Ace Tropes: Drawing the No-Sex Line

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.

Note: this post discusses sexual consent.

Ilsa summoned her voice with difficulty. “I just assumed you wanted to sleep with me.”

“Well… yeah, I mean. I definitely want that, too.”

“Kai, I’m not… I don’t… You get that that’s never going to happen, right?”

“Never?” Kai echoed, fading hope on the cusp of heartbreak.

“Never,” Ilsa repeated firmly.

Open Skies by Yolande Kleinn

Some aces are willing to have sex under some circumstances. Some aces, however, have made up their minds that they are never going to consent to sex, period. They are aware of their own asexuality, even if they do not use the word ‘asexual’ because they come from a culture which has different vocabulary to describe (a)sexuality. And they communicate this very clearly when they think it’s necessary.

This is mostly a trope of ace fiction focused on close relationships between ace and allo characters. That makes sense, since those are the situations in which the potential for receiving sexual advances are particularly high. By contrast, in stories focused on ace/ace relationships, the ace characters never seem to draw the line – either they assume that the other ace also does not want sex, or they briefly communicate to each other that they do not want sex, so neither feels the need to establish a clear boundary.

However, this is not exclusively a trope of ace/allo romance. Open Skies uses this trope, but it is focused on an ace/allo queerplatonic relationship, not a romance.

Clariel has an example of this trope in a story which is not focused on an ace/allo relationship. Even though Clariel does not have any partner, she sometimes finds it necessary to state very clearly that she is not going to consent to sex again with anyone.

So who are the allo characters who accept a close personal relationship where sex is permanently off the table? For the most part, they tend to be weird characters, considered by the other characters of the story to be far more quirky than the ace character. For example, in Breakfire’s Glass, Nikolai seems to be a goofball who does not take his duties to the empire seriously, even though he’s the emperor’s heir. In How to Be a Normal Person, Gus is … Gus. In Of Monsters and Men, Jeremy is not quite so weird in the personality department, but given that he is gay and a werewolf when coming out of the closet as either is risky, he is doubly queer.

Some allo characters find it harder to accept the no-sex line, and since the ace characters who draw the no-sex line in the first place are generally very firm in their convictions, that means either a break-up or the relationship not getting to the point where a ‘break-up’ is possible in the first place.

Are the ace characters in these stories sex-repulsed/sex-averse? In my opinion, yes, some of them are. However, in ace fiction, labels such as ‘sex-repulsed’ are almost never used. Thus, it is up to the reader to consider the character’s behavior, and draw their own conclusions.

That said, given the lack of ace characters who are explicitly labeled as sex-repulsed in the narrative, the stories which use this trope are some of the best representation of sex-repulsed/sex-averse aces I’ve seen in fiction so far. Even if they are not strictly sex-repulsed/sex-averse, I imagine that their experiences in forming close relationships with allo characters without compromising their personal boundaries are relevant to sex-repulsed/sex-averse aces.

Clariel is an outlier in that it is not about an ace/allo personal relationship, and Clariel, in my opinion, is sex-indifferent rather than sex-averse. Nonetheless, she definitely draws the no-sex line.

Examples:
Breakfire’s Glass by A.M. Valenza
Open Skies by Yolande Kleinn
How to Be a Normal Person by T.J. Klune
Of Monsters and Men by Caitlin Ricci
Clariel by Garth Nix

Discussion Questions:
1. Is it really unnecessary to draw a no-sex line in ace/ace relationships? Is it realistic to assume that not explicitly setting sexual boundaries in ace/ace relationships will not lead to problems?
2. What do you like or dislike about the variant of this trope in which the allo character is totally okay with the no-sex line? What do you like or dislike about the variant of this trope in which there is a break-up (or the ace and allo character never commit to each other in the first place) because of the no-sex line?
3. Does this trope have a positive message for aces? A negative message? Why or why not?

