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Asexuality On the Shelves

by Cathy Ritchie retired from the Dallas Public Library in 2019 after 19 years in public service and collection development. She now lives in Urbana, Illinois. on February 11, 2022

What is asexuality? While it’s most often described as “not being sexually attracted to others,” it is far more complex than those few words indicate. What else? Approximately one per cent of the population is asexual (or ace) and it is an orientation, akin to lesbianism or bisexuality. It’s also important to understand that a lack of sexual attraction does not necessarily preclude romantic feelings towards someone, i.e., psychological and aesthetic connection to someone’s personality and the desire for an intimate emotional bond, but excluding the sexual act. Asexuality’s extremely broad spectrum and vast descriptive vocabulary acknowledge this distinction with its many gradations: for example, an ace drawn to their own sex is homoromantic asexual. (Persons with no such inclination are considered aromantic.) And there are ever so many more compound terms where those come from.

Libraries, of course, should offer both informational and imaginative materials on asexuality as part of their overarching service mission. Somewhat easier said than done, however, as this topic still arguably lacks the broad public awareness of, say, transgenderism or bisexuality. But all is not lost: while we await the appearance of additional resources, here are a few selective nonfiction and fiction titles to jump-start an ace collection.

First, a hat-tip to the internet — a search for “asexuality” produces a more-than-respectable number of hits, with dedicated sites and YouTube channels offering everything from ace myths to be debunked to colorful flags and jewelry for purchase. A first stop for those exploring the topic should perhaps be the website AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Created by David Jay in 2001, it offers chat forums, Q&As, and links to relevant resources. For patrons less inclined to hit the bookshelves, or even for those who are, AVEN will provide much.

As for print resources, titles by Angela Chen and Anthony Bogaert should be somewhat helpful for seekers, though Bogaert writes from an academic/statistical perspective and Chen can be both scattershot and enlightening at times. For those seeking a one-stop-shopping ace option, however, I recommend a work that should be front and center on library shelves.

The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality by Julie Sondra Decker (Carrell Books, 2014) is the undeniable core title for this topic. Decker, who is herself aromantic asexual, begins with basic definitions and then guides readers into the ace world with clarity and accessibility. She offers much one-on-one guidance to those questioning their orientation, and as an invaluable bonus, concisely charts and defines all those ace-related compound descriptors threatening to leave readers light-headed. Finally, she emphasizes her key points in bold-face type: what’s not to appreciate? Julie Sondra Decker’s excellent book is not to be bypassed.

For those “graphic” fans of any stripe, Rebecca Burgess gives us a humorous taste of ace life, in bright cartoon colors. In her How To Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2021), the British author recalls her youth feeling alienated from a world seemingly obsessed with sex, though her life did find its happy ending. Burgess’s story is engrossing, but I especially appreciate how she periodically interrupts her narrative panels to offer facts and myth-busters about asexuality, thus making her work painlessly informative as well as entertaining. While this unique title cannot supplant Decker’s book as a factual source, I am encouraged by its very existence.

On the ace fiction front, however, I believe the situation is fair to middling. To be sure, a Google search for “asexual characters in fiction” will result in numerous titles, but a closer look reveals another story. Many cited characters appear only tangential to the novels’ main plots, and, since most of the titles appear to be YA sci-fi/fantasy, those ace personae doubly embody the sense of being “other.”

However, a few of these YA titles do inspire consistently positive online reviews and deserve mention. They include: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom, 2016); Beyond the Black Door by A.M. Strickland (Square Fish, 2021); Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (Square Fish, 2019); and Sea Foam and Silence by Lynn E. O’Connacht (Independently Published, 2021).

Based on my admittedly cursory study, aces in contemporary, realistic settings seem somewhat hard to find, which is disappointing. But I have unearthed three titles whose asexual characters are grounded in the real(er) world.

In Thaw by Elyse Springer (self-published, 2018), our ace heroine is semi-stereotypical public librarian Abby. When she encounters Gabrielle, a glamorous model and woman-about-town, the two women immediately bond, though Abby knows she must share her true orientation with her new would-be-romance. After initial surprise, and some discussion, Gabrielle seems willing to continue deepening their relationship, minus sex. The novel concludes with hope on both sides that they will remain together as an admittedly singular pair. Totally plausible, considering their personal differences? Maybe not, but readers are able to witness the creation of a unique relationship; the prose may not be award-winning, but I credit Springer for the attempt.

In her Perfect Rhythm (Vlva Publishing, 2017), German romance author Jae offers perhaps the most intricate depiction of an adult ace/non-ace relationship I’ve discovered so far. Leo is a famous lesbian pop/rock singer summoned back to her small Missouri town due to her father’s illness; she quickly falls for his home care nurse Holly, who is homoromantic asexual. Once Holly tells Leo about her orientation, we watch the women working together to construct a sexless relationship that still brings physical and emotional satisfaction to each. The writing is not always stellar, but I give Jae high marks for broaching ace/non-ace issues as they impact a couple sincerely in love. Her effort deserves a place in most collections.

I happily conclude this discussion with a simply amazing novel by celebrated British YA author Alice Oseman, who self-identifies as aromantic asexual. Her latest title Loveless (Scholastic, 2022) gives us teenage “uni” freshman Georgia who comes to realize that she feels neither romance nor sexual desire towards anyone. This revelation stuns and demoralizes her, as she pictures a “loveless” adult future. Her roommate and small circle of close friends become involved in her plight as they all learn about love’s differing varieties and what really counts in relationships.  This sci fic/fantasy-free novel should be required reading for “questioning” folks of any age, as it positively depicts asexuality as simply another way to be. It’s a superb effort that I was so delighted to experience.

Unless it’s accidentally omitted, “A” for Asexuality usually appears at the tail end of what’s become the standard mass abbreviation for the gay/lesbian/bisexual, etc. community. But, to paraphrase a cliché, aces are also everywhere, and deserve their place in the ever-expanding sexuality rainbow, along with a spot on public library shelves.

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