Brianna asks: What are your biggest pet peeves with bad asexual rep? Or, what are some of the most common, hurtful things we should be vigilant to avoid when writing ace characters?
Answer: While there are a number of answers to this question, I have to preface everything that follows with this—I am speaking from my experience, and I won’t hit all the points. What hurts me and the people I know is not necessarily a universal wound the entire ace community shares.
In my initial post for Coming Up Aces, I talked a little bit about this, but from a different angle. That post contained a list of everything asexuality is not, essentially a list of common misconceptions and myths. When looking for pet peeves and issues that will cause significant pain when an author gets them wrong, start there. These are common mistakes that are talked about a lot. Getting them wrong in your representation means you didn’t do much homework, probably didn’t talk to anyone who identifies on the asexual spectrum, and are probably looking for “diversity points” more than anything else. Don’t do that. People can tell, and they will call you out for it.
So let’s start there. My biggest pet peeve is authors who don’t take the time to research the experiences they’re trying to represent. You don’t have to include marginalized characters in your book. Honestly. You don’t. If you’re not going to take the time to read what others have written about their own experiences, interview people with questions specific to the needs of your story, and then find readers who can review your manuscript for accidental errors or poorly phrased statements, please do not include us in your book. Don’t include anyone different from you if you’re not going to put in the effort to do it right.
More specifically, it hurts when authors use asexuality as a trick or a smokescreen. Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s not. The first “example” of an on-page asexual I ever found did this. The character (meaning, the author) claimed to be asexual to push off advances from an admirer. He wasn’t asexual or even questioning—something he admitted later in the book—he was a virgin who had spent so much of his life isolated that he was terrified of intimacy. Do not do this. The noise I made when I first saw “asexual” used in print was ridiculous. I was so happy! That quickly faded as I picked up on where the author actually intended to go with this character. By the time we reached the end where the so-called “asexual” character had been “fixed” with sex and admitted he was never really ace to begin with, my heart hurt. I almost never return books, but you better believe I got rid of that one. It seems small, but the ace community doesn’t have much representation to claim. Even one character using asexuality as a ruse hurts. For a lot of readers, it was probably the first time they’d ever encountered the term, and now it seems like something people make up, a lie they use to cover up fear. That kind of belief (or disbelief as the case may be) is excruciating to face in real life. Having it reinforced by fiction helps no one.
Another huge issue is the misconception that sexual attraction and sexual action are the same thing. I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone. Romantically, yes, but it was never anything deeper than that. I’ve had sex, though, and the experience was enjoyable, even if I participated more for the emotional connection and to please my partner. That’s me, though, and my libido is nearly as non-existent as my level of sexual attraction. Others on the asexual spectrum have a much higher libido and enjoy sex frequently. Yes, there are those on the asexual spectrum who are sex repulsed (or even touch repulsed) and will never have intercourse with anyone, but that’s not a universal fact. All of these experiences are valid, but when writing an asexual character who enjoys sex, pay attention to the distinction between libido and attraction. Wanting sex is not the same as wanting another person sexually.
Since we’re on the subject of sex, there’s a big difference between portraying sex as an act that “flips a switch and fixes someone” and an individual who has been questioning where they fall on the asexuality spectrum and eventually discovers that demisexual is a more accurate label than asexual. There is nothing broken in someone who identifies as asexual, and therefore, there’s nothing to fix. However, new experiences can absolutely change someone’s understanding of themselves and make them reevaluate things they previously thought they understood. Tread carefully is you want to write this sort of arc and you’re not coming from a place of personal experience. It would be incredibly easy to accidently get this story wrong, even with the best of intentions.
I could keep going for a long time, digging into a lot of different mistakes and misinterpretations that can do a lot of harm to the asexual community. For today, though, I’m going to close this off with trauma. It’s a touchy subject for a lot of reasons—as well it should be—but it’s an experience a lot of people outside the ace community conflate with our experience. There is a pervasive belief that assault or trauma is the “cause” of asexuality. It’s not. It can be a contributing factor for many—I know my own assault and an emotionally abusive marriage had a huge impact on my perception of relationships—but there is no “cause” of asexuality. It’s not a condition any more than homosexuality or bisexuality is. If your character has a trauma in their past, be careful of how you tie it to their orientation. It can absolutely make them more leery of taking chances on new people or new relationships, and it can change their comfort level with touch and types of touch, but their innate orientation is a different story. Survivors of assault should be treated with far more respect than that kind of assumption grants them.
Like I mentioned before, there are so many more myths, mistakes, and misconceptions that bother me and hurt the community at large, and I could probably write a book on the subject, but these are some of the most common I’ve seen. They’re also incredibly easy to avoid if the proper research is done. Hopefully, this will offer a place to start for those willing to take the time and do it right.