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.
This entry was posted in Articles, Guest post, Media, Relationships and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Ace Tropes: Drawing the No-Sex Line

  1. TheOriginalPhoenix says:

    This is an interesting post! I think the importance of a no-sex line depends on the person. I know that if I get into dating and stuff one day, I’d have a no-sex line because I never want to have sex ever. I think it would be troublesome to not set those boundaries because it could lead to some serious miscommunication and consent is really important. The way I see it, if an allo breaks up with an ace/aro because of a no-sex line, chances are it’s a good thing. You want a partner who can respect your boundaries. I don’t think it sends a particularly positive or negative message either way.

  2. Rachel says:

    1. A lack of explicit sexual boundaries between aces can definitely lead to boundaries, as it often translates to a lack of explicit boundaries in other areas. For example, what about kissing? For some that’s sexual, for others that’s not. And what about generalized touch aversion?

    2. I find this second trope a mixed bag. The idea of an allo being OK with no sex and simultaneously being an oddball carries a whiff of “only social rejects and weirdos would ever tolerate a relationship with you aces.”

    The inverse, that the relationship collapses or never starts up because of the no-sex boundary has good and bad elements. If the ace doesn’t really want or need a relationship anyway, then it’s just as well. Hard boundaries that make it clear that a relationship is a no-go can also be better for both parties and dodge a lot of drama. On the other hand, this inversion also taps into one of my frustrations with how ace-allo relationships are discussed. People trot out “relationships are about more than just sex and how dare you suggest that our relationships are based entirely/primarily on sex you perverts!”… until the no-sex clause enters the picture, at which point it’s “but sex is central to relationships; you can’t have a ‘real’ relationship without it!” Like, bro, pick one; you can’t have it both ways.

    3. I think the hard no-sex boundary, if its clear that this derives from the ace’s wishes, is ultimately a good message. There’s plenty of pressure on us already to put aside our feelings and put-out, as it were. The entire world is telling us that we’re in the wrong for not feeling sexual attraction, and as a frequent consequence, for not being interested in having sex at all.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      I presume Rachel, you meant it can definitely lead to “problems” …

      I think (my answer to #1) it makes sense that for an ace who doesn’t want to ever have sex, if they find themselves entering or in a relationship with someone they already know also identifies as ace, they might assume no sex by default, but never talking about specifics with experiences and desires and what kind of libido each person has, etc, feels unrealistic to me. The more interpersonally entwined you are, the more likely this stuff is to come up, and ideally you’d both already speak the same language of nuance like… Romantic attraction, knowing about gray areas, etc. I would imagine most ace/ace relationships in the real world meet either as friends first and the topic of where they fall on sex might come up before they are dating since it’s an important part of their own asexuality, or would meet online in which case they might have the no sex line drawn on their dating profile or they would discuss as just friends first via messages or whatever before the relationship got to that point? Never drawing the line seems odd but drawing the line in a pretty different way does make sense to me. Instead of a typical dating relationship began allos or people presumed allo, where sex is implied as wanted eventually, they have this identity, this sexual orientation, that shifts expectations and implications significantly.

      As an ace currently in an ace/ace relationship that I define as queerplatonic but that has a lot in common with an asexual romance, I will say not all things have to be explicitly “set as boundaries” really. Since we were friends first and knew the stories of what we’d been through to get to the conclusion of asexuality for ourselves, ultimately things like “no sex” and “no kissing” were fairly… Implied and unspoken once we were together. Other things like… General touch are also pretty off limits kind of by nature of the ace culture we met in, perhaps, or by nature of our own personalities… and it’s kind of the default to do nothing unless explicitly brought up as a desire, perhaps? But that’s just what I’ve experienced. I don’t know.

      I probably should read some ace/ace fiction and see what I think. I do think from a fiction writing standpoint that there’s a lot of potential for unique types of conflicts to arise even when two aces are together, and some of those conflicts could even be over sexually being mismatched.

      (more nonfiction narratives of what ace/ace relationships are like wouldn’t hurt to find and read either.)

