Caitlin says: I’m ace, and I’m writing a book that features ace girls in love during the French Revolution. My problem is this: I’ve read a lot about how important it is to use the actual word of the sexual orientation in question on the page, especially in YA, as it might introduce teens to words they might need. However, “asexuality” as a word wasn’t coined until about 30 years after this book takes place, and then only in the sense of plants and asexual reproduction, not people. If this was a contemporary I’d put it all over the place very happily, but this seems different.
I know I’m probably using more words that aren’t period appropriate – though I’ll weed some out in edits, I’m sure – but should I skirt around historical accuracy and just use the word? It feels a bit clinical and out of place to me, but am I just being weird? I’d love some further thoughts from other people on this!
Erica says: To start with, thank you for asking this question! This is a subject I’ve been meaning to research in more depth for a while now, and this was the perfect nudge to push me in that direction.
Before we start, a reminder to readers just in case they (like me) couldn’t remember specifically: The French Revolution occurred between 1789 and 1799, and it definitely precedes any known public acknowledgement of asexual spectrum identities. At least any that have been translated into English.
Now, let’s cover the words we do know and when they were first used.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, asexual as a biological description meaning “having no sex or sexual system” was coined in 1829. It wasn’t first applied to human orientation until Mangus Hirschfeld used it in a pamphlet called Sappho und Sokrates that he wrote in 1896 (the original is in German, but you can read translations of some of the relevant sections here). Hirschfeld used it to mean “wanting [lacking] sexuality, being of or referring to neither sex.” Before that though, there was something else.
The term anaphroditous appears in the The New Sydenham Society’s lexicon, printed in 1879, and it means “not enjoying physical love; impotent” (pg. 205), but it may have first appeared before that date. However, according to sources the Online Etymology Dictionary pulls from, anaphrodisiac (“diminishing the sexual appetite”) was first used in 1823. Basically, it’s an antonym of aphrodisiac, so it seems to be more of a description for food or other things rather than people. The entry does list anaphrodisia, anaphroditic, and anaphroditous as related words, but there’s no entries for those specifically, and so it’s hard to know if any of those forms existed prior to that time. Anaphroditous certainly appeared before its inclusion in the Sydenham Society’s book, though.
So, great. Words acknowledging the existence of people who aren’t interested in sex are WAY, WAY, WAY older than most of the world realizes. Since there’s no concrete evidence (that I could find) saying when the related forms of anaphrodisia were first used, it’s believable to stretch it back in verbal use if not written another couple of decades. However, would the general population in 1823 know what anaphroditous meant? Possibly, but probably not unless you’re writing about people who are highly educated, well-traveled, and open to schools of thought about human psychology and sexuality that most of society didn’t acknowledge.
Just because someone doesn’t know the word “asexual” or “anaphroditous” doesn’t mean asexual spectrum orientations didn’t exist. Actions, behavior, and beliefs matter, and all of those can be shown on a page. If the ace-spectrum character is a viewpoint narrator in first person or close third, you also have direct thoughts to contribute to the full picture of the character’s personality and opinions. And also their attractions (or lack thereof).
Even without a historically accurate word, there are still comparisons and descriptions that can be used—as long as they don’t rely on inaccurate metaphors. Calling your ace-spec character a priest, for example, draws an incorrect parallel between celibacy and asexuality. However, constructing a scene in which the ace-spec character gets hit on and then explains that they’ve never been attracted to anyone is a good idea. How the character interacts with the world and how an author describes them will also greatly depend on where the character falls on any number of spectrums. How do they feel about casual touch? Intimate touch? Sexual touch? Do they experience aesthetic or romantic attraction? Are they neurodiverse? Are they a minority in their society in a way additional to their orientation? All these factors and many more influence an individual’s opinions on and interactions with sex and society. They’re also crucial aspects of the character, especially if they’re a major player in the story.
If the character does have sex at some point in the story (an action which in no way invalidates their asexuality), a verbal statement concerning their lack of attraction will clue the reader in to their asexuality. As long as that idea is also repeated after the sexual encounter—otherwise, most readers will assume attraction between the sexually intimate partners and then assume orientation based on the stated gender of the partners. Honestly, without a word to use, the lack of attraction will need to be repeated several times in a variety of ways (thought, behavior, and dialogue) to reinforce the concept in the audience’s mind. As we know well by now, characters tend to be interpreted as straight until forcefully proven otherwise. And characters coded too casually (like Dumbledore, for example) don’t work when you’re trying to add representation.
An alternative is invention. If a historically accurate word doesn’t exist, create one with a basis in the language of the period. As a reader, I’d find it believable that a word once used in conversation but rarely written down would fall away and be forgotten. It happens. This applies to science-fiction or fantasy worlds as well. In my novel Island of Exiles, for example, I created the word ushimo to replace asexual. As long as the created word is explained the first time and then repeated throughout, it could conceivably be a stand-in for the language we use today.
A final possibility is the addition of an author’s note. These aren’t uncommon, especially in historicals. If there’s something you want to be sure readers understand, adding an explanation on the etymology of asexual could reinforce the idea in readers’ heads. And also introduce people to the current terminology. That’s a necessity if awareness and acceptance is going to spread.
Mostly, writing a character in a time “before” asexuality (no such thing!) is about the three Rs—repetition, respect, and representation. Represent your character’s actions and thought respectfully and repeatedly (with situational variation, of course). If you do these things, and get sensitivity readers to help you catch mistakes, you will succeed more often than not.
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