15.17: Asexual Representation

Your Hosts: Dan, Tempest, Mary Robinette, and Howard

Generally speaking, asexuality is a sexual orientation or identity typified by the absence of a desire to have sex. It’s *way* more complicated than that, however, and in this episode Tempest helps us unpack it so that asexual characters can be written more effectively.

Liner Notes: Want to dig deeper? Over at Writing The Other there’s  a master class on writing asexual characters taught by Lauren Jankowski.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson

Play

Take two characters from your current WIP.  Write a meet-cute, and have both characters be asexual, yet romantic

Let’s Talk About Love, by Claire Kann, and narrated by Adenrele Ojo

16 thoughts on “15.17: Asexual Representation”

  1. I think—despite it probably being a joke—sending away everyone who wasn’t going to write ace/aro characters was not the right move here, because—even if you don’t explicitly write characters with these orientations—there can be a lot of unfortunate coding you can run into inadvertently:
    1. Coding the villain as asexual and/or aromantic because “they are incapable of feeling love and that made them so terrible.” Aces and aros are perfectly capable of feeling love, they just don’t have a drive for sex and/or romance. Don’t make their lack of a desire for these things a contributing factor for their evilness.
    2. Coding an asexual and/or aromantic character as being a naive child. I understand why writers not on the spectrum do it—they are drawing upon the time on their lives when they didn’t have to deal with sexy/romantic feelings—but it’s still very insulting to infantilize a grown adult simply because of their orientation.
    3. Coding only non-human characters as being asexual and/or aromantic. Overly Sarcastic Production’s video on Robots (https://youtu.be/jZGRdxP_8Js) goes into much more depth on this subject, but the short of it is that writers have an unfortunate habit of making robots/aliens “like a human but they don’t grok love.” This can very easily lead to the conclusion that “if you, ace/aro, don’t really understand this love thing that all the other humans in your life are feeling, then you obviously are a substandard human.” That is bad. Don’t do that.
    4. Coding all characters as wanting sex/romance. For those of us who are repulsed by these things, it can be very annoying to have practically all the interesting works of media to have significant portions of the story devoted to how much the main characters want to get in each other’s pants. It can be a breath of fresh air when the reader doesn’t have to once again hear all the excruciating details of how amazing kissing is every time they pick up a book.
    Asexual/aromantic identities have a history of being erased and ignored and I’m glad you guys finally got around to talking about it (though I do wish you could have gone a bit deeper in these 15 minutes). For those who want to know more about these and related topics (demi, gray asexuality, romantic orientation, aversion, repulsion, nonlibidoism, etc.) then I suggest going to http://wiki.asexuality.org/Lexicon or https://www.asexualityarchive.com/glossary/ as starting places to learn more.

  2. I’m gray-a and as part of my BA I did an anthropology project on Asexuality (mostly focusing on intersectionality.)

    I realize that Tempest is speaking their own truth, as such, I’m validating that their experiences are real, but expounding on a few things here and there and validating other people as part of the ace community that might feel uhh… stepped on.

    First, the definition of asexuality: Limited or no sexual attraction AND OR lack of sexual desire. However, there are sex receptive aces out there and I want to validate that as real. (Scale is sex repulsed, sex neutral and sex receptive). They may feel limited sexual attraction, but still desire to have sex with their partners after bonding with them. There are also secondary sexual attractions for ace people too, which some aces like to put down, but as Julie Decker said, the primary sexual orientation is ace, the secondary can be pan, bi, het, or same sex attractions. Many gray-a’s aren’t sure 100% which secondary sexual attraction they are. Split attractions are also valid as well, though this is rarer… where they might be ace, sexually attracted to one sex after a connection but feel more romantic attraction to another. Invalidating other people’s sexual orientations, BTW, is a dirty move.

    Second: There is a spectrum of aces, that goes from ace to gray-a (which includes demis, semis, flux, generally gray, etc), and then at the other end is zed. (The rest of you). How people are ace varies.

