Note: this post contains discussion of sexual consent issues. The opening example in particular may make some readers feel uncomfortable
He blinked a few times, his eyes coming back into focus. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you like it?”
Why would I like that?! my mind screamed, but I couldn’t find my voice. I couldn’t bear to see the hurt on Ceilos’ face, couldn’t understand what I had done to cause it.
He pushed away from me, getting to his feet. “I’m sorry, Nadin,” he said, his voice impossibly small. “I thought… I thought you loved me, too.”
I jumped up after him. “I do love you!” I protested.
“Then why don’t you—” I flinched, and he lowered his volume. “Why don’t you want me?”
I had broken him. No, I had broken us. I could feel it as surely as the cold air around us, as the fading atmosphere outside the dome. Something was wrong with me, and it had ruined Ceilos and me forever. We could never go back.
I couldn’t stop the tears this time. They coursed freely down my face, burned my throat. “I don’t know,” I said.
Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari, Chapter 21
About a year ago, the brilliant essay “Hermeneutical Injustice in Consent and Asexuality” was circulating around the ace blogosphere. In short, it describes how lacking the concept of asexuality hurts aces. This post is about how this shows up in ace fiction – the trope of aces suffering because they do not have the concepts to help them understand and express how they experience asexuality.
I considered calling this trope ‘hermeneutical injustice’, but since most people do not know what ‘hermeneutical’ means, I went instead with the name ‘not having words’.
In works which use this trope, the ace character knows that they are somehow different from other people – they do not feel about sex the way their peers feel about sex – but they cannot articulate it very well because they do not even have concepts which can help them figure out what is going on, let alone words. Of course, concepts and words tend to come together – if the concept is out there, there’s a word for it, and learning words often leads to learning concepts.
What are the consequences of an ace character not having words? In the example above, the ace character feels broken, and feels guilty about pulling away from sexual activity. Sometimes it means the ace character keeps on breaking up with their significant others and they do not entirely understand why.
How does this get resolved in the story? Sometimes, an allo savior comes along to rescue the ace character from their misery. Sometimes the ace character runs into another ace character, and the second ace character explains things to them. Sometimes the ace character just happens to overhear somebody talking abot asexuality. And sometimes, the ace character never encounters the concept of human asexuality or the words for it, and they have to make do without.
Sometimes, when the ace character has to do without words for asexuality all the way through to the end of the story, it is because some big plot thing overrides the ace characters self-discovery arc. For example, if something is threatening to destroy the entire world, the ace character may have higher priorities than figuring out their (a)sexuality. In other stories, however, the ace never having words/concepts for their own experiences serves the point the story is trying to make.
When I encounter this trope in fiction, it often raises the suspense level for me. I want to keep reading because I want to know whether the ace character will ever figure it out, and if so, how they will react to figuring it out.
I think this is a very realistic trope. First of all, I remember what it was like before I had words/concepts to describe my asexual experiences. Second of all, a lot of aces seem to have significant experiences of not having words/concepts. That does not mean that this trope is always executed in a realistic manner, but the basic idea behind the trope itself is realistic.
It’s not just a realistic trope. It is a trope which gets at the heart of how many aces have experienced their asexuality.
Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari
“Cold Ennaline” by R.J. Astruc
Crush by Caitlin Ricci
Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox
Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart by Marie S. Crosswell
All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher
1. How might have you reacted to a story featuring this trope before you became aware of human asexuality yourself?
2. Which outcomes to the ace character ‘not having words’ (allo savior / ace savior / encountering words by chance / never finding words / something else ) do you prefer in fiction?
3. If a character finds words to describe their experience, would you expect that to be a resolution to the conflict, or just a step in a longer journey towards a resolution?