DiversiTheme: The Invisible Orientation

JulieToday, we’re so delighted to have Julie Sondra Decker back at the blog! Julie joined us a little while ago to talk about asexuality, and today she’s back with a fantastic guest post. She’s also celebrating the publication of her fantastic non-fiction book THE INVISIBLE ORIENTATION: an introduction to asexuality. Follow Julie on Twitter here!

I was eleven years old the first time someone laughed at me for not wanting a boyfriend.

As a somewhat introverted child, my best friends were fictional characters. And as a child who read four to five years above grade level throughout elementary school, I found myself pursuing more advanced material very early in my life. I found the Young Adult section. It was full of books about teenagers who spent nearly every waking moment trying to date each other.

The exceptions were usually adventure stories, especially science fiction and fantasy, so I skipped the paltry offerings of the 1980s YA library and began reading adult SF/F. Some of the quest stories lacked heart, but they were more entertaining for me than reading about boyfriend contests, dating games, and love triangles.

The adults who tried to guide my reading assumed I was just too young to relate to romance. To some extent, they were right. But as I got older and remained uninterested in those relationships—both in my real life and in fictional worlds—the people who’d laughed at me for not wanting a boyfriend became both louder and more plentiful.

I realized in late teenagerhood that I was asexual and aromantic. Romantic literature still doesn’t interest me, though I certainly appreciate well-written stories that incorporate romance in a natural way. Some have said maybe I exposed myself to dating narratives so early in life that when I couldn’t connect, I permanently soured myself on them, but that’s not the case. After all, what did I turn to instead? Speculative fiction.

I found space aliens, interdimensional travel, mythological creatures, and magical worlds more relatable than I found romance.

Clearly this wasn’t simply an aversion to foreign experiences or an inability to peek outside my comfort zone. I found “me” in speculative fiction far more often than I found anything familiar in romance. And while I absolutely am not saying this to pooh-pooh romance, I think most romantic books are written from the assumption that their readers have felt the way the characters do. The authors don’t have to say much about the experience of falling in love or getting those first butterflies because they know the readers are bringing their own versions of those emotions to the table. Speculative fiction authors often presented fantastical experiences their readers couldn’t have been through, so they left the handholds sticking out everywhere for us to grab onto.

I had no such handholds for romantic fiction, and as much as I enjoyed the books from my chosen genre, it was frustrating and depressing that NO books reflected the world I lived in. To make matters worse, the outside world frequently made it clear that I may as well have been one of the aliens from my books, because in realistic fiction, there aren’t any people like me. If you managed to find a book about characters not being interested in romance or sex, they were usually from another planet. Or they were robots.

The Young Adult section of today is far more diverse than what I was faced with in the 1980s. If you’re a girl who doesn’t want a boyfriend, you can find a few books that acknowledge you might want a girlfriend. Books are even starting to acknowledge that some girls were designated male at birth, or might be interested in more than one gender for romantic purposes, or at least aren’t preoccupied with dating and traditional feminine gender roles (though on that last, the heroine still usually finds “the one”). But even in this improved environment, I have yet to read a book with an asexual protagonist. You might see a character who doesn’t actively focus on a romantic relationship, but I never read a YA book in which a character explicitly stated, “That’s not my thing, and I’m fine with that.”

I’ve never seen myself in a book.

And others have never seen me in a book, which is why they started laughing at me when I was eleven and haven’t stopped yet.

Seeing ourselves in books is incredibly important during our formative years, but it’s also important for our friends and loved ones to be exposed to our non-normative identities. If appropriate familiarity is cultivated, we develop reference points. “Oh, I’m like [character].” “You’re asexual? You mean like in [book series]?” Asexual people don’t have that yet, which is a contributing factor to everyone diagnosing asexual people as probable aliens. But in the next few years, who knows? Asexual characters are trickling into the media. So far it’s just that: a trickle. Not a splash. Not yet.

My nonfiction book on asexuality, The Invisible Orientation (Carrel Books, September 2014), might break some ground and spread some awareness, but until the world of fiction also agrees we exist, it will always seem like we don’t. My next book will be YA with an asexual protagonist. And I hope it will contribute to the splash my community is looking for, but very few books can make a splash by themselves. We need some more brave writers who are willing to execute those cannonballs, but right now I think most of them have yet to approach the swimming hole.

Let’s hope they’re home getting their bathing suits.


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4 Responses to DiversiTheme: The Invisible Orientation

  1. […] DiversifYA ran a guest piece from Swankivy about asexual representation in fiction. […]

  2. When I first read a book with an asexual protagonist (it was “Quicksilver” by RJ Anderson), it was the most ridiculous validating experience ever. I was struggling with health troubles at the time, which no one seemed to understand, and struggling with an identity that no one else seemed to get either made me feel like I was sitting in a corner under a pile of labels that nobody understood. Seeing that label, “asexual”, applied to a protagonist, was like someone being like, “Hey, I get it, it’s okay.”

    And when I realised that, I took a long hard look at my own writing and went, “Wait, why am I still writing books with entirely allosexual casts? I don’t wanna read that.” So in my current novel, the main character is ace, her flatmate is aro, and their friend is ace/aro. It makes a nice change for me, and it’s fun to write, too.

    It’s definitely something that needs more representation in fiction.

  3. […] Read the guest post on DiversifYA! […]

  4. I really appreciated this post. I’ve always loved books and have devoured fiction since I first learned how to read. For me as a young adult, I was mostly fine. I encountered characters who weren’t interested in romance as young adults, and that was enough for me then. My first encounter with fiction for adults happened when I discovered the original Sherlock Holmes stories at my grandmother’s house when I was 11. I read them over and over again. I was positively affected by Holmes’ disinterest in romance, although negatively affected by his misogyny. But I first realized I didn’t want to get married when I read that he didn’t want to. Reading about this character helped me understand myself a lot better, even though I’d never heard of asexual and aromantic orientations, and of course, they’re never mentioned in the book. I have found, now that I’m in my forties, that I get tired of reading about people who had eschewed or avoided romance and sex only to discover them in mid-life. That’s a fairly common these, and I feel a much greater disconnect now than I did as a young adult. While I like reading about people who discover romance later in life, I’d also love to read about protagonists who simply never seek or find romance. And it would certainly be helpful to have well-known asexual fictional characters that could help others understand me and other asexuals better. Anyway, thanks again so much for this post, Julie! It’s been fun to reflect on and think about your story as well as mine. I’ve appreciated everything you’ve written about asexuality and being aromantic as well–very helpful!