November Carnival of Aces: Gender

(This post was written for the November Carnival of Aces, of which the topic was “gender.”)

“You are a male, and so I’m asking you…”

This was the voice of a caller asking me about something to do with asexuality when I was on the radio.  I don’t quite recall now what his question actually was though, because I didn’t entirely understand it then.  The way he introduced it disoriented me.  Yes, I am a male.  But what was he getting at by that?  What seemed like it would be a simple question was being carefully framed in terms of my sex, and I wasn’t sure what were the implications of this.

Presumably though it had something to do with gender.  There are broader questions that are often asked about asexuality and masculinity, questions like, “How can you be a guy and be asexual?  Isn’t that some kind of contradiction?  Don’t all men want sex?”  It probably doesn’t come as news to anyone actually reading this that these are common sentiments.  Some people ask them and are legitimately willing to hear the answer that no, asexual men do in fact exist.  (Tada!)  Others though are suggesting one of two possibilities: either the ‘asexual man’ in question isn’t really an asexual, or he isn’t really a man: he’s really just a fraud, whether to others or to himself.

What can I say in reply to that?  This is, after all, the question at the root of many others which may be asked of me: I ought to have an answer readied.  I’m going to focus on those who say that asexual men aren’t really men, since I think the other claim tends to boil down into the claim that (cis)males who aren’t interested in sex cannot exist, which is easy enough to refute.  So, I guess we have to start by specifying exactly what masculinity is.  Unfortunately, that’s a bit hard to do simply.  Different men give different answers which may or may not be carefully considered, and even matters of general consensus may change over time and place.  For instance, here’s what Xenophon (or more accurately his Simonides in the dialogue Hiero), from late Classical Athens, has to say (Xen. Hiero 7.3):

καὶ γάρ μοι δοκεῖ, ὦ Ἱέρων, τούτῳ διαφέρειν ἀνὴρ τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων, τῷ τιμῆς ὀρέγεσθαι. ἐπεὶ σιτίοις γε καὶ ποτοῖς καὶ ὕπνοις καὶ ἀφροδισίοις πάντα ὁμοίως ἥδεσθαι ἔοικε τὰ ζῷα: ἡ δὲ φιλοτιμία οὔτ᾽ ἐν τοῖς ἀλόγοις ζῴοις ἐμφύεται οὔτ᾽ ἐν ἅπασιν ἀνθρώποις: οἷς δ᾽ ἂν ἐμφύῃ τιμῆς τε καὶ ἐπαίνου ἔρως, οὗτοί εἰσιν ἤδη οἱ πλεῖστον μὲν τῶν βοσκημάτων διαφέροντες, ἄνδρες δὲ καὶ οὐκέτι ἄνθρωποι μόνον νομιζόμενοι.
“For indeed it seems to me, Hiero, that in this man differs from other animals—I mean, in this craving for honour. In meat and drink and sleep and sex all creatures alike seem to take pleasure; but love of honour is rooted neither in the brute beasts nor in every human being. But they in whom is implanted a passion for honour and praise, these are they who differ most from the beasts of the field, these are accounted men and not mere human beings.”

Notice anything?  I don’t simply mean that wanting sex doesn’t seem all that important to this definition of manliness, although that is interesting.  What I want to draw attention to is the distinction he makes between “men” (andres) and “humans” (anthropoi).  The distinction Xenophon is making here is not simply that some humans are men but others are women, but rather that not everyone, even among those born male, is necessarily a man.  (For those interested, you might want to look up the term “cinaedus” or rather κίναιδος: this was their idea of the deviant unmanly male.  John Winkler’s The Constraints of Desire would be a good place to start.)  This was probably a basic aspect of the definition of masculinity in Xenophon’s society, and it does perhaps accord with the sentiments motivating the questions above as well.  The underlying idea is that masculinity, whatever exactly it is, is an achieved state, and something to be asserted.  This helps to explain the thoughts of those willing to accept the existence of asexuals but not of asexual men: an asexual (cis)male fails to achieve their idea of masculinity, or in other words, he does not fulfil the expectations of the gender role assigned by them to him.

