Ace Tropes: Online research

This is part of a series on tropes in fiction with ace characters. To link or follow this series, please use the “ace tropes” tag on this blog.

Relevant clip starts at 0:52. This scene from Shortland Street shows Gerald looking up “celibacy” and then clicking on a wiki about asexuality. In the next episode, he tells a doctor about it, who does online research of her own.

The most common way for people to learn about asexuality is to go to the internet. So when fictional characters do online research, it’s truth in fiction.

Online research can occur in a variety contexts. An ace character might not have the words for their experience and find the words online. Or they may have heard the word “asexual”, and use the internet to learn about it for the first time. Or they might have already learned a little bit, and go online for followup research. Or they might already know about it, but look online for communities.

Also, it doesn’t have to be an ace character. Sometimes non-ace characters will look up asexuality in order to better understand, or better help an ace character.

Sometimes characters look up asexuality, are satisfied to learn that it’s a thing, and that’s the end of it.  Sometimes they look it up, and that sets up a much longer journey of discovery.  Sometimes, as in How to be a Normal Person, there’s a whole subplot about how they set up internet for the first time just so they can look it up.

I also note that sometimes online interactions are depicted when characters are not trying to do research, as in this page on Shades of A.  But that is beyond the scope of this trope.

Why might an author avoid the online research trope?  Many works of fiction occur in different worlds or different periods of time, where online research simply wouldn’t make sense. I also think that stories generally prefer to depict face-to-face interactions instead of online interactions.  Even when online research is portrayed, it tends to occur between scenes, and merely be a setup for face-to-face interactions.

And why might an author use the online research trope? Often, showing online research is a way of providing a positive model. If you as a member of the audience don’t know very much about asexuality, the work of fiction is directly suggesting a way you can learn more. Some works even name specific websites you can use–for example, Blank Spaces referred to Tumblr, and even included a shoutout to Queenie.

On the other hand, online research can also go wrong. For example, in Shortland Street, Gerald’s first reaction to his research is to go drinking and ask his doctor for a cure.  There’s also an important scene in Of Monsters and Men between ace character Seth and his partner Peter: [cn: sexual assault]

[…] Seth smacked Peter’s hand away.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

Peter pulled his hand back with a sheepish little smile.  “Look, I was reading, and I saw that sometimes asexual people enjoy certain things and can even orgasm.  So–”

Seth got to his feet and wrapped his arms around himself as he stared down at Peter, who remained sitting on the floor.  “So you thought randomly touching me was okay instead of asking me first?”

Examples like these show that research alone is not a shortcut to understanding.


All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher
Ball Caps and Khakis by Jo Ramsey
Blank Spaces by Cassi Lennox
How to be a Normal Person by T. J. Klune
Shortland Street (TV show)
Of Monsters and Men by Caitlin Ricci


  1. Do you agree with me that the main purpose of this trope is to suggest the audience do online research of their own?  What other purposes might it serve?
  2. Do you like that online research is so commonly portrayed, or would you rather see more face-to-face interactions?
  3. What sort of problems might online research resolve, and what problems might it create or leave unresolved?

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.
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10 Responses to Ace Tropes: Online research

  1. AceAdmiral says:

    One thing that I’ve noticed in the online research trope is that despite the fact that it’s fairly standard, the authors of the piece don’t seem to take their own advice. The Shortland Street sequence referenced above was just baffling (doubly so when it gets to the ace-meetup storyline, although that’s a little different), and the scene in Sirens… How do you know there’s a triangle without having physically seen it to know which way it’s oriented?? There’s also a scene in Shuumatsu wa Kazoku that is generally factually accurate, but doesn’t have the right vibe to it, somehow? I don’t know if the forum referenced was supposed to be or maybe mixi (or something else), and I can’t really make a good guess because it doesn’t sound like the character of those communities.

