Content Note: this post contains some non-explicit discussion of sex.
“I have no inclinations or desires to be with others, Katerini,” he said, much slower this time, as if she wouldn’t understand.
Which was good, because she didn’t. She scoffed in disbelief. “Excuse me, dear brother? You have two lovers … Not one, but two.”
– Breakfire’s Glass by A.M. Valenza
Quite a bit of the ace fiction I’ve read features ace characters in polyamorous situations. This makes sense, since the there seems to be a correlation between being aware of asexuality and being aware of polyamory.
What is polyamory? I could offer a short definition such as ‘it’s having romantic or otherwise emotionally intimate bonds with multiple people’, but people who don’t already know what ‘polyamory’ means are probably better off reading a multi-paragraph explanation such as this one.
Just to be clear – not all forms of nonmonogamy are polyamory. For example, open relationships can be polyamorous or not – not all open relationships are polyamorous (and not all polyamorous relationships are open).
Before I read a bunch of polyamorous ace fiction, I would have assumed that the most common pattern is that the ace character gets into a polyamorous relationship so that their allo partner(s) can satisfy themselves sexually. That is because, when the topic of asexuality and polyamory comes up, the most common comment is that polyamory can be a ‘solution’ to the potential sexual incompatibility between an ace and an allo. This is a narrow point of view which, among other things, focuses more on what the allo wants/needs than what the ace wants or needs (here is further discussion of that point). Thus, I was happy to discover that actual representation in fiction of aces in polyamorous relationships is broader than that.
This post uses some polyamory-specific terms. I try to define them in the post itself, but it may also be useful to refer to this glossary (note: glossary does not have great definition for ‘asexual’).
In the ace poly fiction, I have found three poly patterns: triad, vee, and large polycule. I will go through them one by one.
In a triad, three people have equivalent relationships with each other, or at least, all three are each other’s partners. This is the most common pattern in the ace fiction I’ve read.
In The Zhakieve Chronicles, the ace character who is in a triad, Porfiry, enjoys watching his partners have sex, and is willing to join them when asked.
Jack in Candy Land never experiences sexual attraction, nor any need to have sex, since he can satisfy his libido with masturbation. However, he can also accept sex with other people as a substitute for masturbation, so he sometimes has sex with both of his partners. The benefit Jack gets from the triad is having a family.
The two allo characters in the triad in Crush were a couple before they met the ace character, Trey. At first, Trey was just their roommate, but over time they bonded emotionally and eventually the three of them started considering each other to all be partners/family. Trey does not want to have genital contact with his partners, but he wants to be part of their sex lives, so while they are having sex with each other, he holds their hands.
Is the ace character participating in sexual activity with their partners what makes these relationships triads rather than vees? No. What makes them triads is all three people consider the other two to be partners. However, in all of these examples, the ace character also participates in some kind of sexual activity with his partners.
What makes a ‘vee’ different from other triads is that a vee has a single pivot – only one person among the three has two partners. The other two are not each other’s partners.
The only example of a vee in ace fiction that I have encountered is from This Song Is (Not) For You. (Note: I am going to throw in a spoiler, but this is something which I saw coming more than a hundred pages in advance). Ramona is in love with both Sam and Tom, and by the end of the story, they are both her boyfriends, but they are not each other’s boyfriend. Thus, Ramona is the pivot of the vee. Tom is asexual, and also prefers not to have sex. Ramona would like to have sex with Tom, but since he does not want it, she gets her sexual satisfaction from Sam.
What I notice is that this scenario is not ‘ace does not want sex, so allo has to find third person for a triad so they can have sex’. Ramona and Sam were best friends for years before they met Tom. Their reasons for forming a vee have nothing to do with Tom being ace. Even if Tom were sexually inclined towards Ramona, they probably would still end up in a vee because Ramona wants both of them as boyfriends, and they both want her as a girlfriend.
A polycule is a network of polyamorous relationships. Technically, triads and vees are (small) polycules. A network of polyamorous relationships of course can have a lot more than three people – for example, the polycule in Kimchi Cuddles has more than ten characters (the exact number changes during the course of the story).
Two examples of ace characters in large polycules are Ace (yes, that is the character’s name) in Kimchi Cuddles, and Lila in Dragonborn.
It is possible to have a fully-fleshed ace character with an engaging story who is in a large polycule. However, these two examples are not that.
Whereas most of the recurring characters in Kimchi Cuddles have plot lines, and grow and change as they have various experiences, Ace never has a plot, never changes or grows, and has no personality beyond being ace. His role in the webcomic is to a) represent asexuality and b) be a mouthpiece for Asexuality 101. If it’s not directly related to asexuality, he’s not there. By contrast, Izzabeth, the lesbian character, in involved in the plot sometimes, grows as a character, and her personality is more than just being a lesbian. The fact that the character’s name is ‘Ace’ rather than a name like ‘Baxter’ or ‘Amalthea’ or ‘Alex’ says it all.
In Dragonborn, Lila (the ace character who joins the large polycule) is slightly relevant to the plot, unlike Ace in Kimchi Cuddles. However, she joins the polycule … because her friend got angry at her and she’s upset and then a nice poly person shows up and invites her to join the polycule? It seemed forced, not a natural progression of the story. And Lila is a thinly developed character in general (though this is true of most of the characters in the story).
I suspect that writing a large polycule romance is more difficult than writing a couple-oriented or a triad-oriented romance because the writer has to develop so many characters. Based on these examples, it seems that the ace character in a large polycule is at high risk of just seeming to be a token to signal ace inclusion rather than acting like a character with their own personality and motives.
In all of these examples, except The Zhakieve Chronicles, the ace character joins an existing couple or network to form a poly relationship. I am not sure what to make of that, so that is the first discussion question.
However, there is enough variety in this sample that it is hard to make generalized statements about this trope. But isn’t that the point of polyamory – to make relationship structures fit the people rather than making people fit in a relationship structure? And I can imagine far more possibilities for polyamorous aces in fiction than those represented by these examples.
(note: some of these examples are not discussed in the post because I have not read them, and I categorized the relationship pattern based on second-hand information)
The Zhakieve Chronicles by A.M. Valenza (triad)
Crush by Caitlin Ricci (triad)
This Song Is (Not) for You by Laura Nowlin (vee)
Dragonborn by Maeghan Friday (large polycule)
Candy Land by Lissa Kasey (triad)
Kimchi Cuddles (webcomic) (large polycule)
City of Soldiers by Sam Burke (triad)
Winterbourne’s Daughter by Stephanie Rabig (quad)
Running with the Pack by A.M. Burns & Caitlin Ricci (triad)
1) What is up with all of these ace characters joining existing established allo/allo couples/networks, as opposed to an existing ace/allo couple accepting a new partner, or ace/ace turning into ace/ace/ace, or the other options?
2) If you have real life experience with polyamory, how do you think fiction compares to reality? If you do not have real life experience with polyamory, how does learning about fictional polyamorous aces influence your thoughts on polyamory?
3) Which types of poly relationships are you most interested in seeing in ace fiction?