There is a serious dearth of asexual characters in media. Of the characters that can be considered asexual, few are explicitly stated to actually be asexual. (Really, there should be some kind of official scale drawn up—from definitely asexual, to identifies as asexual but is using the word in a way that contradicts the definition most asexuals use, to just exhibiting asexual characteristics, to no-one-knows-so-it’s-anyone’s-guess, etc. )
To see people like us on TV, in books, in movies, in an unstereotyped and nuance character, is something desired by most minority groups. Asexuals are hardly alone in being underrepresented in popular entertainment; yet there are few other groups of which I can literally count the number of obvious, outrightly identified characters on only one hand. The one and only factor that almost every asexual agrees that every asexual shares is a lack of sexual attraction. If we accept that as the standard for whether a character is realistically possibly asexual, we actually have quite a few characters out there who may be asexual.
And so I am delighted to consider that one of the female characters from one of my favorite novel series may be an asexual. That would be one Clarissa Oakes, nee Harvill, of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. In examining her character in regards to possibly asexuality, we will of course have to show massive spoilers for the fifteenth book in the series, Clarissa Oakes (Published as The Truelove in the U.S), as well as quotes from the sixteenth, The Wine-Dark Sea. Spoilers now commencing; as is our character examination.
Clarissa Oakes is a young woman found to be stowing away on Jack Aubrey’s ship after leaving Australia. Being that was set in the early 1800’s, it should come as no surprise that Clarissa was a convict. In fact, she shot a man in the head, killing him, but surprisingly, that fails to make her a less sympathetic character. She is an amiable person, and her stance toward sex is fairly positive and unrepulsed. She does not experience sexual desire, nor sexual attraction, but she is not frigid in the least and in fact, probably has more sex with more partners than most people in the series (she sleeps with many of the ships officers, and worked in a brothel before being transported.)
Now if a woman does not dislike sex, does not fear it, does not find it repulsive, unpleasant, or disgusting, and in fact engages in it frequently and willingly without coercion, we would assume she is non-asexual, would we not? The only thing I could think of that would make me question that would be if the lady herself said that she did not desire sex, was not sexually attracted to anyone, and took no pleasure in sex (although some asexuals do enjoy sex. Mrs. Oakes seems to more completely neutral on that regard.)
In her own words: “I tried to make it [the ordinary normal adult world] out by novels and plays, but that was not much use, they all went on to such an extent about physical love, as though everything revolved about it, whereas for me it was not much more important than blowing my nose – chastity or unchastity neither here nor there – absurd to make fidelity a matter of private parts: grotesque. I took no pleasure in it, except in giving a little when I happened to like the man.”
Now, not enjoying sex one has with men in a brothel is definitely not an indicator of being asexual. That is not the characteristic shown in that paragraph that says ‘asexual’ to me. Rather, it is Clarissa’s continual mystification as to what the big deal is about sex. What’s so important about it? Why is it such a huge fascination for most of society? I would be hard put to find an asexual who wasn’t confused by humankind’s big obsession with sex, and this is not the only time Clarissa wonders at it.
Now, before we go on to another important factor in Clarissa’s sexuality, I must bring one thing to attention. Patrick O’Brian is, as far as I know, not an asexual. He is not a psychologist. He passed away in the year 2000, well before asexuality began to get any wider visibility whatsoever. It is also the case that many of the creator’s of series with character we consider asexual (think Sherlock, Dr. Who, The Big Bang Theory) are not asexual either; and so they come up with these characters that asexuals look at and say, it walks like an asexual, it talks like an asexual, it meets every criterion for being an asexual, so why isn’t it accepted as an asexual? Well, because the creators aren’t asexual, and as such probably have no interest in it (Moffat, writer for Sherlock, is well-known among for pretty much saying an asexual’s life is so boring.) Who gets to determine whether a character is asexual or not?
Patrick O’Brian, for instance, does not say that Clarissa is not asexual. However, in The Wine-Dark Sea, he attributes, through the character Stephen Maturin’s musings, that her attitudes toward sex are a result of her childhood isolation and sexual abuse.
“it had become clear to him that physical love-making was meaningless to Clarissa, an act of not the slightest consequence. She took not the least pleasure in it and although out of nature or a wish to be liked she might gratify a ‘lover’ it might be said that she was chastely unchaste. At that time no moral question was involved. The experience of her childhood – loneliness in a remote country house, early abuse, and a profound ignorance of the ordinary world – accounted for her attitude of mind: there was no bodily imperfection.”
I was in fact cautious to dissect Clarissa’s character because of this factor—the ignorant belief that childhood sexual abuse has somehow ’caused’ us asexuals’ asexuality is both pervasive and annoying, and bringing up a story and character that seems to use this trope seems like stirring the pot. But we know—we know that sexual abuse does not determine one’s sexual orientation. There ARE asexuals who have been sexually abused; but that does not mean that the abuse caused their asexual orientation, no more than that it would have caused the heterosexuality of a heterosexual who has been abused, or the homosexuality or bisexuality of an person who has been abused. The fact that Clarissa has been an abuse survivor is really irrelevant to this discussion, other than that it shows that Stephen Maturin buys into the abuse-causes-asexual-characteristics trope if Clarissa is in fact an asexual.
Stephen Maturin is not infallible though and O’Brian has never truly tried to paint him as such. So whether one’s character’s beliefs on Clarissa equal the author’s, we shall never know.
Stephen’s idea likely stems from the same place as other people who think sexual abuse is the cause of one lacking sexual attraction; that the trauma and damage caused by the early sexual abuse is inhibiting one’s sexual attraction. And I question this. Because so many people, even if they lack sexual desire, still experience sexual attraction. Because most often, people who are unable to become aroused, or cannot have sex without being triggered, still know that they are straight or gay, if they are in fact so. If Clarissa was a heterosexual woman, and her past history of being abused was affecting her sexual desire negatively, would she not know that? Would she not say that to Stephen, who she was so open and candid with, rather than simply seeming disinterested and neutral on sex?
To me, it is as it is in real life: I shall take the word of each person only on their own sexuality. Clarissa knows best about Clarissa’s sexuality, and has the final say on it. She doesn’t get what the big deal about sex is, does not find sex unpleasant, and does not desire it or desire anyone sexually. To me, she is an asexual female character.