Anna Goshua│Medical Student at Stanford University
For impressionable youth who spend increasing amounts of time exposed to it in various forms, media is a critical agent of socialization. The content that we encounter informs virtually all aspects of our lives, from our perspectives on sociocultural issues to our very identities. For instance, a survey of the LGBTQ+ community published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that the media influenced self-perception. The presence of positive role models can help to affirm personal identity and provide guidance in the coming-out process. In contrast, inaccurate or absent representation contributes to a damaging sense of exclusion from society at large. This is especially pertinent to members of marginalized demographics, who may not have access to mentors or resources in their communities.
Asexuality suffers from both underrepresentation and misrepresentation in the media. I was nineteen when I first heard of asexuality outside of a biology class, in reference to a human sexual orientation as opposed to reproduction in organisms like bacteria. This was through the BBC show Sherlock, in which the titular character regularly professed disinterest in any and all romantic and sexual relations. However, multiple members of the cast have disputed the characterization of Sherlock as aromantic asexual. The actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, conflates asexuality with celibacy in claiming that Sherlock is “asexual for a purpose”. Worse, one of the showrunners, Steven Moffat, stated that “if he [Sherlock] was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that – it's someone who abstains who's interesting”.
These statements speak to some of the prevalent misconceptions about asexuality that present challenges to accurate media portrayal. I would argue that the most challenging of these is the notion that asexual characters are intrinsically less compelling than allosexual characters. Given the saturation of sexual content in the media, this perception is unsurprising. For example, more than 75% of prime-time television programming was found to be sexual in nature. In advertising, women are almost as likely to be portrayed in suggestive clothing or partially or fully nude as they are fully clothed. In general, sexual messaging has increased in quantity and become more explicit over the past twenty years.
This is by no means an inherently negative trend. Open dialogue about sex helps to promote healthy attitudes and behaviours, and an understanding of concepts such as consent. Furthermore, the emergence of the sex positivity movement has been important in emancipating women from suffocating patriarchal standards. However, our society provides little guidance and is unquestionably challenging for those who identify along the asexual spectrum to navigate.
The pervasive nature of sex-driven narratives establishes the expectation that sexual relations are an integral and inevitable part of every individual’s life. To state that an asexual character’s story would involve “no tension…no fun”, as Moffat does, is to insinuate that personal development and meaningful conflicts in an individual’s life are inextricably intertwined with sexual attraction. Coupled with the stereotypical portrayal of asexuals as psychologically defunct in some manner — cold; incapable of empathy; outcasts; or as Sherlock describes himself, a “high-functioning sociopath” — members of the asexual community internalize the message that there is only space for us on the fringes of society. The aromantic asexual is pathologized and rendered a caricature; the asexual who experiences romantic attraction is eventually normalized through having sex. I should clarify that while there are certainly asexuals who opt to engage in and enjoy sex (this is not articulated in media either), storylines that frame asexuality as reparable are dangerous as they imply that coercion and corrective rape are acceptable.
Though both are misrepresented and not explicitly acknowledged, romantic and aromantic sexuality differ from one another in what little representation they do receive in the media. Romantic asexuality is viewed as paradoxical since romance and sex are thought to go hand-in-hand. While they often do co-occur, approximately one-third of self-identified asexuals are in long-term co-habitation or marriage situations. Nevertheless, couples that are not having sex and a certain amount of it besides are characterized as dysfunctional. Physical acts of intimacy are often used in storylines to legitimate relationships. A commonly used trope is that of unresolved sexual tension between characters in a budding relationship, which is officially canonized when they end up having sex.
Media portrayals of aromantic asexuality, on the other hand, tend to default to dehumanization. A lack of romantic and sexual interest is used as a lazy demarcation of characters that are unstable or, like the alien Doctor in Doctor Who?, inhuman in the most literal sense. As an example, in the pilot of Dexter, the principal character is a serial killer named Dexter Morgan who says, “I don't understand sex. It's not in my nature. I don't have anything against women, and I certainly have an appropriate sensibility about men, but when it comes to the actual act of sex, it just seems so undignified”. Sherlock is a character who Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described as “inhuman as a Babbage's Calculating Machine, and just about as likely to fall in love” in a letter to his mentor, Joseph Bell. In an erotonormative paradigm, to say that one does not experience sexual attraction is to divorce oneself from humanity.
