To Hear the Breeze Singing: Romance and Sexuality in Becca Lusher’s ‘Sing to Me’

Posted June 24, 2019 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Ace & Aro Studies / 0 Comments

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Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week’s off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It’s time for Monday Musings!

Normally, Monday Musings are somewhere below 2,500 words. This week is slightly different. And by that I mean that this week’s post is in excess of 6,000 words because it’s a proper aroace literary analysis post! And because we’ve reached the Patreon goal where I release the polished up versions of these longer essays to everyone (and I’ve been kind of taking a break from writing Monday Musings pieces this month), you’re getting that essay today! Have fun!

This essay will look at Becca Lusher’s Sing to Me, a short novella set in her Aekhartain setting available for free. Note that it’s a sequel to Orion’s Kiss and has all spoilers just in the summary, so if you like reading books before reading essays about them or just want to read things in order, check out Orion’s Kiss first.

Also, so you know, writing this essay gave me joy even if I wound up being more critical than I expected because I love this novella with all my heart and I just want to hug it.

To Hear the Breeze Singing: Romance and Sexuality in Becca Lusher’s ‘Sing to Me’

It’s 2014 and I pick up an f/f novella by one of my best friends. This novella is a free sequel to Becca Lusher’s debut release, Orion’s Kiss, called Sing to Me. Becca’s Aekhartain-verse spans millennia and genres. While Orion’s Kiss is near-future dystopia of the bleakest kind – all Aekhartain, to achieve their full powers and immortality, must die which puts a potential damper on any happy ending the book might have – Sing to Me is a fluffy, f/f romance in what can only charitably be described primary fantasy. The bulk of the story takes place in the Shadow Garden, though small bits of it take place on Earth.

Sing to Me picks up a short while after Orion’s Kiss leaves off, with Freyda exploring the concept of having friends and training how to use her Aekhartain powers of Imagination. I read it expecting exactly what I got: a sweet and adorable f/f romance with a lot of cute scenes and at least one disaster lesbian just trying to figure out how to adapt to having people who care around her and trying to let her disaster-ness not get in the way of her budding relationship with Dóma.

What I did not expect prior to reading it was to find myself resonating so strongly with Dóma because of how the book presents Dóma’s sexuality. To me, Dóma was one of the first times I read a story with a demisexual character that made me feel seen. Becca, I should note, did not write Dóma specifically to be demisexual and I’ve been scared of rereading this novella and has confirmed as much in private correspondence. Almost all of the books I loved when I first discovered asexual characters in fiction existed have disappointed me on a reread specifically because of how the asexual representation was handled.

Worse, Becca is a friend whose work I adore and worse still I am the main reason this book is on lists of demisexual characters. What if, rereading it, I disagreed? Spotted things I’d initially missed?

I love these characters, though, and this story meant the world to me, so I wanted to give it the same level of scrutiny I have given other books I loved for the asexual representation and when Aspec April came around I knew I had to reread it.

What I found was that my memory, for once, was pretty on point and my key moment of dissonance, the few concrete arguments I could find against reading Dóma as demisexual, are ones that are only arguments if one holds to the idea that romantic and sexual orientations must match up, an idea that asexual and aromantic communities contest.

Asexual and Aromantic Jargon

To properly discuss Sing to Me, then, requires a basic understanding of asexual and aromantic terminology. While this may seem simple on the surface, in practice this can be quite complicated or overwhelming. To make matters more complicated, my argument is specifically that Dóma is demisexual rather than asexual, and many people struggle to understand the concept of demisexuality in any meaningful way.

Part of this is because the framework used by asexuals and aromantics to discuss sexuality, attraction and romance is radically different from the framework people are used to seeing. Many asexuals and aromantics use a model known as the split attraction model[1].

The name is fairly self-explanatory: it splits the concept of ‘attraction’ into various kinds of attraction, such as sexual attraction, romantic attraction, aesthetic attraction, sensual attraction or a lot more. If this is confusing to you, imagine that attraction is similar to cake[2]. When someone says ‘cake’, we have an immediate understanding of what they are talking about and we may even picture a stereotypical image of a cake in our minds. We may also ask that person ‘what kind of cake?’ because there are a lot of different types of cake. We have vanilla cake, chocolate cake, strawberry cake, carrot cake… There are cupcakes, sponge cakes, butter cakes, chiffon cakes, coffee cakes, cheesecakes… Just like there are many different kinds of cake, there are different kinds of attraction. We may find the way one person looks more aesthetically pleasing than the other (for example someone may prefer blondes over brunettes) or we may find that we are interested in dating (that is to say: romantically and/or sexually attracted to) women and enbies but not men.