    So I guess what it took me a whole paragraph to say is, no, I don’t think it’s encouraging people to google things. I think the writers are doing the bare minimum they can get away with and then trying to present it to the audience in a way that they can digest as exposition. I’ve not seen an example (although I am happy to be corrected) of an ace character who actually participates in the community over the course of the narrative and had that connection be important for it’s own sake rather than to make an info dump.

    Frankly, having fictional aces choose over and over again to distance themselves from community is starting to get old.

    • Siggy says:

      Which part of the Shortland Street was baffling? Was it the part where he reads the wiki on asexuality, but given that he asks his doctor for a cure, apparently didn’t learn anything from it?

      • AceAdmiral says:

        Yes, that exactly. I think we get to see him go to a fake AVEN during this same part of the story, if I’m not mistaken? Between that and the wiki…. why would you ask for a cure?

        I found the online meetup storyline baffling too, though. Like, I get that it’s a soap opera and so we need to have Drama(TM) all the time. but we only get to physically see the meetup people twice, IIRC, and there’s no footage of the actual meeting. Just the intrigue of “does this guy like Gerald? does Gerald like him??? How would you even know; they’re asexual!” And… then jealous ace!girlfriend comes along, the end? What was the *point* of that? Gerald clearly doesn’t get any support from the group or even new ideas, and then the show continues to make it clear that he desperately needs both of those things. I don’t know how they came to write an ace character, but it’s clear they didn’t peek into our discussions about complicated relationships and negotiating boundaries, and poor Gerald suffers for it :/

        • Siggy says:

          The funny thing is, it shows the wiki on screen, and it’s clear that Gerald couldn’t have come to the conclusion he came to unless he didn’t bother to actually read any of it. But it doesn’t strike me so much as a failure of research as it is minor plot holes in the service of drama.

          I said in the OP that Shortland Street has a shoutout to AVEN, but I looked at it again and I think I was wrong about that. Instead they refer to a fictional “Asexual Society”. But anyway that happens much later, in the ace meetup storyline. I’m going to correct the post.

    • Sennkestra says:

      “Frankly, having fictional aces choose over and over again to distance themselves from community is starting to get old.”

      Yeah, this is another trope that I’d like to suggest if you ever need more tropes to explore. The idea of “asexual, but not like /those/ asexual weirdos” seems to be a common trope, where the main characters get a nuanced exploration of their a/sexuality, that’s then contrasted with a bunch of much more shallowly stereotypical ace foils (Shortland’s is nowhere near as bad as The Olivia Experiment though). Having a low-key, questioning ace contrasted with a not-at-all questioning and high-strung ace group seems to be a common part of this.

      House actually makes a weird inversion on this, where they actually highlight ace communities in a more positive way…only to still distance their ace characters from it by making one a liar and one with a brain tumor.

      As far as actual community interactions, I think the dutch-language show divorce also had characters going to an asexual meetup, but I have no idea how it was depicted since I don’t have access to the show and wouldn’t understand the dialogue even if I did…

      • Siggy says:

        Although there were a few early examples of ace MCs being contrasted with weirdo ace groups, recent examples of ace groups are generally more positive IMO.

        But I think writers do a lot to try to avoid depicting any ace communities in the first place. That kinda makes sense to me because depicting a community involves introducing a bunch of minor characters, and the result is inevitably shallow stereotypes, which is the thing you’re complaining about?

        • AceAdmiral says:

          My objection–and I’m not sure if this is quite what Sennkestra is getting at, but I think we’re on the same page–is not about whether the narrative depicts the groups or people in them, but rather that there seems to be no influence of the community on the character’s life, if not an outright rejection of community. Very rarely does a character past the questioning/coming out stage reference any participation in either online or offline groups.

          Sirens in particular drove me nuts about this, so I’m going to pick on it for a minute. Valentina is ace only when it’s important to Brian’s story; there were several other times that I felt alienated from the situation as an asexual person and that she was present, but she gives no reaction and in fact just goes along with it. The writers and actors seemed completely incapable of grokking that she would have another perspective or a different way of looking at things (or maybe know the word “aromantic”), and so that’s why she didn’t need to “march in parades” I guess? It reinforces the harmful things we’re told about, you know, “who needs to fight for the right to do nothing?” And, from an artistic standpoint, it’s shallow storytelling lacking in fidelity even to real life aces who aren’t super active in the community.