What can I say to them?  Now I’m back to where I was earlier, but hopefully we know more now about where that is.  Assuming that I actually want to try to answer the question, there are a few basic strategies of response which I can take.  These are as follows, rather simplified and ranked in a sort of ascending scale:

  1. “Frankly, you’re right.  I don’t measure up.”
  2. “You’re mistaken, because your idea of masculinity is misguided.  Mine is better.”
  3. “Your words mean little to me, because the basic idea of masculinity itself is misguided.  It should be discarded.”
  4. “You suck.”  (Or in other words, I can call him a κίναιδος.  This happens to have been a basic strategy of legal debate in Xenophon’s time, making it a literal classic of manly discourse.)

#4 is perhaps the easiest.  Fight fire with fire, as they say.  However, it is not terribly persuasive, and so I think it is best to resort to such strategies only when there is little hope of fruitful conversation and a quick exit is desired.  Admittedly, I have never taken this route.  I tend to be less confrontational than that.

#2 is probably more common.  The idea here is basically that rigid conceptions of masculinity (and genders more generally) aren’t to be desired and ought to be replaced with more flexible ones.  People can define themselves as they like, to the extent that this is possible.  Perhaps then men needn’t want sex, or at least those men who don’t want sex can still be fully masculine.  (In case it isn’t obvious, the distinction there is between removing the desire for sex as something necessary to masculinity as broadly understood on the one hand and allowing for men to do so acceptably at the individual level on the other.)  I think there’s something to be said for this strategy.

#3 is more radical.  The idea here is roughly that the gender binary itself is deeply problematic to the point that it ought perhaps to be nuked from orbit (just to be sure, as they say).  I think of #2 as reform and #3 as revolution.  It goes without saying that there is something of a grey area between the two.  Both strategies respond to the challenge to one’s own masculinity by turning the challenge against masculinity itself.

#1 is I suspect something more commonly thought than spoken.  In a sense, this one is also easy: it does not turn the challenge made against it against masculinity itself but rather, in the terms of the challenge, concedes defeat.  I can imagine this being done in distress or apathy.  If it could be done in high spirits, then in effect it would probably be quite hard to distinguish from #2.  In any case, a lot of asexual men probably confront this one, given that it is I think the answer most readily provided for us by the gender norms of our society.  Many probably move from there to #2, whether or not they can leave #1 altogether behind.  That said, from my own experience I think the difficulty this one poses for men is quite apparent when looking at asexual communities: there don’t seem to be a lot of guys around.  (For instance, the Asexual Awareness Week census data just released indicate that a full 14% of respondents were guys!  While this probably says something more about the people who found and took the survey than it does the asexual population, it remains quite striking.)  They’re probably out there, doing what they can to keep their (a)sexuality to themselves.  Moreover, I suspect there are also many who would identify as asexual but don’t precisely because of the challenge they find it poses to their own understanding of masculinity.  While they mightn’t be thinking of it in these terms, they may in effect be trying to change their own sexual orientation.  I think that’s a problem.

So, what can we do about this?  I suppose it’s obvious that we should keep working on visibility efforts so that asexuality will become more acceptable for everyone, guys included, and that the feminist cause is a good one for us, since its purpose is largely to overhaul the old gender norms which happen to be the cause of this problem in the first place.  As for how an individual might deal with things on a more day-to-day level, I may have something more to say about that later.

Better than the Others

This is a response to this post (which is itself a response to this one).

“But the sheer condescending dickery on the post above isn’t a lack of polish. It’s indicative of one of the worst tendencies of the atheist community – to be smugly superior. Think Dennett’s attempt to create a “Bright’s” movement. It thankfully never took off, but there is a tendency in certain quarters to assume being an atheist automatically makes you cleverer than anyone else. I can see where this might crop up, especially in the States, if the only religious people you ever encounter are Tea Party-esque evangelicals, or Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. But for the most part, atheists are not smarter than anyone else, just (in my view) right about a single thing.”

