Not Broken: Julie Daly talks asexual representation in YA

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At some point in high school, I decided to accept I was a broken straight girl.

Where my friends could talk about guys with ease – my high school was open minded, but there weren’t many MOGAI* girls out – and dip in and out of relationships, I couldn’t. The guys I had crushes on were guys I was friends with, and they were the sort of crushes that were more “I could hang out with this guy and see where things go, maybe?” There were no butterflies or fantasies or drawing my name with his last name and hearts.

By the time I reached high school and heard the term “asexual” for the first time, I brushed it off as impossible for me. I wasn’t uninterested in sex. I just didn’t particularly want to have sex with anyone I knew. I loved romance novels and romance in general, had an decent interest in sex, and found people attractive. All the signs pointed against the definition of asexual I was given. Even though calling myself straight chafed, it had to be because so many of my really good friends at this point – almost all of whom I met online – identified as MOGAI. I had to be just some weird, broken straight kid. Maybe I just felt excluded.

I can’t pinpoint the first time I found the word “demisexual” and looked up what it meant. It was two or three years ago, probably towards the end of my first year of college. But as soon as I read it, I was filled with this sense of rightness.

That was it.

That was the magical word I had been looking for.

I wasn’t broken. I hadn’t imagined the discomfort I felt when calling myself straight.

I was demisexual.

It took a while for me to feel comfortable calling myself demisexual, to say it out loud and online. I didn’t talk about it right away. I wasn’t sure being demi was special enough to warrant talking about. I still had a lot of straight-passing privilege. (As far as I know, I’m still heteroromantic.) I haven’t said anything to my family for specifically that reason: it doesn’t make any difference in the future they’ve imagined for me, so why bother explaining it?

Then I discovered my sister thinks I might be a lesbian because I never talk about guys. It made me think about everything that happened in high school and how out of place I felt. It made me wonder what assumptions are made about other ace-spectrum people.

And as I thought, I realized I couldn’t think of a single piece of media that represented me. That represented someone on the asexual spectrum.

Teens like me reading YA might wonder if they’re broken and not get any answers from the books they read. Even if I didn’t feel like explaining it to my family, I had to start talking about it for the other teens out there. I owed it to the teen girl who wanted to be romanced but didn’t want to be touched and didn’t want to have sex and didn’t know how to handle it.

If you browse through YA literature and look for ace titles, you’ll get a lot of answers. But most of those answers are either side characters with passing mentions to being on the asexual spectrum or characters where their asexuality is “implied.”

I can’t count the number of times I was recommended a book because the character “read” as asexual or demisexual. They lacked romance or weren’t overly interested in sex. They usually come off as socially and romantically awkward. That’s usually all it takes. Katsa, from Graceling, is read by some as demisexual.

I’m not going to argue with how people choose to read a character, but when it comes to characters on the asexual spectrum, using words is crucial. So many people don’t know that asexuality or demisexuality or gray-asexuality or anything on the asexual spectrum exist. They see LGBTQIA+ and think the A is for allies or they only ever see LGBT/LGBTQ used.

Someone may be able to pick up a book and see a character that reads like them, but they’re going to assume that some people are like them: broken. They’re not going to have the proper word for it. They might not think to look.

After all, unlike most other sexualities, being on the asexual spectrum is about lack of thoughts. With a heterosexual or homosexual character, you can imply sexuality by having your character feel sexual attraction to one gender. With a bisexual character, you can imply sexuality by having your character feel sexual attraction to multiple genders. That doesn’t work for characters on the ace spectrum because they aren’t attracted, sexually, to anybody. Or if they’re demisexual, they’re sexually attracted to one person, which is easy to read as straight or gay or lesbian, pending on the circumstances of the novel. Characters who gray-asexual can have a wide variety of experiences that make it hard to pin down with one or two hints. Some might pick up on what you’re writing and see the hints and put it together, but a lot of people won’t.

Maybe once there is more awareness of asexuality and more representation of asexual characters, then implicit ace characters can be acceptable.

But not yet.

There are a lot of misconceptions about asexual people. Often people assume that asexual people are kind of like robots: awkward, unable to deal with romance and flirting, sex-repulsed, outcasts. While this may be true for some people on the ace spectrum, it’s not applicable to anybody I know.

