October 17, 2023

Akihiko Kondo is the face of fictosexuality. Often understood as a niche expression of asexuality, this is the label given to those who are only attracted to fictional characters. And like people who experience “objectum sexuality” — a sexual attraction to objects such as trains, roller coasters or balloons — fictosexuals are adored by the tabloids, which leap on stories like Kondo’s. A few years ago, he married a hologram of a fictional pop singer, only for their relationship to hit choppy water this spring when his wife’s software expired. Others have reported feeling attracted to Mario Kart’s Luigi and  Disney’s Robin Hood.

If the Western media presents these individuals as digital freakshows, in Japan the fictosexuality phenomenon is widely known: it has been a named trend since at least the Eighties. There, fictosexuals aren’t anomalies, but rather outgrowths of the otaku subculture, which attracts people whose interest in pop culture is so intense that they retreat from public life, becoming “hikikomori” or “shut-ins”.

Though sometimes described as “suffering” with a 2D complex, as they call it, Japanese fictosexuals see their proclivity as an orientation; in fact, some are fighting for legal recognition. In the fascinating Fictosexual Manifesto, the authors claim that they are “beyond the heterosexual matrix”, boldly stating that they must “denaturalise interpersonally oriented sexuality” — a conception of sexuality that privileges human-to-human attraction.

Academia has also been known to take orientations such as fictosexuality and objectum sexuality seriously — much more so than the media. However, the literature is sparse and concentrated outside of the Western world. In the West, meanwhile, a handful of existing studies have suggested that fictosexuals — and objectum sexuals — exhibit a few important qualities. One, they’re not crazy: they’re not like the delusional erotomaniacs who believe their objects return their affections. Rather, the “fictophilic paradox” is that you know your love is one-sided, but your emotions persist regardless. Two: preliminary data shows they’re more likely to have autistic qualities, suggesting a link between fictosexulity and difficulties with interpersonal relationships. And three, despite the traditional belief that romantic love revolves around personhood, even more important is the feeling that the object of one’s affection has a personality. In other words, there’s reason to believe that for fictosexuals, one-sided love is real love.

Some outspoken fictosexuals, such as the authors of The Fictosexual Manifesto and people on the r/fictosexual subreddit, have argued that their delegitimisation and stigmatisation, such as the claims that their partnerships “aren’t real”, is a form of bigotry. But it’s not hard to see why some people prefer to laugh at fictosexuality. It destabilises our most basic assumptions about love. Or at least what we think our most basic assumptions about love are. But what if those assumptions are worth revising?

The truth is that there is already some acceptance that you can feel attracted to someone who largely exists inside your own head. Centuries ago, it was common for mystics to describe ecstatic love after visions of divine entities. And Dante’s love for Beatrice, whom he claimed to adore despite having met her only twice, is usually presented as romantic.

In fact, I suspect that fictosexuality is an extreme version of something we all experience occasionally, even if we are not used to naming it. Most people have experienced celebrity crushes; they are usually seen as a normal part of fandom. So many people love Taylor Swift or Harry Styles or a member of BTS, knowing they will never receive any affection in return — a dynamic very like the fictophilic paradox. And sometimes this love is extreme or even genuinely delusional, for instance, in the woman who recently went viral on TikTok for her belief that she is “in a relationship” with Enrique Iglesias. It is also not seen as pathological to feel attracted to, for instance, Mr Darcy. In Cassandra Clare’s 2003 essay, “Fictional Character Crushes”, she writes that such attraction is “one-sided, but strangely satisfying for all that”.

In some ways, all crushes begin as one-sided crushes on fictional characters. When we first meet a person, we imagine them to be a certain way, but they will invariably turn out to be someone quite different. Perhaps Janet Malcolm put it best in 1980: “The most precious and inviolate of entities — personal relations — is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems.”

This dynamic becomes more dangerous in a world where we’re increasingly mediated by the internet, which allows us to postpone the clash of fantasy and reality. We author our identities online in a way that we aren’t able to in the physical world. Are there elements of fictosexuality in developing a crush on an anonymous tweeter? Is there a significant difference between feeling attracted to someone you’re chatting to on Tinder, but haven’t yet met, and being compelled to converse with a chatbot that speaks in the voice of your favourite fictional character? In both cases, you are imagining that the person is real.

The context of all this is that people increasingly see themselves and the people around them in terms of the media they consume. The phenomenon of “self-narrativising” has been much-discussed in recent years — in persistent conversations about “main character syndrome”, for instance. People have started to view their lives in terms of the “seasons” of television shows, with less important experiences being spoken of as “subplots”. If you walk around with a Spotify soundtrack influencing your emotions, and you’re already tacitly viewing your life through a narrative lens, how does that impact how you feel about other people? To what extent is listening to a Olivia Rodrigo song while you think about a recent event shaping how you feel about it?

We are also immersed in a crisis of intimacy, which has coincided with increased awareness of sexualities that involve a lot less sex, including aegosexuality — which, like fictosexuality, exists on a spectrum with asexuality. Aegosexuals are defined as people who “become aroused by sexual content (at times) without wanting to engage in sexual activities personally”. To me, that sounds like a recasting of two fairly common sexual scenarios. Could we call the “reply guy” who is sexually aroused by direct messaging people on social media with no intention to meet them an aegosexual? What about the incel who prefers pornography to the difficult pursuit of a human relationship? Whether or not we put labels on it, there is a rise in behaviour that involves a retreat from having relationships in the real world.

There’s a story in Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen that encapsulates the online dangers of this. A young man, Peter, falls in love with a woman in a multi-user dungeon — a text-based virtual world with no images. He describes his relationship as “intellectual, emotionally supportive, and erotic”. Their sex life, though mediated by a screen and confined to text, is “rich and fulfilling”. Eventually, he flies from North Carolina to Oregon to meet his Beatrice, and lo and behold, there’s no chemistry.

“Real life gave me too much information,” he later shares with Turkle. When he goes to review the chatlogs between him and his lover — a months-long affair — he struggles to find his relationship in them. “Where was the warmth?” Turkle asks. “The sense of complicity and empathy?” Peter doesn’t know, and consequently realises that he must have invented it. The relationship was closer to literature than real intimacy. Peter projected what he wanted onto “the text” of their companionship; he filled in the blank spaces left by the screen.

Yet what happened to Peter isn’t so strange when you think about it. How different is it from being excited to meet someone you’ve been chatting to on a dating app, only to find that you don’t get on? This blending of fiction and reality is something almost all of us, to varying degrees, engage in. We project details that aren’t there onto texts all the time. The novel we’re engrossed in describes the love interest as a charming Englishman; we see Timothée Chalamet in our mind’s eye and fall further into the story’s world. Somebody sends us a text message, and because they included a particular emoji — that smiley face — it reads as creepy instead of sweet.

Online, without body language, there is so much space for ambiguity, even if there is more time to craft a witty response. We may feel more in control of ourselves, but we are also more likely to be mistaken in another. And the more time we spend in the imaginary world, the harder it becomes to interpret the real one — and the more fictosexual we become, even if the objects of our affection are living, breathing people.