Sexual violence in two asexual short films

cn: Discussion of sexual violence, particularly coercion

Recently, we saw the release of the asexual short film, It’s Not You, It’s Not Me (cn: sex and sexual coercion), about an allo-ace couple. Judging by the response on AVEN, reception from asexual folks was generally positive. However, I found myself in agreement with Sherronda Brown, who said,

So… I just watched an asexual man be guilted into sex, I thought. That’s… not okay.
The person whose feelings are centered and whose desires are catered to is the allosexual character, at the expense of and detriment to the asexual character.

The film is clearly trying to portray a deeply uncomfortable situation. There’s certainly a place for that sort of media–if we want stories about relatable experiences, we need to acknowledge that some of those experiences are deeply uncomfortable. But my feeling was that this is uncomfortable in a bad way, beyond what was intended.

A bit of background on the film. The filmmaker, Jaymee Mak is an allosexual person who had a relationship with an ace person, and it didn’t turn out well. They made It’s Not You, It’s Not Me as a way of processing that relationship. The film is accompanied by an interview with ace activist Justine Munich, and she talks about how the film originally prioritized the allo character’s viewpoint, but was reworked to give more balanced attention. Oh, also they made a meme based on the interview.

Transcript: How do you navigate sexual consent with an asexual partner? Very, very carefully. Maybe they say yes and later they regret it. That doesn’t make you an evil person. It doesn’t make them a liar. It just means they’re early in their journey, they’re figuring things out, and it’s okay to not know the answer.

The messaging I’m getting, from both within the film and outside of it, is that this is supposed to be a morally ambiguous situation, with no right answer and no clear blame. My problem is that I didn’t think the incident in the film was ambiguous at all, because I am familiar with the textbook definition of sexual coercion. Hold on, I got a citation for this: Page 17 of the 2010 NISVS report.

In NISVS, sexual coercion refers to unwanted vaginal, oral,
or anal sex after being pressured in ways that included being worn down by someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed they were unhappy […]

I’m not saying this is the only way to interpret the film, but it was how I immediately recognized it. So what I found uncomfortable, was not merely the scene itself, but the thought that sexual coercion was going under the radar, in plain sight but unrecognized and unnamed.

And there’s a second layer of discomfort at the thought of implying directly to the filmmaker, and all the viewers who found it so relatable, that what they experienced may have been sexual coercion. I don’t know anything about your life, I don’t want to be in a position of telling you what you were or weren’t a victim of. You might be figuring things out, and it’s okay to not know the answer. Just… know that sexual coercion is one of the possible answers.

There is another asexual short film that has stuck with me over the years: “Ace and Anxious (2017) by Bri Castellini (cn: sexual references, implied masturbation). Emma is asexual, but is persuaded that sex might help with her anxiety issues. So she posts a Craigslist ad, and starts interviewing candidates to have sex with her. Naturally this doesn’t work, and her friend has a better proposal. (Asexuality film nerds may observe that this is basically the same plot as The Olivia Experiment.)

Although it’s comedic, in my viewing there’s a bit of an edge to it. Emma is very distressed, and she’s putting herself in a situation where should be seriously hurt. I have mixed feelings about addressing such a serious problem in such a light and comedic context. I have an old blog draft where discuss numerous niggling complaints about this film, but the draft struggled to justify itself in the face of It’s only a comedy! Because it’s a comedy, I am deprived even of the joy of complaining about it.

But I’ve made peace with it. I feel like Ace and Anxious is the antidote to It’s Not You, It’s Not Me, and vice versa. Where It’s Not You, It’s Not Me shoves sexual violence in our faces and presents it as a conundrum, Ace and Anxious presents the mere possibility of violating boundaries, and rebukes it. Where Ace and Anxious seems to dodge the issue and treat it with levity, It’s Not You, It’s Not Me dives straight in with due seriousness. I am not entirely happy about either film but I felt they made a good contrast.

By the way, if you’re looking for other asexual short films, I compiled a list from our linkspam archives.

Short films on asexuality (2007-2014)
Not Broken Not Alone (2012)
ACES (2017)
Ace and Anxious (2017)
ACE AF (2019)
It’s Not You, It’s Not Me (2020)

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, Media, Sexual normativity. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sexual violence in two asexual short films

  1. luvtheheaven says:

    So I saw the It’s Not You, It’s Not Me one once, very soon after its release/premiere, and i thought it was going to be positive asexual representation so I was surprised by what it turned out to be. I was kinda weirded out. However i was also one of the aces who ultimately kinda liked it and the message sent, because it seemed in my viewing that the allosexual character wasn’t happy at the end and likely wouldn’t be pressuring the ace guy into sex again in the future, and it also seemed like the ace guy consented to sex just to please his partner, but still wasn’t actually enjoying it, so like overall it showed… A more complicated relationship to sex for an ace person than i usually see acknowledged, i suppose. I liked the complexity.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      Mainly though if people don’t realize it was sexual coercion… That’s not good. I guess i thought it was that, i guess it seemed obvious to me on some level. And i thought that was like… “The point”, in a way where it didn’t turn out ok really at the end. Just two people are unhappy.

  2. Coyote says:

    This seems related to something I’ve been thinking about making a short reflection post about, which is that I’ve only just recently realized… relative to other people, I seem to be more likely to read violent/abusive overtones into sexual situations in fiction, even with examples that are genuinely ambiguous (or more ambiguous than this was, anyway).

    Partly I think that’s because, apparently, I sometimes project my own ace perspective onto any POV character if no active sexual desire is clearly/explicitly specified, and if it’s not made explicitly clear that a character *wants* another character, I’m less likely to assume that’s the case. I think authors sometimes think they’re laying the groundwork by having a character pay attention to someone’s eyes/hair/voice/build etc. in a way that suggests attraction, but then they’re expecting me to extrapolate an actual willingness from that, and I just don’t take that leap for granted. Or at least, that’s my best guess for why even lighthearted, “fluffy” dynamics (even in the SFW, lead-up-to-fade-to-black stage) sometimes read like noncon to me.

    And note I’m not even trying to talk about the romanticization of abuse here — I mean like when an author genuinely meant for something to be consensual (as best I can tell) and just… kinda neglected to actually spell out the propositioned character’s own internal consent, because they thought it was already obvious.

  3. Mela says:

    I’m glad you discussed this, cuz I get tired of AVEN regarding ANY representation as positive. When it’s an allosexual woman who was coercive towards her ace partner making a film about asexuality, maybe they should have scrutinized it a little more. But then again, they also celebrated the “generic quirky girl is ace, assures everyone she is still capable of romance ~like normal~” portrayal in Sex Ed. This film make me angry at how low the community standard bearers keep the bar for our media presence, to the point I’m surprised that they aren’t praising the really awful stuff like House.

    • Siggy says:

      Yes, this is a common pattern on AVEN and Reddit as well. I recall last year looking at discussions of representation in Death Stranding, and some people were just like, at least it’s not as bad as House. In House the two asexual characters were sick and lying, it’s really hard for me to imagine a work of fiction not passing that low bar.

      Really, it used to be that everyone had lower standards like this. Our standards got higher over time as we started seeing better representation.

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