The stereotype of the asexual as the sex-repulsed outcast has become so prevalent that I hesitate to recommend books that portray ace people this way. I don’t want that to be the only way ace people are seen. The ace people I know are loving and warm and funny and, yes, sometimes awkward, and yes, sometimes oblivious to flirting, but they’re also completely capable of flirting back.

Another common misconception is that asexual people are asexual because they were sexually assaulted in the past. This is a narrative that’s true for some people on the ace spectrum, but it’s certainly not true for all of us. Until we have more books that break the stereotype, I hesitate to recommend those that use it.

With that in mind, I wanted to create a list of YA books with ace representation – one with very specific requirements. I wanted to avoid anything that forwarded stereotypes. The ace character had to be the main character. And I needed the representation to be explicit. The words had to be on the page or feature a description so vivid that it was impossible to misinterpret.

Since my requirements narrowed the field, I’m including links to the places I used to research this list. They have more options and age categories than I’m including here, often with notes and reviews to explain their choices. I haven’t read any of these books – most of them I only learned about while researching – so I can’t personally speak one way or another on these books, I’m just trusting my sources.

this song is not for you laura nowlinThis Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Release date: January 5 2016
Representation: Has a main, POV asexual character
Bandmate, best friend or boyfriend? For Ramona, one choice could mean losing them all. Ramona and Sam are best friends. She fell for him the moment they met, but their friendship is just too important for her to mess up. Together, they have a band, and put all of their feelings for each other into music. Then Ramona and Sam meet Tom. He’s their band’s missing piece, and before Ramona knows it, she’s falling for him. But she hasn’t fallen out of love with Sam either.

fourth world lyssa chiavariFourth World by Lyssa Chiavari
Publisher: self-published
Release date: December 29 2015
Representation: One asexual protagonist, one demisexual protagonist
IAMOS, S.C.D. 8378. Nadin’s planet is dying, her people forced to live huddled in domed cities for protection. With only enough resources to support the population for one more year, time is running out. Nadin thinks she’s found a way to save Iamos, but it will mean defying the planet’s rulers and betraying them could cost her everything.

quicksilver rj andersonUltraviolet + Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson
Publisher: Orchard Books
Release date: June 2 2011 + May 2 2013
Representation: Character in Ultraviolet, protagonist of Quicksilver, is asexual.
Sixteen-year-old Alison has been sectioned in a mental institute for teens, having murdered the most perfect and popular girl at school. But the case is a mystery: no body has been found, and Alison’s condition is proving difficult to diagnose. Alison herself can’t explain what happened: one minute she was fighting with Tori — the next she disintegrated. Into nothing. But that’s impossible. Right?

deadly sweet lies erica cameronDeadly Sweet Lies by Erica Cameron
Publisher: Spencer Hill Press
Release date: August 18 2015
Representation: Asexual main character with demisexual discussions.
In this companion to Sing Sweet Nightingale, the Balasura have visited Nadette in her dreams, enticing her to enter their world. And every night she’s seen through their lies. Now, they’re tired of playing in the shadows and they begin to stalk her in the waking world. It’s no longer just an invitation; if she doesn’t join them, they’ll take her family. She needs help, and the haven she’s seeking may be just out of reach.

the beast of callaire saruuh kelseyThe Beast of Callaire by Saruuh Kelsey
Publisher: self-published
Release date: May 20 2014
Representation: Asexual lesbian protagonist
Yasmin is a descendant of the Manticore. A Legendary. But she doesn’t want to be. Unlike the Legendaries in The Red, Yasmin wants nothing more than an ordinary life. When Yasmin starts hearing a voice in her head and is drawn into dreams that aren’t her own, she is led to Fray—a girl who once saved Yasmin from hunters, who has shadowy memories that hint at her having Legendary magic—and Yasmin is catapulted into a life of Majick and malevolence.

make much of me kayla basheMake Much of Me by Kayla Bashe
Publisher: self-published
Release date: November 27 2014
Representation: Aromantic / asexual main character.
Lily may have spent the majority of her childhood in bed with tuberculosis – but now that she’s well enough to get up and walk around from time to time, she’s determined to do twice as much living as anyone else. She runs away from home and enrolls in a music conservatory in glittering New York, where she makes fantastic new friends. But everyone seems to have secrets at the River School.

