Tropes to Avoid When Writing Asexual Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
Last week we discussed writing ace characters, and during that discussion I touched on the idea of internalized negative stereotypes about asexuality. This week, we’ll be talking about how those ideas have translated into tropes you should avoid when writing asexual characters.
Asexuality is often used as a comedic way to illustrate that a character isn’t fully human. We’re meant to laugh at an alien that doesn’t understand flirting, and a robot’s complete disinterest in sex is meant to illustrate just how different they are.
This is sometimes paired with the “genderless monster” trope, which I’ve discussed previously in regards to characters outside the gender binary. Taken together, these tropes tell your reader that if they experience gender or attraction in a way that “normal” people don’t, then they’re less than human. This also serves to other these individuals, furthering the real societal issues that they face. They’re real humans — treat them that way!
This doesn’t mean that a non-human character can’t be asexual — just don’t make that the defining factor of their inhumanity, don’t make them the but of a joke, and maybe include an asexual human to illustrate that asexuality isn’t equivalent to inhumanity.
Another common trope when writing asexual characters is to portray them as somehow mentally ill or neurodivergent. This is sometimes complicated by the fact that some neurodivergent or mentally ill folx do connect their aesexuality to their other identities, and that there exist medical conditions that can lead to a reduction in sexual attraction. If a real-life ace person’s orientation is linked to their neurodivergence or PTSD, that’s valid!
The issue arises when authors make sweeping statements about entire groups being a certain way. In the above inhuman trope, those same characters are often portrayed as neurodivergent in addition to asexual — if they’re also genderless, then it delivers a triple-whammy of crappiness that manages to paint neurodivergent, ace, and folx outside the gender binary as less human than the rest of us.
It also generates a lot of false equivalencies which are used to justify hateful or erasing rhetoric. Not all neurodivergent people are asexual — they can experience the full range of sexual orientations, just like neurotypical people. And not all asexual people are neurodiverse, nor are they all traumatized by their pasts.
A less common but pervasive trope when writing asexual characters is the tendency to make them immature comedic relief (or even childlike).
These portrayals have caused many people to internalize the idea that if someone is asexual (and a neurotypical human), then they must somehow be immature — with the implication being that they will someday “grow out of it.” This is problematic for the same reason that it’s harmful to claim that bisexuality is “just a phase.” A lack of sexual attraction isn’t immature, and having sex is not a prerequisite for being an adult.
The “asexual goofball” trope isn’t inherently harmful, if you just want a fun character without romantic or sexual subplots. This is a case where the amount of media is problematic — by and large, the only consistently positive portrayals of asexual characters are immature comic relief characters, like Archie’s Jughead or Bojack Horseman’s Todd Chavez.
This, like the “gay best friend” trope, wouldn’t actually be all that harmful (there’s nothing wrong with a goofball character!) if there were a wider range of portrayals of ace folx in media! If there were simply more positive portrayals of nuanced, mature asexual characters, then the endearingly goofy ace characters could stand on their own merits.
This is less a trope about actual ace people, and more a way that fiction plays into the idea that sexual relationships are inevitable, and that someone who doesn’t have sex must have something wrong with them.
Think of the entire plot of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The movie is based entirely on the idea that it is somehow abnormal and wrong for an adult to have never had sex. In fact, the driving force of a lot of media is getting an “awkward” main character to have sex (American Pie, anyone?)
This sort of plot line is enforced in greater society, where societal pressures all but force people into relationships and sexual exploration. While this isn’t necessarily a problem for allosexual folx, it can be alienating and even traumatic for ace people. It can also make ace people feel abnormal or inhuman, especially when the above tropes are the only way they can see themselves in the world.
Avoiding plots where the entire motivation is sexual contact/desire, or where sex/relationships are inevitable and a lack of them is shameful, could go a long way in helping ace people feel more accepted in society at large. It could also help to normalize writing asexual characters in nuanced, respectful ways!
This isn’t quite as egregious as the bi erasure trope, but note that just avoiding romantic or sexual subplots does NOT mean you’re writing asexual characters.
As mentioned above, this can help fight against the romantic inevitability of modern media, but it isn’t inherently queer rep! If you’re going to include an ace character, you should really have them be explicit about their orientation. If you want some ideas as to how a character might come out in your narrative, check out this series of blog posts about writing coming out scenes.
When writing asexual characters, it’s possible to subvert many of these tropes — maybe you explore your robot’s humanity through their non-sexual romantic relationship with an ace character. That could be effective in increasing the scope of ace representation in media, but if you do want to try subverting these tropes, please get a sensitivity reader!
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week with another discussion about queer representation, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!