Stef (firecat) wrote,

Wiscon panel: From Sherlock to Sheldon: Asexuality and Asexual Characters in SF/F

From Sherlock to Sheldon: Asexuality and Asexual Characters in SF/F
Track: Feminism and Other Social Change Movements

Panel description:
We're all familiar by now with the sexual orientations homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual. Much less discussed are asexuals, persons who do not experience sexual attraction. This panel discusses what asexuality is and is not, and proposes ways for authors to explore this overlooked orientation in their characters. Is it enough that a character has no on-page sex life, or should asexuality be more positively portrayed? Asexuality in real-time fandom and asexual characters in fiction and media may also be discussed as time allows.

Jed Hartman
Liz Argall
K. Tempest Bradford, moderator
Rebecca Marjesdatter [I didn't catch her last name], who suggested the panel, but didn't sign up to be on it because she wasn't sure she'd make it to Wiscon. The panelists asked her to be on the panel because two assigned panelists were missing.

Tempest said that mostly the panelists would talk and for the last half hour there would be time for audience q's and comments.

[My notes aren't a complete transcription and may represent my own language rather than the actual words of the panelists. I welcome corrections. I did not identify most audience commenters by name for privacy reasons. If you said something I paraphrased here and want your name to be used, please comment or send me a private message.]

The panelists introduced themselves. Tempest is a writer of Sff and lately identifies as an aromaNtic asexual. She is interested in how sexuality and asexuality are portrayed in media and fandom.

Liz Argall is a writer of Sff.  She identified her sexual orientation as "no comment" in high school.  She is situationally heterosexual, "sexually vague and I like dicks but for the right girl..." She has trauma around sex and so represents what some ppl think an asexual is (a person whose sexuality is damaged).

Jed Hartman is not asexual, although he  leaned asexual in high school. As editor of Strange Horizons, he is interested in stories about a range of sexual identity issues.

Rebecca found out about asexuality at WisCon last yr, in a panel where someone mentioned Doctor Who as an asexual character. Then she found AVEN and thought, "This is me!" Previously she had assumed she was a lesbian, because that's what you were if you weren't interested in men.

Tempest asked the panelists to address "what is asexuality?"

Rebecca: an asexual is a  person who doesn't experience sexual attraction. Some don't experience romantic attraction. I am gray romantic -- I sometimes fall in love when I am under stress.

Tempest: There is confusion between asexual identity and gender identity. Media confuses the two.

Jed: there is a difference between people who identify their gender as neuter and asexuals.

Rebecca: But AVEN is open. The organization formed 10 years ago.

Liz - brought up a recent controversy about something Stephen Moffat said about BBC Sherlock. (He is the writer.)

Tempest - It was generally accepted that Sherlock (both the original character and the modern AU Sherlock) was asexual. SM said at first yes then no, he is more like a monk. He said there was no tension in an asexual character. Some people on tumbr got mad at him. He then said it's not that asexuals are boring, it's just that in fiction, in a TV show, it's boring. What do panelists think of this idea?

Liz - "get fucked." I love hyper rational characters, which are sometimes conflated with asexuals. Sex isn't what I find interesting in fiction, I'm not interested in kissing books, would like to be defined outside my sexual traits. Struggle and passion don't have to be about sex, it's the obsessive defining feature especially in coming of age stories. I'd like to see other kinds of coming of age, surviving in the wilderness, becoming asexual... AVEN not only makes asexuals more visible, it gives all sexualities more ways to be defined. 

Jed: The choice of a monk to be celibate and a person who identifies as asexual are differently interesting. Moffat is wrong. A story about not following your attractions can be interesting but lots of those stories been told. Also, a lot of characters act asexual by default, especially in SF, which is sometimes focused on e.g. engineering problems, but those aren't asexual chars necessarily.

Rebecca: Moffat needs to be taken with a bag of salt. I'm a slasher and compulsory het is tedious and I like finding the subtext. Intense sex takes the subtlety out of it and takes the reader choice out of it. Complex characters have a variety of readings. Is Sherlock even human?

Tempest: If you think asexual characters are automatically boring you're just a lazy writer. Reminiscent of ppl who resist putting any non-default (e.g. non het white male) chars in stories. Not being lazy means writing more interesting stories. 

Jed: Moffat's statement might be an assumption of a uniform audience. 

Liz: I am super uninterested in kissing and sex in books....they can be i would eagerly look at a book with an AVEN stamp. 

Tempest: Are there works that portray asexuals well/poorly?

Rebecca: there's a stereotype of asexuals as having an android-like personality, e.g., Data [Star Trek: The Next Generation]

Liz: I like aliens and robots.

Tempest: I like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory

Liz: He's hyper rational too.

R He's interesting. I think "OMG, I do that!" They're playing with the stereotype of Aspergers. The creator has said Sheldon is not Aspergers. 

Liz: I like Bones [in the TV series of the same name]. She is not asexual, but they do some interesting stuff. 

One episode of BBT implied Sheldon was celibate rather than asexual. But they play with it. I give comedy more room. I like Sandra Fallow Amy Farrah-Fowler (Sheldon's girlfriend). She has been mostly asexual but might be developing some sexuality.

Rebecca: what Sheldon says about his sexuality might depend partly on the writer. They play with the sexuality of other chars too. Ppl aren't put into boxes and defined on that show. Although some of the gender stuff is " less evolved."

Jed: It's good that there is an asexual couple in BBT

The YA novel Guardian of the dead by Karen Healey treats the issue well. The protagonist has a friend who comes out as ace. 

Rebecca: there is a thread on the  AVEN forum abt possibly asexual characters. One is the character Genjo Sanzo in Saiyuki manga (Gensoumaden Saiyuki anime). Others are Frodo and Bilbo. 

