The Olivia Experiment and the portrayal of asexual groups

The Olivia Experiment is a comedy about a woman who is a virgin.  All the characters seem to agree that this is what’s holding Olivia back, so as an experiment she prepares to have sex with a friend, and document it all on film.

As an example of asexual representation, I have mixed feelings about this movie.  The endless pressure to have sex is a theme that will resonate with many here (if you can stomach dealing with this theme in a comedic fashion).  And asexuality is mentioned many times as a serious possibility.  In fact, part of the motivation for the experiment is that Olivia wants to figure herself out, whatever orientation she may be.

But there’s this one scene which has problems. In the opening scene, Olivia goes to an asexual group in Berkeley.  That’s funny because I’m part of the real-life Berkeley meetup group, so it’s like a fictional version of myself!  The only thing is, the fictional group is clearly a support group, and they clearly use a more exclusive definition of asexuality.

At the end of the meeting, the group leader confronts Olivia and tells her that she might not fit in the group.  Some people use asexuality as a way to hide, she says.  The rationale was also entirely unclear to me–was it that Olivia hadn’t tried sex yet?  So what?  That leader really pissed me off!  Who does she think she is, telling people that they don’t belong?

My interpretation is that the fictional support group is just really screwed up.  But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be such an unsympathetic portrayal.  I think the screenwriter simply didn’t know about asexual elitism, or how unacceptable it is in ace communities.  The writer was unaware that ace communities generally try to be safe spaces for asexuality AND safe spaces for uncertainty and exploration.  And how could the writer know, without, you know, doing a bit of research?


This is interesting because now we have two whole examples of fictional representation of asexual groups.  We can practically do some statistical analysis!

The other example comes from Shortland Street (see part 1, 2, and 3).  Upon encouragement from a friend, Gerald tries meeting with an asexual society. The society is portrayed more true to life, in that it’s a casual social group.  However, despite it allegedly being casual, most of what they do on-screen is try to help Gerald come to terms with his identity.

The problem with the group (spoiler alert) is that Gerald gets along a little too well with the leader.  The leader’s girlfriend gets jealous and tells Gerald to stay away.  I thought this plot was cute; it seemed like the writer wanted to humanize the asexual group.  Asexuals are the same: they have jealousy and drama like the rest of us!  Although in my experience, ace meetups aren’t exactly breeding grounds for romantic drama, since there are relatively few possible pairings.

A common thread between Shortland Street and The Olivia Experiment is that it’s practically a foregone conclusion that things won’t work out with the asexual group.  One asexual character is already enough for non-asexual audiences.  Bringing in a whole community of asexual characters?  Well, as long as they don’t stay on screen for very long.

I am not sure I want asexual groups to be portrayed at length, or with perfect accuracy.  I mean, take classrooms.  When I go to a movie, I don’t want to see an accurately portrayed classroom, because that would be boring.  So classrooms are basically never portrayed accurately (and The Olivia Experiment provides an example of this too).    Likewise, I’m not sure I really want to see a realistic asexual group, where people play Cards Against Humanity and talk about the internet.

So I think I’m okay with asexual groups being portrayed as support groups, or as big sources of relationships.  However, I’d really like if they were a more inclusive.  I worry about people seeing The Olivia Experiment and concluding that they would never fit within the asexual spectrum.

How would you like ace groups to be portrayed?

The Olivia Experiment is not publicly available at this time, but it may be in the future.  See the website for up to date information on the film.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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20 Responses to The Olivia Experiment and the portrayal of asexual groups

  1. queenieofaces says:

    Okay, now I’m really curious about Divorce, since apparently that ALSO featured an asexual support group. I don’t speak Dutch, though, so I have no idea what was going on in that scene. I’m really curious about what the make-up of these groups is portrayed as–it seems like (from what little of Divorce I’ve seen written about) Divorce is portraying meet-up groups as mostly being mixed hetero couples, which, at least in my experience, is nothing like the actual make-up of meet-up groups. (I can think of…maybe two heteroromantic people who attend NEA, and only a handful of people are in mixed relationships.) NEA has a LOT of aro or aro-spectrum people, so the idea of meet-up being a place to scout out dating partners is…odd to say the least.

    • Siggy says:

      Gosh, we have three data points already!

      I’m not sure what to think of a group full of mixed orientation male/female couples. Sometimes the media really likes to focus on such couples, so maybe the writer glommed onto the idea. I suppose there’s some possible world (either in the future or in other locations) where ace meetups look like that… But it really seems like unless the group is designated for a particular romantic orientation, the number of possible pairings grows much more slowly than with straight groups.

