Stephanie Farnsworth takes a look at how we write about asexual and aromantic identities.
Aromantic and asexual identities have been slandered, erased and deliberately ridiculed throughout the centuries. Living with a lack of romantic attraction is often believed to be impossible, while a lack of sexual attraction or desire for sex is often mocked in disablist and ableist terms. No more clearly is this demonstrated than when it comes to depictions of these identities in literature and the media. Any reference to them is sparse within the history of storytelling, but when they are mentioned they are so often coupled with the idea of being evil or dangerously subversive in some way.
The most notable example in recent literature (and subsequent films) was undoubtedly the character of Lord Voldemort. He was presented as completely villainous purely because he didn’t have the capacity to love. Voldemort is not only disinterested in romantic love, but all forms of love. However, when almost every remaining character was married off in the series it does present the idea that a conservative, monogamous romantic relationship is the ideal and Voldemort was evil purely because he was never interested in such a thing. It is a damaging concept; those who cannot experience love are not by default evil. Morality, ethics and conscience are things which are learnt and are entirely separate from the capacity to experience romantic love. Yet, Voldemort’s portrayal was hardly anything new. Those who are presented as somehow detached from needing anyone, are often treated within stories as dangerous and without moral limits. Sociopathy and pscyopathy are regularly deliberately conflated with being aromantic.
It is a damaging concept; those who cannot experience love are not by default evil.
It’s a pattern repeated throughout media, as well as in literature. Benjamin Linus from Lost, was the only character that lasted more than one season that was never shown to be romantically connected to anyone. It’s a TV series where (much like Harry Potter) every major character was partnered off with their ‘true love’ at the very end, except for Ben who was predictably the villain through much of his time on the show. He was a liar, a manipulator and a murderer with no attachments except for his daughter who he treated appallingly. However, Ben is shown to have sexual desire for Juliet, but it is specifically his lack of capacity for romantic love that is repeatedly portrayed as what makes him an immoral person. The sexual attraction he does experience is then predictably shown to be one focused on control and power. These are both issues that should be discussed and analysed as they are so horrifyingly common yet they are aspects almost always put on the shoulders of aromantic characters, as once again the suggestion becomes that without experiencing romantic love one cannot be a compassionate or moral person.
Our stories are at such a point of predictability within the media that the only time a cisgender man will not be interested romantically and/or sexually in the leading cisgender woman is because he’s gay. It’s never anything else other than the tired one dimensional coming out stories that have now been done to death. Other sexual and romantic identities have been completely forgotten. The story of a person not wanting to have sex with the partner they love, or not experiencing romantic love for their partner (or anyone else) is still seen as too unthinkable for audiences. It’s been reflected even in portrayals of other sexualities. For instance, bisexual men (Frank Underwood is the most obvious example) are always presented as overly sexual yet not possessing any kind of romantic love. They are made into manipulative caricatures which has bad enough implications for bisexual men but it also reveals a lot about what we think of aro identities.
The story of a person not wanting to have sex with the partner they love, or not experiencing romantic love for their partner (or any) is still seen as too unthinkable for audiences.
Distortions of the reality of aro and ace identities are also deliberately and falsely made when it comes to race. Asexual people of colour frequently find their identity challenged and denied due to horrific stereotypes that depict people of colour as overtly sexual. Such prejudice creates a culture of stigmatisation and isolation which is incredibly harmful and dangerous. It blocks outlets of communication and ways to access support and makes an entire community invisible, and this is a community that is still consistently overlooked by the LGBTQ+ community who often disregard ace and aro people as ‘not being queer enough’.
Our culture and deep rooted attitudes do have an often overlooked impact on legislation. Within the UK, the marriage laws for couples comprising of a cisgender man and cisgender woman compel them to engage in sexual activity to ‘consummate’ the marriage. It is always inherently wrong for any law to interfere or try to force people to engage in any kind of act of sexuality or intimacy but it is particularly weighted against asexual people. It means that many may have to engage in acts they had no desire to do so, just to have their marriage recognised. The basis for the law is clear: sex (specifically between cisgender men and cisgender women and consisting of vaginal penetration by a penis) is the ultimate act for any kind of partnership. It’s a very contradictory attitude given the centuries of society (and specifically religions) trying to erase sexual activity from society. Sex is so often seen as something still disgusting, wrong and as a human weakness and yet, those who have no interest in sexual relationships are thought inherently bad or dangerous to society.
Sex is so often seen as something still disgusting, wrong and as a human weakness and yet, those who have no interest in sexual relationships are thought inherently bad or dangerous to society.
Even the more endearing ace or aro characters, such as Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ are eventually written to conform to society’s expectations around sex and romance. Why couldn’t Sheldon have been allowed to remain true to the vision of his character in the first season? Of course, sexuality and romantic orientation can change over time but when every single story in books or on TV shows the idea of love and sex being goals to be achieved the message of making Sheldon fall in love and pursue a sexual relationship was clear: the relationship made him more likeable. It made him seem more human, because aro and ace people are frequently treated as inhuman. Love and sex in short, were designed to fix Sheldon because we always present the two as something that people always need regardless of whether that is actually true.
There is certainly nothing wrong with the media and literature trying to portray the beauty of romantic love and sexual attraction, but there is when it comes at the price or aromantic and asexual people. The stories of ‘one true loves’ should not dominate at the cost of an oppressed and dismissed group and sexual characters should not be the only characters we ever hear of. Frankly, if we want to tell good stories that capture the human existence then capturing as many diverse identities as possible is the highest priority task for any writer. To move beyond the gay/straight binary is not just to once in a while throw in a token bisexual character but to really examine the spectrum of the human experience of sexuality and of romantic orientation. At the very least, it would be a start to start showing aro and ace characters as human rather than villainous caricatures.
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