Why can’t a character be written as asexual or aromantic by default?

This entry is for the March 2015 Carnival of Aces: Writing About Asexuality

I’ve written stories before, that didn’t have any romantic situations in them. Most of my stories didn’t touch on sexuality nor romance at all, but I remember that one I wrote had a one-sided romance in it that failed; the protagonist not only didn’t show any romantic nor sexual interest in this other character, but she (the protagonist) never showed any sexual or romantic interest in anyone.

I never specified her orientation, but she may have been the closest I had written as an aromatic asexual character. Maybe. I never said it outright, because I didn’t know of asexuality nor aromanticism, nor the difference between them. Was that character both celibate and nonamorous? Maybe, but I never said that outright either. I also had no interest in writing anything sexuality or romance-related into the plots of my stories, because it would’ve been out of place, and gotten in the way.

Celibate nonamorous characters were my default, as far as I was concerned. Probably. These characters didn’t ideologically reject sex or romance either (I didn’t really know that was an option at the time, except for religious celibacy); they just didn’t seem to care. Practically speaking, I wouldn’t expect a character to be thinking about romance and/or sex, or at least not try to seek it out when they’re focused on a quest, like saving the world.

It’s frustrating that when writing aromantic and/or asexual characters, it may need to be said outright that they’re aromantic and/or asexual, because of the contradictory ways heterosexism works, and affects how characters are portrayed in fiction. I might have written characters as asexual and aromantic by default, but many people wouldn’t see it that way. Granted, there are a few ways where sexual and/or romantic subplots could be worked into a story, but oftentimes, so much of it is gratuitous.

The worst is when the heroes of the story get these subplots because they’re “supposed” to, because the “good” characters deserve to have a love life (often a heteronormative one), as a way of humanizing them, and because it is treated as universal sign of human fulfillment.  It gets worse when villains are portrayed as being single, and their lack of love life is used to point to their villainy, and the villians who do reform, get love interests of their own.

For a long time, I wasn’t aware of these norms, and when I watched movies or shows without any romantic or sexual subplots, I made no assumptions about the character’s sexualities. Perhaps I assumed they could’ve been asexual and/or aromantic before knowing of asexuality and aromanticism, but I realize now that makes me an outlier.

One facet of heterosexism is that someone is assumed to be straight, unless specified otherwise, such as explicitly showing interest in the same gender. A character who hasn’t shown any interest in sex and romance may be assumed to be straight, but just hasn’t found anyone yet.

It’s contradictory, but another facet is that a character who isn’t explicitly portrayed with an interest in another gender, and seeking out relationships with another gender, is assumed to be gay, and just hasn’t found anyone yet.

Cinderace wrote about the latter, using Merida from Brave, and Elsa from Frozen as examples. Those are appealing interpretations, and they’d both be good representation for any of those groups, but nothing is said outright about their orientations. I like those interpretations, but it’s also plausible that they could be straight, but don’t value sex and romance.

Regardless, I like that they both go against the “Found a love interest, and lived happily ever after” trope, showing that romantic relationships aren’t needed for everyone to be fulfilled.

Those two facets combined, reflect a real-life dynamic I’ve seen in the asexual community: So many people who before they realized they were asexual, thought that either they must’ve been straight just because they knew they weren’t interested in the same gender, and those who thought that they must’ve been gay just because they knew they weren’t interested in another gender.

I’ve also seen many who thought they were bisexual (although bisexuality gets erased all the time in the media too), although not interested in sex, because they didn’t have a preference. They thought they were equally sexually attracted to the genders, though that sexual attraction is none!

Both of these facets of heterosexism also feed into compulsory sexuality, and amatonormativity, assuming that everyone wants sex and romance, therefore whoever isn’t interested in it, hasn’t found the right person yet, or it’s assumed to be a phase. Or it’s caused by something, and is “cured”. The most notorious example of this applying to asexuality being portrayed, is the House episode featuring an “asexual” character, the one who’s asexuality was the result of a pituitary tumor, while his wife faked being asexual.

Not seeing any portrayals of characters that affirm it’s okay to not desire sex, and to not want sex, showing that they can live happy lives without it, also feed into the idea of asexuality as something that is just a phase, or needs to be treated, and these messages can be internalized. Aromanticism is also similarly pathologized.

What about writing a character who is explicitly shown to be sexually inactive, is happy about it, or at least doesn’t care, and has no intention of ever finding a sexual partner?

They could be asexual, but could be celibate too, and if nothing is said on whether said character desires sexual relationships, you might not be able to tell. However, such a character could be a step in the right direction for everyone; if they’re in a romantic relationship, then they by example can show that sex and romance don’t have to go together. The pitfall of making romance the center of their lives and as a sign of fulfillment would need to be avoided though.

Or if they have no desire for romance, or don’t want it, then they show by example that there are people who can be fulfilled without either sex or romance. Care would need to be taken to distinguish sex from romance, to show that they’re separate things.

When writing asexual characters, there’s the challenge of showing that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are separate things; an aromantic asexual character may need to be written in a way that shows that their asexuality and aromanticism aren’t the same thing, and that asexual characters who do experience romantic attraction aren’t simply “hetero/homo/bi/pansexual lite”.

