Confusing Unfamiliar Things

If you’re someone who’s reading this then perhaps you’re already familiar with the ‘asexual bingo’ cards.  (You might want to check them out if you aren’t.  Here is one and here is another.)  They’re of course part of a larger phenomenon in which bingo cards have been made to visualize the many ways in which people respond to ‘abnormal’ aspects of others, by which I mean they concern such things as lie outside the usual/default assumptions that might be made about a (default) person, whether these things are well known and relatively common and generally accepted or not.  While the topics of the cards can be strictly unrelated (genderqueer bingo and atheist bingo, for instance), they all share this aspect, and so it doesn’t come as a shock that many of the items on one card can work just as well on another.

We were talking about this at the asexual meetup a few days ago.  For instance, you can take each letter of LGBT and easily find something from asexual bingo, not even something really multi-purpose like “That’s unnatural”, which is more than merely applicable to a corresponding bingo card.  (L: “You just haven’t been with me yet”, assuming the speaker’s a guy.  G: “But humans are HERE to procreate.”  B: “You are buying into a fad because you just want to be special.”  T: “…I need to know everything about how your genitals work.”)  This isn’t to be unexpected, especially since asexuality is (like L, G, and B) also a sexual orientation, and since the concept of sexual orientation itself is based on sex/gender relations (hence also, in part, the bingo analogy to T).  For the reasons I’ve described above though, it can also work very well for less related things.  As an atheist, I was amused by how well some of the entries would work for an atheist bingo card despite seeming to be specific to asexuality.  Here’s one: “If you tried it and you didn’t like it, you just did it wrong”, where “it” is religion instead of sex obviously.  While unrelated, what asexuality and atheism have in common in this case is that they may both be perceived by someone else as a rejection of something they hold dear and indeed consider important to living a ‘fully human’ life.  The something in question may be considered so manifestly and obviously wonderful that the conclusion no one could truly reject it becomes almost inevitable, and so the strategy of the ‘answer’ as seen on the bingo card is to deny that the other has ever experienced it in a valid way.  (The less ‘charitable’ version of this strategy is to turn the negation of validity from the other’s experience to the other’s very person: their perceived rejection becomes an indication of their alleged inhumanity.  See for instance “You must be damaged in some way” on the bingo card.)

Another one which really jumped out at me, which also brings me closer to the topic of this month’s Carnival of Aces, is a weird analogy to vegetarianism.  I don’t mean the one which corresponds to what I’ve just said about something perceived as being a radical rejection of what is only normal: that wouldn’t be a “weird” analogy but rather a very obvious one.  Not that this one is so obscure: I can point to “It must be some religious thing” on the bingo card and you’ll likely understand what I’m thinking.  To elaborate, not having sex and not eating meat have been associated for millennia around the world.  For instance, ancient Greek Olympic athletes would for a month refrain from both meat (as part of their special diet of cheese and figs) and sex in preparation for the footrace, at least in the earlier history of the ancient Olympics.  Let’s not get into the detailed reasons for this, but suffice it to say that they were religious; the early Olympics were a religious festival after all.  The association between celibacy and vegetarianism in ancient Greek religion influenced certain strands of Greek philosophy too.  This alone might serve to show its relevance to more recent times, but of course it also influenced Christianity (a religion which spent its own formative years largely in the ancient Greek world after all), and early Christian factions and thinkers fought over the particular importance of both.  Again, let’s avoid the details: suffice it to say that even now ‘fasting and abstinence’ go hand in hand in Christian asceticism, and that ‘fasting’ in this context may sometimes mean nothing more than not eating meat.  Moreover, Christianity isn’t the only religion to make the connection between these two things.  For instance, they had a similar significance in ancient India, and from there to religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.  Indeed, while most people where I am are likely to be thinking of Christianity if they dismiss asexuality as just “some religious thing”, they’re more likely to be thinking of Buddhism if they do the same of vegetarianism.

My point is that people are usually carrying heavy cultural baggage with them when they think about choosing not to eat meat and choosing not to have sex, since the objects of both choices have been considered base desires of the flesh which stand in the way of spiritual fulfilment.  This is relevant to me because I do asexual visibility work and am also involved in ‘animal rights’ (in the looser sense of the term) projects.  Do I want to confuse people when I tell them I’m a vegetarian?  Then why not tell them also that I’m not interested in having sex with anyone?  If I say too that I’m an “asexual”, then they’re almost certain to mistake asexuality for celibacy, and from there suppose that I must be an aspiring if not accomplished ascetic.  In the process, they’ll learn almost nothing about either what asexuality actually is or the reasons why I’m a vegetarian.  After all, these things aren’t really related: vegetarianism is a dietary choice I’ve made for ethical reasons, while asexuality is simply my sexual orientation.  When speaking of myself I can confidently say that one didn’t cause the other, and I see no reason to suppose that they flow from the same source in any way other than my being that source.  All they have in common is that a complete stranger is unlikely to assume either of me.

