Ace Tropes: Ace/Aro Immunity

Sara K. blogs at The Notes Which Do Not Fit, and has written a number of book reviews of asexual fiction.  She is continuing the ace tropes series, albeit with more of a focus on books.

heartless_example

Two vampires discuss why their vampire powers do not work on the protagonist in the webcomic Heartless.

In fiction, there are sometimes magical abilities which exploit characters’ sexual and/or romantic urges. For example, there is the myth of the sirens who use their song to lure victims to their doom (though it’s mainly in Christian-influenced interpretations that this lure is described as being sexual and/or romantic – pagans did not describe the sirens that way).

But what if somebody does not have any sexual or romantic urges to exploit? If a character is asexual and/or aromantic, are they immune to those magic abilities which exploit sexual and/or romantic attraction/desire?

In some fiction stories, the answer is yes, and the fact that the ace/aro character is immune to these magic abilities which affect most people is an important plot point.

For example, in the webcomic Heartless, vampires use people’s lusts as a part of their form of mind control, called the ‘allure’. Clara Danvers, the protagonist, is asexual, so the ‘allure’ simply does not work on her.

Why do I call this ‘ace/aro immunity’ rather than ‘ace immunity’? Because fiction does not always clearly distinguish between sexual feelings and romantic feelings (shocking, I know). Sometimes it is not obvious whether a character is immune because they are ace or because they are aro. And the concept of being resistant to magical sexual appeals is very similar to the concept of being resistant to magical romantic appeals, so until there are a lot more examples which are specifically ace and specifically aro, I am comfortable with collapsing the two into a single trope.

In Cracked: A Magic iPhone Story, the ‘immune’ character is explicitly both asexual and aromantic, so it is not clear whether he is immune to the effects of the magic iPhone because he is asexual or because he is aromantic (actually, the story says that the character is immune because he is asexual and aromantic).

If anyone is wondering why I am not listing any examples involving succubi/incubi, that is because 1) there are so many succubi/incubi in ace fiction that I think it merits a separate trope 2) the ace characters are usually not immune to the succubi/incubi, they just react differently (for example, the ace character may really want to cuddle the succubus/incubus).

Though this is a trope which is primarily found in speculative fiction, it’s related to the common idea that ace and aro people lack some of the vulnerabilities most people have. It is true that a lot of people are tempted into taking unwise actions because of sexual and/or romantic feelings, and that ace and/or aro people MAY not feel that kind of temptation, and thus are less likely to take the unwise action. And sometimes ace and/or aro people express gratitude for not having to deal with that kind of thing. On the other hand, there are so many other things in this world which tempt people to take unwise actions that not experiencing a particular kind of temptation does not necessarily make much difference. Furthermore, plenty of people who do experience sexual and/or romantic temptations are adept at resisting them when it is in their interests to do so.

Examples:
Heartless (webcomic)
“Cold Ennaline” by R.J. Astruc
Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story by Janine A. Southerd
Eth’s Skin (webcomic)

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you’re reading a story with an ace character and they run into a bunch of sirens (the kind who appeal to sexual feelings), how would you expect the sirens to affect the ace character?
  2. Does this trope help readers understand ace/aro experiences? Why or why not?
  3. Some aces do experience sexual feelings of some kind (demisexuals, aces who aren’t attracted to people but have high libidos, and so forth). How might such ace characters fit into a story using this trope?

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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31 Responses to Ace Tropes: Ace/Aro Immunity

  1. Frank says:

    I think the opposite trope reveals more – the trauma of experiencing attraction entirely at odds with previous life experience. Being entirely unprepared for what you’re feeling. Which, of course, is not unknown in the real (unmagical) world.

    • Sara K. says:

      I confess that your comment does not make sense to me (or more specifically, I don’t understand how ‘ the trauma of experiencing attraction entirely at odds with previous life experience’ is the opposite of this trope, or how that is relevant to the discussion of this trope).

      • Frank says:

        In the immunity trope, our aro/ace hero triumphs by sidestepping danger. There is no conflict, and to find the contrast that teaches us about difference, we would need to experience the same story from another character’s point of view. It can be done, of course, but ultimately it’s like any story of a hero who is immune to whatever the danger is.

        In the “opposite” trope – and I accept that’s an odd way to describe it – our hero, who is usually immune to the danger, is suddenly confronted by it. For the very first time, our hero is beset by irrational desire and must struggle against this to finally win the day. Here the conflict and contrast are clear.

