There’s been a recent discussion about the cover of a potential asexual romance anthology, The Heart of Aces. Everything has already been said, but it reminded me of something else that I wanted to do. So here’s an analysis of the imagery that the media considers appropriate to accompany articles about asexuality, because they seem to fall into a few camps, and maybe I can learn something from this. I’ll link the articles, but this isn’t a critique of what they wrote; I’m interested in the types of visuals they use. And after each category I’m going to make a comment on what I think I learned about asexuality from the image and (for the asexually-uninformed) why I feel it does or doesn’t work, in the unlikely event that there are people who are madly Googling right now to try to find inspiration for the kind of photos to accompany their asexuality media piece.
For those of you who are more visually inclined, I have made an easy to use rating system on how these visual representations make this individual ace feel, because otherwise someone confused is going to come along and miss the bloody point:
Analysis below the cut.
The plastic or ‘sexless’ people camp:
This is the silliest camp because I picture the media throwing up their hands and saying “we don’t have a damn clue as to what kind of visual is appropriate here. No sex?! Try a plastic person, they don’t have sex. Or a Kewpie doll! No sex then!”. This is a shockingly popular category all things told.
What I learned: Asexual people have no sexual parts.
Why plastic dolls don’t work: These images are irrelevant! I didn’t come in a box with plastic underwear permanently attached to my body. That should be ‘enough said’, but I’ve heard of sexuality textbooks that spread the misconception that asexuality means being born without sexual organs, so please don’t encourage this misunderstanding to propagate any further. If you are surprised by this assertion, here are some sites about asexuality. Go read them instead, you have some learning to do.
The bottom line: these are WTF calibre, if you have to use a plastic doll to represent a sexual minority, you are better off with no image.
The stock photo couple camp: these ones deserve their own comments. Some of these are what I call ‘indifferent stock couples’ and some are ‘stay-well-apart stock couples’ but I’ll leave it to you to decide which are which.
The hipster turns down some perfectly good Valentines Day chocolate image or as Google’s reverse image search more eloquently puts it “rejecting someone” image. Also featured on “How to Reject a Would-Be Valentine with Flair”, “i asked out my crush and he said “yes”… as a joke”, “Is He a Heartbreaker?”, and “Do you feel like a failure at love?”.
What I learned: aces reject your lovin’ and/or chocolate.
It’s the “Feet of one couple in bed. Separation and divorce” image! Commonly seen with writings on erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems.
What I learned: asexual couples fail to purchase sheets that are long enough for their beds.
Shutterstock titles this photo “The unhappy young woman with a headache and her joyful husband watching TV lie in bed. The family conflict.” At first glance he doesn’t look too joyful, but I assure you, that is actually how an asexual person smiles.
What I learned: asexuality is due to chronic
It’s “young couple smiling at each other by water”! They touch intimately with the tips of their elbows. This stock photo is also available in colour but I wouldn’t know that because as an asexual, I only see in grey scale. At least they look pretty happy. Maybe it’s because they have an infinity pool.
What I learned: despite our colourless lifestyles, asexuals manage to grin and bear it.
Shutterstock explains: “Portrait of unhappy young man sitting seperately while his wife sleeping on bed” [sic]. Also seen on “4 Signs You’re Using Sex as a Weapon” and various articles about premature ejaculation.
What I learned: I’m starting to suspect that sheet couple and headache couple are losing all the sheets to this guy’s wife. She must be the only one getting a good sleep around here.
Finally here’s a pretty happy stock couple! They dress to match, hold hands, and stand as far apart as is reasonable without straining their arms.
What I learned: Distance and colour-coordination is key to asexual relationship harmony. Not bad, just don’t get any closer!
Here’s a couple gazing apprehensively at each other across the void between their twin beds in twee domestic ‘bliss’.
What I learned: asexual couples live in the 1950s and draw on a bland colour palette for their dress and decor.
Why indifferent or stay-well-apart stock photo couples don’t work: asexual people aren’t generally passionless about life, and we don’t spend all our time on white duvets moping about the sex we’re supposedly not having. If you are thinking about using a photo that is usually used for divorce or sexual dysfunction articles on a basic ‘Asexuality Exists’ article, try giving a little more thought to why that might be problematic. The other reading of a lot of these photos is that only one person in each couple is asexual, and that this is making their relationship one that is not worth having, which is not a lovely implication for asexuals and their partners. An asexual person may be as much into intimacy as the next person, and they may or may not have sex. And of course, aromantic spectrum asexuals are rather erased by these romantic couple-focused images, and all of these images present as heteronormative, when for the asexual community, that just ain’t so. Someone cleverer than me could write reams on this.
The bottom line: please don’t project your expectations onto our relationships.
The sad grey ladies camp:
This is an emerging camp - I don’t think it is actually a camp yet, and it may not make it as one. Be on the lookout to see if this fledgling category goes anywhere. Grey lady one has a stucco wall to caress. Grey lady two has no such wall, so she is sadder.
What I learned: asexual people are ethereal, wan, and nude.
Why sad grey ladies don’t work: actually, personally I’m pretty wan. You’ve got me there.
The bottom line: this has nothing to do with my sexual orientation.
So how does The Heart of Aces rank?
I would say that’s an indifferent stock photo couple and a sad grey ladies mash-up. We have the white duvet, distance hand-holding, and matching apparel of the stock couples, with the wanness, exposed skin, and malaise of the grey ladies. You could make an argument for the plastic people too; they are a bit stiff and surprisingly sexy-desexualized for people in lingerie.
Saved the best for last, the photos of asexual people camp:
Now, this is my favourite camp because it exists within the realm of reality and keeps white bed linens to a minimum. We have ace couples, mixed orientation relationships, aromantic asexuals, homoromantics, and so on. There was concern about something for that Heart of Aces cover, and I want to note an issue here. I watched for media pieces with asexual POC represented in the photos. This was not an active process of ‘find white people’ – I really had difficulty finding POC representation. Siggy has a post on this and there is a tumblr here.
What I learned: I think the media has trouble depicting asexuality because if you have a picture of an asexual person, that is simply a picture of a person, and that probably isn’t strange enough. They also may not have easy access to photos of actual asexual people, though I think that’s no excuse for using something irrelevant.
Why this still works: it’s very simple. Asexual people are real people.