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Watching a movie, the asexual way.

Meike van Roessel 6327087 / 10071563 University of Amsterdam Dance Me to the End of Love: Romantic Love Narratives. Magriet van Heesch


Let us play a game of guess the movie. The rules arent very complicated, because there arent many rules. It comes down to me laying out a plot for you and you subsequently guessing which movie it is. That should not be too hard, should it? Here we go. A man meets a woman and happens to quickly fetch an interest in her. He manages to conquer her, despite a sufficient amount of boundaries faced. Their first kiss follows soon after. In little to no time, they have shared the bed and thus established their relationship. It would come as no surprise to me if you were unable to identify the movie just from these few key aspects. That is not because something is wrong with your guessing skills or your knowledge of movies. For all I know, they are as good as any others. Instead, it is because this plot outlines most mainstream movies made. Whether it is the main plot or a back-ground story is of hardly any relevance. A machine-gun style action movie follows this path as much as any romantic comedy does. In the end, an adult relationship is established either by the first (intimate) kiss or by under-the-sheets action. It is this observation that has led to the topic of this paper. In my eyes, there are several troublesome aspects to this classical story-line. For example, in most cases it revolves around a strong male protagonist falling for another, female, character. This reinforces both a male focus and the heterosexual norm. What I wish to bring to attention, however, is the sexual attraction that forms the main aspect of nearly every on-screen relationship. Mainstream cinema has made it seem as though an adult relationship is valid only by the occurrence of sexual activity. It is a sex scene that shows the viewer that a relationship has been established. While it may be true for most people that they do not have sex until in or near a relationship with their sexual partner, this does not mean that it is the sexual activity that validates their relationship. In fact, for about one in every hundred people, the sexual attraction that is the main focus in modern cinema does not, or only hardly, exist (Bogaert n. pag.). These people that make up one per cent of the population are called asexuals. The term asexual means that they do not experience any sexual attraction towards others. As someone interested in media, it fascinates me to think how these people deal with the obvious sexual norm in mainstream cinema. For that reason this paper will try to answer the following question: How do asexuals negotiate the sexual normativity of mainstream cinema? To find an answer to this question, I have approached a number of asexuals with the request to answer a few questions for me. They have done so, either by anonymously filling in a survey I sent them, or by responding on a forum or to me personally. Thirty-one people 2

have very helpfully answered the eight questions asked in the online survey and twenty-nine people have responded to the questions personally sent to them, which brings the total amount of respondents to sixty. To structure this paper and as effectively as possible find an answer to its research question, this paper has been divided into several sections. In the first, I will give a definition and explanation of asexuality, backed up by previous research on the topic. Then, in the second section, I will organise my findings in an analysis of the answers received to the questions I have published online. Finally, I will conclude with a short summary of my findings and how they answer the research question asked for this paper as well as outline what the results of my analysis may imply.

What is asexuality?

Asexuality is a sexual orientation that only very recently has come to light as an interesting subject for academic research. It can very simply be described as not experiencing sexual attraction, which is how the main distributor of information on asexuality, AVEN1, defines it. AVEN then goes on to explain that asexuality is, in fact, a sexual orientation and not based on human behaviour. This is an important distinction as asexuality is often misinterpreted as a choice, such as celibacy. The difference between sexual orientation and sexual decisions has frequently been debated in discussions about homosexuality. There are those who argue that (homo)sexuality is a choice and those who argue that it isnt. I wont go too deeply into that argument, but will stick to the latter explanation; someones sexual orientation will in this paper be understood as an inherent feeling of attraction that is not influenced by either choice or context. The way in which someone acts upon their sexual orientation, however, is. For example, a celibatarian priest can still be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual2, but has from a religious incentive chosen not to act upon that attraction. Asexuality works quite the other way round. Asexuals are people who do not experience any sexual attraction towards other people, but that does not mean they are incapable of having, or even enjoying, sex (Asexuality Archive 42). They can have sex, and some do, but their motivation will not be their own attraction to their sexual partner. Another distinction that is relevant when explaining what asexuality means is the distinction between sexual orientation and romantic orientation (Brotto 83). While people that identify as asexual do not feel any sexual attraction to other people, that does not mean they are incapable of falling in love, or can just fall in love with anyone of any gender. Asexuals are not automatically panromantic because they are not interested in their love interests private parts. It is possible for an asexual to be heteroromantic, which would mean their romantic interests are of the other sex. This, however, would not mean they are sexually attracted to them, but that they are able to fall in love with them. Outside of physical shape, there are differences between men and women that allow asexuals to determine which gender they feel most romantically attracted to (Asexuality Archive 124). A final point about asexuality that is important for understanding the variety in survey results, is that it is a spectrum. As with non-asexual people it differs how quickly they feel sexually attracted to another person, it differs with asexuals too. The name for this spectrum, or for an unlabelled place on this spectrum is Grey-A or grey-asexuality (Pandoren). For