Most notably, this refers to sexual and romantic orientations and, as Coyote points out on ir blog, The Ace Theist, is not a model used by all asexuals or aromantics. Nor, I think, should it be one used by everyone. While this is not an essay on the merits or failings of the split attraction model[3], it cannot progress without at the very least acknowledging these concerns. Most often, the split attraction model is invoked to explain the differences between romantic and sexual orientation and, again as Coyote points out, these are not the exact same thing as what the split attraction model is designed to cover and, as such, not everyone will find the split attraction model useful. To me the key here is that the split attraction model is theoretical and academic more than it is individual and intimate. We pick and choose which of these attractions we deem important enough to mention. Sometimes they are the same. Sometimes they are vastly different. The key to the split attraction model seems to me to be that it offers us a structure and a vocabulary to start exploring how and why people respond to and experience certain types of attraction the way that they do.

With the prominent place sex and romance have in modern, Western society and the way that it is these two attractions[4] in particular are deemed incredibly important to the way that we interact with society as a whole. Consider, for example, the way marriage is presented as the ideal one should aspire to, especially to those raised as girls. Consider, for example, how it took until 2012 for Disney to present the audiences with a Disney Princess film where the final scene is not a wedding. Though films with male leads are rarer for Disney and their male leads often do have love interests and some (notably the anthropomorphic films like Bambi and The Lion King) end with babies or an implied ongoing romantic relationship, most of them do not end on a wedding scene. Robin Hood (1973) is the notable exception. It is small wonder, then, that sexual and romantic orientations are the ones most discussed. With romantic and sexual attractions such prominent parts of our societies, it is little wonder that people who experience either differently from what they are told they should discuss these most often and, as an academic tool, treating romantic orientation and sexual orientation as part of the split attraction model is preferable to having no clear way to discuss the societal impact at all.

In this essay, then, the split attraction model will refer largely to the difference between romantic and sexual orientations because these are the two axis which are important to the discussion. For romantic orientation it is otherwise important to note that romantic orientation works much the same way that sexual orientation does when it comes to discussing or presenting it. Someone who is romantically attracted to two or more genders might describe themselves as biromantic and someone who is romantically attracted only to someone of their own gender might describe themselves as homoromantic, just like someone who is sexually attracted might describe themselves as, respectively, bisexual and homosexual[5]. Romantic and sexual orientation do not have to match. Someone may be both bisexual and aromantic, for example.

Having covered the salient points regarding aromanticism, it is time to look at the next point of jargon that is crucial to this essay: the term ‘demisexual’.

Demisexuality is an aspect of the asexual spectrum. According to the Demisexuality Resource Center (demisexuality.org) the definition is “a sexual orientation in which one feels sexual attraction only after forming an emotional connection”. While this definition may seem straightforward, especially to those versed in the jargon of vernacular discussions of asexuality and aromanticism, it is not as obvious as it seems at first and many people will misinterpret what demisexuality is.

Demisexuality, with its apparent position somewhere between ‘asexual’ and ‘allosexual’[6], is notoriously difficult to explain and certain explanations create an image of demisexuality that leaves demisexuals open to ridicule, mockery and outright dismissal. Using the definition given above can result in people asking for elaboration on what that even means. What constitutes ‘an emotional connection’? What qualifies as ‘sexual attraction’? Are demisexuals sexually attracted to all of their friends?

Demisexuals, in fielding such questions or simply lacking nuanced vocabulary to discuss their experiences, may use (or shift to) something like “I only want to have sex with people I care for” as an explanation. While no doubt an accurate description for the way many demisexuals experience sexual attraction, this couches the orientation in allosexual terms and conflates sexual orientation with sexual behaviour. This conflation invites the question of how demisexuality is different from allosexuality. Many allosexuals, after all, also only choose (or want) to have sex with the partners they care about. That does not make them demisexual. What, then, they argue, makes demisexuality so special?[7]

Most commonly in fiction – and romance especially – this question results in a character who experiences little to no sexual or romantic attraction suddenly experiencing lust-at-first-sight for their love interest[8], a narrative which muddles attempts to understand demisexuality even further.

To understand how demisexuality is not, in fact, the same as lust-at-first-sight, we must first understand how sexual attraction works in general. The split attraction model as sketched above only gets us part of the way to an answer on its own, though it is important. Splitting ‘attraction’ into different types (or categories), even while acknowledging that these are to an extend permeable and individual[9], allows academia especially to adopt a framework that allows us to discuss attraction, however one chooses to define it, in a far more nuanced way than academia currently does and the internet allows terms and concepts that have lingered in the shadows for centuries to be discussed more openly and invite more research[10].