      • Sara K. says:

        You know, I do actually know of one ace/ace story which does go into detail about boundaries and what they are and are not comfortable with … it’s a grey-A/demisexual pairing, and both of them want sex under some circumstances.

        I do agree that most of the ace/ace fiction I’ve read so far ignores a lot of the potential. I do get that there’s a place for simple ‘aces get together any they are so happy!’ fiction. However, at this point, it looks like the ace equivalent of M/M stories in which all problems are external (bigotry by others, for example), rather than internal issues within the pairing.

      • Rachel says:

        Yeah, I meant to type “problems” there instead. Oops. See kids, this is why proofreading is important.

    • Sara K. says:

      I really like this part of your comment “People trot out “relationships are about more than just sex and how dare you suggest that our relationships are based entirely/primarily on sex you perverts!”… until the no-sex clause enters the picture, at which point it’s “but sex is central to relationships; you can’t have a ‘real’ relationship without it!” Like, bro, pick one; you can’t have it both ways.”

  3. Siggy says:

    I think the no-sex line is a welcome change compared to the major alternative, in which the allo/ace relationship culminates in sex. At some point in the future, I might complain about how these two narratives are too dominating, while other narratives are being excluded, but I haven’t reached that point yet. I recently read Of Monsters and Men and was happy with it.

    I’m not surprised that allo partners in allo/ace relationships are often weird characters. Romance stories are often character studies, and you want characters that are worth studying. What I think is more notable is that the ace character is not equally weird. It’s a measure of how many weirdness points it costs to be asexual.

    I find it interesting that fictional ace/ace relationships seemingly never have to negotiate sex. That seems realistic in at least some cases. Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we had an ace/ace romance that followed all the usual allo/ace romance tropes, only the hard line were drawn at cuddling or kissing?

    • DasTenna says:

      “I find it interesting that fictional ace/ace relationships seemingly never have to negotiate sex. That seems realistic in at least some cases. Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we had an ace/ace romance that followed all the usual allo/ace romance tropes, only the hard line were drawn at cuddling or kissing?”
      There´s a couple in my novel (WIP) that´s negotiating this hard line since their teen-years. Now they are in their late thirties and still he doesn´t get as much cuddling as he wants to as she doesn´t like being touched or touch. Kissing is completely off the table. At the moment, they are only minor characters in a story where the main character´s ace, too, but I have a lot of stories in my mind and there´ll be possibilities to add this into one or two of them 😉

      Thank you for the interesting thoughts.

      Greetings,
      Carmen

    • luvtheheaven says:

      “2. What do you like or dislike about the variant of this trope in which the allo character is totally okay with the no-sex line?”

      Siggy, I love reading that weirdness points thing you just linked!

      Jen mentioned below Sirens and I really liked Brian being ok with it on that show, I liked his characterization, but hated how the overall narrative he was placed in painted him as exceptionally weird for being ok with it, and more than that, his desires were laughed at and not taken seriously by the more “normal”, presumably more relatable main characters, and even by the ace. Even the ace woman didn’t believe he’d be OK not having sex for the long term, and broke up with him “for his own good”, kind of infantilized by the narrative. And then his friends don’t respect his feelings of hurt after the breakup at all. Voodoo’s asexuality is pretty well respected but it was like they had to have trade-off and then not respect the allo character Brian at all. On this show in particular, masculinity was being tied to being very much motivated by sex and Brian was considered not masculine enough, for being more motivated by romance and willing to leave behind sex.

      While Brian did have one line about how he loved sex from what he remembered, and certainly identified as straight, other than that he actually seemed kind of like an ace or gray ace in terms of how his motivations for dating were not at all tied into sex and the show was canceled so we never got a chance to see what he was like in a sexual relationship. It’s probably very unfair for me to paint this fictional character as not necessarily actually as allo as he says or believes he is, and I do truly believe some straight men, as well as other allos, could feel similar to how he does… But it is an interesting thing to observe. He might be respected more if he identified as gray-asexual on this show, even by the ace character herself.

      I think it’s probably time for me to sit down and re-watch all of Sirens.