I’ve noticed this.  There is certainly a tendency among some in the atheist community to think that we’re smarter than everyone else.  But, I don’t think this problem of feeling smugly superior is at all unique to us.  Let’s review.  People can be atheists for all sorts of reasons: the only significant generalization that can be made about us is that we don’t believe in any god.  However, there is more that can be said about people involved in the atheist movement than can be said of atheists generally.  This is a community which defines itself largely in terms of a shared epistemology: we value reason, critical thinking, freethought, scepticism, and that sort of thing.  We value these things because we think they are useful for ascertaining the truth of matters of a certain sort and for recognizing claims which are false.  As a community we distinguish ourselves from others on the basis of these things.  It’s no wonder then that there are many within the community who think that we’re smarter than everyone else, since we define our community –a process of setting ourselves apart from others– in these intellectual terms.  This is therefore not simply a matter of atheists in our view being “right about a single thing,” since we are speaking about the atheist community and not merely everyone who happens to be an atheist.  As a community we define ourselves as a group who are right about a number of things on account of our superior epistemology…

Of course, that last bit isn’t quite true.  For it to be true we would have to assume that humans are internally consistent in their thoughts, entirely rational, etc, and these things are demonstrably false.  It is by recognizing our limitations that we can realize an expressed commitment to a certain method of ascertaining the truth does not inevitably mean being right about anything at all, and in this, perhaps somewhat regrettably, lies the escape from a misguided feeling of smug superiority.

If what I’m saying is at all true, then it would follow that other communities may also feel superior to others on the basis of those things by which they define themselves as a group.  Based on my own experience in some of these communities, I would say that this is indeed so.  A good example can be seen in the vegetarian/vegan/animal movement.  Once again, the only generalization that can be made of all vegetarians is that they don’t eat meat.  There are any number of reasons why people mightn’t eat meat, and so little else of any significance can be said of them.  But once again, there is more that can be said of people involved in the animal movement.  This time, we define ourselves largely in terms of a shared ethics, or rather that we largely share an ethics which grants more consideration of a certain kind to animals than is usually done.  The reasons for this are actually rather varied, probably much more so than the reasons for which people in the atheist movement value scepticism and whatnot, and so generalization is somewhat more difficult.  Whatever the reason, the community defines itself largely in ethical and moral terms, and so it is not surprising that there is a tendency among some to feel morally superior to everyone outside the movement.  (Of course, some of this is related to the religious reasons for which some people are part of the movement, since religion is itself another way in which communities are defined.  Even in the West, where most religious discourse has not encouraged vegetarianism for a very long time, there is still a powerful narrative of purity originating in part from certain strands of religion in Antiquity that did, ready to be tapped by anyone.)

This is why the stereotypical animal-rights activist has a marked holier-than-thou attitude, and it is for the same basic reason that the stereotypical atheist is a snob who thinks he (I think the stereotypical atheist is a guy) is smarter than everyone around him.  For the reasons described, there are people like that.  That said, there is also an extent to which these stereotypes emerge from people outside the communities involved.  For instance, if I tell someone who isn’t an atheist that I’m an atheist, then at least implicitly it is probably clear to that person that I think they’re wrong about something: I can’t help but have something of an oppositional stance when I do this.  My interlocutor may then make a similar mistake to the smug atheists and assume that, because I think I’m probably right about these matters for the reasons mentioned, then I must think that I’m smarter than everyone else.  In other words, to someone to whom I say that I’m an atheist, I could be thought to be deeply conceited either because they’ve encountered other atheists who are, or simply because they think it must follow inevitably from atheism.  Or both.  In any case, it wouldn’t follow: it would be a mistake to assume this of someone for such a reason as that.

So, while I agree that there is a problem with some people in the movement thinking they’re smarter than everyone else, I think this is simply the particular manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon common to (among others) self-selecting communities seeking social change, arising from the way in which these communities define themselves in relation to others.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t resist this tendency to have misguided feelings of communal superiority, nor that I think there is anything wrong with having activist movements like the ones I’ve mentioned, but merely that to be effective we have to keep in mind what sort of a deep-seated human tendency we are probably dealing with here.

