Journal Club: Asexuality in YA

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This month, the ace journal club discussed

“Asexuality and the Potential of Young Adult Literature for Disrupting Allonormativity” by Patricia Kennon. (2021) https://www.ijyal.ac.uk/articles/10.24877/IJYAL.41/# (publicly accessible)

The journal club meets once a month on Discord, using text or voice as club members prefer. We discuss a variety of academic works in ace studies, ranging from gender studies to psychology. Don’t worry about journal access, we can provide access. If you’re interested, please e-mail me at asexualagenda@gmail.com for an invite.

Our discussion notes are below the fold.


Summary
This article explores the challenges of allonormativity in YA literature, argues for the importance of ace representation, and assesses how YA literature has represented aces so far.

Trope analysis

  • There were many cases where we disagreed with the author on what constituted bad ace representation.
  • The paper quotes Lynn O’Connacht as saying that not using identity labels “explicitly and deliberately devalues asexual identities because ‘why does it need a label anyway?’ and is, frankly, one of the most hurtful and harmful narratives about asexuality that I’ve encountered in fiction.”
    • There are many many conflicting harmful narratives about asexuality, and writers will have different priorities about which ones to counter.
    • By treating works that don’t explicitly label characters as irresponsible representation, the paper is advocating compulsory labeling.
  • The article frames it as a mistake whenever an asexual character does not say what their romantic orientation is.
    • This ignores that a lot of aces may not identify with a romantic orientation, or may simply not say it all the time.
    • One example of this was credited to a grayromantic author, which suggests a good reason why they may have wanted their character’s romantic orientation to be ambiguous. Grayness can involve complexity, ambiguity, as well as a lack of explicitness in labeling.
  • The paper says that “Word of God” recognition of characters as ace “does little to increase visibility or radically challenge allosexual regimes of allonormativity.”
    • If asexual experiences disrupt allonormativity as the paper argues, those experiences are already there whether or not the labels are there.
    • This presumes that the goal of authors should be introducing/informing readers about a label.
    • This seems oriented towards educating allosexual readers, and readers who don’t know they’re ace. Readers who already know they’re ace want stories, and don’t necessarily need to be told who is ace.

Words

  • While the definitions of asexual, gray-asexual, and demisexual are fine, this article defines “ace” as “asexual” and “acespec” as “asexual spectrum” (which seems to exclude asexuals). This is different from the usage we’re used to, where ace refers to the asexual spectrum already. We discourage this usage as it denies the established umbrella term.
  • The paper uses the word “coding” incorrectly, describing it as an action performed by a reader (by reading a character as ace), rather than a property of the text.
  • The paper talks about the conflation of sexual and romantic orientation in many works of fiction, but we questioned this characterization. In some cases the authors were unaware of romantic orientation, or the texts predate it. In one case it refers to a character in Before I Let Go who does not talk about romantic orientation at all, and says they never had crushes.
  • The paper centers attraction as the way of understanding orientation and desire. For instance, in one case an author is quoted using the term “sexual desire”, but Kennon presumes that this is referring to sexual attraction.

References

  • The paper incorrectly describes Bogaert 2004 as finding that “one percent of the world’s population identifies as ace or acespec.” Bogaert’s study was based on a 1990 probability sample of the UK, and was not based on self-identification.
  • The paper cites the sexuality wiki for the split attraction model, but this is not a good source as it is historically inaccurate (see this history) and lacks good references.
  • The paper occasionally failed to explain or provide references for concepts it introduced. For instance, the concept of homonormativity, and multiple Twitter hashtags.
  • The paper claims without citation that most asexual characters are aromantic or lack an explicit romantic orientation. However, this is contrary to our experience (there is a lot of YA romance), and contrary to the examples of YA fiction described by the paper.

Disagreements on specific works

  • What If It’s Us? is presented as an example of challenging the allosexual savior trope (in which ace characters must be informed by allo characters about what asexuality is), but it’s not clear why it’s different from the other examples.
  • The paper refers to Claudie Arseneault’s analysis of the association between ace characters and death. We observed death in Every Heart a Doorway is doing something very different from death in Elatsoe. In the latter, it’s about a connection to ancestors.
  • Clariel’s corruption was unrelated to being aroace, and rather due to her greater susceptibility to the influence of free magic from Clariel having berserker powers. Some unfortunate outcome(s) appeared to have occurred from miscommunication between more senior characters and her.
  • There might have been some value in placing more focus on a smaller number of works, so that these details could have been discussed.