    The best sources for asexuality generally I would go to tumblr, facebook groups, and pick up Julie Decker’s book on asexuality. She’s ace. So speaks her own truth, but collected the range of aces. I would skip hard on Brotto and Bogaert. The first because of her biological determinism stance which I think is ridiculous. What are epi-genes? The second because he takes anti-Trans stances and a fair number of people are both trans/nonbinary and ace. And seriously, don’t want to expose people to that. Plus he’s just windy and focuses waaayyy too much on sex. What about sex can we talk about with aces? (I have other rants about him too, like he’s self-centered.) And you would probably wonder what’s wrong with that? There is more to being gay than only the sex too, but homophobes tends to focus only on the sex part.

    Third: Some aces do know how to flirt. Some are touch repulsed. Some are touch receptive. That’s OK. That doesn’t make you less ace to be one or the other. For example, I know how to flirt–do I do it? No. But there are some aces that sheerly like the fun of it for romantic reasons. The best introduction, for me, is when people talk about this guy or that person is “hot” and the character stands there clueless… or asks questions like, “What do you know about them that makes you think that?” Yeah… most of my childhood was cluelessness… “That guy is hot.” I didn’t understand what “hot” really meant until I was much older and then I was like, “Why?” Most flirting goes over my head, honestly. Sometimes people flat out tell me that person is flirting with me and I deadpan. I was graceless as a teen at rejecting because I didn’t think that people did sexual attraction any way other than mine. I thought they were pranking me (because I got bullied quite a bit). But I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older to recognize the signs, but it’s more like trying to distantly read the person’s voice or reaction, rather than me feeling they are directly as with other emotions. (Some aces agree with me, some don’t. That’s fine). Sometimes I feel like the person who is trying it out has a sudden look of hitting a wall. repeatedly and confusion on their face as their sexual attraction doesn’t echo back at them.

    If you were to write in, “I don’t see it.” to someone’s statement that someone is hot multiple times, it would probably tip your hand. Or “I just don’t see the point of having sex with someone you don’t know well.” is another tip.

    Example. My mom thought my soccer coach was “hot” I gave her a confused look. First, I thought it was creepy, second, I didn’t understand the whole sexy thing. She gave it up after a few rounds. I could see other people react to him. I could see he was aesthetically pleasing to people around me. But totally went over my head.

    Backstreet Boys–someone told me they are hot, I didn’t get it. I was like, their music is OK. Is there something about them they connected with like a hobby or something? <– this is the most ace thing ever. I also flat out thought one-night stands were lies that movies made up… yeah…

    Some aces also do or don't get a thrill out of watching other people in relationships. I tend to tease people around me about their sexual attractions. I'm also fond of playing match making games. That doesn't make me less ace, though. (BTW, consent, in this case is true.)

    There are aces that got sexually molested, but leaving it as the sole reason aces are ace is a dirty move. If they did discover they were ace or became ace because of being sexually molested, though it's highly controversial in the community, I don't think it's less valid way of being ace. But I would face both the sexual molestation and ace identities square on and carefully with the ability to show other ways of being ace within that if you do tackle it. Wasn't the intention, but might be the impact. Just like if you were sexually molested, it doesn't mean that cancels the fact you are lesbian, just don't make it all lesbians are sexually molested.

    Problematic Ace stories:
    – Aces have no feelings because they feel no sexual desire or attraction.
    – Solely a focus on sex…
    – Gray-a's are called "Not real aces."
    – It is valid that aces might discover they are gray-a later in life.
    – Ace because of magic. (Gag me) or a drink, etc.
    – The idea that aces auto have no social life… not true. Extroverted aces exist as well.

