This post is a submission to the February Carnival of Aces, hosted by Writing for Life with the theme “Representation in Fiction”. However, it was actually inspired by another post written for the same carnival: “Totally Baffled, in an Asexual Way (or, my review of ‘Let’s Talk About Love’)” by Perfect Number. As such, it was written in a bit of a rush and isn’t my most well-written or well-thought-out piece. I hope it still has value.
Once, during my time teaching English in Japan, I was doing some kind of lesson planning that involved talking about the cultural differences between Japan and Canada. If you’ve ever been to Japan (or, possibly, even if you haven’t) you know that one of the important rules of Japanese society is “no shoes in the house”. It gets drilled into you as soon as you arrive: when you enter someone’s home, the first thing you do is take your shoes off. So, in my lesson planning, this seemed like a natural thing to mention. Japanese people take their shoes off indoors, while Canadians…
Wait, what? I don’t wear my shoes in the house! Why on earth would I do that??? I’d get the floors all dirty! The whole point of shoes is that you put them on when you want to go outside and take them off when you come indoors! How is that unique to Japan???
Okay, I need to nuance that a bit. It is true that the “no shoes in the house” rule is a lot laxer in Canada and depends a lot on a) the whims of the homeowner, b) what kind of flooring they have, and c) how dirty your shoes are. In dry weather I have frequently walked over hardwood and tile flooring to get from the front door to the back door without bothering to take my shoes off. Conversely, Japanese people tend to take their shoes off in public buildings (church, the doctor’s office, the laundromat) where Canadians wouldn’t think to. So, “Canadians wear their shoes indoors” isn’t an entirely inaccurate sentence. But it is a gross over-simplification of reality.
That’s the problem that can crop up any time you talk about the characteristics of a group. Any statement about the people in one group implies a converse statement about the people outside of it. And the asexual community is no exception. Any statement about the asexual community – “Asexuals don’t experience sexual attraction”; “Asexuals don’t have sexual desire”; “Asexuals aren’t interested in sex” – indicates something about allosexuals: “Allosexuals do experience sexual attraction”; “Allosexuals do have sexual desire”; “Allosexuals are interested in sex”. Those statements aren’t bad in themselves, but they can too easily turn hyperbolic: “Allosexuals are sexually attracted to everyone”; “Allosexuals want sex all the time”; “Allosexuals are obsessed with sex.” In short, we can fall into the trap of characterising allosexuals as everything we are not. I’m not saying that always happens. But it is a danger we always have to be on guard against.
This is not a new observation, of course. But it is something I was reminded about by Perfect Number’s recent review of Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann. The gist of the review is that Perfect Number feels “baffled” by the main character’s attitude towards dating. Alice is resistant to dating because she is asexual, and she believes anyone she dates will expect sex. Perfect Number finds this strange, because Alice is only nineteen, and the idea that nineteen-year-olds in dating relationships would expect to have sex doesn’t fit with Perfect Number’s own personal experience.
Now, Perfect Number’s experience is only one person’s experience, and it would seem that Alice’s experience is very different. But it is a reminder that people exist in different social situations with different expectations about sex, and when an author chooses to portray a character in a certain kind of social situation, that’s only one of the situations that could be portrayed. Alice exists in a situation where sex between nineteen-year-olds is normal and expected. But she could just as easily have existed in a different situation.
Personally, I didn’t have an issue with that element of Let’s Talk About Love. What I remember of being nineteen is that sex between people my age was considered pretty normal. Then again, a lot of that perception was based on things I heard or saw in the media, rather than my first-hand experience. In real life, I’m pretty sure a lot of people my age were having sex, but I’m also pretty sure a lot of them weren’t. So the amount of pressure Alice feels to have sex seems reasonable to me, but it’s also possible that that’s due to my faulty perception of reality.
What did bother me in the book was the way Alice’s allosexual friends are portrayed. Her best friend is very sexual, which is not a problem in itself, but sometimes gets taken to ridiculous lengths, like when she ditches Alice at a house party to go have sex with her boyfriend. Presumably, at some stranger’s house… in some stranger’s bed? Ew. And when they have a fight about it, the friend’s response is basically, “I can have sex with my boyfriend whenever and wherever I want!” That’s a pretty entitled attitude, but, from what I remember, the book portrays it as normal and justified.