A Sexual Orientation

So, I was on the radio last week talking about asexuality.  I’ll have more to say about that later: I should soon have an audio copy of the program which I can post here, and I’ll share my thoughts on it then.  For now though, there’s something that came up during the show which I want to talk more about.  It’s the answer to a basic question that people often seem to have when introduced to the definition of asexuality and the concept of it as a sexual orientation.  To review, when we define as asexual a person who does not experience sexual attraction, it is necessary to explain what we mean by sexual attraction.  Following what we said at the workshop earlier, I’ve been defining it as directed sexual desire.  This leaves open the possibility of defining as asexual someone who can experience some kind of undirected sexual desire, as it does someone who does not experience sexual desire at all.  The question is, why do we call both these sorts of people asexual?  Since they have such different experiences as regards something as basic as their own sexual desire, shouldn’t we distinguish them in such a way as to not say that they share the same sexual orientation?  Additionally, since the word “asexual” suggests a negation of sexuality, why do we not confine the label to those who experience no sort of sexual desire at all?

The justification for calling both these sorts of people asexual lies I think in the concept of sexual orientation itself.  After all, what exactly do we mean by this?  I’d say that it is a concept referring to our sexual desires in relation to others.  For instance, when we talk about homosexuals we are talking about people who have sexual desires directed mainly towards members of the same sex/gender.  (This is another matter, but I don’t think the prevailing concepts of sexual orientation really distinguish between sex and gender, so I’m going to call it “sex/gender” for now.)  When we speak of asexuality as a sexual orientation we are therefore speaking about a term describing people who have no sexual desires directed towards anyone.  People who experience no sexual desire and those who experience only undirected sexual desire are both then meaningfully described as asexual, since neither experience desire directed towards anyone: their experiences of sexual desire in relation to others are both null, and so both are equally asexual by the standard logic of the terms of sexual orientation.  Of course, it could be objected that despite their shared lack of the experience of sexual attraction, we’re still describing a diverse group of people who differ in many ways as regards their experience of sexuality.  This is true.  However, this is also true of the people described by any other designation of sexual orientation.  For instance, we define as heterosexuals both men who are attracted to women and women who are attracted to men, despite the sex/gender difference in the objects of their desire and even the subjects themselves: the focus of the term is entirely on the relative sex/gender relation.  The language of sexual orientation is generalizing, and if we want to label people with anything beyond their own names then I think that we have to be willing to make such generalizations.

October Carnival of Aces: Addendum

In my last post on asexuality and family I actually left out a rather important detail.  Now that I’ve checked with someone to make sure that they don’t mind me talking about them here, I’d like to make up for that deficiency.

Strictly speaking, I’ve actually come out to very few people as asexual.  The first were people in the local AVEN meetup group: that doesn’t really count as coming out since I was talking to other asexuals, asexuals who were also complete strangers to me at the time.  That was almost a year ago.  I now have a number of friends who know that I’m asexual too, but none of them actually found out about it first from me.  For instance, one of them found out because she happened to read the program of the asexuality workshop which a friend and I gave at Pervers/Cité a few months back: she simply recognized our names and knew, and I afterwards confirmed for her what she already knew.  (She is, by the way, an awesome person, and has also since helped us with organizing a number of other local visibility events.)

There is actually only one person to whom I have ever gone out of my way to tell about my being asexual, and that is my sister.  This happened nearly a year ago.  I’d gone home to visit my family and, since my sister is someone I know I can trust with this sort of thing, I figured that I’d tell her I was asexual.  After all, I wanted someone to know.  Of course, I didn’t feel like just blurting it out at random either.  I waited for an appropriate opportunity to arise.  One came when we were talking about a course I’d taken a few years earlier on matters of sex and gender in Ancient Greece, since it led to the discussion of the concept of sexual orientation in general and also the LGBT movement.  Realizing that a suitable occasion had made its appearance, I prepared myself to discuss my own asexuality, which is something I’d never done with a non-asexual before at that point.  It turns out that I wasn’t going to then either, because my sister began to discuss her own asexuality!  Like me, I can safely say that she did not expect her interlocutor to be so familiar with the idea, nor did she expect that person to say, “Me too.”  It was a pleasant surprise, but since it caught us both unawares we didn’t talk much more about it until the next time I visited, once we realized that what had happened really had happened.  It was rather surprising to learn that there had been another asexual so close all along.  (It also raises interesting questions about the aetiology of asexuality, although it sure doesn’t do much to answer them!)

I’m glad to be able to end that post on family on a more genuinely happy note than I did previously.