Ace Tropes: Ace in a Poly

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.

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.

TRIAD

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.

VEE

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.

LARGE POLYCULE

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

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)

Discussion Questions:

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?

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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3 Responses to Ace Tropes: Ace in a Poly

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Well, I have not read any of these works (yet), so I can’t comment on them directly. But I am surprised to hear that so much of it includes an ace joining an existing allo/allo couple or polycule. I find it strange that you have not found any examples of an ace/ace or ace/allo couple becoming a V or N. In my experience, those are much more common than triads. It’s weird to me that triads seem to be the most common pattern in poly ace fiction, because in my personal experience with them, they are much less likely to get started (I’ll talk about that in a minute) and much less stable than Vees, which many of them tend to eventually become. They can certainly work out long-term, of course, but in reality many triads are more short-lived than other poly configurations, which makes sense because you’re not as likely to be equally compatible with two people who are also equally compatible with each other.

    The reason that triads are less likely to actually even happen in the first place is because the way that couples advertise that they are “seeking a third” is often incredibly unappealing. Even if it isn’t straight-up Unicorn-hunting, it often feels like they are kind of just rattling off a list of things they want their Third to do for both of them, rather than treating the people they are interested in dating as a person in their own right, and taking their needs into account. It feels more like applying for a job than going on a date. I’m curious if that kind of dynamic is represented anywhere in these ace poly stories. I’d find the roommate-turned-partner situation much more believable as a way to start a sustained, healthy triad.

    I wonder if triads are being seen as the most “ideal” poly situation here, and that’s why they’re so common. From how incredibly common it is to find couples seeking a third partner, I’m sure that a lot of people fantasize about it. Most of the time, I don’t think reality would match that fantasy.

    I have personal experience being on one tail end of a V, an N, and I guess you could say a large polycule. My partner was once dating three other people (besides me) at the same time, each of whom also had at least one other partner, and one of whom definitely had two other partners. I didn’t know most of my metamours (partner’s partners) very well, with the exception of one who was my roommate for a while, and I didn’t know any of my metamours’ partners at all, except for one of the roommate-metamour’s partners who came to visit a couple times (a fair amount of these relationships were long-distance).

    The thing is, with large polycules it’s difficult to process so many people as all part of the same “unit” (if that makes sense), especially when you don’t know all of the people involved. I still kinda considered it as being a lot like an N, except with several other points fanning out. So, I guess I would say that when writing something like that, the perspective character that you pick matters A LOT, and if you have more than one, then you really have to consider each character’s perspective carefully. There are degrees of separation from the other characters that you’d need to keep in mind. In a lot of cases it would make sense not to develop characters who are still part of a poly network, but not close enough to the POV characters to make much impact on the story. So I can understand that, and that’s one thing… but only having a character show up to talk about asexuality, and that’s it? That’s just tokenism.

    It’d be interesting to read a story centered around an ace character in a large polycule, rather than the aces just being side characters. One other poly configuration that I am surprised not to see mentioned here at all is a quad, with two couples who start dating cross-couple. I’d like to see that scenario explored with ace characters in the mix, too.

    • Sara K. says:

      While I am not an expert, based on what I’ve seen, triad is the most common pattern in poly fiction in general, not just poly ace fiction. I suspect that, as you say, a lot of people fantasize about it, and a lot of romance fiction is based more on people’s fantasies than how things work out in real life. Also, most romance fiction – and this includes poly ace romance fiction – just gets to the point where the relationship(s) are established, and does not consider how things work out in the long-term.

      I also would be interested in a story centered around an ace character in a large polycule.

      While I definitely think Kimchi Cuddles engages in ace tokenism, and thus is a bad example of ace fiction, it’s also the only work described in this post which really explores some of the practical problems with polyamory (possibly because Kimchi Cuddles is partially autobiographical).

      Winterbourne’s Daughter seems to have a quad with an ace character, but I have not read it yet.

  2. Rachel says:

    I don’t have any experience with polyamory, so I’m gonna avoid discussing it in depth:

    1. I would imagine that aces joining an allo/allo poly would have a different dynamic than an allo join an allo/ace poly. Rather cynically, I can’t help but suspect the ace joining the allo/allo system is coded as “less threatening.”

    I still find it off-putting how this trope seems to be quite popular. Considering how anxiety about the lack of relation opportunities (see Queenie’s post on that), the idea that aces are spoiled for choice with those sexy, sexy poly relationships seems extremely off.

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