Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Conundrum of Asexual Characters

There are a lot of fictional characters who, with a few small tweaks, could have been realistically portrayed as asexual. One example is Trey, one of the men of "Sex and the City". I recently re-watched the episode where Trey and Charlotte, his wife, are given homework by a sex therapist. Trey refuses to tell Charlotte about his sexual fantasies and huffs about not being "a sexual person". When Charlotte tells him that she is, indeed, sexual, he makes no move to agree that he is as well. (Most people consider it a big insult to be told they're not sexual-- if Trey saw himself as sexual, it would have made sense for him to protest Charlotte's statement.) But despite all this, he is obviously intended to be a sexual person, just an uptight one with issues.

But even if a character is intended to be asexual, how would anyone ever know? Wouldn't they be read as an uptight sexual with issues, even if their asexuality is intended? I can understand why writers would not want to use a still-unusual word like "asexual", and I know this from personal experience. I once took a writing class in which I presented a play I'd written about a woman with Asperger's syndrome. There was intense debate in the class over whether I should actually use the word "Asperger's" in the play or not. And once the word "Asperger's" was brought up, it was all anyone was willing to talk about. Other writers got to talk about character development, plot, arc, and all that other stuff-- but I only got to talk about Asperger's. It was extremely frustrating. So I can imagine why writers might not want to go through all that. Not everyone can have a platform to not only present their work, but to explain the unspoken neurologies or sexualities of their characters.

The best explanation of asexuality without using the word "asexual" appears in, of course, The Bone People. Keri Hulme writes this dialogue for her asexual protagonist, Kerewin:

I spent a considerable amount of time when I was, o, adolescent, wondering why I was different, whether there were other people like me. Why, when everyone else was fascinated by their developing nature, I couldn't give a damn. I've never been attracted to men. Or women. Or anything else. It's difficult to explain, and nobody has ever believed me when I have tried to explain, but while I have an apparently normal female body, I don't have any sexual urge or appetite. I think I am a neuter. (266)

The Bone People is a classic book, read by many people. I wonder what a sexual reader, unacquainted with asexuality, might assume about Kerewin. Of course, Kerewin lived in isolation in a remote area. It would be completely realistic for her to not have ever met anyone else like herself. While The Bone People was written in the 1980s, it's still realistic for an asexual person to have never met another ace, and to not know that there is a word describing their sexuality that is in use for other people. If writers want to be realistic, the unnamed asexual is much closer to the truth than the "out" asexual.

However, we're short on even unnamed asexuals like Kerewin. I think it's unlikely that a sexual author would write about asexuals. Most people haven't even knowingly met an asexual, so why would they write about one? But if "Shortland Street" can do it...why can't anyone else?


Anonymous said...

All this is true.

The underlying problem, I think, is that it's extremely hard to write about a fictional asexual character when asexuality hasn't even been established yet in non-fiction. Maybe when that happens, people will be more willing to agree that it's even possible to write about an asexual character.

Another problem with trying to write about asexual characters in fiction before there is any non-fiction out there: readers might assume that asexuality is still fictional, even when presented with an explicitly asexual character. I considered writing a book of fiction with an asexual character, but rejected the idea because of this. I think we need to establish ourselves as non-fiction first!

Ily said...

Yep...and some people still think asexuality is fictional when we're standing in front of them telling them about it. Sigh. But I do think fiction can be educational, sometimes even more so than nonfiction (which is mostly what I read). Sometimes it can even be more convincing, because it grabs you on a personal level. I guess we'll just have to see what happens!

Anonymous said...

I'm and author myself and I'll never hide what I am and I always have complex gender issues and such with my characters. I've got agender characters, asexual characters, intersex characters... men having babies (and yes, my version is believable).

I can see where it would difficult to write an asexual character if you think others are going to find it fictional... but that's where footnotes and a couple pages at the beginning of a book enter into it.

Do you think science proved being homosexual was perfectly fine before people starting writing about it? Not a chance.

It's just use as an excuse to either complain or just not write an asexual character when anyone says it's because other people may think it's fictional.

If we don't write about it in a positive way, untainted by sexual scientists, we become fictional. And who's fault is that?

Anonymous said...

This sounds more like an exciting challenge than a road block. Some ways to come up with ideas might be - looking at the ways asexuality has been dealt with in the past, looking at the ways comparable issues have been dealt with (Your example was A.S., which is increasingly gaining mainstream acceptance.) and looking at how people deal with it in real life.

Bri said...

I think being asexual is something that comes through my writing as part of my perspective on the world. The issue (if you even want to call it that) is the same with children's fiction where people would probably see it as something that has been de-sexualized rather than something that is depicting an actual lack of sexuality.

...If that makes sense.

There's also the fact that different people are going to have different writing styles. Some writers are very good at creating stories which directly bring up social issues for discussion, while others (like me) may just have asexual characters or viewpoints without necessarily pointing them out and explaining them.

Jennifer said...

There is mention of a supposedly asexual character in this story here: You'll find it on pages 94 and 95, as well as the word asexual on page 14, albeit describing a cat.

The story itself really has nothing to do with asexuality, but it's a good read if you ever get the chance. Only 110 pages but reads like a play.

As far as asexuals in fiction go, all I can say is that I believe there are people out there who can do it and do it well. But it all depends on who's reading it, and what they take away from it will depend on that. Even if they get asexuality, they may not like it.