  2. You know, having an asexual group playing Cards Against Humanity as an introduction could actually be kind of funny- you could have them breaking stereotypes by having one of them tell a dirty joke, or have them make very meta-level commentary on how straight people see them, or something like that.

    • Siggy says:

      Wait, wait, I’m breaking stereotypes literally every social event where someone pulls out Cards Against Humanity? I’ve never felt like such a rebel.

      • Sciatrix says:

        Our meetup doesn’t have Cards Against Humanity, but it does frequently have cock jokes. Are there any ace meetups that never descend into dirty joke territory, even to the level of that’s-what-she-said territory? Is that a thing that exists?

        • I think people tend to assume all ace meet ups are, well, “prude”? Clearly anecdotal evidence has proven that this has no basis in reality!

        • Katie says:

          I sometimes find myself making dirty jokes /more often/ than the people around me. It seems to be a function of language and pattern recognition rather than having a mind that’s necessarily tuned in to sex. Also – and this maybe deserves its own topic – dirty jokes in particular tend to put me at ease. Acting the part of someone who views others sexually – sort of parodying this expected role confers a kind of power over that which typically alienates me and poses me as the sexual object. As in: I see your game, I can beat you at your game, and I’m not even playing.

          Anyone else get this?

          • Sciatrix says:

            Yes on the making dirty jokes more often than people around me–this was a thing among some of my friends in my undergrad. (For reference, here “dirty joke” = any joke referencing sex.) Part of it is probably pushback to popular conceptions of asexuals as being prudish, and part of it is that I honestly do think that sex is kind of hilarious. Also, with respect to cis and straight acquaintances, I have a wider frame of reference about sex than many of them do and know more concepts that might lend themselves to a joke, which results in more frequent jokes. For example, I have occasionally made off-color jokes referencing specific kinks only to find that people had no idea what I was talking about, which was… awkward. And I have been the only person to understand other people’s dirty jokes without needing explanation in a group, too. This is not a phenomenon I notice nearly as often when hanging out with people who are not straight and cis.

            Dirty jokes don’t put me at ease, necessarily. For example, any joke that references my personal sexual history or desires or sexuality, if they get it wrong, is likely to set my hackles up. This is especially true when I don’t know the person well, which also means they’re more likely to guess badly wrong. I’m more likely to make off-color jokes when I’m comfortable that everyone in the room knows I’m ace and what that means. So it’s probably more accurate to say that things go the other way: I don’t get more relaxed when I’m making dirty jokes; I make more jokes when I’m already relaxed and in the company of friends.

          • This is definitely what I do outside of ace spaces when I first come out, and I’m pretty sure it’s to put the people around me at ease. Although, I still try to make sure the jokes are not heteronormative so to some degree I wonder if I just start acting the “flamingly bi” role (something like Jack Harkness). This might also be because I try to avoid assuming anything about other people’s sexuality, so the jokes tend not to be about specific other people, and will more often be me just playing a part- like the parody thing you mentioned.

          • Siggy says:

            I will chime in with an opposite experience. I’m really not into dirty jokes. They’re more the sort of thing I roll my eyes at.

            Plus, making dirty jokes could not be construed as ironic in my case. God knows my gay friends talk about dicks all the time. I don’t think they need my help.

          • Sciatrix says:

            Also, to bring up another point: I’m not sure that a meetup that’s described as a casual ace social group that spends a lot of time on-screen helping a new member to come to terms with being ace is all that unrealistic? Mine is definitely a very socially oriented group, not a support group. But when members (especially new members) show up and want to work through whether asexuality fits as a label for them, the discussion shunts to that topic pretty easily.

          • queenieofaces says:

            I’m actually extremely poor at getting or making dirty jokes–poor at getting in the sense that someone will make a dirty joke and it will take a full minute of processing time before I figure out there was an innuendo in there. I know a lot about sex, but that isn’t necessarily the first connection my brain jumps to. So I guess I’m more stereotypically ace in that sense.

  3. acetheist says:

    “How would you like ace groups to be portrayed?”

    Without the leaders using Dan Savage logic! “Some people use asexuality as a way to hide”? Really? That again?

  4. siggysrobotboyfriend says:

    I think a portrayal of a group where people talk about ace issues for a few minutes and then break out Cards Against Humanity would be great.

    • Talia says:

      I would really like a portrayal like that – it fits my limited experience of asexual in person groups (and other groups) while also presenting to the audience that we don’t just discuss or do one thing. 🙂

      In response to the article itself, while I agree that we don’t represent classrooms accurately in film, I think this kind of representation is different than representing asexuality. Everyone in the audience is expected to have been in a classroom before. If this is the first time people are seeing asexuality it becomes a learning moment and thus I feel more invested in what gets depicted and what doesn’t.

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