Demisexuality, you will recall, is generally defined as “a sexual orientation in which one feels sexual attraction only after forming an emotional connection”.

Three terms are important in this definition: sexual orientation, sexual attraction, and emotional connection.

Sexual orientation is, quite simply, how an individual experiences sexual attraction. Someone may be asexual (experiencing no sexual attraction to people), heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of a different gender), bisexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of two or more genders) and so forth. Sexual orientation is the cornerstone of modern understanding of sexuality and likely needs little, if any, introduction.

Sexual attraction is a little trickier to explain, however. Discussions in the asexual and aromantic community often differentiate between different types of attraction – such as sexual, romantic and aesthetic attraction. Certain types of attraction (if not all of them) such as sexual attraction can be further divided into two different groups known as ‘primary attraction’ and ‘secondary attraction’. In The Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker defines both ‘primary sexual attraction’ and ‘secondary sexual attraction’.

We all know it’s possible for some people to be immediately sexually attracted to other people based on information gathered with one’s physical senses—without knowing anything about their personalities. It can be based on looks or voice or chemistry or charisma, and it’s known as a primary sexual attraction reaction. (…) Secondary sexual attraction is more gradual, though not inherently a “different kind” of sexual attraction—it just happens under different circumstances. A partner starts to seem sexually appealing only after an emotional bond develops (not necessarily love), based on qualities that can’t be perceived through immediate observation of the subject without interaction. (Decker, original emphasis)

These definitions, if one is looking to explain demisexuality may seem vague and thus less than ideal. The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network offers more concise and potentially more useful definitions:

Primary Sexual Attraction: A sexual attraction to people based on instantly available information (such as their appearance or smell) which may or may not lead to arousal or sexual desire.

Secondary Sexual Attraction: A sexual attraction that develops over time based on a person’s relationship and emotional connection with another person.

In fiction, as mentioned, this particular definition of primary sexual attraction tends to manifest itself in lust-at-first-sight narratives (also known as insta-love) and is exceptionally common in romance novels especially. Certainly, the concept of lust-at-first-sight is a useful one to explain what demisexuality isn’t. I will discuss it in more detail later in this section, for now it is most important to note that, while this is helpful in defining what demisexuality isn’t, it is rather useless in defining what it is.

To do that, one must look at the last part of the definition: ‘requires an emotional connection’ and parse that. This is, by far, the most difficult aspect of defining demisexuality because it is the most individual and there is very little consensus of what that emotional connection looks like. Demisexuals, after all, are not attracted to everyone they have an emotional connection to. They do not want to boink all their friends (they may not want to boink any of their friends).

All About Demisexuality, one of the few books about demisexuality and published by demisexuality.org, has similar issues in trying to explain what demisexuals mean when they talk about an emotional bond.

Many people get tripped up in understanding demisexuality because the term “emotional bond” is somewhat nebulous. The truth is that each individual experiences bonds with other humans in a unique way, so everyone is going to have their own understanding of what an emotional bond is.

Some examples of emotional bonds include those between close friends, people who work closely with one another, or romantic partners. Whatever the bond is, demisexuals only feel sexual attraction to those with whom they have developed a certain level of emotional intimacy. That threshold will be different for each demisexual, but it has to be there.

For researchers discussing demisexuality or simply people hoping to understand it, this issue of nebulosity is the orientation’s greatest downfall. Discussions may benefit from researching studies such as the 2017 paper “What kind of love is love at first sight? An empirical investigation” (Szok, Haucke, De Wit & Barelds), which suggests that love-at-first-sight has a strong physical component that is absent for demisexuals, and utilising a modified version of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love[11].

In a round-about way this brings us back to the discussion surrounding lust-at-first-sight or insta-love[12]. One of the most famous examples of insta-love is, of course, Romeo and Juliet. After a brief interaction with one another, Romeo and Juliet decide that they want to get married and their desire to never part even leads to them committing suicide[13] when they think (erroneously or not) that the other has died. Other well-known or frequently cited examples of insta-love include Twilight (Meyer), Tristan & Iseult[14], The Little Mermaid (notably the Disney adaptation, but the original has traces of it too[15]), Titanic, and many, many more.

As a literary device, lust-at-first-sight is often what sets the romantic arc in motion. In Romeo and Juliet, it is the teenagers’ instant physical attraction and its tension with the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets that drives the action. If Romeo and Juliet do not fall in love the first time they see each other, there is no play. If Jack and Rose do not fall in love with one another… Obviously, the Titanic would still hit an iceberg, but this is not a film about a doomed ship. It is a love story using that doomed ship as a framework to make a tragic take on class differences even more tragic. These arcs, while blending sexual and romantic attraction, often rely heavily on that initial physical attraction to mark the characters’ connection. For example, the first time the couple in Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her meet, readers see the encounter through Ruth’s eyes. In this scene, Ruth has bumped into both her ex and her future love interest.

