Friday, July 5, 2013

Asexual Romance?

Thanks to my friend Jane for telling me about a fascinating series of articles by Dominique Mosbergen on the Huffington Post's Gay Voices blog on the topic of asexuality. I knew what the word meant, of course, but I'd only ever read or heard it used in a pejorative way—referring to a person who for some psychologically problematic reason, did not feel sexual desire. But over the past decade, a group of men and women have begun to argue that asexuality is not always a sign of sexual disorder. Like homosexuality, bisexuality, and other sexual orientations that fall outside the sexual mainstream, asexuality should be regarded as an "intrinsic part" of a person's identity rather than a medical condition that needs to be fixed. Sexologist and professor Anthony Bogaert's research suggests that approximately 1% of England's population is asexual, a figure others have applied to the global population. AVEN (The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network) was founded in 2001 to create public acceptance and discussion of asexuality, and to facilitate the growth of the asexual community.

Bogaert suggests that the "ace" (short for asexual) identity helps us see how often society links romance and sex, a conflation that in the case of the asexual simply does not happen. Some asexuals desire a romantic relationship with another; others do not. Or some do not experience sexual desire until they've forged a strong emotional (and often romantic) connection with a specific person.



Today's romance novels typically couple sex and romance. Growing sexual attraction leads to growing emotional connection. Would it be possible in this day and age to envision an asexual romance novel? What would it look like? Could you argue that the traditional Regency romance can function as an asexual romance? What would a contemporary asexual romance look like?



26 comments:

  1. Your questions at the end are really interesting, and I mostly don't have answers. I do think a lot of romances now over-emphasize sexual attraction and treat it as shorthand/an easy way to show emotional and romantic attachment. And I sometimes think that conversations among writers and readers contribute to this by focusing so much on sex scenes and on whether they are arousing (snippets of sex scenes are very often what authors tweet/post as teasers for a work in progress, for instance--or maybe it just feels that way to me, because I find them uninteresting out of context of knowing something about the characters).

    I don't think traditional regencies are asexual, though. They are not graphic, but they usually manage to convey the physical/sexual attraction between the characters (and some have on or off-page sex scenes). Even most 19th century novels with romance plots convey sexual attraction, though I'm dubious about, say, Emma.

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    1. Thanks, Liz, for sharing your thoughts. Yes, it was a bit of a shot in the dark to say that Trads are asexual. Some of they may be, but probably not as a whole.

      What would a romance novel look like without sexual attraction playing ANY role? That's what I'm wondering about.

      Interesting to think about EMMA in this context -- do you think neither Emma nor Mr. K show that they are sexually attracted to one another?

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  2. I would agree with the previous commentator about how thought-provoking the questions are. I guess I might venture to say that Grant's A LADY AWAKENED has an initially asexual heroine, who only experiences sexual attraction after a strong friendship is formed with the hero.

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    1. Interesting example, Miss Bates. I think, though, that the asexual advocates would say that the "awakening" trope in Grant's book makes Martha not really an asexual at all. Apparently many openly asexual people get a lot of flack for declaring their asexuality, and lots of jerks saying they just need to meet the right person, or have sexual experiences FORCED upon them, in order for them to realize what true sexual desire is all about.

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    2. I haven't read that book, but there are real people who only experience sexual attraction after they've formed a strong bond with someone - they're called demisexual. It can be tricky to write a demisexual character without playing into asexual invaludation, but it can be done if you're careful.

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    3. I haven't read that book, but there are real people who only experience sexual attraction after they've formed a strong bond with someone - they're called demisexual. It can be tricky to write a demisexual character without playing into asexual invaludation, but it can be done if you're careful.

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  3. "What would a contemporary asexual romance look like?"

    I'd imagine there'd be a dearth of proximity lust, but lots of talking and cuddling. What I know about asexuality would fit a thimble, but if someone wrote an asexual romance, I'd be on that book like white on rice.

