Re-imagining romance and sex in YA fiction, inclusive of asexual/aromantic identities.
It was Valentine’s Day recently (in case you didn’t realise). What’s this got to do with AusQueerYA? Not a lot, really. But Valentine’s Day, and in particular the weeks of lead up to this day, have inspired a thought train.
There is an invisibility of asexual/aromantic/demisexual/grey (ace/aro/demi/grey) identities in mainstream culture, and even Queer culture. And this needs to change.
I am part of the problem. I am a Queer writer of Queer issues and I often find myself assuming a lack of asexuality or aromanticism in those I interact with, or those who may read this blog. Valentine’s Day works on the assumption that everyone should either be excited to have a primary partner/s (and be either romantically or sexually involved with them); or be sad that they don’t have anybody to be romantic or sexual with. I am guilty of this. Conversations with my friends often revolve around the concept of who we are dating, or who we like, or who we have been intimate with. That is shit.
The society we live in is centred on the concept of romantic love. Nearly everything we do is interpreted as either romantic or unromantic. If you have ever had a best friend, think of how often somebody asked if you two were actually romantically or sexually involved. Think of all the platonic encounters you have had that turned creepy or uncomfortable because either they or others suggested that you were only being polite, or kind, or thoughtful, because you wanted something more.
For me personally, this gives me a privilege (in a sense, though I still find it wildly uncomfortable when someone assumes a kind gesture = romantic intention), because my identity aligns with the message that Valentine’s Day promotes, and the messages of pretty much all other days, events, movies, TV shows, and (here’s where I’m getting to) books.
There is a harmful assumption in our society that everybody should be dating, or wanting to date, whether romantically or sexually. There is a toxic, culturally sanctioned, set of guidelines that dictate our behaviour toward this, and these state that romantic love is worth more than platonic love. This assumption extends into the LoveOzYA universe and AusQueerYA world. The romantic love-story plot thread is an expected feature across almost all Young Adult fiction (apart from some genre fiction). Characters are either involved in a romance (and sex to a degree, but in YA, the trend tends to be romance then sex, with a lack of physical intimacy seen between characters who are not in monogamous, ‘romantic’ relationships e.g dating), or are assumed to be on a search for romance. When a character does not have any sort of romantic and/or sexual plot thread, fans ship them with other characters anyway.
Examples of platonic love and primary partner love that is either not romantic, not sexual, or neither, are not generally accepted within the YA world, but deemed to be ‘coded’ to secretly mean that romance is on the cards in the future, or ‘written between the lines’. This is a problem. This erases aromantic and asexual identities.
What about characters who do not seek romance and/or physical intimacy? What about characters who do seek these, but not in the way that our society has conditioned us to consider as ‘romantic love’ or physical intimacy. How can this desire be expressed in YA, particularly by authors who are not ‘own voices’ on this, when the language does not even adequately exist in the greater Queer discourse? ‘Platonic’ is the clearest word to use for this article, but it is not sufficient to describe all the nuanced forms of love, desire, attraction, and need that aromantic and asexual persons seek. What about characters who want romance, but not sex? Or sex, but not romance?
There needs to be a shift both in the writing of and reading of characters in relation to sexuality/identity, to be more inclusive of the ace and aro communities (and associated communities).
There is the obvious solution of writing more sexually diverse characters into our YA books, including ace, aro, demi and grey representation. There are examples of this in Queer YA, but simultaneously these characters are often erased if there has not been an explicit ‘labelling’ of their identities within the text. Here lies a conundrum (the assumption of allosexual, until stated otherwise) that I do not have a perfect solution for.
Labelling a character within our YA texts is a powerful way to validate ace and aro identities. What about characters who do not conform to these labels? Should readers be given the freedom to interpret a character’s action and thoughts, knowing that readers (in particular, book reviewers/critics with platforms) may assign an inaccurate label? How do demi and grey sexualities fit within this narrow view of identity that YA is currently peddling? One thing I know for sure is that it is not enough for an author to use the Dumbledore trick of ‘they were aromantic the whole time!’. If you are writing a self-identified asexual/aromantic character, say so.
What has been happening in Queer YA of late is this: if a character is gay (for example), generally this is stated somewhere within the text. That character then also ‘performs’ an action (physical or verbal) that aligns with this identification (they may talk about an attraction, or physically act upon this). There are no examples I can think of where a Queer character doesn’t perform any actions that ‘prove’ their identity to the reader. I would love to see our work move beyond this scope, whereby a character can identify as Queer, but not have to ‘perform’ their Queerness to the reader, but that is where we are at currently (these things take time).
Asexuality/aromanticism does not fit this framework as easily. How does someone (and why should someone have to) ‘prove’ their desires or attractions in the face of biased cultural standards, or explain their demi or grey sexually within the confines of the story being told?
And in saying that, why are we making other Queer identities conform to this? Why should someone have to ‘do something Queer’ in order to be ‘allowed’ to say they are Queer? We need characters who say they are lesbian and then go out and save the universe without any mention of romance or sex. We need asexuals who romance the brains out of their crush. We need aromantics who form beautiful, deep bonds with their primary partner/s. We need bisexuals who have never been with anybody. We need pansexuals who marry their childhood sweetheart/s. Until every example of the way humans experience love (not limited to the Westernised idea of ‘romantic’ love), we still have work to do.
Writers: Write these identities into your work. Run these stories by sensitivity readers whose identities align with your characters (like I did for this article: huge thanks to Jes, whose contact you can find at the end of this article). When questioned by readers, stand up for your characters identities. Understand that characters of all identities are able to separate romance from sex. Think demiromantic asexuals. Biromantic grey-aces. Physical intimacy between teenagers with no romantic attachments happen and are beautiful and healthy when consensual, unpressured and safe (such as in Marlee Jane Ward’s, Welcome to Orphancorp). Romantic encounters with no physical intimacy are beautiful. Friends cuddle. People date and don’t fall in love. People have sex and don’t form romantic relationships. People are single by choice. We need to start expanding our writing to reflect this.
Readers: accept that not all characters in YA want romantic love, or want to be physically intimate, or want to fall in romantic love with the people they are making out with, or want to make out with the people they are falling romantically in love with.
Everyone: There is a lot of talk in the world about love being the greatest feeling we can experience, the most powerful force in the universe. What I think is that we as a society need to expand our ideas of what ‘love’ can look like. Love is more than romance. Love is more than sex. Love is having compassion and empathy and care for your fellow human being, whether you are attracted to them or not is irrelevant. Asexuality and aromanticism are two separate identities. Some people are one. Some both. Some are on the demi/grey spectrum.
To assume anyone’s identity is not cool, so always keep in mind that just because a character is asexual, that doesn’t mean that don’t want to form romantic attachments. Or maybe they are aromantic too, I dunno, read the book and find out.