          ….This is straying off-topic a little, but in the end it does speak in some ways to the online research trope, because it makes asexuality a concept to Learn About and not a facet of living, breathing human beings’ daily lives. If you only show a character going online to get the Facts without giving them community or support, you’re doing them and your audience a disservice.

          • Siggy says:

            Yeah I see what you are saying. I think I only watched that one episode of Sirens but I recall being annoyed at the dismissive attitude they take towards the idea of interacting with other aces at all. Although I feel like I’ve also encountered several people like that IRL, uh, mostly through atheist blogging.

            I’m not familiar with all the examples of Online Research (Sara supplies some of them), but Blank spaces explicitly has the character feeling more comfortable once he realized there was a big ace Tumblr community, although very little is explicitly shown. All the Wrong Places and Of Monsters and Men both have positive portayals of ace groups, although in the former case I think the author really downplays any role of community support.

  2. luvtheheaven says:

    1. No, I my first instinct is that I definitely do not agree that the main purpose of this trope is to suggest the audience do online research of their own, although I think maybe in some cases it could be what the intention of the author is OR at least the ultimate effect on the readers/audience of the piece of fiction (regardless of intention).

    I did explicitly say in my (few years old) take on the representation in Sirens:
    That Brian telling “Johnny and Hank he did extensive research last night and that asexuality is a whole emerging “movement” and they have a grey triangle and stuff… is the kind of thing that might encourage some people to do some research, especially people who are asexual themselves but don’t know the term.” And then I said that “I think it was a pretty good thing to include in the episode.”

    So in 2015 I had that view. Idk if I agree with myself anymore. Lol.

    I can’t really know what it’d be like to costume a piece of fictional media including this trope in relation to asexuality before I’d already spent hours and hours spanning most days of many weeks “doing online research” on the subject. (I also can’t imagine being allosexual when consuming such fiction.) I guess the only media tangentially related to the subject that I encountered before that point in my journey was the (aforementioned in the comments, infamously harmful to aces) House episode, which mentions asexual men and women having the ability to meet each other and date each other, mentions it as a real, valid sexual orientation – as validated by psychology journals, Wilson is doing paper research if you look while he says this at the beginning of the ep (who knows why the paper journal instead of online), and then… of course the House episode claims to disprove the orientation by the end of the ep.

    I was not feeling encouraged to seek out what psychology journals said on the subject at any point in the episode, as far as I recall my first experience with it. I was more interested in the plot. In how the details affects the characters, especially the main (non-ace) characters (Wilson and House and who would win their bet about asexuality being real). Maybe if they’d explicitly said in dialogue “there’s a website, type in” or “There’s a Wikipedia page” AND I happened to be watching within easy access of internet (which, when I saw all 8 seasons of House on Netflix mailed DVDs I still didn’t even own a smart phone and so it wouldn’t have been that easy for *me* at that moment)… but frankly, I probably would only be looking it up if they’d said enough stuff to make me think “wait wow, that sounds like me” (or like someone I know well) and if I already had figured myself out, only still needed to learn the word. If that had been my scenario.

    I can’t imagine being curious enough by the concept of asexuality to seek out more info, in most cases, especially if the piece of fiction isn’t leaving me feeling confused. I guess I’ll never know.

    I’ve written in the online research ace trope in my own fanfiction featuring asexuality… multiple times… which is part of what I love about this trope series, realizing how much of what I chose to write is actually an interpretation of a common ace fiction trope!

    And to me it was similar to when, a few years prior, I wrote a fanfic around a teenage pregnancy and had that teenage character researching pregnancy, researching how the birth control method she’d been counting on could’ve failed her, etc. Not to encourage people reading to do their own research, but to add an element of realism to the story. To capture the truth of what I and also a variety of other people would do if I were in a situation in the roughly present day world, if needing more information.

