Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Asexual Awareness in Fiction

I want you to do something for me. Pick up any kind of pulp fiction from the early part of the 20th century, and give it a read. I want you to focus particularly on how these books portray minority characters. In Robert E. Howard's work you'll see black men with sloping foreheads and savage natures, and in H.P. Lovecraft's stories you'll see swarthy foreigners who are always in league with fell, ancient powers. The portrayal of characters of color as either brutal savages, evil villains, or hopelessly incompetent caricatures wasn't in every story being told at the time, but it was common enough that phrases like, "if it's brown, take it down," exist for explaining how to survive in some of these fictional worlds.

Do you have a point?
The point is that these stories came from a time long before the civil rights movement in the 1960s. They were written before the creation of the Internet, and while international book sales did happen they were nowhere near as common as they are today with our point-and-click digital book buying. In short they were written in a time where the authors felt they could portray parts of society who didn't have a voice in any negative, patronizing, or outright prejudiced way they wanted to.

The good news is, of course, that the parts of society being maligned by their representations in fiction eventually made their voices heard, and we've taken care of such obvious negativity.

Haven't we?

Asexuals: An Overlooked Minority

You've obviously read the title of this post so you know where I'm going with this. So let's address the big, hulking elephant in the room; asexuals exist. The simple definition is that asexuals are people who feel no sexual attraction. They are not psychologically deranged, they aren't celibate, and they aren't in need of a good bang to fix them. They are simply people for whom sex holds no interest.

It's more complicated of course, but we're sticking to simple definitions here. You can get more nuanced info at The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network.

But that's unpossible?
Yes, Spot, that's the reaction a lot of people have. Ever since some jackass with a gift for clever wordplay said, "Sex is what makes us human," people have clung to sexual desire as a standard feature of the human experience. If someone lacks this feature then people will freak out about it, either demanding proof that this person isn't just feigning a lack of interest, or trying to "fix" someone who identifies as asexual, aromantic, or both.

There's even a cool term you get for checking both boxes; aro-ace.

Ignoring that flies, fish, and ferrets all fuck, and are no more human for the experience, this belief shines through really strongly in our fiction. Aro-ace author Lauren Jankowski weighed in on the subject.

"Basically, in the modern era when it comes to mainstream entertainment, most characters who can be read as asexual are non-human. My own experience with it is that I've found tons of villains that were asexuals, but very few heroes (a lot of Disney villainesses can be read as either asexual or queer, which is incredibly aggravating). I know some people have observed that a lot of fantasy creatures (dragons, aliens, etc.) are often portrayed as asexual."

She's got a point.

Take a moment and ask yourself when was the last time you saw a character who could be read as asexual (not even one who out-and-out said it, just one you could interpret that way) in a heroic role. Hell, even a neutral role. Some of you might be able to come up with Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot, but aside from a few great detectives who else is on the roster that is undeniably human whose lack of interest in sex isn't made to make them seem alien or "other" to you as the reader? And how often when it's brought up that there's no sexual partner in this character's life does Hollywood decide to throw one at this character just to show that no, they totally do sex.

Why Do We Do That?

Lauren went on to say that part of the problem she's experienced as both a reader and writer is that the hierarchy of relationships in society puts sex at the top. Put another way, if you're not banging someone then they're obviously less important than the person you are engaging in bedroom aerobics with. This means that platonic relationships, whether they be chaste love or closely-bonded friendships, are put on the bottom shelf.

So what should you do? Well, that depends on your story.

If you want to write a bodice-ripper, far be it for me to tell you not to. If you want to give your readers a payoff where you CIA assassin and his KGB counterpart go into hiding to live and love away from both nations, I'm certainly not going to stop you. Love in all of its gooey forms makes a lot of stories work, and without it their engines grind to a halt.

But the next time you're thinking about labeling your heroine as aromantic so the audience will view her as damaged, or you're contemplating making someone asexual as either a gag or so the reader won't identify with that character... don't. Why? Well because there are people in your potential audience who will see that, and who have had more than enough of that kind of treatment.

Secondly, it's lazy writing. You can do better than that.

If you'd like to see more from Lauren Jankowski check out her author page, and stop by Asexual Artists, an ongoing project she's running to help put the spotlight on asexual individuals in the arts.

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