Reading Asexually

August 17, 2013 Opinion 9

photo showing four angled strips of yellow and black caution tape covering the taupe door of a public toilet with a small sign indicating it is for men.Asexuality is almost completely absent from the romance genre. Characters without a sexual drive are either delicate young girls who haven’t found their dominant billionaire or closeted homosexuals. Asexuality is a sexual orientation that – when it is addressed in romance at all – is addressed as something to be cured. Asexual people are no more likely to be touch adverse than the general population. They have the same need for human relationships as anyone else. Asexual people may even be sexually active, if it is a choice they’ve made. Asexuality is not defined by a lack of sexual activity but by a lack of sexual desire. In the romance genre, a failure to be a sexual person is often a flaw the character must overcome to achieve their HEA. I have known people born asexual and I often thought what a difficult path that must be. In a culture as drenched in sexual repression and expression as America, sex seems to be everywhere.

In the early 90’s I primarily reviewed same sex romance and erotica of all combinations. Erotic romance was moving from plantation / captivity novels into mainstream genre fiction but reviewers were slow to catch up. It was sometimes difficult to explain that yes, you read and reviewed erotica. No, you were not a sex worker, not that there was anything wrong with that. I was always uncomfortable when others judged mainstream romance on a scale of how much sexual content was in the storyline. As a McDLT reader I like my hot reads hot and my cool reads cool. I was a sex skimmer unless the purpose of the book was sex. Sexual objectification (such as Fabio and man-titty) always left me cold. I had my late night reads and my afternoon bus reads and never the twain did meet.

After a series of surgeries and medications I became asexual. All my books are afternoon bus reads now. I wondered if reading as an asexual would change my love of the romance genre. It did, but not in the direction I expected. I still love romance. If anything, I read more than before because I no longer read erotica. Take the flush factor out and erotica is painfully dull. I find myself drawn to very traditional novels. I don’t know if that’s because my emotional reading needs have changed. I’ve always been a heavy consumer of category and gothic so it’s hard to say. It’s something I’m still working out, as well as how privilege feeds into the genre reading experience. Strip Takenouchi Yutaka and dump him in my living room. He’ll be perfectly safe because these days I’m reading romance for the articles.

 

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Meoskop

Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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9 Responses to “Reading Asexually”

  1. Merrian

    Thought one:

    As I read your post I began to think that the romance genre expects synchronised sex drives. That both partners in a relationship feel the same way at the same time and demonstrate this through their bodily connection aand equal levels of desire for the other. The arc of the romance is to achieve this and for the love/connection to be brought into the world of matter via the sexual joining.

    Thought two:

    IRL a friend told me a story about a male friend…. wife survives prolonged cancer treatment and never wants to have sex again, to be touched in any way that in her mind might lead to sex. It is nearly 8 years later and this is still so. Husband feels lost and as if his desire for his wife is unclean. I have no prescription for this couple though I think words spoken out loud to each other might help. My thoughts when my fellow cancer survivor told me this story about other survivors is that we are our bodies. Our lives and loving and our potentials and possibilities for connection arise from our flesh.

  2. meoskop

    @Merrian: We’ve been talking about this on Twitter and I wanted to expand the conversation here because point two is so rarely discussed. I said that I thought she was being somewhat unfair – that you have to choose to open, end or continue a marriage with both partners in full agreement. Your friend (correct me if I misspeak) felt the wife was angry at her body, but I suggested it was possible that she is unable to trust him not to push boundaries she doesn’t want to cross. Neither of us know them so we moved to my experience.

    In talking to other patients with an asexual outcome it seems fairly normal that friend & family concern is heavily weighted toward the non-patient. The concern is about how it will affect the sexual partner rather than the impact asexuality may be having on the patient. Is this a factor of wanting the patient “back to normal” or of the view that woman provide sex first and are people second? I can’t judge because I don’t have a good sample of male patients with this outcome to discuss their family & friends reaction.

    I don’t think I agree that we are our bodies for purposes of connection. I think that implies all kinds of unintended things for disabled people. Intense relationships can form over long distances and be sustained over great spans of time. Obviously, I still feel of romantic value as a non-born asexual. People become couples for many reasons. Sex is certainly an important factor for many but not (in my observation) all. There’s a lot to unpack in the topic. I know my reply doesn’t speak to genre fiction, but this conversation is so rarely broached I wanted to discuss it.

  3. Merrian

    @meoskop: my feeling that we are our bodies doesn’t preclude love or decide who is allowed connection, worth or value in any form on any terms. I think this couple’s story has been on my mind because it seems that their bodies are not only in contention but are the grounds or sites where their views of themselves and each other are being determined. I agree this is a silenced issue in cancer survivorship.

    Thinking about this couple I think led me to my first thought which is about a maybe over-determination of the body in the genre.