    To give the character something new to react to in an interesting story telling way, too, despite how internal these types of journeys can be.

    To not even *mention* the online aspect of how asexual people figure out they’re asexual would be like lying to my readers, same with how to find in person meetups in so many cases.

    “2. Do you like that online research is so commonly portrayed, or would you rather see more face-to-face interactions?”

    It’s funny that you embedded specifically the Shortland Street clip at the top of this post as a “bad” example, well AceAdmiral, you at least said it “was just baffling” in the first comment here, because my ace friend showed me the first 7 or so clips of the Shortland Street asexuality storyline on YouTube a few weeks ago, I haven’t gotten further. The only online thing so far was that one clip. There’s been no fake AVEN or talk of meetups yet. And idk, at the time the Wikipedia-looking page popped up I commented to my friend that this kind of thing works so much better in a visual medium like TV than it does in writing, doesn’t it? I hadn’t yet gotten to his reaction when i thought this depiction was both fun and good, but him wanting a cure after reading online seems unlikely if thinking realistically about how most people react to finally learning that it’s a sexual orientation and not a disorder lol. I didn’t quite believe asexuality was real instantly, but Gerald does, and drinks heavily because he’s so upset. This felt pretty good to me personally as representation since I haven’t (often?) seen this kind of story myself before. Usually, I see aces who are already confident they’re ace (I have not expand my consumption of ace media that far but… even in fanfiction this is typical), but Gerald’s reaction was somewhat like how I felt when I first realized I was probably asexual. I was in denial and didn’t want to be. I worried maybe asexuality wasn’t real which meant instead I needed to see a sex therapist and be cured. I didn’t go that far, I didn’t see a doctor but I personally thought about it, even after doing research. And especially given the year this soap opera aired, I kinda like this version of things playing out, as if it was 2017 and current it might ring even less true to most people watching lol…

    I like online research being portrayed well in fiction, if it keeps my interest and feels natural and I think it’s tough to pull off well but that doesn’t mean I wish the information being conveyed was done face-to-face instead. Many book series also include written/mailed letters and envelopes with information, the details of what is on street signs, or all sorts of things that if done well are good to include because the world does have these things, online aspects to the world are around us more and more all the time, and finding ways to incorporate that is a skill many writers in a modern set (or maybe future set? Super recent past?) universe probably need to hone.

    The Sirens example of online research is somewhat how it can be poorly done, because Brian is not even getting that it’s a sexual orientation or that it’s different from being not sexually active for a fairly long period of time (since his last girlfriend). He’s learned pretty much nothing from his research, so it’s hard to say what the point of including that he did it was at all. He could’ve had these misconceptions about asexuality just from guesses or just from what his limited face to face interactions imparted.

    The biggest reason I like the online research option in fiction is that a lot of “technical” seeming words and terms, even like “sexual orientation”, “celibacy”, “masturbation”, or something like “heteroromantic” might feel a little more natural THERE than in narration or dialogue. Where these words might take a reader or viewer out of a story in other contexts, audiences might even accept a tv chatacter reading aloud or having audio narration of thoughts as they read along to a Web page. And as someone who thinks awareness, visibility, and education that includes specific language is still hugely needed, I’m glad for this option that writers have, to show us exactly what a Web page said. I also like the option that an ace character doesn’t need to necessarily meet an allo savior nor meet another ace in order to learn more about themselves over the course of a story.

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, you make a lot of good points. The online research trope is often about trying to be true to reality.

      I like the idea of mentioning technical-sounding words in the context of online research, when it might seem awkward in other contexts. Actually I recall this happening in All the Wrong Places, which I just finished reading. I specifically recall them talking about “apothisexual” (which sticks out to me as a newer term) in the context of all the words they learned online.

      Although part of what makes these words awkward is that I’m keenly aware of how they change over time. For some reason I have it in my head that my novel takes place in 2011. And maybe I shouldn’t worry too much about including anachronisms, but ace terminology, community politics, and online research are in a very different place in 2011.

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