He crouched before her, bringing his faded jeans into view, and then his tight, black T-shirt—what a ridiculous outfit in February—and then… well, some rather interesting musculature.

That musculature broke through Ruth’s haze of unreasonable annoyance, prodding her sharply. It said, Look at that chest! Look at those biceps! You’d better check out his face, just to see if it’s equally impressive. Quality control, and all that. (Hibbert, chapter 2)

The chapter continued to focus on Evan’s good physique. Notice how the fact that he is physically attraction is the first thing Ruth notices about Evan as an individual. Ruth and Evan meet again in chapter 5, when Evan introduces himself as her new next-door neighbour. This meeting too is seen from Ruth’s perspective.

Aly Harper’s annoying, familiar face was nowhere to be found. Instead, a beautiful man stood in her place.

Ruth’s mind said, Holy shit.

And that jogged her memory, helped her recognise the face. If she hadn’t been so shocked, she’d be proud of herself; recognising new faces was hard.

Then again, this one was difficult to forget.

The stranger from the car park seemed even more handsome than before. Maybe it was due to the dying sunlight that spilled into the corridor, burnishing the golden strands in his dark-blonde hair. Perhaps it was the way his shirt stretched over his broad chest, or the fact that his sleeves were rolled up to display thick, tattooed forearms.

Or maybe it was the huge, foil-covered dish in his hands that tipped him over the edge of perfection. The smell emanating from that dish made Ruth’s mouth water almost as much as the stranger’s firm biceps.

“It’s you,” he said. His voice was quiet, as if he’d spoken more to himself than to be heard. A frown furrowed his brow, but he smoothed it away almost instantly, straightening his spine. Since his posture was already excellent, this had the disturbing effect of making him look like a toy soldier.

A very attractive toy soldier whom Ruth, if given half the chance, would climb like a tree. (Hibbert, chapter 5)

Here, we can see that Ruth’s mind jumps straight from Evan’s physical qualities to the fact that Ruth would like to have sex with him despite the fact that she knows virtually nothing about him. Like many romances, physical attraction is not the only attraction Ruth and Evan experience, but this deeply physical and sexual attraction is where their relationship begins.

Since this sexual-attraction-to-lovers arc is the inverse of how demisexuals experience attraction, critics can use its presence to determine whether or not a narrative can be read as a demisexual one. If lust-at-first-sight (or insta-love) is present, the narrative is by definition not a demisexual narrative.

If Ruth were written as a demisexual character – or the novel was structured as a demisexual romance – Ruth and Evan’s narrative arc would look far more like a slow burn romance from Ruth’s perspective than is the case. Slow burn romances, often being friends-to-lovers romances, can be read as demisexual narratives fairly easily[16]. Narratives such as those in A Girl Like Her introduce sexual attraction first and then build up the emotional attraction afterwards.

Demisexual narrative arcs invert this: authors first build up the emotional attraction and then the sexual attraction. Demisexual romances, as such, have a fair amount in common with asexual romances and it is here that we see why and how demisexuality is part of the asexual spectrum: because demisexuals often only rarely experience sexual attraction on top of needing an emotional connection of some kind, many demisexuals may go through life believing themselves to be asexual. The way sexual attraction works for allosexuals may very well make no sense to demisexuals because they, like asexuals, do not experience it the same way.

On top of all of this, romantic attraction matters as well. Many characters in romance are presumed to blend their romantic and sexual attraction in a way that makes it nigh on impossible to pull the two apart[17]. Writers of asexual characters often do not consider this conundrum. Many elide romantic attraction altogether, implying that their explicitly asexual character is also aromantic (such as the way Corey from Marieke Nijkamp’s Before I Let Go is explicitly described as asexual, but only implied to be on the aromantic spectrum), or assume that, while it is possible for someone to experience no sexual attraction, everyone must experience romantic attraction of some description (such as Abigail from Elyse Springer’s Thaw). Few books talk about or consider romantic attraction and sexual attraction as different things, for better or for worse, but doing so allows for a more nuanced depiction of the way that attractions can blend or split.

Dóma, I will argue, is a character whose romantic orientation does not match with her sexual orientation in a way that an analysis refusing the differences in attraction would not allow to be visible.

Sing to Me Analysis

Sing to Me is an f/f romance following the way Freyda and Dóma become a couple. It follows directly on Orion’s Kiss and even the description of Sing to Me contains spoilers for Orion’s Kiss.

