by Tabitha O’Connell
As an asexual reader, I love finding characters I can relate to—so few exist whose sexuality is similar to mine that it’s really special every time I encounter one. Sometimes, these characters have the word “asexual” explicitly applied to them in-text, and it’s always great to see my label used and normalized. However, what I most enjoy reading are narratives that convey what it’s like to be asexual—and using the word isn’t necessary for that to happen. In fact, some of the ace characters who have been the most meaningful to me are ones that aren’t actually labeled “asexual” in the text. And I don’t mind that, because when the experience of being asexual is described in a real, authentic way, I can recognize and relate to it, whether the character is called “asexual” or not.
What follows is a discussion of three YA books that represent the asexual experience, even though none of them uses the word “asexual”. Each character’s version of asexuality is different, proving that it’s possible to represent a diversity of ace experiences even if labels like “sex-repulsed”, “sex-indifferent”, or “aromantic” don’t exist in your setting.
Nadin of Lyssa Chiavari’s sci-fi novel Fourth World is a member of the heteronormative ruling class of her planet. Matched with her future husband by the government and destined to govern a citidome with him someday, she’s used to seeing marriage as a practical business arrangement, and while she’s glad that her chosen partner is also a good friend, she doesn’t feel any sexual interest in him. She also doesn’t realize that that’s unusual—until, that is, she sees sexual attraction on display during a rare excursion among the working class. She is immediately uncomfortable, and expects her companion, Isaak, to be the same:
“You mean that didn’t”—I paused, struggling to find the right word—“bother you?”
“No. Honestly, it’s the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve seen anyone act human.”
I glared at him. “How is that what makes someone human?”
“I dunno.” He shifted, looking down at his shoes. “Being happy. Being in love. No one in the underground seems to love each other.”
His words stung. “We all love each other,” I corrected him. “We live for each other. It’s the way of Iamos.”
“Yeah, but, I mean… it’s different with your partner,” Isaak said. “Isn’t it? I mean, don’t you and Ceilos…?”
He trailed off uncomfortably. I felt something twist inside me, an unfamiliar niggle of worry. “No.”
A common experience among real-life aces is not realizing for a long time that experiencing sexual attraction is the norm for most people. It’s easy to assume everyone else is like you, even if there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary; and if you lack such evidence (because you grew up with a family and peers who didn’t talk about sex, for instance), that makes it even easier. So when you discover that, actually, the majority of people feel something you don’t, it can be somewhat of a shock. Nadin’s feelings, and this conversation between her and Isaak, are a very genuine depiction of someone who’s ace but is only just starting to realize that.
Nadin is forced to confront her difference further when she brings up this incident to her partner, Ceilos, and he reveals that his feelings don’t match hers. When he kisses her, she feels only revulsion, and is left upset and confused:
I was shaking. I didn’t know what to say. It was like I was asleep again, having some kind of horrible nightmare.
He blinked a few times, his eyes coming back into focus. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you like it?”
Why would I like that?! my mind screamed, but I couldn’t find my voice.
He pushed away from me, getting to his feet. “I’m sorry, Nadin,” he said, his voice impossibly small. “I thought… I thought you loved me, too.”
I jumped up after him. “I do love you!” I protested.
“Then why don’t you—” I flinched, and he lowered his volume. “Why don’t you want me?”
I had broken him. No, I had broken us. I could feel it as surely as the cold air around us, as the fading atmosphere outside the dome. Something was wrong with me, and it had ruined Ceilos and me forever.
The pain of having a partner not understand your asexuality and be hurt because they think you’re rejecting them is perfectly captured here. To Ceilos, sexuality is an expression of love and affection, but to Nadin, it’s traumatizing. The fact that Nadin lacks the words to articulate her feelings—that she can’t just explain “I’m asexual”—is part of what makes this scene so poignant and relatable. At this point, she’s realized she’s different, but she thinks her difference is a relationship-ruining flaw. So many aces have thought they were broken before they found the asexual community, because that’s what happens when everyone expects romance and sex to go hand-in-hand.
Fortunately, Isaak’s society does have the words to explain Nadin’s feelings, and while at the end of Fourth World she still doesn’t know that, the author has confirmed that she’ll find out later in the series. However, this first book captures her asexuality perfectly without needing to label it, and in fact, her lack of the word is an essential part of her experience—just as it is for so many real aces.
The fantasy novel Clariel by Garth Nix presents a character who is clearly identifiable as ace, but who has a very different experience from Nadin’s. Far from being repulsed by sex, Clariel tries it several times, curious; however, she finds herself indifferent, “not caring one way or another about repeating the act itself or the emotional dance that went with it.” She also lacks interest in romance, and wonders if she is “naturally a singleton.” Being different from the norm in this way doesn’t bother her; she just wants to be free to live her life the way she wants to. Other people have different ideas, though, including a friend with a crush on her:
Bel wanted more, obviously, but she did not. She liked his company, and he was a friend, as she judged things, proven by his actions. But she felt no passionate attraction, no giddy desire. She’d never felt that[…]
“I’m just not . . . not interested in men,” said Clariel.
