(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:
- “Frankly, you’re right. I don’t measure up.”
- “You’re mistaken, because your idea of masculinity is misguided. Mine is better.”
- “Your words mean little to me, because the basic idea of masculinity itself is misguided. It should be discarded.”
- “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.