Negative Space: U.S.T., Asexuality, and The X-Files

U.S.T.: that other great term to have emerged from the X-Files fandom. Short for “unresolved sexual tension”, it referred to the sexual chemistry between Mulder and Scully. Fans saw this chemistry in myriad character moments, from meaningful glances to passionate arguments to brief touches to cheeky innuendoes. As the show continued, the perception of sexual tension only grew, and for many fans it seemed like Mulder and Scully just had to get together. But I, as an ace-spectrum viewer, of course I was insensible to U.S.T. Of course I wasn’t aware of any sexual chemistry between Mulder and Scully, and of course I didn’t think there was any “tension” in need of “resolution”. Right?


Right from the beginning, I was keenly aware of U.S.T. In fact, it was one of the main things that drew me to the show. Being a noromo didn’t stop me from thinking Mulder and Scully could make a really cute couple. Being ace-spectrum didn’t make me unaware of the fabulous sexual chemistry between them. And the fact that I valued their platonic relationship did not mean that every episode there wasn’t a tiny voice in my head screaming at the television, “OMG, would you two make out already!!!

How could this be? How could I view the relationship as platonic while acknowledging the sexual chemistry in it? How could I headcanon the characters as ace while seeing sexual tension between them? How could I claim to prefer them as friends when a part of me wanted to see them as lovers? I was puzzled by this contradiction for almost twenty years, until one night, lying in bed, the answer suddenly came to me:

There was no contradiction. U.S.T. was absolutely vital to my understanding of Mulder and Scully as ace-spectrum people in a queerplatonic relationship.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and ask: What were Mulder and Scully, really? They were two people who worked together and liked each other but weren’t sexually or romantically involved. When you get down to it, there’s nothing very remarkable about that. I’ve had dozens of co-workers that I never became romantically involved with; if you have work experience, then you probably have, too. Even in television land, close, platonic, opposite-sex friendships aren’t that unusual. Why make such a big deal about this one? Why elevate it with fancy words like “ace-spectrum” and “queerplatonic”?

The answer is unresolved sexual tension. What would Mulder and Scully have been without it? Friends and co-workers, that’s it. We wouldn’t have noticed that they weren’t having sex because we wouldn’t have expected them to. But the presence of U.S.T. set up an expectation in the viewers’ minds. It created the impression that Mulder and Scully should be having sex. And that made us keenly aware of the fact that they weren’t.

At some point in your life you probably did an art lesson on negative space drawing. That’s the art style where you look at an object and draw, not the object itself, but all the empty space around the object. Your crayon fills in all the space where a vase isn’t, and at the end you’re left with a patch of blank paper exactly in the shape of a vase! It’s a way of turning nothing into something, of making emptiness visible.

U.S.T. worked the same way. It filled in the empty space around Mulder and Scully’s relationship, turning the lack of sex from something ordinary and incidental into something insistent and tangible. People noticed that Mulder and Scully weren’t having sex. There’s actually a blog series entitled, “Times Mulder and Scully Should Have Made Out This Week”. That’s right – someone has gone through the whole series and quantified the amount of making out Mulder and Scully don’t do. And hot damn do they ever do a lot of not making out!

Here’s a fact about U.S.T. that often gets overlooked: it exists in the mind of the viewer, not the characters. Just because we, the audience, perceive sexual chemistry between two people, doesn’t mean that they feel the same chemistry with each other. U.S.T. is not an argument in favour of Mulder and Scully having sex. But it does create a desire in the audience, which prompts us to ask why they aren’t.

At first this question, “Why aren’t you two having sex?” is merely rhetorical. But by around The X-Files’ fourth season it’s one the audience might start asking in earnest. Setting aside the fact that not every straight woman is going to be attracted to every straight man, the lack of sex in Mulder and Scully’s relationship invites all sorts of possible interpretations: Maybe one of them is impotent. Maybe one of them is a true-love-waits-er. Maybe one of them is a victim of sexual trauma. Maybe one of them has some weird paraphilia. (Remember how Mulder was turned on by the pigs in “Home”?) Maybe one of them is a virgin. (The evidence for Scully’s sexual experience in the first five seasons is scant.) Or maybe, just maybe, one or both of them are ace-spectrum. What all these things have in common is that they’re non-normative and also the objects of under-representation and/or derision.

What matters is not which of these interpretations is correct. What matters is that, in a medium dominated by able-bodied heterosexuals having frequent, easy, and enthusiastic sex with other able-bodied heterosexuals, The X-Files allowed all of these interpretations to be possible. It created two characters who were, one felt, not like “normal” people, and made them available for audience identification.

In the later seasons, the show seemed to be at pains to distance itself from these possibilities. Mulder asserts his “manliness” by stealing a kiss from Scully in “Triangle”. Scully is given a sexual history in the form of an adulterous affair in “all things”. Incidents like these cast the characters in normative sex, gender, and relationship roles. But it is in the earlier seasons that they are most interesting.

You could say Mulder and Scully are a bit like Hamlet. We all know what Hamlet’s supposed to do – kill his uncle. Does he. Well… yes, eventually. But not right away. First, he pretends to be crazy, thinks about death, yells at his girlfriend, puts on a play, yells at his mom, kills some innocent bystanders, and thinks about death some more. People who read Hamlet may find this “delay” frustrating and wish Hamlet would just “get on with it”. But if he did, he would lose what makes him interesting. Hamlet isn’t just a generic character doing whatever genre conventions tell us he should. He’s a complex character who struggles with the role fate has given him. If he killed Claudius in Act II, he’d be just another vengeful son. He’s interesting precisely because he resists for so long the conventions of the revenge drama.

Similarly, Mulder and Scully are interesting, not because they get together romantically, but because they maintain a platonic relationship for so long.  U.S.T. functions like Hamlet’s ghost. It tells us what the characters are supposed to do and keeps reminding us that they should be doing it. And only by seeing what the characters “should” be doing can we truly recognise what they’re actually doing.

Namely, living asexual lifestyles and sharing a queerplatonic relationship.

3 thoughts on “Negative Space: U.S.T., Asexuality, and The X-Files

  1. Hmm… I suppose this is an interesting way to look at it… Also you didn’t mention the possibility of one of them being gay (mainly Scully as lesbian I’ve seen around quite a bit I feel like…)

    I think it’s still interesting of course when a couple is together and still working so closely together on this kind of mission, it still makes for fascinating fiction and all of that, it’s all interesting in different ways, but…

    Yeah I appreciate this perspective.


    1. Yeah, I thought of mentioning “gay”, but I also felt I wanted to focus on some of the more “out there” possibilities. I mean, in the ’90s homosexuality was controversial, but it would at least have been on most people’s radar as a possibility, whereas the things I mentioned probably wouldn’t. Still, that may be a naïve thing to say. The ’90s were still pretty homophobic, and you didn’t really start to see gay main characters on T.V. shows until around 2000. Certainly Scully could be read as closeted gay as easily as closeted ace, and Mulder has a few queerbaiting moments. I just feel like it’s common to look at characters who are single and ask, “Could they be gay?” I wanted to talk about all the other things they could be.


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