I’ve been meaning to write a post on asexuality in fanfic for a while, especially since chess-ka wrote her piece on some issues with asexuality in fanfiction. This post is probably best read as an extension of her post, as I’m talking specifically about issues of representation in acefic. This is in no way a quantitative study! Someone with more time than me should do a quantitative study at some point. The analysis in this post is based off of my experiences reading acefic (a LOT of acefic) for several years. Also, talking to other folks who read a lot of acefic.
If you start reading acefic, you’ll very quickly realize that almost all the male characters are either homoromantic or aromantic and almost all the female characters are either aromantic or (much less frequently) heteroromantic. In my experience, acefic about male aces is at least ten times as common as acefic about female aces.* I can’t think of any acefic with non-binary ace characters…or even acefic with binary trans characters. Want to find acefic with homoromantic women or heteroromantic men or bi/panromantic…anyone? Well, best of luck to you, ’cause you’re going to be looking for a long time. The good news is that there’s a fair amount of variation in place along the ace spectrum (although there definitely seem to be more asexual characters than grey-A or demi characters); the bad news is that the variation mostly exists so that the ace character can wind up having (fairly normative) sex with their partner.
In a weird way, representation of romantic orientation in acefic is actually worse than representation in non-fanfic media. Just among the ten characters I picked to talk about confirmed asexual characters in fiction, at least two are either bi- or panromantic (Orson and Anwar). (It’s worth noting, though, that representation in TV and movies isn’t doing anywhere near as well.) Siggy has expressed some concern about erasure of homo/bi/pan ace people in mainstream media (and I’ve written about the difficulties of having both my sexual and romantic orientations erased), and that’s essentially what’s happening here, despite that fact that, at least in my experience, most acefic is written by actual asexual people.**
Let’s look at demographics. Despite the fact that the majority of acefic features male aces (often in relationships with other men), male aces seem to be in the minority in ace communities. Similarly, take a gander at the breakdown for romantic orientation:
Other monoromantic: 4%
It’s exponentially easier to find homoromantic aces in acefic than bi/panromantic aces, and yet homoromantic aces only make up 6% of our community! Given how few male aces there are and how few homoromantic aces there are, homoromantic male aces are drastically overrepresented in acefic.
What’s going on here? Well, to some extent I think the representation we’re seeing in acefic is part of a larger trend in fandom to prioritize male stories and characters (as well as m/m pairings).*** It’s also part of a trend in fandom to represent men in m/m relationships as “gay” (even if they are canonically attracted to women!) or “straight with a single exception because they’re so in love” rather than the more logical “bisexual” or “pansexual” or even “queer.” It reflects trends away from femslash–thus the ace ladies interested in no one or (much less frequently) interested in men, but not interested in women.
To some extent, acefic mirroring fandom as a whole is another case in which [romantic orientation] aces are presented as “[sexual orientation] Lite.” Homoromantic men take the place of the “gay” men while aromantic men sometimes (problematically) take the place of the “straight with a single exception because they’re so in love” men. In fact, a lot of the time, m/m acefic reads a lot like G-rated slash. In cases where, as chess-ka discussed, the ace winds up having sex with their partner, it just reads like slash. This might help explain the lack of ace f/f–the higher physical bar to legitimize f/f relationships probably means that a lot of nonsexual f/f relationships would read as “just” close friendships, whereas the bar for m/m is significantly lower, so m/m acefic can just have cuddling and still be “legitimate” m/m. (Why there isn’t f/f acefic where the ace winds up having sex with her partner is another question entirely. It’s probably for some of the same reasons that there isn’t much non-ace femslash.)