    A few notes: PoC, trans/non-binary, and disabled aces also exist. It's harder to find their stories because they were driven underground. There is quite an overlap with neurodiverse aces. Aces on the autistic spectrum are totally valid (Not saying by far that all people with autism are ace, but that there are some that identify that way–there is overlap for touch repulsion in the ace community as well for some aces.). There are also PoC aces, but the majority of PoC aces I've met are more likely to focus on the racism, because of the current societal ranking system of identity, than they are to focus on their aceness. And trans people/non-binary aces are finally getting better acceptance with the ace community, but I had a few years of biting my nails there.

    Hope this augments well without stepping on my fellow aces out there. And if I did… I'm sorry. Your way of being ace is valid.

  3. wow, thank you very much for this episode, as an aro/ace myself i really appreciate this. As Tempest said, we are so rarely portrayed in fiction it’s nice to have that sort of recognition here.
    If i may put some things that bothers me mostly about that whole aces in media discourse (but of course you points are absolutely valid and i agree 100%, it’s just i have some personal pet peeves here). One thing is that many people don’t know or forget, that ace people actually can have a sexual relationship? Like, there are people who are sex repulsed, but not all of us are, some are not interested, and some can just not have attraction but actually have a high libido. You can have sex for other reasons that the attraction to the other person, and as long as ace person is not repulsed they can be happy in a sexual relationship (like if they feel romantically for the other person of for various different reasons).
    And another thing is a plea to other fantasy and sf writers – please don’t make your only ace representation an alien or a robot or anyone that have asexuality as another aspect of their otherness. It really bothers me when it happens. Like, if you have other ace characters in your story it’s ok, but if that’s the only such character you have… just leave it, you’re not helping.
    Again, thank you for amazing podcast and i hope my two thoughts would help someone with writing this representation. I really appreciate what you’re doing here. Also, thank you Tempest for the book rec, i need to check this one.

    1. Yes! I actually came to the website to comment this. A lot of people think getting into a relationship with someone who’s ace means you will never have sex, ever. That’s just not true. Lots of aces are totally willing to go at it as emotional bonding, or to make their partner happy, or even because they do ebjoy sex–they just don’t get the same sense of sexual attraction that makes people go “wow, that person is *hot.*”

      Also, can we stop making all autistic characters ace, and all aces autistic? It’s not a good stereotype–that asexuality is “undiagnosed autism,” or stems from some kind of mental disorder (people still think of autism under this umbrella). Lots of auti folks are ace, but it’s really overplayed by this point, and usually the way it’s played is to make the auti character look “more different,” because asexuality is seen as something not quite human. It hurts both groups to play this trope too much.

      If you want a list of the things NOT to do, all you have to do is Google “asexual bingo card.” In case it isn’t clear, if you’re ace, you’re supposed to mark the dumb stereotypes on the card as you hear them until you get bingo. On the other hand, if you want a different character to piss off your ace, you have a set of ready-made lines to do it. ;) Just don’t let it look like the narrative approves.

  4. Omg Writing Excuses, THANK YOU. I’m demisexual and have been listening to this podcast for years. I love the Writing the Other series and have fantasized about you guys doing an episode on asexuality but never actually expected it to happen… yet here it is! And wow, Tempest did such a fantastic job of describing what is such a complicated and nuanced sexuality even for us aces! Heck, I learned something new about my ace-ness today: the lack of a “love hierarchy.” I’ve always felt that but had no idea it was considered a trademark of being ace. Interesting.

    In any case, here’s hoping resources like this episode will lead to a little more representation! There’s honestly only two ace characters that I’ve seen in pop culture that are explicitly ace (and handled in a good way imo): Varys in Game of Thrones and Todd in Bojack Horseman. (Highly recommend Bojack for anyone interested in writing ace characters. They really go deep in that show.) Very much looking forward to checking out the book Tempest recommended. It sounds awesome.