Things we liked

  • In general, the introduction held a lot of promise.
  • The introduction had some interesting Foucauldian analysis of “how sexuality as a locus of power is both exalted and shamed in YA literature”.
  • There was some good commentary on the dilemma posed by historical fiction between naming asexuality while being authentic to the historical context.

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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6 Responses to Journal Club: Asexuality in YA

  1. aceadmiral says:

    The paper claims without citation that most asexual characters are aromantic or lack an explicit romantic orientation.

    I am not clear from this whether this claim was meant to apply to asexual characters as a whole or just those in YA, but taken together with the third bullet point, I’m kind of confused. We are saying that in YA it is common for characters to explicitly name a romantic orientation, and so the author is complaining about nothing?

    Also, just as a data point, I did start counting this for certain lists of asexual characters (which were admittedly lacking in YA characters) after a post here a while back, and this claim is absolutely true for that dataset, for what it’s worth.

    • Siggy says:

      Journal Club discussion participants explained their perception that alloromantic ace characters were a lot more common than aromantic ace characters. And, among the novels cited by the journal article itself, this pattern appeared to hold true. I can’t really demonstrate the claim one way or another though. I feel like it’s on the article to provide some evidence for counterintuitive claims.

      The journal club did not discuss how many asexual characters do or do not explicitly name their romantic orientation. If most asexual characters lack an explicit romantic orientation, then it is technically true that most asexual characters are aromantic or lack an explicit romantic orientation–but that’s a very misleading statement to make unless you’re also trying to say aromantic characters are more common than alloromantic characters.

      • aceadmiral says:

        that’s a very misleading statement to make unless you’re also trying to say aromantic characters are more common than alloromantic characters.

        I’m don’t follow this logic. Something that I have observed (though, again, I don’t read YA) is that what is interesting to authors about asexual characters is putting them in situations where they are out of their depth, torn between genuine emotions, in difficult circumstances, etc. That means a lot of the asexual characters I’ve interacted with are at odds with “romance” on a conceptual level, making an evaluation of their potential romantic orientation at best difficult and at worst completely missing the point. It’s one of those places where treating a character as equivalent to a human person results in a non-sequitur. Like, the political decision I’ve made to shun romantic attraction labels for myself is very different to the ambiguity an author injects into a story by not supplying one to the reader. Making an assertion (that I am not attributing to you and I know you will not attribute) like “there is a lot of YA romance” tells me exactly nothing about the romantic orientation of the characters involved unless we are being breathtakingly essentialist. This especially bothers me vis-a-vis the erasure of grayness; I have seen several characters pushed one way or the other (usually into being Totally Not Aro) on thin evidence/characterization, I suspect in aid of reassuring readers that everything here is neat and tidy. So to position undeclared characters as closer to (more resonant with) aromantic characters is something I could see making a lot of sense, depending of course on the context in which it was employed.

        As for explicitly aromantic characters being more common than explicitly non-aromantic characters, I repeat that in the data set I looked at: yes, that is the case, about 3:2. But I agree that if you’re going to make a claim in your paper and then only use counterexamples to that claim in what you go on to write, you’ve written a poorly supported argument.

        • Siggy says:

          I’m just trying to summarize the discussion, which was based more on perceptions than any logical argument. And, I might add, not my own perceptions since I really just don’t read any YA.

          The exact quote in the article is:

          YA literature to date that involves asexual characters has tended to present aromantic asexual (aroace) characters or characters on the asexual spectrum whose romantic orientations are not explicitly identified or stated; although more acknowledgment and representation of a diversity of romantic orientations has been increasingly occurring in YA fiction, especially in the last five years.

  2. Pingback: Problems in the Promotion of Romantic Orientation | The Ace Theist

  3. Pingback: Linkspam: July 1st, 2022 | The Asexual Agenda

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