Fantasy was my first love and to this day it still is the main one. I read mostly fantasy and I write only fantasy (though that might change in the future). I remember being six or seven years old when my father first made me watch Star Trek and Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and I ended up so in love with LOTR (and unimpressed by Star Trek & Star Wars, to my father’s chagrin) that I made my whole family watch all three movies more than three times per year for years (they are still traumatized by it, tbh). After LOTR I read every single fantasy book I could put my hands on and watched every single fantasy movie that crossed my view. It was (and is) that bad.
But for some time when I was ten or eleven I only read romance.
There was this romance collection in my school’s library that I simply devoured. I never took them home – I had already established that I didn’t like girly things and reading romance books surely seemed like a girly thing, so I did it mostly hidden and yes, I’m thankful I’m not like that anymore – but I read all of them between classes. They were all straight romances (not a chance you would find a queer romance in smallish town in the middle of Bahia, Brazil) and I loved them.
But then… I stopped. Partly because I couldn’t find more romance books in the library, partly because I started to not relate to them anymore. I went back to fantasy and save for two books by Nicholas Sparks (yes, I know) I spent the next nine or ten years without touching a romance book. Curiously, it was also around my eleventh birthday that I stopped pretending I had crushes. My teen years were completely romance-free, be it in books or in real life.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that I stopped reading books that have romance in them (haha, good luck with that!). I read lots and lots of YA fantasy and adult fantasy, and YA fantasy usually has romance. And, well, I think these YA fantasy books are to blame for how long it took me to go back to reading romance and no, it isn’t because they are bad or anything like that. It’s because I read them – read lots of them – while I was figuring out why I was so different from my peers. I had no idea that you could be asexual and aromantic and couldn’t for the life of me understand why these boys were so irresistible to the protagonists. I’ve talked about it before, but reading these books always made feel alienated, isolated, like I didn’t really get what was happening.
So I read YA fantasy books and liked them – despite the romance. The romance was usually one of the reasons I didn’t like a book (still is, sometimes). For years I thought those romance subplots were badly written. I thought they were exaggerated, fake, surreal. Sure people didn’t want to kiss someone in the first time they met them, right? Sure people didn’t think about a cute boy or girl for days nonstop, right? These things just don’t happen in real life. Never.
(You can laugh at me now, it’s okay.)
It was only when I started identifying as aromantic and asexual (two years ago, I think) that I looked back to those books and had the sinking feeling that they weren’t the problem. The problem was me.
I can’t understand wanting to kiss someone in the first time I meet them because I rarely feel sexual attraction and when I do it’s a very weak thing, easily ignored and hardly noticed. I can’t understand thinking about a cute boy or girl for days because I never had a crush in my life. I don’t understand the butterflies in the stomach or the weak knees or the desperate need to kiss someone. All of these are utterly foreign to me, and that was the problem. The books weren’t wrong – they just depicted something I could never relate to.
Now when I pick up a book – any book, not only YA fantasy – and find myself not enjoying the romance I stop to think: am I not enjoying this because I’m aroace or because it’s bad?
It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.
It was fanfic that made me realize I still could like romance. I’ve been reading it regularly for three or four years, and like any other fan I love to spend hours and hours reading about my favorite ship. Maybe it’s different from original works and published books because with fanfic you already know the characters love each other (for one shots) and well, you always know what you are in for – I rarely ever go for the PWP ones, for example, and hurt/comfort one shots are my favorites. But my kryptonite are those really, really long fics where it takes forever for the couple to get together – know the ones with 50 chapters? These ones. Full of angst and hurt/comfort. Yes.
Fanfic helped me realize that I love reading about relationships. I love reading about friends, siblings, parents & their children and yes, couples. I love seeing how two (or more) people can change together, how their dynamic is, what they mean for each other and why, how their dreams, fears and objectives mix (or don’t mix)… I just love reading about people dealing with people and romance is the only genre dedicated to that.
So yes, I like romance. Love it even. But I still can’t understand sexual and romantic attraction that well and that can rule out most of the genre for me – especially m/m, which I tend to drift to as a transmasculine person. If a book has too many sex scenes and too little platonic bonding, I’m usually not interested. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I hate sex scenes. I just… don’t care about them most of time. Still, they are used as a way to bring the couple together in many books, but when you don’t care about the sex scene, the sexual attraction and the bonding happening in them, how can you even relate and like the romance?
Needless to say, I came back to the romance genre very warily. I tried a few books, gave up on all of them and then finally read Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs series a few months ago. I loved it. They are basically everything I love about romances (if you haven’t read it you totally should) and with my faith in my possible future in the genre restored, I went to other books. Some I really liked, most didn’t work for me.
The ideal, of course, would be looking for and reading books with ace & aro protagonists, but they are very few in the romance genre. It’s worth noting that the community can be really unsafe too – it’s not rare to find reviews of books where the couple doesn’t have sex and/or where one of the characters is ace that mock the characters and deem the book bad because of the lack of sex/sexual chemistry (I’ve added some books on my TBR list because of that lol). And ace people are often erased when we ask to be included, usually with acephobic attacks.
The inclusion of aro characters is even more complicated. Most would think that it isn’t necessary to have them in romance – but what about the demiromantic and grayromantic characters? Don’t they deserve to be represented too?
It’s hard, and by hard I mean I find it really unlikely that romance, especially m/m romance, will start accepting people like me any time soon. There is little for me and for other ace & aro people to do other than look for stories that don’t alienate us completely and hope that one day that will change, but those are few, hard to find & not all are written respectfully.
Even when we headcanon characters as aro and/or ace, we are met with anger from other readers who simply don’t want to even want to think of these characters as asexual and/or on the aro spectrum. We are forced to write thousands of words on why we think Character A is ace/aro – we don’t have the freedom to just challenge canon and make the characters ace/aro for ourselves. Even when the canon is ace/aro-friendly, allo people will do their absolute best to stop us from headcanoning (?) them as ace/aro.
And here, I think, is where the heart of the problem is. We as society have this idea that romance only works with sex or only works in a certain way, and much of the romance genre is written with that in mind. We see a couple that doesn’t want to have sex as not only something absurd, but as something ridiculous, something badly written. Know the reviews I mentioned earlier? They don’t just call the book bad, they call the author out for writing badly. It’s a fatal flaw to not have any sexual tension between the protagonists. The author is punished for daring to writing asexual characters in a relationship – so really, who will write them? And how does it feel for asexual writers, to see their identity labeled as bad writing?
I’ve read more romance novels this last week than in the nine years before that. I’m now actively seeking them out, because I finally realized I enjoy them a lot – but the genre isn’t welcoming of aromantic and asexual people and it gets tiring. It gets tiring to read review after review mocking your sexuality or romantic orientation, it gets tiring to see acephobic/arophobic microaggressions/comments in books and in the mouth of authors who are supposedly allies. It is exhausting.
There is no way to change it if not writing more asexual and aromantic characters though. What we need right now is for the way society sees romantic and sexual relationships to change to include aromantic and asexual people, and the best way to do it is to show how these relationships work – not only in romance or in books, but also in movies, TV shows and the media in general.
There will be – there is – a lot of pushback, but in my opinion it is worth it.
After all, we deserve a bit of romance too.