        • Sara K. says:

          That’s not how it happens in the stories which actually use this trope. They all definitely have contrast – between the ace characters and the non-ace characters who are not immune. As far as conflict, two the examples I listed – Heartless (the webcomic, not the novel by Gail Carriger which also has queer Victorian vampires but, AFAIK, no asexual content) and “Cold Ennaline” the ace protagonist’s immunity *is* a significant (albeit indirect) source of conflict. I cannot say much about “Cold Ennaline” without getting into major spoilers, so I will make my point with Heartless – the fact that the ace protagonist has this particular immunity makes her a target for quite a few other vampires, and thus increases her danger (in fact, it puts her in much more danger than she would have been if she had *not* had immunity, and thus avoided drawing the attention of hostile vampires).

          • Frank says:

            I don’t really disagree with you, but you asked: “Does this trope help readers understand ace/aro experiences? Why or why not?” If you mean, does the trope help readers understand what it is like to be different from other people (and, perhaps, persecuted as a result), then yes. But if you mean, does the trope help readers to understand what it is like to be ace/aro (and not experience certain forms of attraction, a difference that potentially colours their entire perception of the world)… then I think a different trope works better.

          • Sara K. says:

            Well, I really do not see how the trope which you suggests helps readers understand ace/aro experiences. In fact, in my experience, it’s the opposite – most of the time when the trope you mentioned appears in fiction, it’s used to assert that the character is NOT ace/aro after all (and when executed in certain ways, may even imply that nobody is ace or aro). Then again, if you can offer a counterexample from a work of fiction where the trope of “the trauma of experiencing attraction entirely at odds with previous life experience. Being entirely unprepared for what you’re feeling” actually helps readers understand ace/aro experience rather than obscure it, I am open to revising my assessment.

          • Frank says:

            The fundamental difficulty with the immunity trope is that the focus is on a lack of attraction. If, in romantic fiction, it is the attraction that defines the story and drives it like a voltage potential, the immunity trope is essentially a short circuit across the terminals.

            Where the immunity trope works well, it’s because the immunity is achieved through some great struggle (e.g., against evil magic that induces an unnatural attraction), or because it comes at great cost (e.g., being persecuted for being different). These two examples are both valuable stories / tropes, the first being an internal struggle against madness, the second being an external struggle against injustice.

            So the question is: Are you primarily interested in how unable and unwilling most people are to understand and accept aro/ace people, or are you more interested in the fundamental nature of attraction?

            Imagine, if you will, that you find you no longer love your husband. Romantically. Sexually. This man you have loved for years. The father of your two children. You still love him, you just don’t love him. He hasn’t changed. You have. You no longer find any men attractive, but there’s this woman you see every day and suddenly you can’t stop thinking about her…

            Or, imagine kissing your beautiful wife that you have loved passionately for years and thinking: I don’t want this. I can’t even stand to be touched. And you’re freaked out because no marriage can survive like that. Also, whenever you watch television, there’s just so much sex and it all seems so violent and horrifying, and suddenly you feel utterly disconnected from human civilisation.

            Or, imagine coming to terms with being aromantic after years of confusion, only to fall in love for the first time in your life. You’ve spent years ranting about people who say, “One day you’ll meet that special someone,” and now they were right and you feel like a fraud.

            These are real-life stories that say a huge amount about the nature of attraction. Why shouldn’t a (well written) fictional account of magically induced shift in orientation be just as powerful?

          • Sara K. says:

            Basiscally, you are saying that stories about people who do not experience attraction are NOT good for representing the experience of people who do not experience attraction, and that instead stories about people who experience attraction ARE good for representing the experiences of people who do not experience attraction.

            First of all, *that does not make sense*. This is NOT ABOUT FICTION WHICH EXPLORES THE NATURE OF ATTRACTION, THIS IS ABOUT FICTION ABOUT ACE/ARO EXPERIENCES. You seem to me to be saying that fiction which explores what it is like to be ace/aro is bad, and ought to be replaced with people about people who experience sexual and/or romantic attraction.

            I also notice that you did not cite a single example of a work of fiction using the trope you describe which helps people understand ace/aro experiences rather than obscure it.

            At this point, I am angry. And I suspect that you are arguing in bad faith because you think stories about people who experience attraction are superior to stories about people who do not experience attraction.

          • Sara K. says:

            Just to be clear, I don’t think the immunity trope is necessarily the best way to represent ace/aro experiences in fiction. That’s why I made it one of the questions. But it at least includes ace/aro characters, whereas you seem to be saying that characters who turn out to NOT be ace/aro are somehow better for helping people understand ace/aro experiences. Likewise, though I don’t like it when a story just uses a female character as a sexy lamp, a story with sexy lamp female characters still has better representation of the experiences of females than a story with zero female characters.

