A core tenet of the romance genre is the emotionally satisfying ending or the Happily Ever After. Romance publishing, like much of the publishing industry, hasn’t always been inclusive about who is participating in these happily ever afters, however. It has taken a long time for romance publishers to seek out, acquire, and promote books with central LGBTQ+ storylines, and even though this is changing, the genre still does a lot to position straight relationships as the default. Even more pervasive in the romance genre is the assumption that sexual attraction and relationships are the only way to have a successful romantic relationship. The positioning of allosexual relationships as the last word in romance contributes to the invisibility of asexual people and relationships.
Asexual characters didn’t really start making an appearance in fiction until the mid-2010s, according to Lily Herman, a writer for Bustle Magazine. Even when these books began to appear, they were mostly put out by smaller presses or self-published. Content writer and blogger, Dianna Gunn, laments that “a lot of the media offered to us presents really narrow definitions of what constitutes a strong, deep bond. Too often, sexual and romantic relationships take the center stage as the most meaningful relationship you can have.”
Arguably more harmful than erasure of asexual identities in traditional publishing is the outright misrepresentation of ace identities and experiences that exists in older novels and persists in more recent portrayals. According to Lynn O’Connacht, asexuality is often conflated with either aromanticism or celibacy. In many cases, a character’s disinterest in sex cuts off their possibility for a relationship at all and in some cases, a character’s implied asexuality is intertwined with implications that are dehumanizing. Rebecca Burgess, author of the graphic memoir How to be Ace, points to Sherlock Holmes in the BBC original Sherlock, whose sociopathy and disinterest in sexual (or romantic) relationships are conflated. Although she qualifies Sherlock’s sexuality as something that is presented and not explicitly confirmed, there’s enough support within the context of the show to suggest that creators include Sherlock’s ambivalence to relationships under the umbrella of his sociopathy. Burgess writes, “It’s hardly the main problem, but it does contribute to the cultural ignorance of what asexuality is exactly . . . and people’s idea of what a healthy relationship should look like.”
But some novels hit the nail on the head. Burgess raves about Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, in which two ace-coded main characters develop a relationship. Discovering Good Omens was a pivotal moment for Burgess. “I saw my exact experience,” she writes, “And it didn’t need kissing or touching to be considered real, or written off as unhealthy. It was a happy, positive love story.” Although this example is from a fantasy novel, it provides a powerful picture of why representation is important for reinforcing the idea that asexuality is a valid sexual orientation and identity and that fulfilling relationships are absolutely attainable for people who identify as asexual. Author of The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune has made incredible strides in queer representation in general and ace representation specifically. In interviews and on his blog, he advocates for more representation and remains a beacon of hope to other aspiring writers who want to include ace characters and relationships in their novels, whether they identify as ace or not.
Even though romance publishing has a lot of ground to make up for when it comes to who gets their Happily Ever After, readers who are interested in reading more stories that include ace characters and experiences have a lot available to them if they’re willing to do a little digging. Listicles featuring recommendations for asexual romances or book featuring asexual characters are becoming more common, like this one on BookRiot or this one on Tor’s website, and the Aro Ace Database allows you to search for characters who are coded ace or aro (aromantic) in all genres of fiction.