I was twelve years old when I first read Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest graphic novels. Full of swords, sorcery, treachery, and turmoil, they had a lot to offer Wee Me, and while I can’t deny that I closely examined the two-page spreads of sexual encounters peppering the narrative, it was never really the romantic relationships that interested me most. I loved best the characters whose friendships reconstructed them into a kind of family. Give me Skywise and Cutter (lifelong friends) over Cutter and Leetah (eternal lifemates), any day. Give me the push-pull of resistance and respect between Strongbow and Cutter before the frenemy-fueled love affairs of the Wolfrider and Go-Back chiefs.
I understand now I was more engaged by the elves’ platonic relationships than their allocentric onces because even as a middle schooler, I was already living in a super-saturated romantic world. And I’d had enough of it. All kinds of media and social experiences told me it was my job to find a counterpart, to attempt a first kiss (and, importantly, to enjoy it, however sloppy and awkward it turned out to be), and to move the relationship along accordingly, pairing off continually until, eventually, I settled in with a long-term romantic partner. From the theater of the middle school dance and dramas of pre-teen dating to the valorization of romance even in the most innocuous-seeming entertainments, it was hard to escape the feeling that growing up required me to seek out a romantic partner.
Books across all genres often fall into that same trap. Characters transform from being friends to love interests (or sometimes merely sexual objects). Men and women are relentlessly “shipped” and authors lean into the will-they-or-won’t-they speculations they’ve stoked in their readers. Even relationships that are about deep, non-sexual bonds of trust and protection and hope tend to get muddied up in the hopes and needs of readers who long to see a relationship form to which they can relate (see any one of the hundreds of slash pairings of Frodo/Sam in the LOTR fandom). It makes sense, in a way. People project themselves and their desires onto characters. We see characters we love as extensions of ourselves. Seeing them have the kinds of relationships we want for ourselves can be deeply fulfilling.
But what if you don’t want sexual relationships, or romance, or any of the shades between? What if you’re demisexual (demi), asexual (ace), or aromantic (aro)? (Or some combination of the above?) What if you’re simply tired of defaulting to one kind of love as the Gold Standard of storytelling?
And what if it just happens to be Valentine’s Day and you’re reading Luna Station Quarterly?
I’m taking advantage of this column being a holiday release to zero in on how we as writers can get beyond portraying love in terms of romantic or sexual relationships.
Today, we’re going to look at different kinds of love, with the help of my friend John Wiswell. John is an ace/aro science fiction author and an excellent source of perspective about what asexual, aromantic relationships can offer readers, when they’re written thoughtfully and well.
To dig into his perspective and what we need to think about as writers and readers, it helps to bear four critical things in mind.
1.) Ace and aro people really do exist. Like all people, they have their own particular needs in their relationships.
Based on extrapolations of existing survey data, approximately one percent of the United States population identifies as asexual, meaning that around 3.1 million Americans do not seek out or do not prefer sexual relationships as a form of intimacy. The data is a first step to acknowledging that sexual identity isn’t just a spectrum of whom one wants to pair off with, but a spectrum that includes not desiring such pairings in the first place. But the data alone aren’t enough to validate ace and aro people in the public consciousness.
“Mainstream culture has only recently come to accept that people can be gay,” John points out. “[A]nd there’s a fight to prove bisexuality exists. Much of that normalization rests on the idea that we all have sexual/romantic attraction, creating a common ground. The common ground is great for fighting certain prejudices! But it also can freeze us out. Resultantly we wind up with a bunch of relatives who are sure we “just haven’t met the right person yet” or are too picky. I’m picky about love in the way a person who’s allergic to a drug is picky. It’s just not for me.”
2.) Despite eschewing the physical elements of relationship-building, ace and aro people still can and do connect deeply with others.
“Every ace/aro person I’ve known has still had a wealth of emotion to invest,” John says. “They simply don’t invest them in traditional romantic relationships or sexual pursuits. Several of them, myself included, invest much of our energy in improving the lives of our friends. The passionate approach to friendship drives me to stay up past midnight when a friend is in emotional turmoil over a loss, or to go out and pitch in critiques or for fundraising efforts. In none of this do I seek much reciprocity, and no desire for an advancing of a relationship to another level. I might hope an individual recovers from addiction or leaves an abusive partner, but this doesn’t relate to the political standing of the friendship.”
3.) Clarity of language and purpose are at the heart of ace and aro representation.
All things should be possible in the world of fiction (arguably, especially so in speculative fiction). But succeeding in developing an ace or aro character and their relationships requires an extra layer of conscious intent. John reminds us that “authors [must be] willing to make it explicit in the text that passionate friendships are asexual and aromantic. Using the language will be part [of that]. So will not teasing the audience with needless tension, and not merely “queer coding” pairings.” Otherwise, we risk inviting our readers into assuming that the baked-in culture of coupling and pairing off will naturally take hold in these relationships, too.
John brings up the example of Frodo/Sam, observing, that “like most of the best ‘passionate friendships,’ [they] get shipped to high hell. Part of that is people being unable to look at two people that emotionally connected and not imagine boinking as a component. Another part, though, is the paucity of queer relationships in media.” Teasing readers by playing coy about characters’ desires only encourages misreadings, and puts readers who would like to explore relationship that don’t rely on traditional definitions of intimacy in a tight spot. “I try not to get into conflict over [shipping] because the shipping serves real emotional needs for others,” John admits. “But it does bother me, especially with how much media is already dominated by romantic coupling narratives.”
4.) Readers and writers can (and do) find aromantic, platonic, and queerplatonic character pairings emotionally rewarding.
As a creator and reader, John speaks to exactly this experience, unpacking the rewards of not writing to an allocentric default:
“One of the most rewarding things in my own fiction has been making deep emotional bonds more accessible. Romantic couples can have very powerful bonds. Yet narratives that make such couples both chief in the world and rare wind up sidelining every other kind of bond, and suggest you can’t have cathartic and powerful relationships elsewhere (maybe, maybe you’ll get a second lovely bond with Gandalf or Uncle Ben or your fairy godmother). When I write about falling into caring for neighbors, friends, and others, I feel the possibility space of human connection open up. It reassures me (and according to fanmail, my readers) that there is a broader spectrum of people we can connect with in profound ways. Whether that’s a haunted house looking after an old lady, or a deaf security guard bonding with a t-rex, or two ace/aro buddies hunting down a demon.”
This Valentine’s Day, consider how you can stretch yourself as a writer and dip into the wide array of friendship types fiction can explore. If you’ve ever loved reading (or creating) a Found Family, appreciated a solid Enemies to Friends turn, or simply loved the comfortable familiarity of a queerplatonic bond, you don’t need to be sold on the joys of love outside the pages of a kissing book. And if that idea is still new to you?
Well. Galentine’s Day doesn’t have to be the only way to subvert this holiday.