Love Love Love: Asexuality and the Consumption of Romance

unnamed I am a hopeless romantic. A devourer of all things sappy and sweet. Films, novels, television dramas—during most winter and summer breaks, I survive almost exclusively on a diet of saccharine love declarations and confession scenes backlit by the skylines of major cities.

In addition to being a sap, I am also asexual, which has had a huge influence on the ways in which I consume all this romance.

In its most basic form, asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to anyone of any gender. In some—but not all—cases, this can mean a low sex drive, a lack of desire for sexual intimacy and a desire instead for romantic or platonic relationships devoid of sex entirely.

In my mind, relationships and sex exist in completely separate, not-touching spheres. Romantic love, for me, does not suggest, require or equate to sex.

The brand of romance most commonly marketed to consumers in the United States doesn’t seem to share these attitudes, though. Instead, there exists a pervasive notion that any film or novel labeled a “love story” or otherwise marketed under the umbrella term of “romance” is incomplete, inauthentic, and somehow lacking if it doesn’t feature a sex scene or at least the implication of one. Asexual viewers seeking representation here will only find a wasteland where their identities and the concept of a happy romantic ending are rendered mutually exclusive.

As an asexual viewer, when I see sex scenes in romantic films and shows, I become instantly removed from the characters’ stories because I can only cheer for them from a distance. The characters, (hetero)sexual and played by (hetero)sexual actors, desire sex—a desire I do not relate to.

Portrayals like these, often unquestioned and unchecked, dictate prescriptive ideas about sex, what it is, and the role it should play in relationships to consumers. The constant production and reproduction of tropes severely constrains the sexualities of asexual and non-asexual viewers alike by projecting notions about acceptable and desirable sexuality onto them and their relationships, while rendering asexuality—and, by extension, many asexual viewers and their relationships—unnatural and undesirable, nonhuman and nonexistent.

This is perhaps why I was initially tempted to view Korean television dramas as true triumphs of the romance genre. And according to DramaFever, the largest North American distributor of Asian media including Korean dramas, there are 3.5 million unique American visitors to the site per month who would agree. [1] For those unfamiliar with them, Korean television dramas are South Korea’s answer to soap operas or telenovelas. They usually begin production with a fixed number of episodes, 16 to 20, in most cases. In that limited space, some dramas attempt to squeeze in love triangles, class struggles, relapses, recoveries, family feuds, and politics—all while melodramatic OSTs* croon in the background. [2] These aspects are all entertaining in their own rights, but the main reason I keep coming back to these dramas is because of the way they handle romance.

Many Korean dramas develop meaningful, fulfilling relationships over the course of a few episodes without sex. They are able to maintain real romantic tension that stems from intimacy as PG-rated as handholding. An entire series can and has been built around the promise of, at most, a kiss between the show’s main couple in the end—and sometimes, not even that much is required to satisfy an audience that is, like the United States’s romance-consuming demographic, overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly heterosexual. [3]

How can Korean dramas create such popular content that does not focus on sex while the United States can only seem to find its own success by pairing sex with all its romance exports? Perhaps the answer is as simple as a difference in culture and societal views on romance, love and sexuality. But the fact that American audiences eagerly consume Korean television dramas and, with them, their apparently sexless brand of romance, indicates a counterintuitive reality for producers of U.S. romance. Maybe some consumers in the United States do not necessarily share the media’s view of romance as intrinsically linked to sex.

The consensual sexuality on display in much of the United States’s popular media portrays sex as a sensual, carnal and pleasurable experience. This claustrophobic mold leaves viewers who do not think of sex this way, including asexual viewers and survivors of rape and other sexual trauma, feeling deviant and somehow wrong. Meanwhile, the sexuality (or, really, the lack of sexuality) that has defined many early and some contemporary Korean television dramas is another stereotypical sexuality that presents sex as a pure and sacred experience. This omission perpetuates the sex-shaming often connected to misogyny and other controlling systems.

As Félix Guattari writes, both sorts of stereotypes are incredibly prevalent and oppressive. “‘Sexuality’ is a monstrosity,” he writes, “whether in its negative forms, or in its so-called ‘permissive’ forms.” The assignment of values such as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, bland or kinky, and so on to different forms of sexuality works in both subtle and overt ways to police sexuality and control how consumers come to view variations of it. Asexuality, too, is controlled in this way when it is either completely absent from popular media or else—when it is present—goes unnamed or is regarded as an abnormality.

Both American and Korean portrayals of sexuality benefit some consumers while harming others. Depictions of characters engaging in sexual intercourse can bring about an empowering visual acceptance of the human body and the sexuality sometimes attached to it, and such acceptance is certainly important for viewers undoing societal attachments of stigma and shame to their bodies and the sex they can engage in. Further, these depictions of relationships and sex may, in fact, reflect the reality for many viewers. After all, popular media draws from the real experiences of and panders to the most visible members of a society—white characters, characters from nuclear families, heterosexual characters, and so on—which works to maintain these groups’ visibility. Thus, (hetero)sexual viewers consuming this romance will probably more easily find their realities and relationship desires reflected here than I, an asexual person, will.