      I know a “no sex line” was just drawn as a way of establishing Raphael as ace on Shadowhunters, too. I’m tempted to start watching that show now to see how they pull off the ace representation there. I don’t know enough details right now to know if the girl who wanted sex with him wanted to stay together with him after learning he’s never wanted sex.

      “What do you like or dislike about the variant of this trope in which there is a break-up (or the ace and allo character never commit to each other in the first place) because of the no-sex line?”

      I love how realistic it feels and true to my own experience and to many experiences of Aces I’ve heard about and read about? I feel like it’s a very realistic trope, art imitating life? I agree with Siggy that it’s better than the alternative, at least for now and with percentages. We need everything, aces who are sex-repulsed, who are indifferent, aces who like sex, etc… But I’d like the percentages of each represented in fiction to be close to the percentages in real life. I don’t want the majority of characters identifying as asexual in fiction to be cool with sex. I want characters I can relate to.

      When Allo characters are ok with no sex, I don’t remember reading excerpts from books that really felt true and believable to me. The fanfiction stories I read with that version of the trope were usually very short oneshots that feel too simple and quickly resolved with no nuance, and too unrealistic, but like I said I ultimately liked it a lot when Brian and Voodoo had that dynamic on Sirens. Brian and Voodoo also didn’t kiss, kissing was never discussed on that show, and maybe that helped me like it. In fanfiction I’ve read it’s often “we can still kiss” which at this point makes me feel just as… Almost violated, if that makes any sense; I get really pulled out of enjoying the story if I was relating to the ace character, because the kissing is never even a compromise but rather always enjoyed, and it feels like kissing aversion isn’t considered even a possibilty, it makes me feel broken for not enjoying kissing, and it makes me feel not represented which is frustrating when the main thing I’m going for when I start reading it is a hope that I might be represented.

      Times I feel satisfied with the representation are much more likely to be when it ends up being a Deal-breaker and the allo/ace relationship doesn’t work, or when the allo/ace no sex relationship also has no kissing. If it has to have kissing, an acknowledgement that some other aces out in the world wouldn’t be up for kissing in the same way would go a long way though… Instead of what it usually feels like which is an implication that “everyone” enjoys making out even if a subset don’t want sex. I know most Aro aces in fiction who are not partnered also don’t kiss anyone but… These other stories feel like they have that implication fairly often, is all.

      • Sara K. says:

        I think the allo being okay with the no-sex line in How to Be a Normal Person works because that novel is already so quirky that, by the time one gets to that point in the narrative, it is hardly the least plausible part (the ace character isn’t just less quirky than the allo protagonist, the ace character is actually one of the least weird characters in the entire novel).

        Perhaps you would like Of Monsters and Men. Even though it has an ace protagonist who loves kissing, there is a minor ace character who doesn’t like kissing at all, so it definitely acknowledges that not all aces like kissing.

        (Even though Of Monsters and Men is not one of my favorite ace novels, I keep on referencing it over and over again in this Ace Tropes series simply because it has more asexual content than most ace fiction, and thus has examples of lots of ace tropes).

    • Sara K. says:

      At this point, I strongly prefer the no-sex line over ‘ace has sex with allo to make allo happy’ stories.

      Now, I would be interested in that ace/ace romance that followed all of the usual allo/ace romance tropes, yet they have different levels of wanting cuddling/kissing/something.

  4. Writer Ace says:

    I mostly just find the idea of allo people being totally cool with not having sex unrealistic. At least in my experience, reactions include taking it personally and pushing to try to find something sexual that I’m willing to do. Part of the issue I ran into personally is that my line for “no sex” included things my partner didn’t consider sex, and so he wanted more than I was willing to give even when he was ostensibly okay with not having sex.

  5. Cracticus says:

    I want to see a story where the ace realises part way into the relationship that sex is a no-go.

    • Sara K. says:

      Ooooh, I am trying to find an example for you and … I can’t find one. At most, I can maybe find a couple of examples in which the ace character discovered part way through a past relationship that sex is a no-go, but that is backstory, not in the actual story.