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  4. I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around this. I've always considered that romance=sexual tension, with or without nekkid parts. I guess if I shift my paradigm from sexual tension to emotional tension, then it works. And THEN, if I remind myself that it's that emotional "bam!" that gets to me, not the physical one (heh), then Yeah, okay, an asexual romance could work.
    I would probably have to call it a "Bromance" then (no matter the genetic gender of the parties in question, just to keep things straight in my mind).
    *sigh* I think I need more coffee.

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  5. When I read your questions about Regencies at the end, I immediately thought of _Venetia_ because it seemed to me to be more of a mental and emotional love story than a physical one. This despite Damerel's reputation for seduction and debauchery, which as we know was initially unearned. I think Venetia and Damerel could have had a fulfilling and happy life together even without sex. Does that make it asexual?
    That book and _These Old Shades_ are my two favorite Heyer books, precisely because the emotions are front and center (even though not over the top or even really physically expressed) and they are the driving forces in the books.

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    1. That's a really intriguing thought. Venetia failed utterly for me as a romance precisely because there was absolutely no sexual chemistry between Venetia and Demerel, although I did see that they were intellectually compatible and cared for each other. I wonder if it would work any better if I was to reread it with the idea of asexual romance in mind, without the preconception that romantic love MUST include a sexual element. I suspect it would.

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    2. I'm coming too late to this debate, but I can't resist putting my oar in: I utterly disagree about the lack of sexual attraction between Venetia and Damerel. I think what we have here is an instance of English writerly reticence.
      Note that this is the only(?) Heyer novel in which the first encounter between hero and heroine is a-sort-of-forced-seduction: Damerel pounces on her and kisses her, assuming she is a village maiden who isn't in a position to defend herself. Afterwards (in bed the next morning, to be precise) she confesses to herself that she enjoyed the kiss as a new and exciting experience. It is true that from then on, the friendship between them is stressed, but later on Venetia plans to acquire a see-through nightie for her wedding night (because she sees one on her mother and thinks Damerel would like to see one on his bride). I also believe that when Venetia agrees to preside over the occasional orgy in the Damerel household, she knows exactly what she is saying.
      Heyer, like most "trad." romance writers, leaves out the passages that I, personally, have grown so bored by in contemporary romance: endless and largely redundant descriptions of his eyelashes, his abs, the way his trousers hang from his lean hips, blabla - yeah, we geddit, he's a dish and she fancies him. Jane Austen leaves out the bit where Lizzie drools over the way Wickham's bum looks in his uniform breeches; and yet it's clear that THAT is why she first notices Wickham and is so ready to believe him when he does the dirty on Darcy.
      I'm sure that apart from any social and generic restrictions, these writers would have considered it crass and clumsy to go on and on about the way hero and heroine fancy each other. I read These Old Shades when I was 20, and there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Avon and Leonie have the hots for each other pretty much from the start. (Which makes this a rather kinky novel, considering she's in breeches for the first half and he's 20 years older than she is.) In this kind of reticent, Austen-y writing, the sex goes without saying.

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    3. "the only(?) Heyer novel in which the first encounter between hero and heroine is a-sort-of-forced-seduction"

      There's a similarity with the first encounter between the hero and heroine of Regency Buck.

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    4. Oh, and I'm with you, Dora, on the issue of sexual attraction in Venetia.

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    5. Yes, I, too, think the sexual chemistry is there in VENETIA; what's so great about it is that it doesn't take the place of friendship and companionship in their relationship, but rather plays an equal role. The entire package, rather than the insta-sexual attraction = love formula that so many other romances rely upon...

