…I’ve seen them get a few things wrong.
This post is my submission for the March 2016 Carnival of Aces.
[Obligatory note because I know it will come up: I’m a gender-confused ace with an ambiguous gender experience. Please don’t do the thing that people have been doing where they assume my gender based on whatever subject matter I’m writing about at the time.]
Up ahead: some indirect talk of sexual norms and sexual violence, mostly nongraphic and theoretical.
Allow me to clarify what this post is about, first. This is a post about the kind of claims & assertions that define An Experience in relation to other experiences, implicitly (or explicitly) making claims about what defines those as well, like how defining something as “not friendship” depends upon the meaning of “friendship.” When ace guys talk about being aces & being guys, some of that conversation may fall into this category and some may not. There’s a difference between “I’m a male ace and here’s my experience” and “here are experiences that you only have if you’re a male ace” or “the only aces who face this societal injunction are the male ones.”
So, with that out of the way, here are some types of claims I’ve seen within the ace community about Western societal gender norms for guys.
1. Dudes are expected to have sex.
Yes. They are. But when the context frames this as a matter of “dudes are expected to have sex (and all other folks aren’t),” it’s wrong.
Obviously, men aren’t the only people expected to have sex. In part because claims about The Sex are often set up as universals, and in part because — if dudes were the only ones “expected” to have sex, then that would mean the people they’re having sex with are other dudes, and y’all know we live in too much of a heteronormative society for that to be generally applicable.
For the most part, unless you’re thinking of a specifically LGB-inclusive context, the people that dudes are “expected” to have sex with are women. Ergo, women, too, are expected to have sex.
And as for the rest of the population? Traditionally, non-women non-men are not acknowledged in this kind of matter (or anywhere else), but don’t tell me you’re not aware of the cultural association between “androgyny” and sexual deviance.
2. Dudes are expected to want sex.
Yes. They are. And plenty of non-dudes are expected to want sex too. The degree to which this applies to any given individual varies, depending on whether/how much they might be desexualized as a member of the “undesireables,” but it’s definitely not an expectation that applies only and exclusively to dudes.
Have you ever glanced at the magazine rack at the check-out aisle and seen the glossy cover of a bright and colorful publication clearly targeted at women, yelling at you about how within its pages you’ll find tips on how to have hotter, better sex?
Women are expected to want sex (usually with men). And women are also, somehow, expected not to want sex. Gender norms in my culture are nothing if not contradictory and inconsistent.
There are people, yes, who would say it’s “normal” for women to be asexual. But for every one of those, you can also find someone who would say it’s “normal” for “everyone” to be heterosexual.
Women and sexual desire may be contested territory, but it’s not unheard of.
Nonbinary people, comparatively, are far more unheard of.
3. Dudes are “hypersexualized,” “sexualized,” etc.
No. Past participles like these imply two things: in the strictly grammatical sense, that some outside force/separate group is acting upon dudes-as-a-class to (hyper)sexualize them, and in a cultural sense, in the historical/rhetorical discursive context where (hyper)sexualization is analyzed, that dudes-as-a-class are oppressed by non-dudes and viewed through a hypersexualizing lens as a facet of that oppression.
In both the grammatical and critical cultural sense, “hypersexualization” describes a relationship to the original or the default — but in my culture, men are the “default.”
It would be accurate to say that some rhetoric describes men as highly sexual, more sexual than women. But that’s not the same as saying that men are “hypersexualized.”
There are widespread assumptions about maleness being wedded to sexuality (pun not intended), and that’s something worth taking a closer look at.
Still. There’s a reason why a stereotypical woman’s silhouette is sometimes used as a symbol for sex and sexiness.
4. Dudes win social capital for having sex and are derided for not having it.
Now this is getting closer to the truth. But it’s still not something exclusively true for dudes.
Among women and among various non-men, there can still be a certain elevated status for the more “experienced” of the group, who have more stories and “wisdom” to share. Knowledge is power and all that, as you know. For any gender, having sex can be rendered as an “achievement” and if you don’t have any… Well. Anyone can be derided for that.
But this is another place where gender roles are contradictory, because just as much as a woman can be seen as worse off for not having sex, she can also be seen as worse off for having it, too. There’s no way to win. That’s why it’s called misogyny.
The fact that women (and, to some extent, other non-men) can be (categorically) punished for having sex doesn’t mean that they can’t also win (limited, relative) social capital through it or be derided for not having it. What you might say instead is that men’s access to social capital through sex (ex. the notion of “scoring”) is more stable and consistently preferential.
I’d also say it’s fair to draw a distinction between the way men are punished for not having sex and the way women are punished for not having sex. In fact, I can supply a rudimentary model for that.
Consider a game of Monopoly, in which the goal is to gather as much play-money as possible. Under patriarchal heteronormativity, men are rendered as the “players” (pun intended and inevitable), as they are the sentient choice-making agents in the game. Women, in contrast, are rendered as the money — the objects to be owned and collected as a means of establishing relative status among players. A player who makes no effort to collect money will not do very well at the game. A player who tries to “collect” other players is breaking the rules and being extremely insulting (and vice versa — a player who wants to be “collected” like money is debasing himself). Money that tries to “collect” other money is acting as if it’s one of the players. Money that does not wanted to be “collected” by any of the players is refusing to accept that that’s what money is for, especially if the player has “earned” it.
Considered this way, asexual men are like Monopoly players who sit at the table but never express a “normal” interest in trying to accumulate any wealth, and asexual women are like money that thinks it’s a person.
Those each have drastically different consequences. Negative, both, but drastically different.
For women, not having sex is a refusal to submit. For men, not having sex is a refusal to dominate.
Drawing off of that, I’m going to return to claim #3 for a bit. As I acknowledged earlier, men are sometimes rhetorically positioned as experiencing more/stronger sexual desire than anyone else (ceteris paribus). But who is it who does this, and for what purpose?
I’m not of the opinion that non-men are imposing this narrative on men, as I stated before. Although it may be repeated by non-men, I think this message generally comes from men themselves. And generally, ceteris paribus, I figure it’s handled to their benefit.
My theory is this: the stereotype of men as sex fiends exists to excuse male violence. Unlike the hypersexualization of oppressed groups, which constructs those groups as worthy of violence being visited upon them, the men-as-sex-fiends stereotype shows up to explain away men’s sexually aggressive behavior as inevitable and excuseable. “I’m a man, I can’t help it,” the line goes.
Obviously, this excuse is more accessible to some men more than others, especially depending the context and the relative privilege of whoever else is involved, but in all the forms I can recall, it has existed as an ethical loophole for men, for men’s benefit, for men’s purposes, unless another dynamic overrides it. “Boys will be boys,” in one of its axiomatic variants, is invoked to encourage critics and observers to give up on thoughts of condemnation or containment, with an air of “that’s the way it is, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
But that carte blanche hinges on supposed sexual “insatiability” as a trait inherent to manhood — on defining that as part of being a man. In excusing one man, it needs to conscript them all.
That’s the reason people fixate on male asexuality as especially impossible. Because it undermines the logic of holding men (as a group) to such an exclusive ethical standard.