    Oh, and if anyone was curious about demisexuality specifically, I wrote a post about my experience with it here:

    https://ownyourpowers.com/2018/10/10/the-demisexual-diaries-dispelling-demisexualitys-biggest-myths/

  5. Not a writer but an asexual (and aromantic spectrum) person happy for the representation! Much appreciated in general, but also I specifically appreciate you pointing out some of the problematic assumptions people tend to make and spread about asexuality. However, I want to correct two mistakes:

    1) Asexual people aren’t people who don’t want to have sex, but they’re people who don’t experience sexual attraction. It’s like if you’re heterosexual, you’re not attracted to the same gender; neither are ace people but we feel that way about all genders instead of just the one. Some might want to have sex for whatever reason, but it’s perfectly possible to do that without experiencing attraction. Just like it’s possible to eat a quesadilla when you’re hungry but you don’t have strong “ooh it’s a *quesadilla* I want!!’ feels. Asexual people tend to think of it in terms of are you sex-favorable, sex-indifferent, or sex-averse / sex-repulsed. And honestly I think people who aren’t asexual (allosexual people) might appreciate that distinction too, because like sure maybe you like sex but wow but the siren call of video games is stronger, stuff like that. Personally, I’m totally asexual, but tbh sex is kinda fun? And it makes me feel close with my partner? Plus my partner enjoys it? And all of those are valid reasons to have sex even if you don’t experience attraction! You aren’t obligated to have sex in *any* relationship, but correspondingly, you’re welcome to have sex in an asexual relationship for whatever reason you want.

    2) You put romantic orientation under the asexual header, and it’s actually something completely separate! This is part of the Split Attraction Model, which doesn’t match up with how everyone experiences the world, but it helps for a lot of people. For a lot of people, their romantic and sexual attractions align, so like you might be both romantically and sexually attracted to women. But for both sexual and romantic attraction you can look at it as a spectrum and fall anywhere between a- (not experiencing attraction) and allo- (yes experiencing attraction). So you might be asexual but alloromantic, experiencing romantic attraction but not sexual. Or you might be aromantic and allosexual, experiencing sexual attraction but not romantic. A lot of people are aromantic and asexual, but I don’t know if they’re even correlated, honestly. I think people who are familiar with the idea of asexuality are more likely to be familiar with the idea of romantic attraction, so they’re more likely to identify as aromantic simply because they’re more likely to be familiar with it! Aromanticism actually gets even less attention and representation than asexuality, I think.

    As for the interesting idea of the love-hierarchy thing, the aromantic community actually might have more info on it, since romantic love is often the one on the social pedestal, even if sexual action is often subsumed under romantic love in the social discourse. You might want to look into relationship anarchy, if I remember correctly what the theory was, since I think that theory challenges the idea of any one relationship following precedence over the others, along with other common social ideas.

    My favorite part was “by the way I’m asexual now let’s go kill that dragon” haha. Tbh that is the most accurate asexual representation right there. Lotta dragon talk in our community somehow!

  6. Great episode! I been hoping you guys would do one like this.
    One thing that wasn’t mentioned, but I think is important, is to not write an asexual person as unfeeling or incapable of any emotion. Unfortunately it’s something often done with asexual characters or characters who show little interest in sex or romantic relationships.

  7. Thank you very much for this episode. As an ace myself its very nice to see it talked about.
    If you do another episode on this topic I’d like to have an expanded conversation on how to let your reader know when you think a character is ace, versus you simply aren’t focusing on relationships with that character. Personally I’ve found this especially hard if the character likes making dirty jokes because that seems to imply they think about sex when it really just means puns are irresistible.
    Thanks again.

    1. Ooh, I can help with this!

      – Female ace characters might be under pressure from their family to be in a relationship, get married, have kids, etc. Let her complain to her best friend about how that is *not* the thing she’s focused on.

      – Male ace characters might be under pressure from their friend group to “get girls.” His friends might make fun of him, calling him unlucky in love or joking that he must be an incel or something, or they might assume he has low confidence, until he explains and tells them to knock it off.