Why grant sex so much importance in an ace story? In the comments to Perfect Number’s post, Siggy makes a point that I think is very important: “stories might choose to portray compulsory sexuality at its worst, in order to heighten conflict.” What I take from that comment is that the way sexual norms are portrayed in this kind of story isn’t just a question of reflecting reality; it’s also about creating conflict and contrast with the ace protagonist. And if your goal is to create a contrast with asexuality, then your portrayal of sexual norms can easily become exaggerated or simplistic. That might make for a better story, but you shouldn’t necessarily trust it as reality any more than you’d trust a Japanese-written story where urban Canadians all walk around their apartments in hiking boots!
And here’s where this really becomes a problem: If you write stories where sex is portrayed as very important, you’re contributing to a culture of sex being very important. If you write stories where most characters are having lots of sex, you’re reinforcing the idea that most people should be having lots of sex. And if you have an asexual character who bucks these norms, then you risk implying that only asexuals can buck these norms and that allosexuals should be totally okay with them.
In other words, it’s all too easy to write an ace story that ends up reinforcing compulsory sexuality.
This relates strongly to a drum I’ve been banging for a while now: that the sexual norms that oppress aces also oppress allosexuals, and that we should therefore be trying to dismantle them for everyone. It’s not enough to simply say, “Hey, we’re asexual; we play by a different set of rules!”; the rules themselves need to change. But, until I read Siggy’s comment, I’d never thought about how that principle might apply to storytelling specifically. Now that I have, I’m beginning to think about ace storytelling differently. I’m realising that, as aces, when we tell stories (as Kann does) or critique them (as I do), we need to think about more than just whether the stories portray ace characters or characters with ace-like qualities. We also need to think about the culture and society those characters exist in, and whether they are represented in a way that supports or challenges toxic sexual norms.
You could argue that portraying allosexuals as sex-crazed is justified because that’s how allosexuals are portrayed in other media, and that’s definitely a fair point. Growing up with shows like Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I got used to the idea that all teens and twenty-somethings are having lots of sex. It doesn’t seem fair to criticise ace media just for replicating common tropes. But when those tropes are erotonormative, it’s worth recognising them and at least asking, “As an ace writer, should I be using this trope, or do I want to challenge it?”
I’m not saying that Let’s Talk About Love is a bad book for presenting society and allosexuals the way it does. I honestly believe its representation of those things does reflect reality – at least the reality some people experience. And I’m certainly not saying all asexual media should be sanitised and sex free and ignore the very real sexual pressure that aces (and allos) experience. But it’s important that not all ace fiction look like this. It’s important to show different sides of society, some of which may be less sex-focused or have different sexual values. It’s also important to show a diversity of allosexual characters, including ones for whom sex is of minimal interest. To some extent, Let’s Talk About Love scores well on this by having an allosexual character who is ultimately fine being in a sexless relationship with an ace partner.
Bottom line: there are many different asexual experiences and even more different allosexual experiences. Simply presenting society as un-ace-friendly and allosexuals as sex-crazed might be easy, but it risks reinforcing dangerous stereotypes and hurting both aces and allos.
8 thoughts on “Do Ace Stories Contribute to Compulsory Sexuality?”
OH ALSO THE SHOES THING! I live in China, and yeah in my experience in China, people are super serious about how certain areas of the floor are off-limits for stepping on with shoes… whereas in the US it seems more like, well, generally you don’t wear your shoes in the house, but, some people do, and if you’re just gonna run in real quick and get something it’s not like you’re gonna take off your shoes just for that…
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This is a really good point! In general I like reading fanfic where the main plot is something about sex- but I think most ace fiction should *not* be like that, because most aces just want to live their lives and do cool things that don’t involve sex at all. (Like you said, there should be stories exploring a lot of different ace experiences.) And in “Let’s Talk About Love,” on one hand “I need to decide if I’m ever willing to have sex, before I can date” as the main conflict is a topic I like to read about, but also it felt so unrealistic, and I just kept thinking about myself at 19 years old and how unhealthy it would have been for me to constantly wonder if having a crush on someone means I’m “supposed” to want sex and/or have sex with him.
Like it’s interesting to use fanfic to explore issues about sex/feelings/consent by inventing alternate universes where sex is a super huge big deal… but obviously if the real world was like that, it would be really bad. (Or maybe I’m naive and a lot of aces do experience the real world being like that…?)
“Her best friend is very sexual, which is not a problem in itself, but sometimes gets taken to ridiculous lengths, like when she ditches Alice at a house party to go have sex with her boyfriend. Presumably, at some stranger’s house… in some stranger’s bed? Ew.”