            Also, for years as a reader, I’ve read stories where a character *seems* to maybe be ace/aro, and then suddenly, they’re not because they met that one special person or something. For a while, I thought I was ‘just a late bloomer’ and such stories may have influenced me to think that way. Thus, I can say that the type of story you describe does often obscure ace/aro experiences.

          • luvtheheaven says:

            I think Frank is alluding to some of the conversation had already with the Ace Trope of the Ace Foil: https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/ace-tropes-the-ace-foil/ The first paragraph there reads:

            “You might say that asexuality is the subtlest orientation. Often, if a character lacks interest in sex, or lacks sexual attraction, there’s just no way you could know. After all, maybe they experience sexual attraction off-screen. To achieve more satisfying ace representation, sometimes you need something to highlight the aceness.”

            And I’m seeing a lot of that in this conversation? Maybe I’m off the mark but it seems a philosophical exercise in how this trope works, because “In the immunity trope, our aro/ace hero triumphs by sidestepping danger.” and the comparison is almost to Superman (or with the recent TV show, Supergirl) being too powerful, too immune to every threat, and therefore “boring” and the story has no conflict because obviously Superman can just save the day with ease. If an ace can just avoid the problem by nature of being lucky, that is only fun for the same types of fiction consumers who find the awesomeness of Superman’s god-like invulnerability exciting. Many fiction consumers don’t like it, that’s true.

            But your point about Heartless, Sara K., where you said “the fact that the ace protagonist has this particular immunity makes her a target for quite a few other vampires, and thus increases her danger ” is extremely important to note! I think this trope has so much potential especially in a world that too often still quite literally forgets it’s possible to be non-straight (thanks to heteronormativity) and who never knew it’s possible to never experience attraction at all.

            Now about that ONE point Frank seemed to be making, where in order for a non-ace reader to appreciate what it’s like to not feel attraction, you need to make the ace character experience attraction and make it abundantly clear how foreign this feeling is, um, no. I don’t think that’s necessary, and I think as Sara K. said “most of the time when the trope you mentioned appears in fiction, it’s used to assert that the character is NOT ace/aro after all”, and it’s overwriting the real experiences of so many real aces who can’t just turn into people who feel attraction. There HAS to be better ways than love potions that DO work on aces and in less fantastical fiction, convenient for the love story “not ace after all” plots, to capture the ace experience, such as the ace foil trope I just mentioned, such as making a point that aces are immune to this kind of magical seduction in a way non-aces aren’t, etc. – it can happen from many different angles in many different types of fiction and over time allosexual people will be able to “Get it” as much as aces can “Get”/empathize with/understand all non-ace orientations.

          • Frank says:

            I’m sorry for upsetting you. I am not arguing in bad faith and I am certainly not suggesting that stories about attraction are superior. luvtheheaven’s comment explains my clumsy argument well.

            Re. fiction: As far as I can recall, I’ve used the inverted trope twice in my writing. Once in The Slave-Girl and the Vampire where a woman in a world without men meets a man for the first time and discovers she isn’t ace/aro as she had always believed – but here the point is also made that she was chosen specifically because she wasn’t actually ace/aro. The other, more aptly, is this little Supergirl poem: An Unsought Kiss.

          • Sara K. says:

            Again, the problem with your argument is that it does not apply to any work of fiction of fiction which uses the ace/aro trope (as far as I know – if you know of an example where it gives the ace character such Superman-like powers that they seem immune to anything which could cause problems for them, you are welcome to cite that example).

            Though I have not read your short story, you yourself say that the character is *not* aro/ace, so claiming that their experiences better represent the experiences of ace/aro people than characters who are, in fact, aro/ace is, well… (note: your story may be worthwhile for purposes other than representing aro/ace experiences).

          • Siggy says:

            @Frank,
            It can be difficult to criticize an author to their face, especially when I haven’t even read their book. But I don’t think I would want to read a book that was about a woman discovering she is not ace/aro.

            That sounds kind of like the pattern in ace fanfiction of always having the ace character have sex at the end–which is a thing that people have been complaining about for years. (There’s a classic post by chess-ka, but I don’t have access to it anymore.) I get that there should also be representation for aces who have sex, demisexuals, and aces who ultimately decide that they’re not ace, but it’s strange when they have such disproportionate representation, and are represented in such a narrow way that just so happens to resemble allo slash.

