I always feel the brief, confused pause after I explain that I’m on the asexual spectrum and also read romance novels. The bewilderment only grows when I add that I don’t just read romances, I devour them: I write about them; I host a podcast about them; I run virtual and IRL book clubs with them. This apparent contradiction — that an asexual person can converse so much and so easily about sex and physical intimacy — has caused some people to short circuit.
I myself wasn’t always so gung-ho about traversing both of these planes. Some of my own apprehension about my ace identity was thanks to my love of romance novels, and my early, misguided assumption that sexual attraction and romantic attraction were one and the same. (Thanks, society!) It’s a classic issue of “you can’t be what you can’t see.” How could I be asexual, I reasoned years ago, if I liked romance books and wasn’t really bothered by the sex scenes? Those two ideas can’t mutually coexist, right?
I was wrong. Contrary to popular belief, ace people read romance novels — and there are a growing number of romances that reflect our experiences.
It’s a long time coming. In literature and pop culture, characters have popped up over the years who are coded or explicitly presented as ace (hello, Archie Comics’ Jughead Jones, and SpongeBob SquarePants, apparently!), but ace characters in American romance novels didn’t begin to appear with increasing frequency until the mid-2010s. While this might seem like a late development in the 70-year history of the American romance genre, it’s important to note that the modern asexuality movement only gained traction roughly two decades ago, and the Asexual Pride Flag was just formalized in 2010. Even today, asexuality remains misunderstood. Ace people constantly have to fight the myth that they aren’t capable of any form of love or don’t believe in love; they’re infantilized or belittled, as if being asexual means not understanding how sex works, or always abstaining altogether. Add to that the equal misunderstanding around aromanticism, which describes people who feel little to no romantic attraction, and, in the words of teen breakup specialist Olivia Rodrigo, it’s brutal out here.
So it’s hardly surprising that asexual readers’ connection to the romance genre has been tenuous at times. Ace people often turn to romance novels about allosexual characters (i.e. those who experience sexual attraction) because of the dearth of books — particularly in the romance genre — that feature characters like themselves. There are even fewer stories that do right by their ace representation. “Sometimes you get big missteps [in books with ace characters], or you get token side characters whose lives are like, ‘I don't have sex,’” explains librarian and bookstagrammer Quinn, who identifies as a biromantic asexual.
The bulk of early ace romances, which mainly began to appear in the mid-2010s, were either self-published or released by tiny indie publishing houses. Sometimes, they weren’t even formal books — they were lengthy diatribes published on Tumblr or fanfiction sites like AO3. Many didn’t even explicitly code characters as asexual, and quite a few also missed the mark when it came to accurate ace representation. But even as the sub-genre was haltingly coming into its own, asexual romance remained off the radar for publishers, editors, and even most readers. It was an arena largely reserved for the most devoted romance fans, or ace people who knew where to look on the internet.
Since then, further inroads have been made, but progress remains uneven. You’re more likely to see a YA book with ace or aro representation than an adult novel, for instance, and asexual and aromantic characters seem more prevalent in sci-fi and fantasy than in contemporary fiction and romance. “Many people see sex as a turning point for adulthood, or the milestone for being mature,” explains Anna, a demiromantic asexual bookstagrammer. “There's often no sex [in the YA genre], and so it's easier for [readers] to digest it, versus [adult genres], which really forces them to confront their biases around [sexuality].”
That said, there are a few authors who’ve managed to publish romances with explicitly ace characters. TJ Klune’s How to Be a Normal Person, Claire Kann’s 2018 debut novel Let’s Talk About Love, and Ada Maria Soto’s His Quiet Agent are all crowd favorites. Plus, Alison Cochrun’s upcoming romance The Charm Offensive and Kann’s 2022 adult romance debut The Romantic Agenda offer something to look forward to.
Alice Oseman, who’s known for Radio Silence, Loveless, and her Heartstopper series, feels hopeful about ace people seeing more of themselves in all genres and storylines. “Sex and romance are intrinsically tied up in societal norms, and people who do feel things outside of that norm are often belittled or sometimes discriminated against,” she says. “Aro [and] ace stories are smashing those norms into pieces and telling readers that they can feel however they want about sex and romance, and you don't necessarily need them to find happiness and fulfillment.”
Romance novels with ace characters have important lessons that anyone — asexual or allosexual — can benefit from. Ellen Carter, PhD, a Senior Lecturer in English Language and Translation at the University of Strasbourg, published an academic paper in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2018 investigating how ace protagonists in 65 different romance novels navigated finding love in an allosexual world. These stories, she concluded, showcase the importance of resisting cultural scripts and “benchmarks” around sex in relationships, and prioritize open communication between romantic partners. “As a result, relationships are crafted to the specific needs of these individuals rather than borrowed from societal expectations,” Carter writes.
Of course, allosexual people should also remember that they don’t have to identify with the protagonist to enjoy a story, just as many ace people enjoy allosexual stories. Ace readers like Quinn and Anna hope that with more people reading ace romances, understanding and acceptance will improve. “We do exist. We deserve representation,” Anna concludes. “We deserve visibility. And it's not taking anything away from [allosexual people] for us to have that.”
As for me, I’m so happy and relieved to have an ongoing rotation of ace romances on my nightstand — and to embrace reading the whole genre through an asexual lens. I’m sure some will continue to argue that I can’t possibly be ace if I read books with sex scenes. To which I say, what do you care? My love of a happy ending has no bearing on yours.