It’s not news to know that we live in a hypersexual world, where the adage ‘sex sells’ is used to excuse a lot of the overtly sensual imagery thrown at us in day-to-day life. Sex is everywhere, even in adverts for things as mundane as sandwiches. It’s this steamy atmosphere that asexuals are facing as they finally begin to attain recognition in society, and there’s a distinct sense of what an uphill struggle it is.
Asexuality’s simplest definition is the lack of sexual attraction to any and all genders. Unfortunately, most allosexuals (people who aren’t asexual, and do experience sexual attraction) tend to get all amused and patronising when the words “I’m not interested in sex” are spoken in their vicinity. This is further exacerbated by the fact that this simplest definition is typically for the benefit of allosexuals, and does little to explain just how complex asexuality is.
The reality is that asexuality is a spectrum in its own right, just as higgledy-piggledy and hard to pin down as the rest of human desire. However, most of us on what we dub ‘the ace spectrum’ don’t tend to get into the nitty-gritty of it when the usual response to asexuality is bewildered staring and then patronising advice on how to spice up our love lives. It’s a shame, because the nitty-gritty is actually really interesting and desperately needs more representation in wider society – and especially in the media.
asexuality is a spectrum in its own right, just as higgledy-piggledy and hard to pin down as the rest of human desire.
Media representation of asexuality is even thinner on the ground than media representation of lesbians and bisexuals, which really is saying something. In a time when asexuality is only just becoming recognised, this absence removes any visible point of reference and places the burden of defining asexuality squarely on asexuals themselves. Another pressing issue is with the quality of what scarce representation there is. This is a problem faced by every letter in the LGBT+ acronym. Asexuals in particular suffer from being regarded and depicted as emotionless or robotic.
This is reflected in media by American crime thriller show Dexter, adapted from a series of novels where the main character is a serial killer and is also asexual (though his asexuality is far more present in the books than on the show). His sexual relationships are used as a cover, to fake normalcy and hide his predatory urges, but Dexter himself views other people and sexual intimacy with clinical detachment and disinterest. This issue of asexuality being firmly aligned with characters that experience atypical emotions or emotional detachment is furthered in BBC’s Sherlock, whose titular character shows little interest and zero understanding of sex and sexual attraction. This goes hand in hand with his abrasive and manipulative behaviour towards other characters, which doesn’t shine the best light on asexuality. These kinds of portrayals show asexuality as reserved only for ‘unusual’ characters, serving both to distance them and asexuality from the general population.
These kinds of portrayals show asexuality as reserved only for ‘unusual’ characters
It’s not the best beginning. It’s really a one step forwards, two (or more like ten) steps back scenario. The answer to changing these kinds of depictions lies in understanding where they come from – and that’s where we return to asexuality’s simplest definition. We use it because it’s the easiest way to explain asexuality to allosexuals – but it’s not the best way. That would lie in teaching the populace that sexual attraction isn’t an ‘on’ or an ‘off’ thing, but rather a thing of incremental degrees.
This brings us right back round to media representation, because the best way to encourage awareness and understanding of the ace spectrum is by making it the norm – and TV is one of the best ways to do just that. It’s why, even though present portrayals of asexuality in media have often been problematic and poor (see House MD, where one episode saw House ‘curing’ an asexual of their asexuality), they are still useful. See something often enough, and it becomes part of the normal and accepted landscape of life. It’s the reason why the tests you took in school were peppered with names from all around the globe, and it’s the reason behind amazingly diverse children’s shows like Steven Universe. After all, seeing is believing.
Unfortunately, the road to representation often starts off with a lot of potholes and poor management. The initial TV-acceptable version of asexuality isn’t the best start on the path to wider recognition in society. However, it is still a start, and these relatively poor examples do provide a foothold from which better representation can be spring-boarded to the fore.
I’m not defending portrayals of asexuality as shown in Sherlock and House – personally they infuriate me. However, I have to admit that pre-Sherlock even people close to me struggled with the idea of my asexuality, whereas afterwards they accepted it as a real and genuine part of my identity. It’s all about providing a point of reference, and Sherlock did just that. I look forwards to a future where asexuals can be main characters and not kooky sidekicks or one-offs. There’s a long way to go until we get to that point, but for the first time the hill asexuality in the media has yet to climb actually looks just about doable.
Featured image © Anna Cull