      – Have some other characters admiring a celebrity, and they turn to your ace character and go “aren’t they hot??? who’s your celebrity crush?” and the response is something like “eh, they’re pretty I guess” or “I don’t really feel that way about anybody.” Most people are caught off guard by this, so if you want to go into detail, just have them go “uh… what?” and make your character explain.

      – Got sirens? It’d be hilarious to have the other characters be like “ok, you drive the ship for this part of the journey while we go hide” and then the sirens have to resort to yelling things like “we have garlic bread!”

      (“Ace people would rather eat cake/garlic bread than have sex” is an old in-joke. It’s not offensive and you can reference it if you want–it’ll probably win you brownie points with your ace readers.)

      – Your villain’s gonna have a real hard time figuring out who’s the “important one” they need to kidnap or threaten in order to make an ace character panic.

      – Google thinks I’m in a committed relationship. (If you know where to look, it’ll show you the ad categories it puts you in.) I suspect this is because I’ve never downloaded any dating apps, or… other materials. If you’re writing a science fiction in which algorithms shape lives, this might be interesting to play with.

      – Romantic aces might despair over their chances at a relationship; because of the stereotype that all aces are sex repulsed, they can have a very hard time in this area. Other romantic aces might not care so much–if it happens, it happens, but if not, whatever–we’re fine on our own. (A character like this might fit under the label greyromantic.)

      – Aces recognize aesthetic beauty. We just aren’t sexually attracted to it–like how a straight guy would recognize another good-looking guy. A romantic ace can be won over with things like kindness, shared interests, or sense of humor, but these aren’t always immediately obvious. So, if you’re in the character’s viewpoint, you can show the switch where your character starts seeing this other person as a romantic interest.

      The tipping point might be a niche joke that your character gets, or seeing the suitor comfort a child, or talking about their shared religion–suddenly your ace character wants to *keep* them, care for them, be valued and respected and loved by them. This isn’t the same thing as sexual attraction, and if you’re trying to be more subtle than having the character explain outright, this is one way you can do “show, don’t tell.” As usual with such things, though, it takes longer.

      For an acearo character, it might be simpler: give them opportunities like this, and have them not just refuse (because they have different priorities or whatever) but actively not care (though they can be empathetic in turning people down). They’ll care about others as people, as friends, but not as love interests.

      Hope this helps!

  8. I wonder if you can make transcripts of your podcasts. I’m deaf and enjoy your prompts. Thanks

  9. The quartet, Dan, Tempest, Mary Robinette, and Howard, stepped back and considered the issues surrounding asexual characters and asexual representation. What is it? How do you write an asexual character? How do you tip off readers that a secondary character is ace, without having a “By the way, Bob, I’m asexual” announcement? For the answers, read the transcript, available now in the archives.

  10. Thanks so much for this episode. Im one of those straightcismiddleagedwhiteguys but i do want some representation. I very much appreciate the notion of a love hierarchy generally because there is a lot to work with.

    One of the things that I find important for me to think about is what the reactions of others says about the society and also as an example for non ace readers. I find myself wanting to have my other characters model acceptance and welcoming. Some of my characters are nonbinary (in one current WIP) and one thing I’m trying figure out whether I replicate the bigotry we find in our society in my fictional world . On the one hand, its humans, so of course they’re bigots. Also, its not clear dystopias should be accepting places. On the other hand, I dont want to perpetuate that habit of mind. Frankly, In this case, I am taking advice from another episode where there are a small number with negative attitudes, but the rest of the characters and the society disapprove of those attitudes.

    Thanks for doing these episodes. They’re extremely helpful even if you never write a single ace character.

  11. Even though this episode annoyed me at several points, I appreciate you giving Tempest a platform.

    “Justice is getting what you deserve without favor, Social Justice is getting what you don’t deserve because you are favored.”

  12. Thank you, this was extremely useful. Bring more episodes like this, focused on how to accurately represent people in writing.

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