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    6. I can't tell if you were agreeing with me about the emotions being most important in these two books, and just disagreeing about the books being asexual, but I agree with you all that there was attraction in the books. My favorite scene in _These Old Shades_ was when Avon was talking to Léonie at the home of the Curé and he "forgot to drawl". Léonie could make him lose his composure, that was a major indicator that he cared. Yes, Venetia briefly felt an "impulse to respond" to Damerel's kiss, but she was immediately attracted by his wit, sense of humor, and kindness to Flurry. In my reading of the books, sexual attraction was not a STRONG motivator in either love story. Love developed between the characters that could stand alone and keep the lovers together without the physical aspects to bind them. That is why the asexual explanation appealed to me. I am not trying to say that any or all of the lead characters were asexual, but if they were, it would not have changed the books. That I do believe.

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  6. As an avid Dan Savage reader/listener I've heard not a little bit about asexuality as a sexual identity rather than as a psychological issue and about the struggles asexual people have with finding intimacy without sex or with very little sex. There's always a bit of negotiation in most real life romances about finding the happy medium between differing sexual appetites, but I can only imagine being asexual would make it exponentially more difficult.
    I've also been fully inculcated with the societal norm and romance-world norm that love and great sex are integral parts of romantic love and intimacy, and in my own experience I've found that to be the case as well. So a romance novel involving an asexual relationship might not be something I would think I would take an interest in, but then again it could work very well.
    I recently read "Cottonwood" by R. Lee Smith which is about insectoid aliens living in internment camps on Earth and it has a very well-written and emotional romance between a human woman and an alien man which does involve interspecies sex, but in a way that is more compelling than it is erotic because the emotional content is the focus and the physical aspects are presented very much as secondary (and as bizarre as you would assume).
    I'm always more impressed by romances which highlight emotion and convince me that it's not just a magic "insert tab a into slot b for insta-love" scenario. Plus I've learned to never say something can't work, because there are a lot of talented romance authors who have proven me wrong time and again. So, yes, this could work for me.

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  7. I actually just finished an anthology devoted to asexual romance (or, more accurately, asexual relationships, since only some of the stories qualify as romances). It's called The Heart of Aces. It was in desperate need of better editing - most of the stories needed a lot more polishing prior to publishing, and typos, incorrect word usage, and formatting errors abound. Many of the stories deal with relationships between an asexual and a sexual person, but most don't go into detail on how this might work out.

    I probably wouldn't give most of the stories more than 2 or 3 stars out of 5, and a couple were truly awful, but there was at least one gem in the collection (barring the typos, which made me want to cry). Now, if I could find a well-edited full-length asexual romance, I'd jump at the chance to read it.

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    1. Thanks for letting us know about this collection, Library Girl. Perhaps as the asexual community grows and awareness becomes greater, more publishers will invest the time and money to produce better-quality work.

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  8. Isn't that what an inspirational romance is? LOL.

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  9. An inspirational romance is one wherein the hero & heroine remain chaste until marriage. There's no pre-marital sex, but the romantic protagonists are not asexual.

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    1. Yes, Miss Bates, I agree. Asexuals argue that there is a difference between celibacy, which is a choice not to act on sexual desires, and asexuality, which is a lack of sexual desire altogether.

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  10. I realize that. But in practice, is there any difference? Is there a lot of discussion in inspirational romance of sexual desire?

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    1. The few that I've read (I've been trying to find an inspirational that could also be deemed feminist, without much luck, alas) do include passionate kissing, and looking forward to the consummation after marriage with anticipation and pleasure. So yes, I think there is a difference. Have you read others that don't include sexuality at all?

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  11. I always thought inspirational romances were about non-physical love. Guess I was wrong. I've read plenty of romances outside that genre with little to no sex or kissing. I'd direct anyone interested to goodreads lists or groups for 'clean' or 'sweet' romance. If I come across a feminist one, I'll pass it on.

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    1. Thanks! I'd love to discover some feminist Christian or inspirational romance.

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  12. I know this is two years old, but I would like to comment as a person who is 44 years old, virgin and disinterested in sex: I would love to read historical romances about over 30 heroines, especially asexual.

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