In Sing to Me, Freyda is still settling into the Shadow Garden. The novella starts with Dóma decorating a tree to make Freyda happy. This first chapter is the strongest moment where the story suggests, quite firmly, that Dóma is allosexual.

“Dóma wanted to make everything right for her, make her smile, make her happy. She’d been friendly to other new residents before, but there was something about Freyda that made her want to do more than make friends,” (Lusher, chapter 1, emphasis mine) reads the fifth paragraph of the story. For people not used to reading literature looking for clues or subtext to suggest that a character is on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrums, this microaggression against both orientations is easily missed. ‘More than friends’ is, after all, a common phrase in romance to indicate that a character experiences romantic and sexual attraction to another character.

I have spoken about the semantics behind ‘more than friends’ before, explaining that “[i]f ‘more’ means “a larger or extra number or amount” that means there are, by necessity, at least two items involved. In this context those items are ‘friendship’ and ‘romosexual relationship’. One of them larger/greater/more serious/more extreme than the other because that is what ‘more than’ means. If one of them is larger than the other, one of them is also smaller than the other. Where there is a ‘more than’, there is a ‘less than’”. (O’Connacht, “On the semantics of ‘just friends’ and ‘more than friends’”) Suffice to say for this essay that this phrasing is usually an unexamined microaggression relying on the societal ideal of marriage – something which would fit well with the glimpses we get of Dóma’s background – but it is less of an indication that a story will not be an asexual spectrum story as one might think.

What it is, especially in the context of Sing to Me, is an indication that this will not be an aromantic story, and this is where the distinction between romantic attraction and sexual attraction matters. While the phrasing ‘more than friends’ commonly suggests sexual attraction, nothing else in Dóma’s perspective is particularly sexual. This is one of the few times that Dóma is going to think about Freyda in a way that suggests she experiences sexual attraction.

If, as I have posited, romantic and sexual attraction are not intrinsically linked for everyone, then it is possible to read Dóma as a homoromantic demisexual character whose lack of understanding of sexuality leads her to assume that romantic and sexual attraction are the same for her. It is possible to read the use of ‘more than friends’ in this context not as someone experiencing instant sexual attraction, but instant romantic attraction.

Indeed, chapter two sees Dóma discuss her feelings regarding Freyda with her best friend, Eddie. In this chapter we learn that Dóma was raised in the Edwardian period[18], which accounts to some extent for Dóma’s understanding of her own sexuality but does not necessarily explain all of it. The Edwardian era follows on the Victorian era and, as such, closely follows Victorian morality when it comes to romance and sex. While sexual manuals have existed since antiquity, the way we understand sexuality today has its roots in the 19th century. The link between sex and morality would have been strong in Dóma’s upbringing and sexual repression would be something that Dóma experiences as well.

Again, it would be easy to look at this aspect of Dóma’s characterisation and determine that she cannot, therefore, be demisexual, but Dóma remarks several times that the feelings she has for Freyda are entirely new. In chapter seven, the narrative even explicitly covers both Dóma’s sexual and romantic attractions prior to meeting Freyda:

Dóma had never been attracted to a girl before. Actually, she’d never been attracted to anyone. Her lack of romantic attachments had been easy to blame on her Edwardian upbringing. Her life had been one of decorum and strict morals.

Messy emotions and high drama weren’t anything she had ever been taught, so she’d thought that was why she’d never felt them. It just wasn’t in her, and she’d concluded that that sort of love was not for her. (Lusher, chapter 7)

This phrasing is the reader’s strongest clue that Dóma is coded to be a homoromantic demisexual character. While the common conflation between romance and sex means we must interpret ‘romantic attachments’ as referring predominantly to a sexual component and we must account for the fact that, at present, this is all we know about Dóma’s life prior to meeting Freyda in the Shadow Garden. It is possible that in the story of how Dóma became Aekhartain romantic and/or sexual attraction will play a bigger role than this line suggests, for now at least Dóma is presented as someone who has never experienced these feelings for anyone besides Freyda.

Note that final sentence, especially. “[Dóma had] concluded that that sort of love [that is: romantic and sexual] was not for her”. This is Dóma actively rejecting the idea that she is allosexual. This is Dóma actively struggling to understand her sudden feelings for Freyda and her own relationship to alloromanticism and sexuality[19]. Dóma has gone from someone who thought of herself as what we would likely describe as ‘asexual and aromantic’ today to someone who experience one or both of these attractions unexpectedly and it visibly upends her entire self-image because she is repeatedly described as confused.