If mixed relationships are going to be written about, a lot of care also needs to be taken to not feed into the ideas that: asexuals can, and should compromise on sex, that the “compromising” must mean the asexual partner having sex, and that they will do it for their partner, since they’re “the one” and it’s “true love”, because that also feeds into the idea that a relationship must have sex in it in order to be valid, or that it’s the most “valid” expression of love.

Writing more about it, it’s frustrating to think that every effort to write an asexual and/or aromantic character, to explicitly portrayed and recognized as such (as opposed to subtext), may need to be written with the intent to educate the reader.

How do you do that without slowing down the plot? Is that the only way to get an asexual and/or aromantic character recognized though, and the only way to break free from the expectations that make it difficult to write an asexual character without saying it outright? Can’t asexual and aromantic writers write for themselves, or do we have to write for an audience while having to educate them in the process?

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7 thoughts on “Why can’t a character be written as asexual or aromantic by default?

  1. cinderace

    “When I watched movies or shows without any romantic or sexual subplots, I made no assumptions about the character’s sexualities.” This was me too; like you said, I didn’t know being aro or ace was an option so I never assumed characters with no romantic/sexual interests were like me, but I didn’t think about them being straight either. I just liked not having to think about their sexuality at all.

    With the “assumed to be gay if no romantic/sexual interest” thing, while I like that there are characters out there who aren’t definitely straight, and thus can be headcanoned as gay or aro/ace (since we still have so little explicit representation of any romantic/sexual orientations other than hetero in mainstream media), as I wrote in my post I don’t like the assumption being made that everyone who is straight will always be pursuing and prioritizing romance and sex. But that does leave you with having to be really explicit—“X is straight but not really interested in romantic relationships” or “Y is gay but closeted” or “Z is aro-ace”. But that doesn’t always work within the story and could come across as forced.

    So I like the idea of “a character who is explicitly shown to be sexually inactive, is happy about it, or at least doesn’t care, and has no intention of ever finding a sexual partner”, because even if it’s not actually ace representation (which it wouldn’t definitively be if the word “asexual” wasn’t used), it would still be a big difference from what’s normally portrayed and would show people, “Hey, not everyone is into sex!”

    But we do need explicit ace representation too, even though it is hard to do. What you said at the end about education made me think about my own writing that features ace characters, and yeah, you do have to assume the audience knows nothing, but then the story can easily get bogged down with explanations…

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    1. Aqua Post author

      I also don’t like the assumption that all straight people are always pursuing romance and sex. However, I’ve also seen people argue against a character being interpreted as gay, saying that they can’t be unless they’re explicitly showing interest in the same gender, while insisting a character is straight even if they haven’t dated anyone.

      I agree that it’s important to be specific, but try to find a way to write about it that doesn’t come across as forced, or require lecturing the audience, but this issue is precisely why representation is important. There should come a point where enough asexual and/or aromantic characters are being portrayed, that other writers won’t have to explain it all over again when they write their own asexual and/or aromantic characters.

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  2. Pingback: Notes from my experience of writing an asexual character – cinderace blogs

  3. Pingback: March 2015 Carnival of Aces Roundup – cinderace blogs

  4. Krystal Hwang

    I don’t see why everyone has to feature Asexual or Aro-Ace characters in their writing. It’s my story!! Why do I have to feature LGBT or Aro-ace or ace characters if I don’t want to? Why do I have to be politically correct every time? Why can’t I just write a ‘heteronormative’ relationship as you called it? Just because I don’t include a particular community in my writing doesn’t mean that I won’t respect you or see you as a person.

    But if you make sexuality the only facet of your identity , well I’m sorry but that’s just stupid. You’re not your sexuality , you’re your actions.

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    1. Dawen

      I don’t think that’s the point of this article. Of course it’s your story, and if you don’t want to have an ace or aroace character, you don’t have to have one. But if you /do/ happen to be writing an ace character, how do you make it clear that this character is not straight without bogging down the story?

      I felt like this article was written as food-for-thought for people who are /already/ writing ace and/or aro characters. It’s more about breaking readers’ minds out of the heteronormative/ amatonormative mold for characters that are already being written as aro and/or ace than convincing writers to write characters that are aro and/or ace.

      If you keep your character’s orientation to yourself, then your readers are most likely to code them as straight. Even if they’re not. Even if that wasn’t your intent. If it was your intent and they really are straight, good for you, you don’t have any problems! The rest of us need to figure something else out.

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    2. ettinacat

      Just because a person is asexual and wants to see asexual characters in fiction doesn’t mean that they are solely defining themselves by their sexuality. I’m asexual, autistic, a psychologist in training, a loving older sister, someone who really wants to be a mother, and so many other things. I don’t need to see a character who is all of those things at once, but I do really want to see all of those things written well sometimes.
      And no one is saying that every story needs to represent everyone. That’s just ridiculous. Asexuals are about 1% of the population, so if you only have three characters whose sexuality is actually stated, it wouldn’t be surprising if none of them are asexual. But when you look at every fictional character out there whose sexuality is stated, far fewer than 1% are stated to be asexual. And that’s a problem.

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