    I still feel that we are our bodies but would add that is only problematic if we try or are forced to fit our complexities into standard/normative formulations of love and relationship.

  4. Liz Mc2

    This post has given me a lot to think about, and I don’t think I can articulate most of it. But I really appreciate it.

    1. When I was an occasional and then a newly frequent reader of romance, I sometimes skipped TO the sex scenes. I was so *ahem* excited to find people writing about sex and desire and fantasies so openly. Now, I’m turning into a skipper/skimmer. Too often these scenes feel stale and formulaic and don’t add to the development of the story.

    2. I was reading an article today about people writing their own wedding vows and I was struck by how trivial many of the examples seemed. “I will always help you find your cellphone”? (I’ve heard some doozies among my own friends and families, too). The traditional vows are really hard promises made for the long haul. I think people can write their own like that, but too often they don’t because they’re going for what seems cute and romantic to them right now. They don’t want to think about the hard years, the sickness and poverty, etc. These aren’t really vows, promises that have to be lived out over many years. They’re showing off how in love the couple is right now.

    Anyway. While I have read some great, emotional sex scenes that really do add depth to the characters and their arc, I find that the emphasis on “hotness” in the genre too often leads to thin depictions of what love is all about. It feels like a lot of writers are rushing ahead to the “good parts,” like lust has come to stand in for love. I know this isn’t exactly a new observation. “We” are so pleased about our frankness about sex and female desire and how it’s OK to explore fantasies and be turned on, it’s like we’ve lost sight of everything else that goes into romantic love. Blah. That’s not what really drew me to reading the genre, despite my initial “ooh, sex!” response.

    I know Sturgeon’s Law. Most books are crap in one way or another. I still think the genre can do better. This is maybe a bit off topic. But I think you’re right that if a sex scene is not turning you on, you really notice when it’s not doing anything else, either.

    I think one of the very first blog posts I wrote was about how romance (almost) never depicts couples who are sexually incompatible in the frequency or nature of their desires, and who have to work this out, so obviously this has been bugging me for a long time.

  5. Marijana

    Liz, you said exactly what I was thinking in a much more comprehensive way than I would have!

    I am constantly evolving as a reader. I started reading rom about 6 years ago. In that time I have seen the genre evolve also ( i am speaking specifically of HR here). This is not to say that there were not books focusing on sex then, or before that, but I feel like it was used as
    a natural progression of a relationship between the hero and heroine. Newer release books seem to have a quota they need to meet. First kiss, page 20; first ‘almost’ sex scene, page 110 etc… It all feels gratuitous (this may not be the right word) and based in fantasy. Yes, i know, fantasy is part of the appeal but it also detracts when it is all there is.

    I have found that I am reading much less HR now and moving back to UF series, regency and YA because they tend to focus on character development and don’t use sex as a replacement. That’s not to say all HR fall into this category but it seems to be the flavour of the month.

    The asexuality aspect is interesting. The Hunger Games lead protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, reads asexual. There is a love triangle but she never expresses desire for either. That’s not to say her feelings were not involved, just that they were not sexualised.

    I’m also not sure I agree with the idea that we are our bodies. To me that only addresses one aspect of a person. What about intellectual connection, emotional etc…?

    I’ll stop rambling. This is an interesting topic that seems to open up many other issues.

  6. Merrian

    I just wanted to add that I am thinking of us as embodied beings not that biology is destiny and cisgender the only way. It is the meaning assigned to our bodies that I am questioning and wondering if we understand/have agency in our world through the medium of our embodiment? And if this is determined socially and culturally where we go with that?

    A conference paper I heard this week considered how our cultural understanding of human and particularly female biology was a determining factor in not only the descriptions of sex but what sex written in a story makes possible. At least that was my take away.

  7. Selma

    Marijana, that’s an interesting comment about Katniss. I remember when I read those books (which granted was awhile ago) I was a little confused that everyone was taking sides on the “love triangle” issue: I felt like Katniss wasn’t invested in it at all past its usefulness to her survival, and therefore I wasn’t invested in it either.

    For me personally, sex scenes blend together after the first couple, and generally I just find them less interesting than overt character development (not that they’re always mutually exclusive, but y’know, in the main), so I tend to read and write books that go light on the heat factor. But I think overall romance has really amped up its heat levels in the past 5-10 years, even for the sweeter categories. The positive aspect of this is that pre-hero virginity isn’t always held up as the gold standard that must be adhered to, but I’d like to see more blending of the two attitudes!

  8. Meoskop

    @Liz Mc2: All of this. For sure.

    I’ve been trying to think of recent books where I came for the emotional development and stayed for the sex but even for books I know I did, it’s not very memorable. It’s like trying to recall if they ate, and if so what – it might lend itself to the overall feel or mood of the book but it’s not what stays with me.

    As to reading the sex first, I think many a pre-teen has fallen into the genre with some dog eared pages and an inner OMG moment.