    • Siggy says:

      The Olivia Experiment might qualify, although it’s not really in the context of a relationship, it’s just some guy she chose arbitrarily for the experiment.

      In trying to come up with examples, I realized that there aren’t many stories of aces in the process of discovering that they’re ace. Most ace characters are already sure of what they want, and the conflict is in how they get it.

  6. Jen says:

    1. Rachel makes a good point about people having different definitions of what is sex. I remember a girl who was saving herself for marriage but still engaging in oral sex because she only defined sex as penetrative intercourse. Also, I wonder about what happens when one ace in the relationship does become curious or ends up being more on the grey side of things while the other ace is sex-repulsed. You don’t want to do exploration on a partner who isn’t willing, and from my personal experiences, sometimes you don’t think to have that conversation (which leads to a lot of issues).

    2. The TV show Sirens depicts this trope and pokes fun at the partner being okay. It was a little disappointing at how over-the-top they made him because it implied that allos being okay with no sex don’t exist. At the end, the ace breaks up with him, and I remember feeling so discouraged by the message that an ace/allo relationship couldn’t work. I’m sad the show ended before we got to see if they would get back together.

    3. The character in Sirens was very matter-of-fact about not wanting sex and clarifies to her love interest that this is a choice. I thought it was a great way to show people how to deal with certain questions and to stand up for themselves. At the same time, this trope does contribute to the stereotype that you can’t be asexual if you’ve had sex. I know representation is limited, but it would nice to have a bit more variety.

    • Sara K. says:

      Your comment (and one of luvtheheaven’s comments) brings up the good point about how allos who accept a no-sex line get mocked. Hmmmm.

      Also, I don’t think this trope – and least not in the ways I’ve seen it used – contribute to the idea that you can’t be asexual if you’ve had sex because a) one of the examples of this trope (Clariel) has an ace character who has had sex, and, after reflection upon her sexual experiences, decided to establish a no-sex line and b) another example of this trope (Breakfire’s Glass) has both an ace character who draws a no-sex line and an ace character who consents to sex sometimes, and most of the other works of fiction which use this trope find some way to say ‘there are aces who sometimes consent to sex’. Granted, I haven’t seen Sirens or Shadowhunters.

  7. queenieofaces says:

    As someone who’s been in multiple ace/ace relationships at this point, yeah, no-sex lines are necessary…as part of a larger conversation about boundaries and consent. I think one of my frustrations with the way sex is talked about in ace fiction and in ace spaces more generally is that people often talk about it as though it’s a discrete, well-defined thing, when actually comfort levels and what people do and don’t consider sexual can vary pretty widely from person to person. (Also, that’s not even getting into stuff like paper/stone and dysphoria and trauma history and kink, all of which can affect boundaries.)

    • Sara K. says:

      *nods*. I have encountered ace fiction which does get into the details of ‘what counts as sex for these people, and where are some of the more subtle boundaries’ but those works of ace fiction are definitely the exception. Most ace fiction is like what you say.

  8. luvtheheaven says:

    “3. Does this trope have a positive message for aces? A negative message? Why or why not?”

    Depending on how the trope is done, it can be either or neither.

    Drawing a no sex line and implying that’s what asexuality is can be hurtful in a few ways: erasing aces who want Sex, making the difference between celibacy and asexuality unclear, implying that the line is easy and clear to draw where everything is fine except “sex” when actually, as multiple commenters gave already mentioned, what’s sexual or too close to sex for one person might not even cross another person’s mind as part of what you meant when you said no sex, etc etc.

    Also, in real life many allos seem bitter and resentful that an ace “lied to” them, had sex with them and entered a relationship “under false pretenses”, and essentially didn’t draw a no sex line nor disclose their asexuality extremely early on. If this trope is always done in such a way that the ace always is sure of their asexuality ahead of the dating relationship and also knows that they want a no sex line drawn, it could reinforce some of the hurtful, harmful views some allos have. That’s why narratives like what Cracticus just suggested here in the comments are so important. Stories about aces who don’t know whether or not they’ll be ok with sex until their relationship has already started or even until they already consent to it once or a few times, drawing the line later, and sometimes yes not even knowing they are ace until later… Many aces need that kind of lived experience to be validated, and allos need to see fiction like that and realize it isn’t the ace’s fault and the ace wasn’t lying.