Yeah I also thought that was weird, but I have friends who mention having sex at parties so apparently it is a real thing????? I have questioned said friends about this a lot and it still doesn’t make sense to me.
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I absolutely love this post and it touches on a topic that I have been thinking about for some time. In particular, this section:
I’ve found in conversation with aces in my home country, that they think of allosexuals as hypersexual, basically the description in the quoted text above. And I think we are doing ourselves a disservice if we have this kind of an attitude.
I tried to address it in my post about microlabels:
But I think your post captured the essence of the problem much better than I could have, especially the analogy with the shoe culture in Japan vs. Canada. Thanks for writing this!
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Glad you liked it! 🙂
A point I thought of making but cut in order to keep the post short: The expansion of the definition of any term entails the contraction of the definition of the complementary term. Which is to say, if you broaden the definition of “asexual” or “ace-spectrum” by including more different kinds of experiences under the “ace” label, then you’re also narrowing the definition of what it means to be allosexual. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; inclusivity is nice, after all. But I think it’s something we don’t consider often enough. I think it’s easy to say, “We’re ace. We get to decide what ‘ace’ means. What’s it to you? It doesn’t affect you,” and ignore the fact that the definition of “ace” does affect allosexuals because it affects what “allosexual” means and how allosexuals are perceived.
I’m not entirely sure how to get around this problem. I don’t want to impose a narrow definition on “ace” that leaves people feeling left out. But I think it’s important to recognise that the ace/allo divide is fuzzy and that different people will draw the line in different places. It’s important not to stereotype people who fall on the other side of the line from us. And, ultimately, it’s why I hope that, as not having sex or wanting to have sex becomes more accepted and normalised, we will stop needing the categories of “ace” and “allo” to describe people.
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You raise a very interesting and important point and I completely agree!
I personally am aligned with you that “ideally” we will stop needing the “ace” and “allo” categories. Recently, in conversations with more conservative (small c conservative) family members, I have found that saying “I don’t experience physical needs” goes over much better than saying “I am asexual”. Many people (including non-conservative folks) have tended to have knee-jerk negative or concerned reactions to my declarations of being ace. But when I describe being ace without using the label, people seem to be more accepting. I don’t know if this would be universally true (probably wouldn’t be), but I thought it was interesting.
That is interesting! I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I’m glad you’ve been able to tell people about your experience/identity in a way that they can accept.
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I’m glad you decided to expand my thought! I also like the analogy to cultural norms about shoes.
I’ve never read “Let’s Talk About Love”, but when I said that I was actually thinking of another work of fiction, “Love, Victor”. I reviewed the TV series, and you can skip to the section about compulsory sexuality. In this example, it was really obvious how they exaggerated compulsory sexuality in order to fuel conflict–because the compulsory sexuality would immediately get turned down in the next episode. And then it did it again in a later episode!
But this example is not ace fiction! None of the characters are ace. Instead, the first episode is about a gay character’s anxieties about sex with his girlfriend–and the other episode is about his anxieties about sex with his boyfriend. That really highlights how this is not exclusively an ace problem.
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I’m glad you’re glad! 🙂
Or, really, what I mean is that I’m relieved that you’re okay with it. I wasn’t sure how you would feel about the direction I took your comment, and I’m glad it’s one you’re happy with.
I read your review of Love, Victor, and, wow! You do not make it sound like a show I would like! XD
I find it a bit funny that you don’t remember Love, Simon, since it was an article you wrote about it that inspired me to go see (and, ultimately, review) it: https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2018/04/04/interacting-with-gay-coming-out-stories-as-an-ace/. I actually remember being impressed by how little emphasis gets put on sex in the film. Like, it’s implied that most of the characters have little or no sexual experience. And, while we might imagine that Simon and “Blue” have sex once they get together, there’s no clear indication that they do. The characters in the movie are finishing up their last year of high school, which I guess makes them eighteen-ish, i.e. a year or two older than the characters in Love, Victor.
I have no idea whether the amount of sex in Love, Simon (or Love, Victor, for that matter) is realistic. When I say I was “impressed”, I just mean that Love, Simon didn’t seem to emphasise sex as much as the movies I remember from when I was a teenager. But that’s kind of a low standard. In terms of what’s real, well, I know sex was a thing people were doing when I was in high school, but it’s also something a lot of people weren’t. I also keep hearing the stat that teenagers now are actually less sexually active and are delaying sex longer than they used to. So, yeah, I can easily believe that the compulsory sexuality in Love, Victor is more about fuelling conflict than realism.