I love romance stories. I love the idea that people may cross paths with countless others in their lifetime, only to find someone (or someones!) who they grow to care for and love. I love the idea that people can grow a bond so intimate and so tender that they can build a bridge that crosses valleys of hurt and pain and loneliness. I love the idea that someone can grow to understand and accept you in ways that others may not, and to cherish you despite your flaws. I love love, and I love that love can feel so transcendent and beautiful.
But lately, I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with romance stories. I’ve felt that I often occupy this weird space of really enjoying romance stories whilst also struggling to connect with them. It sounds a little contradictory, right? You’d think that the romance is the highlight of a story – so why can’t I usually connect with the romance and the relationship? I never really interrogated this, but recently, I’ve been mulling over these feelings, trying to parse and explores these complicated thoughts that I have.
Recently, I realised that the ways in which I engage with romance stories is significantly influenced by the fact that I view romance and life through a demisexual and demiromantic lens (for brevity, I’m going to call my experiences ‘demi’). Though I can put myself outside of my own lens and can easily empathise with how characters feel, ‘understanding’ and ‘connecting’ feel like two distinct planes for me – and this was something I found interesting about myself and wanted to explore. So, here is my piece – where I explore how being demi has shaped my perceptions of romance, how it influences how I engage with romance, and why, at the end of it all, the friends-to-lovers trope has a special place in my heart.
Growing Up Demi
Growing up, ‘demisexual’ or ‘demiromantic’ didn’t exist in my vocabulary, let alone my imagination. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have friends or online communities or resources that taught me that there was a queer experience that existed beyond being gay or lesbian. (Queer education was very scarce when I was a teenager, though I’m happy to see that this is changing now.) I didn’t learn what being demi meant until I was in my early 20’s – and although I have complicated feelings about using labels (I find them suffocating rather than affirming), of all the labels that could apply to me, ‘demisexual’ and ‘demiromantic’ are two that feel the most comfortable to me.
Though being demi was never a source of pain for me, it was, in hindsight, a constant source of confusion. I didn’t relate to my friends who had celebrity crushes because the celebrity was physically or sexually attractive. I didn’t understand how my friends felt sexually attracted to someone that they had never talked to before. I was confused when my friends wanted to be sexually or romantically involved with someone simply because they were good looking. I was confused when my friends disclosed their sexual fantasies with others with me – because I never imagined sexual fantasies, ever. The confusion that I felt was never a wild kind of bewilderment that gave me whiplash. Rather, the confusion felt like all the people who understood were all having fun in one room whilst I looked on from the corridor.
As a teenager, I never gravitated towards romance books. There’s no deep reason behind it; I just wasn’t an avid reader as a teenager and if I did read a book, I preferred science-fiction or fantasy. On occasion, there were a few books that I read that had romances, but I never connected to the romances. To me, romances were just part of a character’s story and not really a distinct highlight of the book.
That is, until I read the Bloodlines series by Richelle Mead. Being a teenager during the YA Vampire Renaissance meant that all of your friends aligned themselves with either ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’ (it’s all a funny nostalgic meme now, but these alliances were passionate identities at my high school). Having felt very disgruntled about Twilight, I read Vampire Academy instead (and found that the animosity between Team Adrian and Team Dimitri was more good-spirited), which eventually led me to Bloodlines, the sequel series to Vampire Academy.
Bloodlines was the first time ever where I felt connected to the romance. Reading about two characters who despise and hate each other (Book 1) slowly understand and become friends with each other (Book 2), share their first kiss (Book 3), finally admit to themselves that they love each other (Book 4), and fight for one another (Book 5 – 6) blew my mind. It was a slow-burn romance, one that took books to develop, but it was then I finally felt like the doors had opened for me.
Suddenly, I completely understood why my friend texted me at one in the morning to tell me the latest update from HisGoldenEyes.com (a Team Edward Twilight fansite) and cried about Bella and Edward. She felt their relationship deeply, felt connected to their love for one another when I just could not relate (for a plethora of reasons, but I won’t get into that). But when I read Bloodlines, a series that centers entirely on two characters who grow close, form a bond with each other and slowly fall in love with storytelling that focuses a lot on their emotional growth as individuals and as a couple, I connected – and I haven’t felt this deeply about a fictional couple since.
Reading Romance Through the Eyes of a Demi Reader
Reading romance as a demi reader can either be a fulfilling or alienating experience. Fulfilling, because when I find a romance that I can connect with (like I did with Bloodlines), it gives me so much joy and I find myself sharing that sense of euphoria and love with the characters. Alienating, because these fulfilling experiences feel far and few between and I almost always struggle to connect with connecting with a romance.
Part of being demi – whether it’s demisexual or demiromantic – is that there has to be a deep emotional connection before any sexual attraction and/or romantic feelings arise. When I’m reading romances, I’m always looking for that emotional connection – for me, it’s those moments of vulnerability, intimacy, closeness, trust, acceptance, or even that ‘deep meaningful conversation’ that they have where they bare themselves (haha! I meant emotionally!) in front of each other and finally truly deeply understand one another. Sometimes, it feels like chemistry when the characters ‘click’ with one another and just understand one another.