In any context, it seems that there must always be an excuse made to explain a character’s asexuality, whether the character is naïve or deranged or traumatized. BBC Sherlock features Dr. Watson asking Sherlock on multiple occasions what it was that made him the way he is, invalidating his potential aromantic asexuality and casting it as a symptom of some underlying issue that can and should be addressed. Moreover, media refusal to explicitly articulate asexuality is exploitative in that it enables content creators and audiences to financially or emotionally benefit from a character without having to officially acknowledge asexuality and the issues with which the community contends. Sherlock has also made use of more well-known forms of queerbaiting, such as having characters comment that Sherlock and Dr. Watson are in a relationship despite the denials issued by the duo, to fuel the engine of the popular JohnLock [John Watson x Sherlock Holmes] ship in the fandom.
The limited representation of asexuality in the media is more than simply an issue of imagination. Creating inclusive narratives that do service to the variety of asexual lived experiences requires a critical re-examination of the problematic assumptions that drive the heteronormative sexual agenda. Asexuality is paradigmatically disruptive because it challenges the widely held belief that humans are fundamentally sexual beings. In a climate in which magazines and talk shows frequently debate just how much sex single people or couples should be having every week to lead a happy, healthy life, asexuality interrogates traditional conceptions of pleasure and fulfillment. Our society privileges sexual relationships over others while asexuality subverts this hierarchy by valuing platonic relationships, such as friendships and queerplatonic partnerships, and non-sexual romantic relationships.
The bulk of asexual representation does not represent who we actually are. This is not to say that progress has not been made in how the media portrays asexuality. Slowly but surely, we are witnessing the advent of characters such as Todd Chavez in BoJack Horseman. He is a lead character who declares himself asexual, attends an asexual meet-up, and asks out an asexual female character. Another notable instance was a scene in the show Shadowhunters in which Raphael Santiago, a vampire, rejects the sexual advances of his romantic interest, Isabelle Lightwood. When she asks if becoming a vampire affected his sexuality, he makes certain to emphasize that his lack of sexual attraction predated his vampirism. Although he does not use the term asexual, refuting the ideology of asexuality as an acquired disease is an important step toward erasing stigma.
This is just the beginning, of course. The asexual community is extraordinarily diverse, meaning that our media portrayals cannot be constrained to white, cisgender, and able-bodied individuals. We must push for an inclusive, intersectional approach that accurately represents our vast range of experiences.
Asexuals deserve to be able to live our lives without constantly interrogating ourselves about our lack of — or, in the case of demi and graysexuals, circumstantial — sexual desire. We should not be bombarded with messaging that tells us that we are missing a prerequisite to personal and social fulfillment and life satisfaction, and that there is something defective within us. Much like everyone else, the asexual community deserves to have a plethora of role models with well-rounded and engaging narratives with which we can identify and that inspire us.
Bogaert A. "Toward a Conceptual Understanding of Asexuality." Review of General Psychology, 10.3 (2006): 241-50.
Doyle AC. Letter to Joseph Bell. 16 June 1892. Print.
Gomillion SC, Giuliano TA. “The Influence of Media Role Models on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity.” Journal of Homosexuality, 58.3(2011): 330-354.
Jeffries S. (2012, January 20). ‘There is a clue everybody's missed’: Sherlock writer Steven Moffat interviewed. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who.
Kunkel D, Eyal K, Finnerty K, Biely E, Donnerstein E. Sex on TV 4: A Biennial Report to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation; 2005.
“Pilot.” Dexter, season 1, episode 1, written by James Manos Jr., directed by Michael Cuesta, Showtime, 1 Oct. 2006.
Reichert T, Carpenter C. “An update on sex in magazine advertising: 1983 to 2003.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 81.4 (2004):823-837.
Anna is a Russian-Canadian who was born in Moscow and immigrated to Toronto at the age of three. She graduated from McMaster University in the spring of 2018 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Sciences. As an aspiring physician-writer, she is starting medical school at Stanford University this fall. She identifies as aromantic asexual.