Korean dramas are complicit in a similar kind of dictation of sexuality. Here, that dictation takes on the form of censorship. Korean romances create a sexuality that is ostensibly identical to asexuality but is, in reality, not the same at all.

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A typically wide-eyed first kiss from the Korean drama "Heartstrings."
A typically wide-eyed first kiss from the Korean drama “Heartstrings.”

Many times, the characters in these dramas do not express overt sexual desires or seem to have sexual goals. In recent years, the humor in romantic comedies has become more sexual in nature, while still remaining subtle compared to Western romantic comedy counterparts, but, overall, sex is rarely an explicitly stated desire or event in Korean television dramas. These characters, then, are in a situation that appears asexual; there is no explicit desire for sexual intimacy, no clear indication of sexual attraction. However, these relationships are not meant to represent asexuality. Rather, it can be assumed that they are meant to depict conventional, (hetero)sexual relationships that match the realities and desires of their target demographic; however, these dramas do so while filtering much of the sexuality out of these heterosexual relationships. Many of the “tenets” of asexuality, then, are used to create an ideal, socially acceptable sexuality that erases sex’s role in (hetero)sexual relationships. Equally as harmful as the erasure of asexuality is the use of asexuality to oppress those who are not asexual, to somehow guilt or shame them by encouraging the consumption of popular media in which the main romantic leads usually attain their fairy-tale endings without ever vocally expressing overt sexual desire.

There is a clear problem here when one thing is presented as something it is not—when asexuality is presented as chaste (hetero)sexuality, sexual naïveté is presented as asexuality or purity, and sexual promiscuity and hyper-sensuality are presented as liberation. Portraying presumably sexual relationships as relationships devoid of sex erases the experiences of many sexual viewers as well as erasing the experiences of asexual viewers and their relationships. The stereotype of an “asexual” relationship as one that can never involve sex does not account for the realities of many asexual viewers who choose, for various reasons, to engage in sexual acts. Further, this portrayal perpetuates the conflation of celibacy or chastity with asexuality. The lack of sexual desire on the parts of certain characters in Korean television dramas is never attributed to a character’s asexuality; thus, the lack of sexual desire appropriates from a very real and already existing sexual orientation in order to portray a palatable version of (hetero)sexuality.

An example of the infamous back-hug from the Korean drama "Playful Kiss."
An example of the infamous back-hug from the Korean drama “Playful Kiss.”

It is important to be critical of the notion in American popular media that sex is an inherent—and, further, an inevitable and desirable—aspect of all human lives and relationships. It is also important to be critical of the ways in which South Korean popular media appropriates asexuality rather than treating both asexuality and sexuality as valid orientations in their own rights. These dramas ignore and erase certain aspects of heterosexuality in order to make its presentation more socially acceptable, which unintentionally gives it a veneer of asexuality. This presentation prevents the audience from viewing an authentic representation of either heterosexuality or asexuality.

I love Korean dramas and the fact that their romances dare to exist without sex, but I must accept that these relationships were not created to be daring and were not created for my consumption. I must recognize that my connection to these depicted romances comes at the expense of (hetero)sexual viewers who find their sexualities stifled and masked by elements of mine being applied to relationships they weren’t meant to fit. Asexuality is not “pure” or chaste (hetero)sexuality. (Hetero)sexuality is not “soiled” or debased asexuality. Sex and romance must not be conflated, but they also shouldn’t be distanced so far as to suggest that they can’t coexist.

And until the producers of the romances I devour so heartily understand these facts, all those back-hugs [4] and spinning-camera kisses [5] will taste a little less sweet and a lot more stifling.

By Paige Morris, Contributor

Footnotes:
(1) This information and other demographic statistics that might be of interest can be found in a DramaFever press release kit here.
(2) Original Soundtracks—songs composed and recorded specifically for the television drama they are used in; South Korean drama soundtracks are known for being ballad-heavy.
(3) Chua, Beng-Huat. “Delusional desire: soft power and television drama,” pp. 65-81 from Popular Culture and the State in East and South Asia, ed. by Nissim Otmazgin and Eyal Ben-Ari.
(4)  Back-hugs are exactly what they sound like: hugs that encircle a person from behind. In Korean dramas, they are often seen as an example of higher-level intimacy, only a step or two below mouth-to-mouth kissing.
(5)  The more melodramatic kiss scenes in Korean dramas involve several shots, many of which are filmed with the camera slowly spinning 360 degrees around the couple engaged in the lip lock. Bonus points if the main OST is playing in the background. Several U.S. romance films are guilty of this tactic, too.
Works Cited
Chua, Beng-Huat. “Delusional desire: soft power and television drama,” pp. 65-81 from Popular Culture and the State in East and South Asia, ed. by Nissim Otmazgin and Eyal Ben-Ari.
Guattari, Félix. “To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body.” The Funambulist. N.p., 17 May 2012. Web. 16 May 2014. <http://thefunambulist.net/2012/05/17/philosophy-to-have-done-with-the-massacre-of-the-body-by-felix-guattari/>.
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