For instance, The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (a fantastic YA SFF about a Black fat and demisexual teen, and is effortlessly one of my favourite books of the year) was the book that helped me realise that my demi identity shaped the way I understood and engaged with romance books. In The Sound of Stars, the two main characters get to know one another, come to understand one another while acknowledging and accepting their differences, want the best for each other, and for each other’s dreams to come true. Ultimately, the two characters develop a deep and meaningful bond.
Another example of a romance that I really liked and connected with was the romance between Jasmine and Asthon in You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria. Although there’s an immediate physical and sexual attraction between Jasmine and Ashton, I really enjoyed how the story spends a lot of time exploring the emotional experiences of both characters – how they both have insecurities and anxieties, but when they are together, they feel safer and more like themselves. The buildup is slow but delicious and, over time, they become friends and eventually lovers. And Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia! I loved how Casiopea and Hun-Kamé embark on this journey together, their lives and destiny intertwining with each other as they change each other and grow to understand each other. It’s not an emotional bond in the conventional sense like friendship, but it’s a powerful one that delves into Casiopea and Hun-Kamé’s humanity and the ‘essence’ of who they are. Like Bloodlines, I connected with these romances. The deep emotional bonds between these characters were my window and tether to understanding their relationships.
Though I feel happy knowing that I have a few romances that I can connect to, more often than not I struggle to connect with most romances. For example, when I read stories about characters who are attracted to each other for reasons that I cannot understand, I find it immensely difficult to ‘look past it’ and struggle to enjoy the romance regardless. I also struggle to connect with romance stories about characters who fall in love with each other on the basis of physical attraction and lust without a deep emotional connection. That’s not to say that a connection between the two characters don’t exist or there’s no emotional connection in physical connection, but books that focus more on the physical aspects of the relationship are often romances I struggle to connect with.
Ultimately, reading romance as someone who is demi means that I may understand character motivations and that romance can happen in any circumstance — but I may not connect with it. Understanding and connecting is an important difference for me, as it shapes the way that I engage with romance stories though my demi lens.
Does that mean that I think romance books without the emotional connection that I crave are bad though? Absolutely not! Despite my personal inability to understand how it works, I do understand that it happens for people, that relationships without an emotional bond can be meaningful to others, that there are many ways to love, and that romance and/or love looks different for everyone. Whether I can connect to a romance isn’t indicative of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the book is; all that happens is that I just can’t connect with the romance on an emotional level.
Tangentially, even if I don’t enjoy or connect with most romances, I tend to enjoy romance books in general because romance books are fantastic at developing characters, showing personal and emotional growth and celebrating how characters overcome important personal challenges. I also really enjoy reading about relationships; as a former relationship psychology researcher, I’m fascinated by relationship dynamics and the ways that relationships shape us and impact us. More importantly, romance books will have a happily ever after (or happy for now) – and I always love a story where a character finds peace and joy and love.
What Does Demi Representation Look Like? A Case for Friends-to-Lovers
While writing this piece, I also reflected on what demisexual representation looks like. And to be honest, I’m not really sure. I’ve only read two books with demisexual representation, but it wasn’t the kind of stories that explored with great detail what being demisexual feels like. I don’t know what demisexuality looks like other than my own experiences either – all I know is my own experiences.
For me, being demi means that I cannot fathom the idea of having sexual or romantic feelings towards a stranger or someone that I have just met. Being demi also means that I may appreciate and acknowledge the aesthetic beauty of someone, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m sexually or romantically attracted to them. It means that all the people I thought I had a crush on were just people I just really wanted to be friends with. It meant that even though someone was my romantic partner, I didn’t feel sexual attraction towards them because I wasn’t emotionally close enough to them. For me, it means that I’ve only felt sexual attraction to one person in my life – and that was after years of being best friends and being in a romantic relationship.
Given my personal experiences, ‘friends-to-lovers’ feels like the closest I have to demisexual representation. And I know! I know that friends-to-lovers is a boring trope for a lot of people and I am genuinely okay if people don’t enjoy it. To each their own! For me though, friends-to-lovers romances are consistently the ones I understand and connect with. Friends-to-lovers feels like a reflection of me – when I see characters who are friends and are close to each other and develop romantic feelings for each other, I feel seen.
And who doesn’t love a bit of yearning and mutual pining? The worry that romance might irrevocably change a friendship – do you not take the chance of romance but risk losing the chance to bond a different way, or do you take the chance and risk losing your best friend? For me, I just love seeing characters grow close – as someone who struggles to connect with people on a deep and emotional level (not because of my demisexuality but because that’s just me), seeing the tender process of characters slowly trusting one another and slowly realising that their flaws and imperfections and your shortcomings are safe with each other is so satisfying.
Friends-to-lovers sometimes feels like it’s the only demisexual representation that I really have. Friends-to-lovers often feels like a safe way for me to interpret the relationship as demisexual – or, maybe more accurately, I find myself connecting more with friends-to-lovers stories more. So, even though I haven’t read many books with demi representation, in romance, it sometimes feels like I have. Nonetheless, I would love to see more demi representation, especially representation where demi experiences and feelings are meaningfully explored in the story – and I think there’s so much room for possibility that can be found in demi stories – about understanding ourselves in an allosexual world that can be jarring and lonely, to exploring the beauty and power of bonds and connection, and… also just seeing a big piece of me exist and breathe on the page – I think a lot of us demis would love that.