Ace Tropes: Not Having Words

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.

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

Discussion Questions:

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?

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

21 Responses to Ace Tropes: Not Having Words

  1. Silvermoon says:

    1.I actually have no idea how I would have reacted, because I avidly avoided anything containing sex before I knew I was ace, and skimmed over the parts about sex when I couldn’t.
    2. Of those options, I tend to dislike the allo saviour one (although I guess it also depends if they’re otherwise not-straight, or not. I don’t like allo-het-cis characters being the ~worldly~ ones that know everything abt queer identities. And I also wouldn’t like “never finding words”, or another way of expression, /if/ not having words is causing the character emotional turmoil. I’m a sucker for a happy ending so…
    3. I personally think that it’s just a step; finds the words as a resolution would be way too different to my own experience to relate at all.

  2. This trope is definitely realistic, since I didn’t have a name for myself until I was 31! There was almost no ace representation back in those days (Mercedes Lackey’s Vows and Honor duology with the character Tarma is the closest) so I don’t know how I would have reacted. I do think in retrospect that I fell away from reading fiction in my 20s because I didn’t relate to allo-centered storylines.

    I would definitely like to read more stories about navigating life as asexual AFTER you find the words, because it’s not like you come out and everything is magically happy and good now.

    • Sara K. says:

      Yes, that is currently one of the gaps in the ace fiction I’ve read (though maybe it’s being addressed by the ace fiction I haven’t read). Most ace fiction tends to fall into aces discovering that being ace is a thing and not going much further past that, or feature ace characters who are already confident in their identity as aces.

      The work of fiction I know of off-hand which does the most to navigate life immediately after discovering words but not having dealt with all of the ramifications is All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher (which might also being interesting to you specifically since one of the ace characters is a Muslim, albeit not a terribly devout Muslim). I don’t know if you would like it though…

      • Part of the issue may be that most ace representation seems to be in YA novels, which by definition means the characters may not have had enough time in their lives to explore beyond finding their identities. I’m not a huge fan of the YA genre because I’m pretty far past that stage in my life (I’ll be 44 in less than two months).

        Thanks for the recommendation of “All the Wrong Places”; I’ll check that out.

  3. Rivers says:

    This is very realistic. I technically knew I was aro/ace when I was nine, but I did not have the real vocabulary till I was sixteen, so this is very relatable. The own words I used to describe myself were highly inaccurate (I want to be single for life is a very poor way of describing your orientation (to be fair I didn’t even know people could like people of the same gender until I was thirteen) and didn’t really capture my feelings or experience (they were true, I don’t want to ever get married, but it hardly captures any of the nuances of being aro or ace).

    Finding the words is only the first step in the journey to find yourself.

    • Sara K. says:

      I know what you mean (and this part of why I can never give an answer other than ‘I don’t know’ to surveys that ask at what age I realized I was ace).

    • Nowhere Girl says:

      But if they improve one’s self-esteem, even inaccurate words can help a lot. In my case it was quite similar: long before I started identifying as asexual, I expressed my asexual tendency in other words: “I’ll never marry”, “I won’t have children when I grow up”, “I’ll never have sex”. And another thing, that which I called the Revelation of Rebellion – the strong, undoubtable thoughtfeeling, coming from a mysterious source, the thoughtfeeling that “I have a right to be different”, that “it’s not wrong to be different” – prevented me from feeling “broken” because of my attitude towards sex.

      • Sara K. says:

        I agree that improving one’s self-esteem is good, but I wouldn’t say those words are inaccurate (well, maybe they are – obviously I cannot tell whether or not they accurately describe you). I would say they are alternative words rather than inaccurate.

        I had a similar experience with regards to feeling that I had a right to be different, and therefore I never felt broken on account of my asexuality.

        • Rivers says:

          They are not inaccurate for me, but the implications of ‘I don’t want to get married or have children’ do not automatically convey what a sexual orientation is or that I don’t like sex or romance. Thus I personally find the phrase reductive to the actual truth which is why I personally don’t consider it an alternative or interchangeable (even though in other countries they do use terms like ‘nonsexual’ or ‘unsexual’ or ‘antisexual’ which could be interchangeable to asexual). Of course, the word asexual itself is a broad term, but it does convey certain things. That combined with the other terminology built around it create the most accurate description of who I am and why I do or don’t like certain things. If someone does find those words to fully describe themselves without needing to dive into sexual orientations, that’s cool too, and I wouldn’t want to force anything onto them. I just find it more helpful to use a word that sums up my identity rather than the what that identity does for me.

          I am also an asexual who has never felt ‘broken’ on account of my orientation. I was so different than most of my peers in so many other ways in elementary and middle school (and proud of it), that I didn’t think much of my orientation being different. However, I still felt a lot of pressure from autonormativity. I am glad to see aces who have not felt broken, because I just find it heartbreaking that some people have to go through that. Not knowing who you are can really hurt you.

      • Rivers says:

        Yes! I knew it was right the instant I figured out people could be single. Even as a nine year old, it took so much pressure off that I didn’t even realize I had. And it helped me personally not to feel so much pressure to be romantic or sexual because that was just part of wanting to be single. Learning my orientation and what it means to be asexual has just taken that a step further and now I have the vocabulary to accurately describe myself. Trying to describe your orientation without the words is kind of like trying to describe a very unique color when the only other colors you know are primary and you’ve never mixed colors before in your life. It’s why the word is so important.

  4. Rachel says:

    I’m kind of a weird case. I knew I was aro ace ever since puberty – in so far as I knew that I wasn’t sexually or romantically interested in anyone, like, ever. However, I did definitely lack the vocabulary to articulate those experiences, so I stuck with straight by default. In retrospect, I think being aro went a long way toward sheltering me from problems of trying to navigate around sex/touch-based intimacy within relationships. Being Catholic also gave me a convenient out with no-sex-until-marriage (with me awkwardly realizing that I didn’t really want sex within marriage either). Even weirder, I was around 20 when I first learned about asexuality, but didn’t manage to connect the dots for myself until 23.

    • Sara K. says:

      I wouldn’t say that’s a weird case at all, but maybe because my case is similar in some ways. I was never Catholic, but I think I knew on some level (not entirely conscious) that I was aro ace (to what extent I expected it to be permanent or believed I was just a late bloomer I cannot tell you at this point), and I was also ‘straight by default’ for a long while. It also took years between when I first learned about asexuality and when I started identifying with it.

    • Rivers says:

      I don’t know how common this is, but you are not alone. I certainly relate to some of this having grown up in a conservative home knowing I was aro/ace at nine, but not having the words till I was sixteen. It’s really sad that because so many people don’t have the words to describe their experience or even enough context to piece together who they are. Society just shovels it’s standards on us without even realizing it’s burying us alive.

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