AVEN is short for Asexual Visibility & Education Network and is an educational website that holds a frequently asked questions section, a forum and a wiki encyclopaedia. 2 I recognise other sexualities than these three along with non-binary gender identities that complicate the matter of sexual orientation, but will not further explore them in my writing.

some people, this means they only feel sexually attracted to another person once a week, for others it means that they only feel sexual attraction once every month, year, several years or even once in their life-time. Grey-A, however, is not necessarily time related. It just means that experiencing sexual attraction is less common than with non-asexual people, but still may occur every so often. A specific and often mentioned point on the asexuality spectrum is demisexuality. This means that the person who identifies as demisexual does only experience sexual attraction when a strong emotional connection with someone has been formed. The mentioned emotional connection does not necessarily need to be a romantic connection; it might as well be an emotional bond between colleagues, friends or class mates. Basically, when someone is demisexual, they do not experience primary attraction, which is instantaneous and physical, but only the secondary attraction you get when a strong bond has been formed (Pandoren).

Asexuals on mainstream cinema

As explained in the introduction to this paper, the main objective of this section will be to find out how asexuals negotiate the sexual norm of mainstream cinema. That is to say, to see whether or not they think cinema is enjoyable in its current format and if their movie preferences are affected by their sexual orientation. To answer this question, this section, too, will be divided into two separate sections, that serve to answer two separate subquestions. Quotes from the held survey will be used to illustrate the answers to these subquestions. The first question important to answer is how do asexuals react to viewing sexual activity on screen?. The second question that will be answered in this section of this paper is what is the personal solution to the sexual standard in cinema asexuals come up with?. This means as much as what they personally do with cinematic texts or cinema in general to make the experience enjoyable, if it wasnt already.

How do asexuals react to viewing sexual activity on screen? Out of the sixty repondents answers to the questions they were asked, three different reactions to sexual activity in movies can be made out. These reactions can roughly be compared to the three different reading positions to a text that Stuart Hall has described. These different readings are the preferred or dominant reading, the negotiated reading and the oppositional reading. To shortly explain, the dominant reading means that the reader (or viewer or consumer) will accept the connotation of the media text in a way similar to its intended use (Encoding/Decoding 171). When a viewer watches a movie from a negotiated point of view, that means they will accept the basic intentions of the movie, but utilise the possibility of adapting some of its content to their personal needs (172). In case of the oppositional reading of a text, the viewer will refute the dominant meaning of a text and apply instead their own frame of reference to its meaning (173). In Halls work, these reading positions operate on a deeper level than the reactions described in this paper, but their basic values remain the same. For instance, a first reaction to viewing sexual activity on screen can surprisingly be stated to be a reaction of pleasure, or a dominant reading. A few respondents have actually admitted to quite enjoying sexual scenes in movies or on television. While this enjoyment is of a different nature than its intended use (relatability and arousal), that doesnt detract from the fact that they do appreciate the use of sex scenes in mainstream cinema. Still, their enjoying of these scenes is subject to criticism and circumstances non-asexual people might not even take into consideration when watching a sex scene. For instance, one of the respondents have stated the following: 6

I quite enjoy pornography, even! While I dont have the urge to go out and get some, I am greatly fascinated by human sexuality and its various expressions, Perhaps because I am ace, its fascinating to me. This is an interesting stance to take as an asexual. While they say that they do enjoy pornography, their reasoning as to why pornography makes for an interesting cinematic genre differs greatly from that of the average non-asexual. Pornography to non-asexual people will serve mostly as a way of physical gratification without the need for a sexual partner in the process (Janssen). This persons stating that they think it is interesting is based more on an interest in the human mind. They think it is fascinating because of the expression of human sexuality, rather than because of what the activity will do to them personally. In short that means that pornography will arouse a non-asexual, whereas that will not be the case with an asexual person. This conclusion is confirmed by the following statement of another respondent: I am sex-positive and seeing sex doesnt bother me, in fact I sometimes enjoy it when its key to the plot, it just doesnt arouse me. Sex-positivity is a well-known term in the asexual community. Contrary to what many people tend to believe when they first hear of asexuality, not all asexuals dislike the notion of sex. In fact, many asexuals state that they are sex-positive, meaning that they do not wish to keep anyone else from having sex or displaying sexual attraction. Their own sexual orientation has nothing to do with their view on more sexually oriented people. Relating this reaction back to Stuart Halls three reading positions, it is clear that due to their asexuality, this reaction is only as close to the dominant reading as it can get. Asexuals will not be aroused by sexual activity or relate to the characters, which is its intended reading position, but will enjoy the scenes for as far as they can.

