muscles, or women with long legs. Asexuals are not sexually attracted to anyone, full stop. But many of us are romantically attracted to blondes or skinny people or men with tattoos! Aces can experience attraction, can have romantic feelings towards people. Just like a homosexual person may not be able to comprehend sexual attraction to someone of the opposite gender, an asexual person doesn’t do sexual attraction to any gender.
In short: Aesthetic attraction is different from romantic attraction is different from sexual attraction.
There’s also a middle ground between asexual and allosexual: Gray-aces, who sometimes experience sexual attraction, and Demisexuals, who only experience sexual attraction after forming an emotional bond.
If I really wanted to rile people up, I’d suggest that demisexuality is actually INCREDIBLY prominent in the romance genre! Actually, screw it, I’ll say it! Think about this: how many romance novels are there where the protagonist is utterly uninterested in dating or having sex (and may even be a virgin) until they find “the one”, and form an emotional relationship before finally having sex? (If that plot line sounds like something you’ve read, but the idea of asexuality in romance weirds you out, then you need to take a step back and reevaluate.)
Not only do novels feature demisexuals more frequently than you might think, but authors purposefully write characters to fit that orientation!
Asexual relationships are essential in our romance novels. Not only do asexuals make up tens of millions of people (approximately 70 million worldwide, although it’s widely assumed this is a low estimate), but allosexual people (ie, people who experience sexual attraction) can also enjoy relationship-centric novels with no sex. The newly-established “Proper Romance” subgenre is evidence of that.
It’s worth noting that, while there might be a religious component to some of the Romance books, more and more purchasers of general Young Adult titles, both retailers and librarians, are seeking “No-Sex” Romances. Again, as with Romance, numbers here are impressive: The Association of American Publishers reports that the Young Adult category saw a 61.9% increase in sales from 2010 to 2011, and in 2012, eBooks in the combined Children’s/YA category saw a 475% increase. (Source)
Romance without sex is everywhere. From Jane Austen to contemporary Amish and Christian, to the young adult genre, romance without sex can be found on the shelves of every bookstore and library. But take it one step further, and suddenly everyone balks. We can have books without sex, but not without the off-screen possibility of sex. We can have books without sex, but not without sexual attraction. Why?
One of the things I see over and over again on asexual forums is how difficult it is to be asexual, given how hyper-sexualized society is. And the romance genre only reinforces the stereotype that sex is an integral part of romance. The imbalance in published novels is slowly shifting, as more publishers seek sex-free romances, but asexuality is still seen as taboo.
The fact is that asexual characters may be more prevalent than most people believe, but authors are hesitant to use the dreaded “a”-word for fear of alienating readers, being told they’ve “ruined” the book or made it “boring”, or being accused of “making things up” by people who equate asexuality with Santa Claus.
Examples of characters that are asexual/suspected to be asexual include Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes Mysteries/BBC Sherlock), Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Dexter (Dexter), Ariadne (Inception), Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory), and the Doctor (Doctor Who) (AVEN Wiki). Many of them show asexual tendencies, such as not being interested in romantic and/or sexual gestures
(See also: the incredibly short Confirmed Fictional Asexual Characters list on Goodreads.)
Of course, the sheer number of people who cannot see Sherlock Holmes or Biblo Baggins as asexual characters– and who turn to fan fiction to find sexualized versions of these characters– is staggering, but that’s for another post.
We need asexual relationships in our romances. In fact, we may already have them, but we hesitate to use the word ‘asexual’ to describe them. But asexuality is real, and it’s all around us. The current romance novel publications don’t reflect the human sexuality spectrum accurately. In fact, the hypersexualization of romance novels today may even be changing the definition of the romance genre!
If you look at the average level of sexual content in romance for each of the three years before the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, and compare them to the average for each of the years after it came out, I bet a relatively nice dinner sometime down the road that there’s a measurable uptake in sexual content across the industry.
Asexuality doesn’t mean boring, and it doesn’t mean romance is impossible. There’s an audience for romance novels without sex, and asexual characters can and should be written to fill that need. Erotic and platonic romances are the balances on either end of the spectrum, and the genre should reflect that, or risk tipping to one side and changing our understand of romance in the future.
Sources & Links in this post:
I have a reference post listing 2016 book releases with asexual characters here:
You can also read my post about the perception of asexuality here: The Mythical Unicorn of LGBTQIA Novels