Further, the narrative suggests that Dóma is at least a hundred – as Orion’s Kiss takes place in the near future, it is likely that Dóma is older than that – and that in this time she has explicitly never experienced romantic (or implied sexual) feelings for anyone. Earlier in the novel, she asks Eddie why she couldn’t have fallen in love with him. In this chapter, the narrative remarks on how she might have married Eddie in other circumstances. “Perhaps if she’d known Eddie when she was alive, living in the world, he was the sort of man she would have been expected to marry. Would have happily married, and probably shared a life of easy contentment with. A thoroughly decent gentleman with whom she could live in perfect comfort, without any messy emotions getting in the way,” (Lusher, chapter 7) the novella says. Notably, this is our clue that if Dóma was to experience romantic (or sexual) feelings to anyone besides Freyda, it would have been Eddie, and the narration has now noted several times that Dóma does not.

Earlier, Dóma wonders just when she fell for Freyda. This is one of the other discordant notes in reading her as demisexual and it is this note where the distinction between romantic attraction and sexual attraction matters for the way that we view Dóma.

There was no reason why her heart beat faster in her presence – or just the thought of her presence. There was no specific moment when her whole being had suddenly perked up and said mine. There was no point when she’d suddenly decided that she was more important than anyone or anything else.

It just happened. Somehow, somewhere, somewhen: Freyda mattered.

It might have happened the first time she’d seen her, lying unconscious, blonde hair neatly braided and looped over one shoulder. She’d seemed so young, so battered and bruised. She’d been vulnerable then, and yet, strangely at peace. She’d looked contented in a way Dóma had yet to even glimpse since.

Then she’d opened those blue, blue eyes.

Ah, Dóma’s heart sighed. So that had been when. Right at the moment when she’d first looked into Freyda’s eyes. That was when her world had been shaken all the way down to its foundations and everything had been rearranged. It was like coming home and finding all of her possessions had been painted bright green. A jolting, confusing shock, and one she still wasn’t sure she liked, but had little or no chance of changing back. (Lusher, chapter 4)

Notice that this passage, highlighting exactly when Dóma fell in love with Freyda, features no sense of sexual tension or attraction. It is entirely based on emotion. If one assumes that sexual and romantic attraction are always the same for everyone, this is the scene that categorically shows the reader that Dóma cannot be demisexual. In a romance, this is the scene where the characters experience lust-at-first-sight. Remember, though, the citations from Talia Hibbert’s firmly allosexual romance and notice the difference in how Dóma’s attraction and Ruth’s attraction are styled.

If one assumes that Dóma is alloromantic and demisexual, however, it is entirely possible to read this scene and Dóma falling into instant romantic attraction without sexual attraction ever coming into the picture. The idea that Dóma’s feelings here are sexual in nature is based not on the way the text presents her attraction, but the readers’ assumption that this passage refers to sexual attraction. The entire book leaves Dóma’s sexual attraction as, at best, subtext. It is an attraction that is brought into the book solely because the reader expects there to be sexual attraction in Dóma’s reactions. That is, after all, a key component of romance novels even when the narration does not focus on it.

The narration does not turn to Dóma’s physical reactions to Freyda until about half-way through the story. “She was not a physical person. Touch, like taste, were lesser senses for her. Even sight and smell took second place to the all-important ability to hear. Yet now here she was, reduced to lascivious thoughts all based on sight, twisted up inside with the need to touch. To taste, to smell. Her eyes glided wonderingly across Freyda’s mouth, and she hunched her shoulders as she forced her eyes away again,” the narration remarks as Dóma catches a glimpse of Freyda’s stomach. At this point in the story, both Dóma and Freyda have spoken privately and gotten to know one another about twice, if one counts this meeting, but the story has taken pains to establish that the emotional bond between them is one that has been building for weeks and, perhaps more importantly, that it started the first time Dóma saw Freyda. A Dóma who is romantically attracted to Freyda at first sight would have no trouble building an emotional bond upon those foundations.

Meanwhile, Freyda, Orion’s Kiss hints, is a lesbian. It is subtle and in the way the characters are described, but it is unmistakably there if one knows where to look. At first, Freyda’s narrative and descriptions of her feelings for Dóma do not look particularly different from Dóma’s. Like Dóma, she has not experienced romantic or sexual attraction before and, like Dóma, she does not know what to do.

“[S]he wanted that assurance. That love. That affection. She thought she wanted it with Dóma, but she didn’t know how to get it, or even where to begin,” Freyda’s perspective remarks in chapter 4, the second time we see her point of view. But her confusion is less powerfully presented as Dóma’s. It is not, it seems, that Freyda is confused by having these feelings at all. It is that Freyda does not know how to act on them. As such, her confusion roots in a different cause to Dóma’s. Freyda’s feelings about their developing relationships is tied in powerfully with her lack of self-esteem rather than her sudden attraction to a girl she’s only known a few weeks.

