Content warning: this post includes mentions of sex and BDSM, and gets a bit personal at times regarding my own experiences of sex, erotica and porn.
Recently I’ve made a couple of posts which might seem a little bit contradictory to some readers – specifically, a review of a graphic novel with a lot of sexual content, which came less than a month after my post about navigating fandom as an asexual fan. So I wanted to write something that would explain both this apparent conflict and what it means to read erotica as an ace-spec person.
First of all, it’s important to remember that there is no single universal asexual experience. What’s true for one ace-spec person isn’t automatically true for every other ace-spec person. The one thing that unites asexual people is a lack of sexual attraction to people.
When I explain this ‘lack’ to other people, what I usually say is that I have zero reaction to seeing a conventionally attractive person in a provocative outfit or situation. Nudes, pin-ups or ‘sexy’ pictures just don’t do anything for me. Seeing actual people in real life wearing revealing clothing doesn’t make me feel anything (except sometimes embarrassed, or worried that they must be cold!).
Some ace-spec people are sex-repulsed, some are indifferent to sex, and some do have a sex-drive or are willing to have sex with a partner. Some, like me, enjoy the physical sensations of sex but never feel lust or attraction to people, and can generally take care of any ‘needs’ or urges themselves. Demisexual or gray-sexual people might experience sexual attraction to somone they have a romantic attraction to, but then it’s typically based on a desire for intimacy rather than being turned on by their special person’s appearance.
It took me a long time to realise that my experiences of attraction weren’t typical. I had an interest in sex as a teenager, but didn’t notice that my desires never centred on actual people and were more just about craving physical sensations. I could fantasise about having sex, but only if I fantasised the romance that would lead up to it, and often I found more emotional pleasure in those daydreams of romance than in any kind of sexual thoughts. As a young adult, I had no urge to go out and ‘hook up’, but I attributed that more to finding socialising generally difficult and fearing that I wouldn’t be successful as I wasn’t really anyone’s idea of attractive. It wasn’t until my late 20s and my first sexual relationship that I started to realise something wasn’t quite right – I viewed sex as a way to be intimate with someone I already felt emotionally close to, but found that I didn’t feel aroused when my partner would try to initiate sex by wearing lingerie or just getting naked.
After that relationship ended, it took some research and a few conversations with an openly asexual friend to figure out my feelings, but now I feel a lot more secure in my understanding of my sexuality. When I crave ‘sex’, it’s more about stimulation and an urge to get off rather than wanting to have sex with a specific person. I have no interest in porn and find the idea of watching actual people have sex to be off-putting – bodies don’t interest me unless I know the person inside them. I do enjoy BL drama CDs, but with those, I’m not imagining myself involved in any way – I do have a thing for certain types of voices, but I view that as a sensual enjoyment rather than a sexual one.
But literature and drawn erotica? Totally different.
I generally have no issue with reading fanfiction that has sexual content. If the smut scenes are overly porny or repetitive, I might skip them entirely, and I generally don’t seek out PWP stories or write them. What I do enjoy reading is fanfiction where any sexual content is relevant to exploring the way the characters relate to each other. A slow, sweet scene with declarations of love? Wonderful. A needy, desperate scene after several thousand words of mutual pining? Fantabulous. Even hints of BDSM, if it’s well-crafted and relevant to the way the relationship has developed, can be an enjoyable read – many years ago, one of my first forays into ‘Starsky & Hutch’ fandom was a multi-chapter story in which the two leads began exploring a Dom/sub relationship which centred on Dave Starsky’s need to relinquish control to someone else after working an intense job which challenged his feelings of trust and dependence. The s/m scenes, rather than being smutty, explored a character’s need to feel in control at all times and how he could benefit from allowing the one person he trusted completely to take control over him. The sex was there to support the character development, rather than to be titilating (it’s also why I generally dislike a lot of BDSM fanfiction, where the writer doesn’t really understand what fetish is, how fetish and kink are two different things, or why fetish provides a different release to ‘vanilla’ sex).