Admittedly, there are reasons why I’m not all that worried about confusing people in this way.  Setting aside the fact that I don’t dress like an “accomplished ascetic” of any quality, it happens that if I do so much as mention asexuality, then it is likely that I’m in the process of speaking about it at length (since I don’t tend to mention it in passing when I’m not speaking to people who already know me).  When that’s the case, I can try to explain things properly so that people who know little about it will understand.  Furthermore, since asexuality and vegetarianism aren’t related, the latter isn’t so likely to come up when I’m speaking in detail about the former.  Similarly, asexuality tends not to come up when I’m talking about vegetarianism and related matters.  At the same time though, I don’t really want to bring it up even in the event that it wouldn’t be inappropriate: precisely for the reasons I’ve described, to mention in passing that I’m asexual in such a context might require me to say quite a lot about asexuality in order to clear up the misconceptions I would have just reinforced.  It is as though it were irresponsible to only mention asexuality without saying quite a lot more about it.  That’s the problem of asexuality not being well known, and the resulting reluctance to speak about it doesn’t make it any easier to make it known.  I find myself inclined to think though that part of the solution to this is to be less guarded, more willing to mention asexuality in passing, as appropriate of course.  That at least might lead to greater visibility.  After all, do I really suppose that anyone has come to understanding from ignorance without the passing of an interval of confusion?


As part of an event being run on campus by the Freethought Association, the other day I found myself involved in an argument over the existence of God.  That wasn’t anything unexpected given the circumstances.  However, what was unexpected was how utterly I forgot one of the most basic ‘laws’ of such discussions: there is no shortage of people willing to bring out the most worn-out and thoroughly overthrown arguments as though no one had ever heard them before.  I don’t merely say this as an atheist making fun of certain arguments for the existence of God that ought to have been laid to rest centuries ago (although that is what I’m doing here): I’ll admit that some of my fellow atheists are also willing to make silly arguments which ‘the other side’ have in fact answered more than adequately.  –Personally, I think it all goes a long way to supporting a claim made by Thucydides millennia ago: despite the passage of time, people are people and so they inevitably do the same basic things that they’ve always done.  The great historian’s claim is that history inevitably repeats itself (and therefore that, not unrelatedly, there is use for us historians).–

Here’s what happened.  We were sitting in two groups facing each other: atheists on one side and theists on the other.  The people on the theist side were, I think, all Catholic with the exception of this one fellow.  When he said that he could prove to us that there was a God, no one on either side knew what he was going to say next.  I’ll skip past the details of what he did first, which was to attack our club’s name.  He next held up three objects, an orange peel, a plum pit, and some other thing from the produce aisle which I’ve since forgotten: he said that he would use these simple objects to make his point.  I was actually excited to hear what he was going to say next: I had no idea where his train of thought was going, as though I had forgotten everything I’ve ever learnt over these past few years of getting into such arguments.  I thought I was really going to hear something new, something interesting.  Do you see already where he was going though?  These were not his exact words, but they’ll have to do: “Behold the peach, so finely designed for an animal to eat its fruit to free its seed.  Behold the orange leaves, which know to arrange themselves so as not to block sunlight from the orange.  Design implies a Designer, etc.”  This was simply a rather dated version of the argument from design, one that predates the modern evolutionary theory by which it is well answered.  There were audible groans from the atheist side of the room, and I saw people on the theist side looking deeply annoyed as well: I don’t think anyone was impressed.  As for myself, I felt rather let down at first, and then irritated that I’d been so naïve as to have expected that he really was going to present something which no one had ever heard before.  At the very least I should have seen it coming once he pulled out the produce.

Don’t misunderstand: my complaint isn’t simply that his argument was old.  Many such arguments lose none of their force as time passes.  My complaint is simply that this wasn’t one of them.  It is the year A.D. 2012: presenting an argument which lost any power which it might ever have had by the 19th century doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion.  But what can be done?  Obviously not everyone knows that these arguments really are so obsolete.  I suppose that those of us who are so inclined can keep trying to get it through their thick skulls help them to understand.  It doesn’t always work, but the fact that we’ve seen it work sometimes (i.e.: there really are people who listen) shows that it isn’t necessarily a useless struggle.  I remain doubtfully optimistic, picturing Sisyphus watching his boulder roll down the hill yet again and wondering if maybe, just maybe, it’ll stay there at the top next time.

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.