Liz: when asexuality is more visible, ppl who are stereotyped as asexual, such as older ppl, ppl with disabilities, can be seen as sexual. 

Tempest: when you write a character you need to think about their sexuality and culture. 

Many aces are dismissed when they come out. "You just haven't met the right person/ thought it through." Similar to other misunderstood ppl/chars. E.g. when I came out as bisexual. 

A lot of flame wars abt asexuality use language similar to language used against trans people, light or dark skinned African Americans, pagans.  It's as if there's a book of language and broad based thinking. 

Rebecca: the language used in the 50s-60s language about homosexual people is now used for asexuality, e.g. they're traumatized.

Jed: The general thing is that some ppl don't get that they don't know more abt someone else's identity than that person does. 

AU: Unlike the default ace, I like sex fine, I just don't need or crave it. I haven't fallen in love with anyone. So there is a range just like other sexual orientations.

Liz: In AVEN the language  is very inclusive. 

Rebecca: they generally say to questions about "am I one?"-- if you feel you belong, you do. 

AU (Suzy McKee Charnas) - I'm 72 and I'm not asexual. But ever since Viagra came out, older women have been pressured to "rediscover sexuality." I've had enough sex. Now sex is sometimes shoehorned into stories about old ppl.

Rebecca: yeah "Juicy Crones" -- when can we stop?

Liz: a friend was unhappy that she felt she had to be a MILF. "Can't I get old and ugly now?"

AU: Let's make a distinction between asexuality and physical affection. One of my partners was asexual. That wasn't a problem, but the physical affection mismatch was.

Liz: on AVEN one discussion is about "what is 'faithful' if you are asexual?" I'm monogamous and I hug everyone. 

Tempest: on ppl ask "but I do this. can I still identify as asexual?" And they say yes. Some ppl enjoy kissing, sex within a relationship, but still ID as ace. 

Rebecca: some are into bdsm. I'm touch phobic. Friends taught me how to accept hugs but I would prefer a Doctor/Companion relationship.

(people add comments boiling down to "for some values of Doctor")

AU: in media asexuality often goes along with lack of empathy in a character. Are there examples to the contrary?

Liz: nice robots and aliens. Talking animal books.

Tempest: my list of nuanced portrayals is very short. One is The Intuitionist (Colson Whitehead), which is spec ficcy. The char is asexual (although the word isn't used) but she isn't emotionless. "Liking What You See: A Documentary" by Ted Chiang [described as a "novella/thought experiment".]
Jed: A lot of stories about tech that lets you turn off attraction. That's different and similar.

Tempest: in pre-panel discussion, a panelist who wasn't able to make the panel [Dawn Ash?] said didn't  like stories about ace that's artificially induced.  Asexual chars are fully human.

Alex: Some chars in fantasy are not monkish or asexual but they just have better things to do, like Gandalf and Doctor Who (sometimes). I'm that way sometimes. Specifically with wizards. Is there a category like that?

Many scientists are perceived that way. 

Liz: there are enough non kissing books eg Asimov. There is an issue in fanfic: people said they were subverting something but had the attitude that they had the definitive understanding of what was really going on, and they were "fixing what's broken." That bothers me. It is not fixing, it's a different emphasis. 

Rebecca: In the real world there is confusion between ace orientation and non sexual behavior. 

Tempest: we can think about characters, but we can't define other real ppl.

Jed: if a character is not defined we can make something up, but undefined characters contribute to a lack of representation. e.g. Dumbledore turning out to be gay after the story was over.

AU The web comic Girls With Slingshots has an empathetic ace character.

AU: Kate Elliott comments on Twitter: Sherwood Smith, Banner of the Damned

AU: some ppl choose to let their sexuality go, as opposed to temporarily putting it aside. eg 19th C woman writer who said if she had remarried after partner's death she wouldn't have been able to write. Also, there is a distinction between sex and pair bonding. Also a person can choose to give up pair bonding but not loving. (this can feel like being able to love everybody). It's described in spiritual literature. 

Tempest: some ppl have that as a spiritual goal. 

AU: this was my path, first [my interest in?] sex died, then became uninterested in pair bonding

Liz: some monk characters get power from asexuality

AU talk about Odo on ST:DS9? Talk more about asexual romantics?

Rebecca: when Odo fell in love with someone I lost interest in DS9

Tempest: have been rewatching it. They didn't talk about Odo and Kira having sex. Kira actress presented as an older woman, maybe so ppl wouldn't  think about sexytyemz. Was the vagueness a cop out or intentional for some other reason? 

AU (Suzy McKee Charnas): I wrote about an anti sexy vampire, who has sex for blood but no other reason. But readers find it very romantic. I tried to write the anti Byronic vampire but ppl fall in love with him anyway.

AU: you portrayed him as a predator, and we're attracted to predators in a no sexual way bc animal instincts we dont get to show.

Jed: ppl fall for asexual fictional chars, it's a tradition. 


Rebecca: on the panel topic about whether it's enough for a char just not to act sexual— No. Some asexual chars should also be positively portrayed.

Jed: asexuals are commonly portrayed as unemotional, would like to see more who are emotional. Resource: Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward —

Liz: it was interesting to prepare for this panel bc of having to look at my trauma. Ppl said same sex marriage what to lose? Reframe: if ppl see diversity it's not what do I have to lose, it's what we have to gain. Good to challenge ourselves in our writing. 

Tempest: As a writer, acknowledge that you don't understand, do online research or talk to ppl. Read Writing the Other. Character who is opposite from you not too difficult, just a kind of work that writers do. 

Resources from this panel will be listed on
Twitter tag for this panel is #asexualsff
Tags: books, culture, gender, relationships, television, wiscon
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