A second reaction to sexual activity on screen is one of indifference that is accompanied by a more critical viewpoint. This resembles the negotiated reading position that Hall explained. The more critical viewpoint mentioned before is mostly expressed regarding the meaning of a sexual scene to the plot. In fact, this is one of the most often mentioned aspects in the survey answers. These are a few examples: I'm glad that we live in a world in which sexuality is being expressed rather than repressed, but when cinema and good ratings depend on it, it's going a little too far and in some cases, pushing plot aside for the 'action'. It doesn't really bother me unless it seems really unnecessary, because it makes the movie boring to me. 7

This is just one example out of far more expressions of the same sentiment. It is clear that this viewer does not necessarily feel bothered or repulsed by watching sexual activity in a movie, but it is more an awareness that the sex scene seems to be out of place. Whereas as a non-asexual person might relate to either of the characters having sex, or even may become aroused by said scene, these asexuals state that they become much more aware of the strangeness of the scene. Another awareness that comes to several of the respondents is the idea that they are in some way weird. When they watch a sex scene and do not experience what a nonasexual would experience, that can be odd for them. This is something that is only reinforced by the lack of asexual representation in cinema, as expressed in the following citations: () Im usually very aware that its there for a specific purpose, that Im supposed to react to it in a particular way - with sexual desire or an empathy for the characters that taps into the supposedly universal nature of sexual attraction, which I dont share. Its difficult to explain. Its like a moment of Hey. This is for the normal people. This is what normal people want to see. Youre not normal. It never really bothered me, but then again, it took me quite a while to figure out that asexuality exists and I'm not broken in any way, so having more asexual representation would help to prevent things like that by raising awareness. Both of these quotes perfectly outline how uncomfortable it can be for an asexual person to watch movies that conform to the strong sexual norm in cinema. They may realise more than ever in what sense they differ from non-asexual people, be it heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual.

The last reaction to sexual activity on screen is a definite repulsed reaction, comparable to Stuart Halls oppositional reading position. Several of the respondents have stated that they would prefer to leave the room or look another way when sexual behaviour is being displayed. With that, they refuse to accept the intended reading of the film maker and focus their attention on something they think is more to their liking. One of the respondents went so far as to state the following: I am generally quite repulsed by kissing - I know its not very sexual activity, but it squicks me out a lot. Actual sex acts in film, I have had very little experience of seeing (I tend to avoid them, obvious reasons), but the general rule seems to be that they make me definitely uncomfortable and sometimes mildly sick, depending on what exactly is visible. I tend to look away if there is sex on screen.
This statement explicitly says that it is not merely a feeling of discomfort or disinterest, but even brings about a physical reaction to something they do not wish to see. To experience such strong

negative emotions in regard to sexual activity with the current amount of sexual exposure in mainstream cinema, must be highly challenging. Of course, this is a somewhat extreme reaction, but even for those who do not experience any physical difficulty, watching sexual activity can be very uncomfortable.

When explicit sexual activity comes on screen suddenly find myself intently interested in the walls or ceiling, and that is an improvement from how I used to deal with the material. If it is not explicit it bothers me less, but it is tiresome at best. For this person, too, their sexual orientation has formed a definite boundary in their enjoyment of cinema. When looking away from the screen is an improvement to how they used to deal with viewing sexual behaviour, that also implies that they have to adapt their preferred way of watching a movie to what is generally accepted. There is so much sexualisation in movies these days, that asexuals have to suppress their natural reactions and find a way to deal with it in a different way. This also brings us to the next subquestion of this paper.