Drawn erotica is different again. It’s possibly the only visual stimulus I’ve ever had any kind of reaction to. Maybe because it’s not real people? Again, it’s not all drawn erotica that does it for me – I find some material too crude, and I generally don’t have any interest in straight sex in such material, mostly because it’s often created with (or intended to be viewed through) a male lens, i.e. made for straight men to fap to. Which means there’s an inherent misogyny, with female characters there purely for male pleasure, and with little understanding of (or care for) women’s pleasure. I might sometimes enjoy wlw-focused art or stories, but even then, because I’ve never considered myself in any way feminine or found myself relating to female characters, it’s not often. What I prefer to read is mlm, and even then, very specific types of story and types of bodies represented. Slim, beautiful bishounen-types are entirely unrelatable, and I don’t enjoy anything crude. There has to be some kind of emotion or affection – I want to see every participant enjoying what’s happening, and bonus points for kissing and cuddling. I rarely picture myself involved in any of the scenarios depicted; instead, I enjoy the depictions of sex and love, just as I can enjoy the physical sensations of sex without attaching any desire for another person to be involved.
So how does that relate to fandom?
Well, for one thing, it means things like foe-yay and rival-shipping don’t do anything for me at all. It also means that I can’t enjoy shippy material about characters who don’t interact in canon, as I have nothing on which to base their fanon relationship.
Back when I was part of the ‘Buffy’ fandom, there was a small group of fans who focused on the geek trio from season 6 – Warren, Jonathan and Andrew. I wrote a lot of stuff during that time, developing my writing skills and also meeting some great people through the fandom. But after a while, I noticed many of the other writers had started writing about other characters who’d never interacted onscreen with the trio. Specifically, shipping Warren with Tucker (Andrew’s brother, who released hellhounds at prom in season 3). The stuff they wrote might have been terrifically well written, but I had no way into the relationship, because I’d never seen the two characters interact. I soon started to lose interest in the fan content, particularly when more and more of it became focused on sex. How could I read about a relationship when I had no idea how those characters would interact? How could I care about a ship that seemed based entirely on someone finding someone else ‘hot’?
Same thing happened with the ‘Due South’ fandom later. I didn’t discover the show until about 10 years after it had aired, when it was released on DVD. The Ray Wars had already happened by then, but I picked up the fandom lore. I didn’t understand how anyone could prefer the second Ray, who’d been introduced as a ‘sexy’ upgrade to Veccio – younger, cooler, better looking (apparently). Where was the love, the fondness, of the first two seasons?
It’s also why I respond with bemused eye-rolling to people who have their ships picked out within minutes of watching a new show. I like to get to know the dynamics of a relationship before I can form any opinions on it, much less think about shipping anyone.
When I do ship characters, it tends to be when there’s a prospect for mutual pining – long-running friendships that might develop into something more (Eraserhead/Present Mic), or adults who meet in the workplace and feel unable to act on their feelings out of fear of being unprofessional (Reigen/Serizawa, Takeda/Ukai). I can’t stand foe-yay, but I do enjoy enemies-to-friends-to-lovers, where the relationship develops on an emotional basis.
It’s also one thing I loved about ‘Yuri On Ice’, and why I found it easy to read Yuuri as demisexual – his love for Victor started as admiration, and Victor’s love for Yuuri grew from his appreciation for Yuuri’s talent and his ability to treat Victor as a regular person rather than an idol, especially given Yuuri being canonically plain and average-looking rather than your typical BL bishounen. And that’s why I hate reading YOI fics where the writer has Victor rhapsodising for paragraphs over Yuuri’s great beauty.
So yes, I can enjoy reading about sex as an asexual fan. But as with my own sexual attraction, it comes only under certain circumstances. And reading about a thing is not the same as wanting to do that thing – I doubt most readers of crime fiction actually want to be detectives (or serial killers!).
I read fanfiction partly as a way to live vicariously through the characters. As someone who’s often very isolated due to mental illness, I spend a lot of time alone, and fanfiction and other media allow me to experience the emotional aspects of relationships without putting myself in situations I might struggle with. I can read fanfiction with romance (or sex) and find myself getting emotional because I’m happy for the characters, or because I get to see people I can relate to finding happiness that I might not otherwise experience myself. And when they get to have great sex, I can be happy for them and enjoy it vicariously too.
Fictional sex is not the same as real sex.
Sometimes it’s better.