            However, your rationale for having an ace character discover they’re not ace, that is new to me. And it doesn’t sound very plausible to me. Having an aro/ace character discover they’re not aro/ace, that sounds more like a way to help aro/ace readers understand allo experiences rather than vice versa.

          • Frank says:

            Just for clarity: I really wasn’t trying to recommend my story as an ideal of ace/aro representation. In fact, given the explicit sexual content, I would be reluctant to recommend it at all. That said, it is set in a world where a sizeable minority of people explicitly identify as ace/aro – in a world without men, is there a difference between ace/aro and hetero? – even if the story itself is focussed on a group of women who are hetero.

            @Sara “claiming that their experiences better represent the experiences of ace/aro people than characters who are, in fact, aro/ace is, well…”: Please stop putting words in my mouth. All I have ever claimed here is that a change in orientation, whether temporary or permanent, whether real, apparent or magical, provides a way to contrast different orientations and thus yield perhaps a better understanding of both.

          • Sara K. says:

            @Frank

            This is something you have said “I think the opposite trope reveals more – the trauma of experiencing attraction…” And you repeatedly say that showing characters experience attraction is a better way to represent ace/aro experiences than showing characters who. do. not. experience. attraction. I do admit that I did get confused because, when you finally offered an example of an actual work of fiction (your own story), I assumed you meant that it was supposed to be a good example of how to represent ace/aro experiences. In response to Siggy, you explained that it is not. If I had understood that you did not consider it a good example, I would have responded differently.

            Look, if you had just said “I think the Ace Foil trope works better at helping readers understand ace experiences than the Ace Immunity trope’ I would not have a problem (in fact, I think that the Ace Foil trope generally is better, but even if I disagreed, it would not upset me). The problem is that you seem more fixated on representing attraction that what actual ace/aro experiences are like.

            To answer one of your earlier questions:

            “Are you primarily interested in how unable and unwilling most people are to understand and accept aro/ace people, or are you more interested in the fundamental nature of attraction?”

            *For the purposes of discussing what it is like to be ace/aro* I am way more interested in “how unable and unwilling most people are to understand and accept aro/ace people” than “the fundamental nature of attraction” BECAUSE IT HAS A LOT MORE TO DO WITH HOW ACE/ARO PEOPLE EXPERIENCE THE WORLD.

            Also, to reply to another earlier comment:

            “The fundamental difficulty with the immunity trope is that the focus is on a lack of attraction.”

            Actually, no, that is the good part. I do have issues with the ace immunity trope, but one of the best things about it IS that it puts focus on the lack of attraction. That’s awesome.

            Also, when aces come out, a common reaction is that we aren’t believed, that we really can’t be ace, that we have not met the right person, that we need to try harder at experiencing sexual attraction etc. *I* have experienced that reaction personally. It is sometimes the case that someone has not met the right person yet? Yes – but that is generally an allo experience. And I think it would be really difficult to write a story about somebody ‘changing orientation’ without making it look like the ace character was “fixed” or that their asexuality wasn’t real in the first place.

            You seem to insist on focusing on attraction, something that allo people experience, instead of what ace/aro people experience (demisexuals/grey-As also experience some degree/kind of attraction, but most of what I’ve read about/by grey-As, both in fiction and non-fiction, makes a point of how they do not experience attraction the way that allos experience attraction). If you want to explore the experience of attraction, fine. Just don’t say that you are representing the experiences of aces and aros when you are exploring something which is primarily an allo experience.

          • luvtheheaven says:

            (Siggy, that link tumblr doesn’t work for any of us anymore but you can read before the “Read More” link, we can at least still read the relevant the beginning of the post, if you link to another person who has reblogged it… like: http://writingfromfactorx.tumblr.com/post/64440052578/some-issues-with-asexuality-in-fanfic )

    • Siggy says:

      There’s an inversion of the trope in Guardian of the Dead, where a magical character charms an ace character. However, rather than treating this as an ace character confronting an unfamiliar experience, it’s treated as a clue that something magical is going on.

      • queenieofaces says:

        Ha, I came here to comment on how Guardian of the Dead is an inversion, but it looks like you beat me to the punch. (I still have mixed feelings about the way that whole storyline plays out.)

  2. There do really are a lot of succubi/incubi in ace fiction, thought i’ve never personally seen an story where the ace character is “lured to cuddle”. I’d say it’s more related to ace characters/people being often presented as cuddly uwu as just their personality.