At the end, the last time the reader spends time in Freyda’s point of view, the narrative remarks “She’d never been comfortable with touch, not since her mother left her at the Institute, but with Dóma she was greedy. She needed to touch and be touched, to connect, to claim and be claimed. It had surprised her at first, and she’d worried Dóma wouldn’t like it, but it seemed her Songbird was every bit as greedy in return.” Again, though this suggests that Freyda and Dóma’s experiences are similar – neither of them appears comfortable with touch – it is something that Freyda only worries about for a line or two. As much as this is a product of the narrative structure – this is the penultimate paragraph in the epilogue – it is also a product of the differences between Freyda and Dóma, and personality only gets a person so far. Freyda clearly worries about her feelings, but where Dóma is shown to be thrown and confused by these feelings and needs time to sort them out, Freyda is presented as being able to move past her surprise (and her discomfort) with a degree of ease that is generally reserved for characters who are coded as allosexual.

Many of the differences between Freyda and Dóma’s depictions are subtle. For example, during their first meeting in the story, seen through Freyda’s eyes, the reader knows that Freyda cannot stop staring at Dóma. Like with Dóma’s depiction, the way Freyda’s attractions are described lean towards emotional rather than physical. Unlike with Dóma’s depiction, when we see Freyda’s narrative describe Dóma physically it is unadorned and unburdened by other considerations that gives Freyda’s narrative a very subtle emphasis that Dóma’s narrative lacks.

True, the acute physical attraction Dóma experiences in chapter 7 exists and Dóma certainly notices Freyda’s body more than Dóma realises, but both of these potential pieces of evidence to explain that Dóma is very clearly allosexually coded come with caveats if one adheres to that interpretation. The times we get a physical description of Freyda from Dóma’s point of view, it is immediately tied to something other than sexual attraction. Given how the description indicates that Freyda is severely malnourished and that Dóma is focused primarily on making sure that Freyda gets enough healthy food to eat, it is just as if not more likely to interpret those observations not as disguised sexual attraction but as overt romantic attraction leading to concern about someone’s well-being. Even the sexual attraction Dóma very clearly experiences in chapter 7 quickly morphs into shock at the signs of physical abuse that Freyda has endured.

Moreover, though this is a romance with a dual point of view and a roughly even number of scenes between the point-of-view characters, Dóma’s experience is the one that frames the story. It is her perspective that the reader gets first and last. For much of the story, Dóma is the driving force behind the romance. It is only when Dóma abandons it that Freyda actively seek to create a forward momentum in the narrative. As such, for all that this is a love story between two characters, Dóma is the dominant protagonist and the one presented as the main character whereas Freyda is the love interest. It makes sense then, if Dóma is the protagonist and central character and Freyda the deuteragonist, that the reader knows more about Dóma’s perspective and inner turmoil than Freyda’s. Freyda’s only truly shows up after she has lost Dóma as both a potential partner and a friend.

Conclusion

Though Sing to Me is clearly not written as intentional demisexual representation – a fact which, I must remind readers, the author has stated – and certain elements in the story may support a different reading, it is clear that these elements are at odds in a way that they are not if the reader accounts for the potential that Dóma’s romantic orientation may not match up with her sexual orientation. Taken as the perspective of an alloromantic demisexual character, these elements instead add up to a depiction muddied by the way society as a whole has conflated romantic and sexual attraction and desires in a way that this narrative does not support.

Sing to Me is by no means a perfect depiction of an alloromantic demisexual character, but it is still one of the better examples of demisexual representation out there. Analysing it has highlighted the importance of redefining the way society talks and thinks about romance and sex in a way that few other narratives do because even clumsily drawn, the differences between romantic and sexual attraction are too powerful to ignore.

Without aromanticism and the insights it gives us into how human relationships work, it becomes impossible to meaningfully analyse the queer representation in Sing to Me. This novella is a prime example of why queer studies, and asexuality studies in particular, need to embrace aromanticism in order to explore new avenues regarding the way society thinks about romance, sex, relationships, intimacy, and their related interpersonal structures.

Bibliography

Arf. Demisexuality Resource Centre. 2015. 18 May 2019. <https://demisexuality.org/>.

AVEN. “Primary vs. secondary sexual attraction model.” 27 August 2017. AVENwiki. 18 May 2019. <http://wiki.asexuality.org/Primary_vs._secondary_sexual_attraction_model>.

Coyote. “Remodeling: on the Reclamation of the Term “Split Attraction Model”.” 20 March 2019. The Ace Theist. 1 May 2019. <https://theacetheist.wordpress.com/2019/03/20/remodeling-on-the-reclamation-of-the-term-split-attraction-model/>.

