Asexual author, Heather Rose Jones, discusses sex scenes, asexuality, and writing.
When I made the choice not to write on-page sex in the Alpennia series, it wasn’t due to prudishness, or to genre, or to expected readership. It was simply that the play-by-play details of the characters’ sexual relationships didn’t feel important to the story. Yes, various of the characters were engaging in sex with each other, and that was part of the definition of the nature of their relationships. But it didn’t feel important to describe those acts on-page, any more than I needed to describe many of the other everyday things that shaped their lives. Many parts of a story are indicated with a sketch, a gesture, an allusion, and the reader is left to fill in the details from their own experience. Often, that “filling in” makes the world of the story much more real to the reader than having things spelled out explicitly. I wasn’t writing erotica, so why include detailed sex scenes?
When I made the choice not to write on-page sex in the Alpennia series, it wasn’t due to strictly following “write what you know.” It was important to me to write my characters’ religious beliefs and experiences in a believable and sympathetic way even though, as an atheist, it was done entirely from imagination and research. It was important to me to write my characters’ attitudes and reflexes around living in a strict class hierarchy and under a monarchy in a believable way even though I’m deeply opposed to inherited power and the fetishization of “noble birth.” I’m writing characters in a setting and culture very different from my own. If I wrote them to have all my beliefs and attitudes, it would fall flat within the specific historic time and place I was creating. But I’m perfectly capable of imagining what it would feel like to enjoy sex, in the same way I can imagine religious ecstasy.
Because I view depicting characters unlike myself as a matter of good writing craft, I have always planned at some point to write stories that do have on-page sex. But as I approach the actual act (of writing, not of sex), as someone who is asexual, I find myself conflicted about why it should be necessary, and what it says about my relationship with my readers.
Reading a book is not getting married. It’s not making a lifetime exclusive commitment. It might be the equivalent of going out on a first date. It’s more often the equivalent of making a friend.
It is not necessary to include on-page sex for a book to be an entertaining and engaging story, or even (if you will forgive the ambition) to be a work of great literature. The place of sexual content within fiction has varied enormously across the ages. Even within the highly specific genre of romance, the presence and explicitness of sexual content has varied as a matter of fashion and marketing. Yet you will regularly encounter readers who claim that the absence of sex scenes makes a story “not a romance” or perhaps more pointedly “not a real romance.” (We’ll leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether any of the Alpennia books are properly classified as romances at all.) Some will go so far as to claim that sex is an essential component for a book to be a good read in general.
That’s where we get to the crux of my conflict. Because this is the same attitude that argues that an interpersonal relationship that doesn’t include sex “isn’t love” or perhaps more pointedly “isn’t real love.” This is the same attitude that results in blithe assertions that sexual desire is universal and part of “what makes us human.” This attitude denies my validity and worth as a human being. And it hurts.
Writing the character of Antuniet Chazillen in The Mystic Marriage was a major step toward recognizing my own asexuality. Oddly enough, the short story that is likely to be my first foray into writing on-page sex features Antuniet, precisely because I want to explore her experiences as an ace-spectrum character.
Now we get to the second part of the crux of my conflict. Reading a book is not getting married. It’s not making a lifetime exclusive commitment. It might be the equivalent of going out on a first date. It’s more often the equivalent of making a friend. And when I hear people say, “I’m not interested in reading books that don’t have explicit sex” I don’t hear “I could never envision myself marrying someone if we were never going to have sex,” I hear “I won’t have coffee with you unless we’re going to have sex.” I hear, “I can’t imagine being friends with someone if we haven’t been lovers first.” (Actual quote from the first woman I dated.)
If I write a sex scene, I want it to be because I have chosen to do so for narrative purposes.
So when I contemplate writing sex scenes in my books because “it’s what the readers want,” there’s a level on which it hits me the same as dating someone who demands that I have sex with them because it’s what they want, regardless of what I want. I have chosen to have sex within relationships for reasons other than actively desiring sex. I’ve been berated and mocked on other occasions for choosing not to have sex—or even for objecting to being symbolically sexualized, whether for humorous purposes or to “go along with the gang.”
That all gets tangled up with my writing process. If I write a sex scene, I want it to be because I have chosen to do so for narrative purposes. I don’t want it to be to avoid being mocked and disparaged as an author. To avoid getting reviews that say “Loved the writing but took two stars off for no sex.” And when I do write a story that has on-page sex, I never want to feel that the book’s quality is being judged by that fact alone. We talk a lot about consent in relationships these days. I want to feel that my consent to the act (of writing) is respected. And until I believe that is the case, I will approach the topic of writing sex scenes with very complicated feelings.