    It may also be of interest to this trope that in “Texture Like Sun” by Ils Greyhart/Aidan Wayne, the author added the procubus:
    “They’re like incubi, but they feed off of affectionate energy instead of sexual energy,” Xerxes said, looking disgruntled. “So they’ll cuddle you to death.”

    This trope also calls for the “ace people are only affected by 6 of the Deadly Sins, because they’re immune to Lust” idea outside of fiction tropes, which for me is weird because the only interpretations of lust i’ve seen around that had made sense to me are “lust as the sex version of gluttony”, aka indulging in excessive pleasure that makes you forget about your responsibilities, health, etc. *cofcofcakecofcof*, and “lust as sexual violence/the sex version of greed(?)”, which isn’t really related to attraction…

    • Sara K. says:

      I think the cuddling-temptation thing might have happened in “Up, Where It’s Warmer” but I won’t swear to it. If I write up a succubi/incubi related trope, I will be more careful in my examples.

      I have read “Texture Like Sun” as well as “Making Love” (which has a succubus). Ils Greyhart/Aidan Wayne really likes pairing up his ace characters with succubi/incubi.

  3. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    Confessing to be editing a novel using this trope (hey, when I came up with this in 2013, it was original). It’s never made clear what part exactly makes the character immune to a certain charm, mostly because it’s sword&sorcery. Read, these people don’t have the concepts to defferntiate. However, given everyone’s opinion of “such a human cannot exist”, I’d say you need an ace/aro/nonlibiost combo, which rarer than the famous 1%.
    In itself, the trope is only useful to make people see that there is such a thing as asexuality, I think. You’d then have to use it as a stepping stone/plot device to show how alienated aces can feel, or how happy they are to find someone who feels just like them, etc. (Which I am trying to do.)
    About the sirens: Reaction with total loss of control, because I don’t conceptualize the lure of sirens being sexual. (Might show my ace-ness.) Tone-deaf persons might be more exempt than aces …

    • Ettina says:

      Heartless uses this trope to make the character feel isolated. The protagonist Clara, upon discovering her immunity, says “Great! I can’t even *get* allured properly!” Using allure on each other is a weapon, sure, but it’s also a common, casual thing that vampires seem to do.

      http://heartless-comic.com/page/63

    • Sara K. says:

      Yes, I think the main use of this trope for helping readers understand aro/aces is to assert that they exist (possibly to the detriment of people in grey areas, though I do not think any of the examples I have actually seen in fiction so far erase people in grey areas). What I like is that it asserts existence so forcefully – “No, we *really do not experience what you experience*, and if you don’t believe us then watch us not react to this magic thing the same way you do.”

  4. Siggy says:

    I like the idea of this trope, because it’s one of the few things that deals with asexuality on a thematic level, rather than a character level. Thinking about other LGBT fiction, the representation of LGBT characters is one thing, but the other thing is having lots and lots of stories about supernatural minority groups that are oppressed in society. I want to see the same thing in ace fiction.

    Of course, ace themes should be dealt with maturity and consideration. I’ve never liked offhand remarks treating sexual attraction as a liability that aces are immune to. If there’s a whole story based on this premise, I expect it to go further than merely portraying aces as super-powered.

    I would also like to see people coming up with other ways to deal with asexuality on a thematic level.

    • Sara K. says:

      I’m not sure what the distinction between ‘thematic level’ and ‘character level’ is, but I am fairly certain that there are other tropes which deal with asexuality on a thematic level. One trope I am considering writing about is ‘Who needs lovers when you can have friends!’ (which is actually a trope of aromantic fiction rather than ace fiction, but most aromantic fiction is also ace fiction).

      • Siggy says:

        I call it thematic representation because the representation is in the story rather than in the characters. You don’t actually need any queer characters to have a story about oppressed magical minorities (although these kinds of stories often do). Likewise, when a character is immune to certain magical effects, that could in theory be treated independently of the character’s actual orientation.

        I mean, usually when a character is immune to something–say Superman is immune to bullets–it’s definitely not treated in a way that it could possibly be a metaphor for asexuality. But when Clara from Heartless is immune to allure, it very much is a metaphor. From the start, we expect that it will lead to conflict with vampire society, she may have to “come out” to some vampires, she might have difficulty understanding other vampires, and so on. The fact that Clara is also literally asexual doesn’t make it any less of a metaphor, since plainly real asexuals don’t get special vampire powers out of it.

        Since you haven’t written about the other trope yet, I don’t know whether I would consider it to be thematic representation.

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  6. Seth says:

    This trope also makes a significant appearance in Eth’s Skin.

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