Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Asexual Archiving

I've been talking with some friends about archiving asexual material.

One mentioned that my "Nonsexual Intimacies" got cited in the article "Asexual Resonances: Tracing a Queerly Asexual Archive." Since that talks about nonsexual activities rather than asexual/aromantic people, I added a note pointing to my lists of actual ace-aro characters. It's a fascinating article.

I think that archiving is great, but some of the people looking at it are taking a very limited and modern perspective. Me, I've been into relational diversity all along. So when I talk about the history of human sexuality and romance, I mean things like the Hermaphrodite Venus in rock art, the galatur and kurgarra in "The Descent of Inanna," and Phanes who could be rendered as sexless or androgynous. Diversity has always been there, and it's easy to find if you look for it, but you have to remember that today's definitions aren't the only ones -- each culture and time had their own way of defining themselves.

So any time you see a religion whose clergy, or more rarely all followers, practice "celibacy" ... figure that would be extremely attractive to ace-aro folks and some of them have probably gone into that. Christian monks and nuns are well known, but the less-known Shakers also do it, and so do many others. There's nothing wrong with it. That's a great fit for some folks, although it can really obscure their identity.

Other arrangements also provide alternatives to heterosexual-romantic relationships. Boston marriage involved two women living together. From the diversity of accounts it seems that this term spanned lesbian, homoromantic, queerplatonic, and other types of connection.

Courtly love, popular in medieval and Tudor periods, was quite often romantic to the point that sex would ruin it. There were of course the usual carnal affairs, but it was clear that a lot of people found that unappealing. The fun was all in the demure displays of affection, including some really extravagant romantic gestures and florid language. It was a fantastic opportunity for asexual-romantic expression and you can have a grand time reading literature of that period to look for it.

The Aromantic and Asexual Characters Database has a very useful distinction regarding how a character's orientation manifests:

Type of rep
How involved the representation is. This description only encompasses the title stated. If, for example, a character is aromantic but it is only mentioned in the second book of a series, then the first book remains “Word of God”. The second will show “On Page” or “Word used”, depending on context.
Word of God -- The character’s sexuality is not explicited on page, but the author has confirmed it. This means it may never come up as a narrative element, so be warned!
On page -- The character’s sexuality is explicitly demonstrated within the text. It should be stated, discussed, or showed to an extent that makes it clear to the readers.
Word used -- The identity is stated using the actual word (this usually means it is also On Page)

So then we can talk about variations on that theme, regarding fictional or factual individuals.

* Word used is generally the strongest. It matters a lot how people think of themselves and describe themselves. However, bear in mind that word use can change and what they would say is not necessarily what we might say. For instance, Cobble's people have a term for alt-sex-gender folks: one-between. It encompasses what we would call transgender, but Cobble doesn't think of himself that way; he describes himself as a man whose body looks like a woman. And his wife, Gullwing, doesn't want to mate with someone who has a penis (which we'd probably call lesbian) but doesn't mind someone in a masculine social role without one. It's just a different structure. And the shaman Busy Fingers, who is a woman, is more into making magic than making out with a partner. So in looking for words, you have to consider what they mean in their original context, and how people talk about them. If you do go looking, you will find a wide array of words for people whose bodies, sexual interests, and romantic feelings are unconventional. The ace-aro spectrum loops through many of those terms.

* On page conflates a variety of things ...

** It can mean a person's actions, which are strong but not complete. Someone might feel no desire, but fake it for any number of reasons; or even just honestly say they have no desire for sex/romance but mate because they want children. Someone might not have a relationship, but wish for one. Others are congruent in their desire (or lack thereof) and relations. If you look at The Origami Mage, you can see that the main relationship is the rivalry between the two female protagonists. They never identify an orientation, but neither are they doing the things that sexual-romantic people customarily do. Whether or not they think of themselves as ace-aro, they are acting in congruence with the spectrum. They are legitimate to cite, not just because they fit the description, but because their story will likely appeal to ace-aro readers who prefer to read something other than sex/romance.

** Another aspect is self-description. Many people will say things about themselves which reveal their orientation, even if they don't use -- or even know -- a specific word for it. There's a wonderful conversation in Sherlock where Sherlock Holmes denies having a girlfriend or a boyfriend and describes himself as "married to his work."

** A third is other-description. Stalwart Stan is bisexual and demisexual (and romantic) but in both cases someone else figured it out before he did, based on observing his actions and listening to him talk. Many historical figures have left little or no personal remarks on the topic of sex/romance, but other people who knew them described a lack of interest in such that makes them reasonable to cite as possibly on the ace-aro spectrum.

* Word of God relates particularly to characters in the arts. This gets complicated when it intersects with the story itself.

** For instance, a lot of people objected when J.K. Rowling said "Dumbledore's gay" because there was not a hint of it in the books. Well, it made perfect sense to me: those were books from the perspective of tween-teen characters who would not have had much interest in an elder's sex life, nor would it have been appropriate in that type of story. There's a certain value in this type of representation, where characters have orientations that don't come up, but the author will defend them if someone mistakes the character for a different orientation.

** Many times, a character's actions and words don't necessarily pin down their orientation, but there may be hints they aren't conventional. The author cites it and the representation doesn't clash. Sander Albinson in "Bitter Ice" is limnosexual; I know it's there, the story doesn't contradict it, but neither is it made explicit because the story is about something else altogether. Rizal Bagong-gahasa in "A Way to Make Right" is amorplatonic, and you can see him form a tight connection with Skink, even though the specific orientation is never mentioned. Rizal's orientation thus has more evidence for it in the storyline than Sander's.

** Then there are cases where the author says something different than what the character actually does, and/or the portrayal meanders to the point of self-contradiction. This happens a LOT with ace-aro spectrum characters. In Sherlock, the "married to my work" conversation stands up well for a while, but then come the entanglements with Irene Adler. This kind of contradiction often leaves ace-aro people feeling erased. But that doesn't mean these aren't still representations of characters on the spectrum, however problematic they may be. For most writers, identity literature moves through a very slow arc of development, and the clunky portrayals usually precede the graceful ones.

And then there's stuff we don't even have words for, like Pips and his boss orientation. It's a very strong orientation; it influences his behavior about to the same extent that sexual orientation does for most people; but it's not based on sex or romance. (He has those too; he's actually reflective, taking his interest from his partner's preferences.) That encourages us to think about the many types of tight relationship which are not based on sex/romance and which may appeal to folks on the ace-aro spectrum. Beat partners, dance partners, literary collaborators, platonic coparents -- these relationships are all around us but few people pay attention to them. Until we do, and we talk about what a healthy platonic relationship is and how to find that kind of life partner in the same way we devote attention to selecting sex/romance partners, ace-aro folks who are tractive will have a hard time finding and maintaining the kind of relationship they want. That plays into the false impression that ace-aro folks will necessarily end up alone and miserable ... although it also increases the chance of that actually happening.

We need to know our history. Time-binding is part of what makes us people, instead of just dumb beasts. But we need to record as much of it as possible, to give a wide view of asexual and aromantic experiences, not just what's happened in the last several years or even the last century. We need it all, because we don't know who's going to identify with contemporary scholars and who's going to identify with the galatur and kurgarra. As we compare those many different aspects of ace-aro experience, we learn more about what it was, is, and could become.

Tell ALL the stories!
Tags: gender studies, networking, reading, writing
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