as autumn leaves kate sandsAs Autumn Leaves by Kate Sands
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Release date: March 24 2016
Representation: Asexual main character
Kayla Caruso, once a well-liked cheerleader, knows that something sets her apart from her classmates. Her reluctance to have sex with a boy she was seeing earned her the disdain of the other students. Althea Ritter is a volleyball star and rumored to be a lesbian. As Kayla’s interest in Althea grows, so does her confusion. Is she attracted to men or women? Both? Neither? Why does sex even have to matter?

the-second-mango-shira-glassmanTales From Outer Lands by Shira Glassman
Publisher: self-published
Release date: February 11 2015
Representation: One main character is demisexual, though the word isn’t used, multiple minor aromantic / asexual characters throughout.
In the first of these prequel stories, Aviva and the Aliens” is a sci-fi farce starring Perach’s bisexual chef-turned-royal-mistress. On the night before the royal Passover seder, Aviva has to outsmart the aliens who abducted her to cook for them because they had grown sick of their spaceship’s food replicators.

no cover yet27 Hours by Tristina Wright
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Release date: 2017
Representation: Asexual main character

In which a group of queer teens living on a colonized moon must race against the clock to stop an attack that would make the war between their cultures a war of extinction.

 

no cover yetTash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: 2017
Representation: Asexual main character
A teen dealing with sudden Internet fame after her web series is nominated for an award, bringing out the critics and her own self-doubt, while she better acquaints herself and those around her with her asexuality and prepares to meet her long-term Internet crush.

 

Those are the paltry number of books that met my demands.  I hope you find a book here, or in the links below, that works for you. If you didn’t? Write an ace-spectrum character into your book! There are plenty of people on the ace spectrum in this industry who would be happy to answer your questions, myself included. But if you’re going to do it, or if you’re going to look for a book with ace representation, please ask someone on the ace-spectrum. With so many stereotypes and misconceptions about what being asexual means, as much as we want more representation in books, and especially in YA? I’d prefer no representation to more questionable, harmful representation.

More than anything though, I really just want more books with ace characters that go beyond stereotypes and make it impossible to miss.

There are undoubtedly books I missed, but I spent hours just researching and cross checking from the resources and recommendations I was given to come up with these. If there is a YA book with an explicitly ace spectrum main character that you think should have been included, leave it in the comments!

Sources: Ace/Aro books with well organized notes; FuckYeahAsexual’s Book List; AceAdmiral’s Asexy Book List; JustLoveRomance’s 2016 Releases

Resources to Learn More About the Ace Spectrum: FuckYeahAsexual; Asexuality.org; How To Tell if You’re Asexual 5 Ways to Better Understand Asexuality; What Is Asexuality?; Writing Ace Characters of Color

*MOGAI – marginalized orientations, gender alignments, and intersex. LGBT/LGBTQ/LGBTQIA+/QUILTBAG are all, in my opinion, exclusive since they don’t include all the named sexual identities and the plus sign just isn’t the same. Personally, I use the word queer in my day to day, but since I know some are still offended or uncomfortable with it and since I had the room to use MOGAI and explain it, I used that instead.

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About Author

Julie Daly

Julie Daly is sometimes known as Julianne. A recent college grad, when not job hunting, Julie is watching Netflix, talking about YA on twitter, or trying to make her cats play. In 2009, Julie joined a group blog called Bloggers[Heart]Books and her obsession with all things YA has grown exponentially. Though she no longer blogs, she did create #quietYA and is a cofounder of Blogbound Con. Julie has also interned at several publishers and sometimes plays bookseller. Follow her on Twitter at @DailyJulianne.

1 Comment

  1. Another great resource is the sortable list found at https://tagpacker.com/user/ace.reads. There’s an “identifies as ace” tag, so you can see only characters who actually describe themselves as asexual. 🙂 Several of those books might also fit on your list? The person who made the list also has a tumblr where she reviews books with ace characters: http://agentaletha.tumblr.com/.

    Also, the ace character in Make Much of Me is actually a side character, not the main.