What is the personal solution to the sexual standard in cinema asexuals come up with? Of course, as this question states personal solution, there is an infinite number of ways people have come up with to make their movie experience more enjoyable. However, in answering this subquestion, two ways have been chosen: creating an asexual reading of film and avoiding certain genres. An asexual reading of certain movies and certain characters would happen in much the same way as the more common known queer reading of film. Several of the respondents have expressed that they consider characters whose sexual orientation was not explicitly mentioned a presentation of asexuality. By doing so, they apply their own ideas to a character about whom nothing has been said of that aspect. A character who hardly ever shows any interest in sex thus can easily become asexual to an asexual audience. Two examples of these characters are Sheldon Cooper from the popular television show The Big Bang Theory and Sherlock Holmes3. The best example is probably Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Hes very clearly asexual, even openly so. Its played for laughs, which got bothersome further into the series, but on the up side hes a popular character who is seen in a positive light by many, so I find that a win for my team. Characters that are generally considered to be asexual, like Sheldon Cooper or Sherlock Holmes, are usually portrayed as strange people with a lack of social skills

He has been considered asexual by several of the respondents in the original works by Arthur Conan Doyle, in the Granada series Sherlock Holmes and in the BBC adaptation Sherlock. The recent movies by Guy Ritchie focus on different asepects of Holmess personality.

or emotion. That bothers me sometimes, because asexuals can be 'normal', sociable people too but you never see them like that on screen. This immediately raises another issue in labelling certain characters asexual. As it has rarely been explicitly stated for a character to be asexual, asexuals will have to do with the presentation of non-sexual people in cinema. However, as it seems, any character that may be considered asexual by the audience (that is, who shows little to no sexual attraction or interest in sexual activity), will in some sense be considered weird for it within the media text. This is only enhanced when we look at which characters allow for such interpretations, like Sheldon Cooper and Sherlock Holmes. Something that is very clear about both of these characters, is that they lack more than just sexual attraction. They are in a sense robot-like people who only rarely display any kind of emotion in the first place. The implication that this type of people apparently is the only type that would not experience sexual attraction, is absurd and troublesome, especially for asexual people trying to identify with them.

The second solution, of preferring and avoiding certain genres, is certainly different for most of the respondents. The most often mentioned film genre that asexuals do not wish to watch is the romance movie or the romantic comedy. This is quite logical, considering that these movies are most likely to include a sex scene and thus less likely for them to relate with, as explained in the following quotes: I tend to avoid romance movies and romantic comedies, because the sort of love that is portrayed makes me uncomfortable. I prefer genres that are not deeply rooted in romance. Maybe romantic comedy or anything not having to do with sex. On the same page are the people that have expressed that they much prefer science-fiction and fantasy movies, because they are far less likely to go too deeply into the subject of romance and therefore less likely to (graphically) display sexual activity. As one of the respondents put it, they still tend to have romance as a sub-plot but with any luck not much more than a bit of kissing. However, someone else stated that they do actually prefer specifically romantic movies to, for example, action movies. This is because romantic movies (such as rom-coms) will sooner show a nicely depicted relationship, rather than anything hurried and unnecessary to keep the non-asexual viewer interested and emotionally invested. This is how they explained that preference in their survey answer:


I prefer relationships with good emotional development - e.g. romcoms - to those which have a rushed development or are wholly sexual, as is often found in action movies. This is another interesting take on movie preference based on sexual orientation. Of course, it is not always the case that these preferences have anything to do with a persons sexual orientation. In fact, a large amount of respondents has stated, before answering the specific question, that they doubt if their preference was influenced by their asexuality. However, this influence does not always have to be explicit or noticeable to the person whom it concerns. While their sexual orientation may not be the clear reason for their enjoying a genre, it seems fair to say that the generally negative emotions towards romantic genres among asexuals is not entirely coincidental.



To summarise, I feel this paper has provided with a sufficient understanding of what asexuality is and some of the problems asexuals deal with that hardly anyone knows about or understands. Watching a mainstream movie for an asexual is in some ways very similar to what it is like for non-asexuals, but with the occurrence of a sexual scene, their experience changes entirely. Even when some asexual people do enjoy sex scenes, or even pornography, they still enjoy it in much a different way from non-asexuals. It is more a matter of fascination than it is of arousal or relatability. For others, it can bring about a feeling of indifference, point out to them how abnormal they are, or even make them feel especially uncomfortable, to the point where they will feel the need to look at something else. Another point that has been important in this paper, is what asexuals do with a mainstream movie to make the experience as enjoyable as it can be. Shown was that two possible solutions are reading cinematic texts as asexual and chosing certain genres over others. These aspects of the asexual appreciation of cinema combined also answer the research question set for this paper: How do asexuals negotiate the sexual normativity of mainstream cinema?. There are both changes in their behaviour when watching a sexual movie and changes in their preference to begin with, as explained above. In conclusion, I stand strongly for more asexual representation in all media, most importantly cinema. Cinema for many people provides with a basic understanding of human behaviour and identity, yet asexuals are unjustly left out. I demand a change.



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