Decker, Julie Sondra. The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality. New York: Carrell Books, 2014. Print.

Hibbert, Talia. A Girl Like Her. Nixon House, 2018. Ebook.

Lusher, Becca. Sing to Me. Self-published, 2014. Ebook.

O’Connacht, Lynn. “On the semantics of “just friends” and “more than friends”.” 25 March 2019. Little Lion Lynnet’s. <https://www.leoconnacht.com/wp/2019/03/on-the-semantics-of-just-friends-and-more-than-friends/>.

Zsok, Florian, et al. “What kind of love is love at first sight? An empirical investigation.” Personal Relationships 6 December 2017: 869-885.

End Notes

[1] While the split attraction model (or SAM) appears to have been coined specifically to deride asexuals, it actually offers up a valuable new way to look at how humans form social connections in general.

[2] The cake metaphor is one commonly used by asexuals to explain asexuality, but you can use almost any group-noun you like. If you wanted to you could use ‘animal’ or ‘power tool’ or any other noun like those.

[3] I am particularly disheartened to discover that a term I had only ever seen used positively has such negative origins.

[4] Or orientations. Queer terminology, especially that from smaller queer communities such as asexuals and aromantics lacks the… solidity of years of use the way other terms do and are, at present, in a state of being developed and gaining visibility and popularity. With time, research and academically-minded discussions we will reach a more nuanced jargon that allows more precision.

[5] We shall ignore, for a moment, the likelihood that in English discussions ‘gay’ is by far the more common term for a variety of reasons. This is not universal, however, and for the purposes of illustration ‘homosexual’ works better in this particular context.

[6] That is to say: ‘someone who is not somewhere on the asexual spectrum’. Like the term cisgender, it is merely a description to indicate that someone is not a part of a queer minority group.

[7] The answer is, of course, that a demisexual does not choose how they experience sexual attraction. It is, again, an erroneous conflation between behaviour and orientation.

[8] This means that, especially in queer novels with explicit demisexual representation, the narrative is only distinguishable from a Gay For You narrative by a (usually) clumsily inserted scene where an allosexual character claims the demisexual character is, well, demisexual. Worse, the demisexual character is liable to proclaim they don’t need labels and the novel will then proceed to never engage with demisexuality in any meaningful way again. A good example of this type of narrative would be Annabeth Albert’s All Note Long or Megan Erickson’s Overexposed.

[9] Some people find kissing inherently sexual, others do not. You may have sex-repulsed asexuals who are utterly fine with kissing as well as sex-repulsed asexuals who are not, to name just two examples.

[10] This is true for many marginalised communities, not only asexuals and aromantics. The internet has made critical discussion more accessible to marginalised communities underrepresented in academia, but it also highlights more obscure scientific studies of humanity, such as Zeman’s research renewing interest in aphantasia.

[11] Its use of ‘passion’ as a qualifier aids in the marginalisation and dismissal of both asexual and aromantic forms of love by presenting both asexuals and aromantics as being without passion due to the way they experience attractions.

[12] Criticism of the way insta-love is often synonymous with insta-lust has led to people splitting the two terms up as they mean different things. This essay will use lust-at-first-sight (insta-lust) as almost synonymous with insta-love as this conflation is still the more common definition and is thus used, in the way this essay uses it, to discredit demisexuals and their experiences.

[13] As a reminder: Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy about the dangers of impulsivity and instant, physical attraction and does not, in fact, celebrate these teenagers’ choices.

[14] In most versions of this tale, they technically fall into insta-love due to drinking a love potion intended for Iseult and Mark.

[15] The original is also, it must be said, considered by some to be a deeply queer narrative. This interpretation seems to originate from Rictor Norton’s My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries.

[16] In fact, if readers are looking for demisexual romances, I would argue they are currently better off avoiding romances marketed as explicitly demisexual and sticking to slow-burn romances. Even with insta-love in the mix, these books frequently offer up a far more satisfying and relatable experience.

[17] This is one of the major downfalls of the split attraction model if one sees it as a model to explain one’s identities. When attractions blend together so powerfully they cannot be told apart, telling someone they ‘ought’ to be split up for them encounters an unsurprising amount of resistance.

[18] The Aekhartain stories as a whole span millennia.

[19] Sing to Me is especially remarkable in the fact that it shows Dóma struggling to make sense of her feelings this way. Many explicitly asexual or demisexual narratives ignore the potential confusion and distress caused by suddenly experiencing feelings one has never felt before. It can be incredibly disorienting and terrifying for asexuals and demisexuals to experience such feelings. Lusher’s depiction could have been stronger if Lusher had set out to write a demisexual character, but the fact that it is there at all bears mentioning.

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