    That being said some degree of this trope seems very needed, positive, and realistic too. Many aces, such as myself, draw no sex lines. We’re comfortable with our asexuality and sure that for us it means sex is a hard boundary. Seeing that being ace isn’t “just” lacking attraction but also is often, for many of us, directly tied to desires like not being willing to have Sex, ever, is an important thing to see represented in fiction, it is. I am happy this trope exists, but I am wary of its execution, is all. Especially when the word asexuality is not even used on page at all, only this trope is implemented as like a substitute… I think that definitely has a whole host of flaws, including that many readers just won’t get this is a asexual orientation at all or that asexuality is complicated and nuanced and doesn’t mean clear cut no sex for all aces (and even some aces who are drawing the no sex line today might not have drawn that line in a previous relationship of theirs, etc).

    • Sara K. says:

      I pretty much only listed examples in which the ace characters (and by extension, readers) have a pretty clear idea that this is their sexual orientation (or however their culture defines it), and that it’s not just celibacy. I only included works which do not use the word ‘asexual’ if they are set in a culture which simply has a totally different vocabulary for sexual orientation in general (i.e. a culture which would not use the words ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’ either) yet has alternative vocabulary.

      When I encounter a work which uses a no-sex line as a ‘substitute’ for asexuality, I simply don’t consider it ace fiction in the first place, I consider it to be fiction about someone who doesn’t want sex.

      • luvtheheaven says:

        Fair enough. I’m thinking of Shadowhunters and Bojack Horseman as the two most recent confirmed TV ace representation examples in my mind, both of which are more “Word of Ace” trope: http://wp.me/p2Cip0-1FB as far as I’ve seen/heard. Shadowhunters… Doesn’t use words like Gay Or Bi either, from what I’ve heard, despite having a Gay and a bi character, and seems like a bit of fantasy world lol so I don’t really know the context but the big scene of Raphael disclosing his asexuality is actually… Just him drawing a no sex line and explaining he wasn’t turned this way by some kind of (cruel?) magic, but rather always has been this way. This is just… Not necessarily as clear a way to present asexuality as a sexual orientation to viewers as it could be, when TV shows choose this vague approach, but maybe I’m overly critical. I’m not sure.

        • Writer Ace says:

          For Shadowhunters the scene is basically what you said–he says he’s not interested in sex and that he’s always been that way rather than it being a product of him being a vampire. On my Tumblr I made a post when it happened about my not considering it ace representation but rather sex-repulsion/indifference representation, but I’m also a little iffy about Word of God announcements about a character’s sexuality (except for in cases where it’s made clear and there just isn’t a term in whatever fantasy society the story is set in).

          • Sara K. says:

            Even in fantasy societies which don’t have a term for ‘asexual’, it’s possible to clearly mark that a character is ace (good examples of this are the Zhakieve Chronicles, Clariel, and The Painted Crown). Thus, I wouldn’t make an exception for Word of Ace just because it’s a fantasy society.

            Cases where I am okay with Word of Ace are instances of temporary Word of Ace (for example, the protagonist of the Interface series is a Word of God ace for now, but the writer says that her asexuality will become explicit canon in the third book), and where it simply cannot be worked into the story that a character is ace without making the story worse for some reason (I am much more generous in this if the writer has written an explicit ace character somewhere else).

          • Writer Ace says:

            I think I didn’t write what I was saying as clearly as I wanted to. I meant more that I’m okay with situations where a character is explicitly written as ace (or aro) in a world where there is no word for it and then the author confirming out of canon that the character is ace, etc. In that case the first time the word is applied to the character is out of canon, but they’re still written as an ace character.

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