So, if aces in acefic are A. often depicted as G-rated versions of the “gay” or “straight but true love” male characters and B. depicted in relationships that aren’t particularly different than sexual m/m relationships other than the sex (and even then, that’s negotiable), why do aces bother writing acefic? After all, when you put it like that, it seems like acefic is basically a watered down version of slash, or maybe slash “with a quirk” that doesn’t alter the overall trajectory of the storyline much. If aces are writing acefic in the hopes of seeing themselves reflected in the media they consume, wouldn’t we expect to see demographics that more properly reflect the make-up of the community, relationships that more properly reflect the relationships we really have,**** and emphasis on the parts of our experiences (isolation, confusion about our orientation(s), feeling broken, etc.) that aren’t already written about in fanfic?
I don’t really know, but I can wildly speculate! Maybe people don’t want to too wildly deviate from the accepted fanfic narrative, ’cause, hey, spreading awareness of asexuality is great, but having no readers is not. Maybe it’s a question of “write what you see everyone else writing”; if everyone else is writing about vaguely gay men in m/m relationships, you feel pressure to join them, ’cause adding asexuality to the mix is already a level of abstraction from the rest of fandom.***** Maybe it has something to do with the preponderance of fanon ace characters who are (white) cis men–if there aren’t many fanon female aces, it’s difficult to write fic about them. Maybe it’s because G-rated fic rarely gets as many hits as explicit fic, and authors of G-rated fic will often be bombarded with comments asking, “But when are they going to have sex?”
Now you may be thinking, Okay, but why does it matter whether the demographics of the asexual community are properly reflected in acefic? It’s just fanfiction! Well, yes, it is just fanfiction, but you might be surprised how many people (both aces and non-aces) first stumbled across asexuality via fanfiction. Kris Ligman writes:
Oddly, I have fandom to thank for this bit of self-discovery as well. Over the summer I got into BBC’s Sherlock series. […] [B]ut it was really the way themes of self-identity and asexuality were unpacked by fanwriters, many of whom are themselves asexual and speak from first-hand experience, that finally allowed things to line up for me. […] It took reading a fanfic told from the perspective of an asexual character by an asexual author for me to connect the last dots.
Fanfiction is an effective method of spreading information about asexuality–scroll down to the comments of many acefics and you’ll find someone has written, “I’ve never heard of this before, but this resonated with me a lot! To Google!” Especially among the tumblr ace demographic, there seem to be a fair number of aces who first heard of asexuality through fandom. So if fanfiction is serving as an introduction to asexuality for so many people, it would be nice if there was more acefic about ace women, about bi/panromantic people, about trans aces, about non-binary aces, about people in the grey area whose sexual orientation isn’t just a plot device for them to have sex, and about relationships that aren’t just “slash minus the sex” (if the sex is removed at all).
*For example, scrolling through this sex-free and asexual-inclusive tumblr blog, which has been getting a fair amount of attention recently, it took me until page 6 to find an f/f ship, and m/m ships vastly outnumbered f/m ships.
**The one exception to this rule seems to be the Sherlock fandom. It’s still predominantly acefic written by and for aces, but there are also a number of allosexual authors writing acefic, sometimes with incredibly problematic consequences.
***There’s been a whole lot written on these phenomena, but let me drop a few links here: a ranked list of the most popular relationship tags on AO3, centrumlumina on m/m fans: sexuality and gender and some musings on why m/m is so popular, a longer conversation on heterosexual female slash fans, some theories on why f/f isn’t popular, greenchestnuts‘s quantitative study of misogyny and slash in the MCU, and saathi1013 on slash and queer fetishization.
****I’m not saying that the relationships depicted in acefic are totally absent in ace communities, because they’re not. If you look at the community survey, though, you’ll see that aces who have (and enjoy having) sex are a definite minority.
*****This seems to happen quite frequently with other identities as well. Making a character trans doesn’t actually change the trajectory of the story; it just adds an extra scene where the main couple talk about trans issues. The same often happens when writing characters with certain types of disabilities. This gets back to some of the discussion on detachable identities that has been on the Agenda recently; fanfic writers often write as though sexual orientation/gender identity/disability/etc. is a detachable identity, which is part of the reason why even acefic can follow the same trajectory as slash fic. That topic’s probably a post in and of itself, though.