Introducing Asexual Characters

Introducing Asexual Characters

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

A little while ago, I talked about writing ace characters, but I never touched on actually introducing asexual characters into your narratives. So this week, I want to take a moment to do just that.

Introducing asexual characters is much like introducing any queer identity — you have to be sure that you’re giving your character respect and agency, and that your method of introduction won’t be jarring to your audience. 

image of the asexual pride flag
The asexual pride flag

Bad Ways of Introducing Asexual Characters

Trauma

This usually comes up when a character is frightened/repulsed by the idea of sexual intimacy due to some trauma in their past. The character, after all, needs a reason for rejecting the advances of another character — they can’t simply be ace.

Often, these characters aren’t actually identified as ace; instead they’re shown as traumatized, and that trauma is portrayed as something they must overcome in order to grow as an individual. However, portraying asexuality/a lack of a desire for sex as something something to be overcome can have negative cultural ramifications for real-life ace folx.

There are ace folx whose identities are connected to past experiences with sexual trauma. This, however, is far from a universal experience. A lot of ace folx have always been ace, and even those who consider their trauma intrinsic to their ace identity may have been asexual before the trauma. Connecting asexuality entirely to trauma obscures and erases the asexual folx that just simply exist, and adds to the idea that there is something “wrong” with them.

Moreover, those ace folx whose identity is tied to a past trauma are under no obligation to “get over” that trauma and start having sex again! Framing sex as the ultimate goal of a traumatized character — rather than, say, exploring other forms of intimacy — serves only to reinforce the heteronormative ideal that sex is the ultimate goal of any relationship.

Another consideration here is that tying a character’s asexuality to trauma serves only to enforce the idea that asexuality is not an intrinsic identity, but instead something which only exists through personal choices or traumatic experiences.

Inhumanity

In speculative fiction, asexuality is often used to illustrate an alien, robot, celestial, or otherwise non-human character’s lack of humanity.  They are usually either portrayed as “innocent” or “pure,” or else are made the butt of a joke when they fail to recognize flirting or understand the basics of biological reproduction. This is usually done after they’ve been introduced as inhuman to illustrate their lack of emotion and/or passion, and is similar to a similar trope about folx outside the gender binary.

This sort of introduction presupposes that sexuality is inherent to true humanity, and therefore that a good way to portray someone as inhuman is by showing them as lacking sexuality. Sometimes, the entity in question will “evolve” in order to engage in sexual intimacy or romance, a sign that they are becoming “more human.”

This is inherently othering to asexual people. It paints them as outside the norms of humanity, and asserts that they are so different from “normal” people as to be inhuman.

I’ve said this a lot about this trope, but please avoid it. Or, at the very least, subvert it by having an ace human in your story. Maybe your robot’s arc could be discovering their humanity because they realize that they have something in common with an ace character! Write that story. It’s far more interesting than “What are sex?” jokes.

Iffy Ways of Introducing Asexual Characters

Piety

A lot of world religions revere purity, commitment, and virginity, especially among women. There are plenty of issues with this, but I’m not going to delve into those today. Many people refrain from having sex for their piety — like Catholic priests, nuns/monks, or even the huntresses of Artemis.

These characters are often not actually called asexual, but they can offer some sort representation for young ace folx. Depending on the medium and the context in which this piety is portrayed, asexuality can be seen as good and virtuous. The deeply religious connotations, however — especially those tied to Christianity, an institution which has caused a lot of trauma to queer folk over the centuries — won’t always jive with everyone, and that’s something you have to be conscious of.

Image of Pierre-Narcisse Geurin painting "Hippolytus before Phaedra and Theseus" 1802, cropped to show only Hippolytus, painted wearing a greek-style toga and wielding a bow and a quiver of arrows, with arm outstretched to deny accusations against him
Hippolytus was killed by Aphrodite because he shunned her in favor of hunting for Artemis!

The main reason I class this as “iffy,” however, is because it usually portrays asexuality as a choice; a noble sacrifice or a moral resistance to temptation. However, ace folx likely don’t see their identity as a sacrifice, and may not connect to the idea of any sort of temptation. Furthermore, framing asexuality itself as a choice reinforces the societal idea that ace people may someday simply choose differently. This is harmful to ace people, and should be avoided!

This is a narrative that I think could be interesting if a character chose a certain religious vocation because it was a socially acceptable way to be their best asexual self, or if a character has to come to grips with the intersection of their faith and their asexuality. However, it’s important that you make it clear over the course of your narrative that your character’s identity is intrinsic to them, not just a choice made in the face of a religious upbringing.

Neurodiversity

In a lot of popular media featuring neurodiverse characters, one way that their neurodiversity is illustrated is by making them asexual. This is used as a way to illustrate that a neurodivergent individual is “different” by giving them the incomprehensible character trait of… not wanting to have sex.

Some neurodiverse people are asexual, but not all are. Some asexual people are neurodiverse. Not all are. To intrinsically link these two identities is to oversimplify both experiences.

Now, this is absolutely not to say that a neurodiverse character can’t be asexual. However, framing that as “I’m asexual because I’m neurodiverse,” especially as a way to distinguish your character from others in your narrative, doesn’t illustrate a particularly nuanced understanding of how these two distinct identities intersect.

Never Having Sex

You can casually make a character never have sex without ever mentioning their identity. This, however, comes with two distinct issues:

First, people might assume your character is having sex off screen, especially if they are in a relationship, if you never make it explicit that they aren’t.

Second, this contributes to ace erasure by making your character’s identity invisible — and though queer folx are plenty good at picking up on subtext and connecting to characters implied to share their identity, ones that explicitly share their identities are far more powerful.

Good Ways of Introducing Asexual Characters

Coming Out

Yes, ace people have to come out, too.

Coming out gives your character agency over how and when they divulge their ace identity, affording them the maximum amount of respect in your narrative. 

This doesn’t have to be a big deal, and the character doesn’t have to say “I’m asexual.” They might simply say “I’ve never been interested in that,” or “I don’t really think that’s for me.” 

If you want some ideas on how your character might come out, check out the series of discussions I posted about the subject.

Self-Discovery

By this, I mean a narrative in which your character slowly comes to terms with understanding their own asexual identity.

Image of Bojack Horeseman's Todd Chavez
Todd’s storyline in Bojack Horseman is one of self-discovery (and he also comes out!)

A lot of queer folx are getting tired of coming out narratives — it’s frustrating that the only real way we get portrayed seems to be “start less gay, become more gay.” However, asexuality is rarely explored in media. That, combined with some problematic cultural ideas about asexuality, means that a nuanced asexual narrative may well involve a character coming to terms with their own identity

If done right, this could be really cool and offer a new take on the “coming out” story that pervades almost all contemporary queer media.

Conclusion

That’s it for this week! Like I said at the outset, introducing asexual characters is a lot like introducing any queer character — treat them with respect and give them agency, and be mindful of tropes to avoid. And until next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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