“Oohh,” said Bel, blushing again.
“Or women either,” added Clariel.
But even after this very clear statement on where she stands, she’s still not sure if she’s gotten through to Bel. While Clariel is open and unapologetic about the way she is, she faces the frustration of not being believed when she tries to communicate her lack of romantic and sexual feelings to the people in her life. Even with the word “asexual” at their disposal, many real-life aces face this same difficulty. Knowing yourself, and being okay with the way you are, doesn’t mean other people will understand or accept you, which Clariel illustrates very poignantly. Even Clariel’s own father denies what she says about herself:
“I don’t want to be married. I’m like Aunt Lemmin. I am happiest by myself. I would like to live by myself.”
“Lemmin is a very good woman, and has been a good sister to me, but she is not a usual person, Clariel. Even when we were children she was not at all—”
“Father, I am not a usual person either! Can’t you see that?”
“You are just young,” said Harven. His smile flickered across his face for a moment. “I daresay you haven’t met the right young man. There are far more eligible young men here—”
“I don’t want a young man, eligible or otherwise!”
“You don’t know what you want!” snapped Harven.
I’ve ready many accounts of aces having conversations quite similar to this one with their parents or other older relatives. “You’re too young to really know” and “You just haven’t met the right person yet” are both common responses when aces come out. Try as she might, Clariel can’t make her parents understand that this isn’t something she’ll grow out of, but a central part of who she is. Too many real aces still go through this exact same thing.
Of these three characters, the one I personally relate to the most is Ennaline of RJ Astruc’s fantasy novella Cold Ennaline. Growing up in a very religious society, Ennaline is expected to marry a man someday; parents arrange their children’s marriages, and staying single is not presented as an option. This leaves Ennaline feeling alone:
How can I explain to him that I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for marriage? To anyone. The things I hear other girls talk about—their crushes, their desires—seem alien to me. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to experience the urges and impulses they seem to be suffering from every day.
As a homeschooled Christian teen, I got my information on what was sexually normal from church—and with Sunday school classes emphasizing sexual purity and “waiting for marriage”, I quickly learned that I was not normal. The books we read told us it would be hard to resist sexual temptation, but worth it when we got to enjoy sex with our future spouse—but I wasn’t interested in having sex with anyone, spouse or not. I didn’t know how to tell this to anyone, though, because no one ever told me it was possible to not experience sexual desire.
As with Nadin, lacking the words to describe her feelings—lacking the concept of asexuality—is an essential part of Ennaline’s story, just as it was a major part of mine. “You’re so weird,” a classmate tells Ennaline when she says she’s not romantically interested in either of her two close male friends; Ennaline tries to explain that she doesn’t have those feelings for anyone, but just gets called “weird” again. So she comes up with an excuse: “I’m too used to them. They’re like my brothers.” This is something that makes sense to her classmates, a reason they can accept. In the same way, I came up with alternative explanations when people asked why I didn’t want to get married. “I don’t want to be tied down” seemed a lot more understandable than “I don’t want to have sex”, and kept me safe from being thought strange or broken.
Eventually, Ennaline talks to the counselor at her school about what she refers to as her “coldness”. But because such things generally aren’t discussed in her society, this is hard for her to do:
“Forgive me, I’m still struggling to understand. You don’t feel any sexual desire for any boys?” [Mrs. Fane asks.]
“No,” I say, twitching at the terms she’s used, but glad we’ve finally found a common understanding. “I feel nothing. I feel… love, friendship, happiness, anger, all that stuff. But nothing… sexual.” It’s difficult to get that last word out. I don’t think I’ve ever said it aloud before.
Another barrier to my telling anyone about my lack of sexual interest was that sex wasn’t talked about openly in my family or at church, outside of those designated purity classes. I definitely got the sense that sex was secret and shameful, which left me uncomfortable with the idea of bringing it up in any way, even just to say that it wasn’t for me. Ennaline’s aloneness, her hesitancy and embarrassment about talking about her feelings, definitely reminds me of my younger self/are exactly what I went through as an ace teen.
Until I found the word “asexual” at 20, I felt completely alone, never having encountered anyone else, real or fictional, like me. This was a defining aspect of my experience of asexuality, and reading about characters going through similar things—not knowing how to explain their feelings, being misunderstood when they do try to explain, feeling like they’re the only one who feels this way—is so meaningful to me. Stories like these remind me that I’m not alone, and never was, and I’m sure they do the same for many others. As long as a book authentically represents the asexual experience, I think it does an important service to ace readers—whether it uses the word or not.
Tabitha O’Connell is an asexual feminist who loves animals, abandoned places, alliteration, old buildings, long walks, and long sentences. Visit her online at tjoconnell.wordpress.com.