‘Sherlock’

So TV needs to stop painting them that way.

Soft pretzels are so delicious, I can’t imagine anybody not wanting one. Sure, maybe you’re not in the mood for a soft pretzel right now. Or maybe you just haven’t met the right soft pretzel yet. Once you get older you’ll realize the joys of soft pretzels. Have you tried soft pretzel sticks? Have you put mustard on your soft pretzel? Have you let your soft pretzel choke you or slap you around a little bit?

These are the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided arguments often used to convince asexual people that their orientation is a temporary, fixable predicament. Because most of the population experiences some form of sexual desire (whether it’s for men or women or both), the notion of asexuality can be a tough pill to swallow for allosexuals. (Allosexuals are anybody who isn’t asexual?—?anybody, in other words, who experiences sexual desire.)

Truth is: Asexuality is real, it’s permanent, and asexuals are A-OK with it. Julie Sondra Decker, author of “The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality,” writes that asexuality?—?like other orientations?—?is a spectrum. There are some who experience zero sexual attraction and zero romantic attraction (called aromantic asexuals); some who experience zero sexual attraction but are interested in romantic relationships (minus the sex, obviously); and some who experience a little sexual attraction, but rarely, and don’t assign much importance to it.

Merging with the mainstream

With increased recognition of the asexual?—?or “ace”?—?community, more asexual characters are finding their way into media. Why is this important? In a November 2012 essay called “Asexuality In Fiction,” blogger The Thinking Aro (short for “aromantic”) writes:

“I strongly believe that asexual representation in fiction and general media is crucial for the well-being and empowerment of the asexual community and asexual individuals. On a community level, fictional representation of asexuals will increase visibility and therefore the rate of acceptance and respect we receive from allosexual society. On an individual level, fictional representation of asexuals will lend to an asexual’s sense of belonging, self-acceptance, hope, peace, and happiness.”

So, what’s the state of asexuality in literature and onscreen? Let’s take a look.

Books

For whatever reason, fantasy and science fiction are two genres that seem to be ahead of the curve re: ace representation. Perhaps it’s the fact that those genres, by their very nature, have a finger on the pulse of demographics or causes that haven’t yet hit mainstream consciousness.

This article from Tor lists five books that have upped ace visibility (with varying degrees of success) thanks to their asexual characters. RJ Anderson’s “Quicksilver,” for example, features a character named Tori Beaugrand. The book does a bang-up job of documenting Tori’s self-discovery?—?like many aromantics or asexuals, she tried to have a sexually intimate relationship when she was young. But after realizing that she simply wasn’t interested, Tori explains how she feels to her best friend Milo:

“I’m serious,” I insisted, stepping in front of him so he’d have to look me in the eye. “I hate it when people talk like friendship is less than other kinds of?—?as though it’s some sort of runner-up prize for people who can’t have sex. I had a boyfriend once, but I never liked being with him the way I liked being with you.”

I held his gaze, refusing to falter or look away. “You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had, Milo. And that is everything to me.”

Fully-fleshed characters like Tori, whose asexuality is more than a throwaway detail, are valuable additions to the delegation of asexuals in mainstream lit. Less valuable are characters like Karen Healey’s Kevin, from “Guardian of the Dead.” He comes out as ace to the book’s protagonist, Ellie, whose reaction is everything we could hope for: compassionate, accepting, non-judgmental. But as asexual blogger Cinderace writes in her review of the book:

“Kevin’s unique experience of asexuality isn’t discussed or revealed at all. ‘I’m ace’ is the beginning and end of the conversation; Ellie just makes her own assumptions about what it means and doesn’t ask Kevin any thoughtful questions.”

Cinderace also has qualms with Kevin’s general lack of development, the book’s inability to address the distinction between aromantic and asexual, and the implicit notion that an allosexual and asexual person could never share a romantic coupling.

Movies & TV

There exists a troubling trend in mainstream portrayals of asexuals. (Though sci-fi and fantasy novels do have substantial followings, they’re objectively less mainstream than the movies and TV shows addressed below.) For some reason, ace characters are often written as cold, uncaring, sociopathic and even murderous. The reason for this? One theory is that allosexual writers don’t understand asexuality yet. They think that a lack of interest in something as “fundamental” as sex must mean that these characters are missing other pieces of the puzzle.

Take Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory.” Other characters on the show describe him over and over as an alien or a robot?—?his asexuality walks hand-in-hand with social ineptitude.

Or the Doctor from “Doctor Who.” He’s literally an alien.

Then there’s Dexter, whose asexuality seems to be inextricably linked with his compulsion to kill. (I’m not suggesting the show’s writers are equating murder with asexuality; I’m observing the pattern of asexuality and sociopathy as a package deal.)

But perhaps literature and film’s best known asexual is the world’s first and only consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth was never interested in sex in the books. In his current iteration on BBC’s “Sherlock,” that orientation carries over from page to screen. (I’m choosing to ignore the lesser adaptations starring Robert Downey Jr. or Johnny Lee Miller.) But while it is nice to see an ace character who also happens to be one of the world’s most brilliant minds, Sherlock’s asexuality has been woefully misunderstood. Co-creator Stephen Moffat attributes Holmes’s asexuality to a “willful” self-deprivation, a way to keep his brain pure. And Benedict Cumberbatch thinks that his character’s orientation comes down to simple cost-benefit analysis:

“He’s asexual. He doesn’t want any, and it’s very purposeful on his part. I think he’s been burnt in the past. I think he also realizes he can’t beat female intuition; he can’t. So to embroil himself where he might be enslaved through adoration or sexual desire or any kind of power or chemistry to do with love is too big a risk for him.”

This is the sort of asexual that asexuals don’t need as an ambassador of the community. That’s precisely because asexuals aren’t sacrificing anything by being asexual, no more than I’m sacrificing gay sex by being heterosexual. That’s just not my orientation.

Going forward

I’m not looking to condemn Karen Healey or Stephen Moffat or Benedict Cumberbatch for an imperfect representation of asexuality. In fact, I think that an imperfect representation is better than no representation at all.

Going forward, it’s likely we’ll see more asexual characters cropping up in literature and film. With that increase in visibility, there will be an increase in dialogue. And once that conversation starts, it’s not long until ace characters become another normal feature of the literary landscape.