When Dudes Talk Gender & Asexuality

…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.

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21 responses to “When Dudes Talk Gender & Asexuality

  • luvtheheaven

    “I’d also say it’s far to draw a distinction” – I think you might’ve meant “fair”?

     

    There seems to be a little bit of conflating of “people who don’t want to have sex at all” with the be all/end all of what it means to be asexual in this… and in most types of statements other people make on this topic too… I don’t personally know what the right solution to that is, as the average asexual yes, isn’t really interested in sex and/or is repulsed/averse. I am one of them. I feel my asexuality and my not wanting to have sex, ever, are extremely linked. But I just wanted to mention it…

    I really appreciated this perspective, overall. Thanks for writing it!

     

    One thing I guess I was thinking, as I read the first section, is that yes, Men are expected to have sex, and in our heteronormative world, yes, of course, with women. But that doesn’t mean the logical conclusion is that people expect women to have sex in the same way, as you said later:

    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.

    and

    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.

    I mean the truth is, the societal ideal that men need to be having sex is totally different than the confused idea of what women should be doing when it comes to sex, because women can’t win at the game, but men really can.

    The way I see it, women have pressure to stay within a narrow boundary of not having too many different sexual partners, not being too young when they start having sex, perhaps they even must be in a committed relationship first or else it’s unladylike and they are failing at being a good example of a woman. But they do still need to have “experience” by a certain age, with relationships, with sex, with all of it, or else they’re assumed to be undesirable, like they aren’t even “money” anymore to borrow from your Monopoly game analogy, they are worthless.

    Men, on the other hand, in a society that only knows a binary system of gender, don’t have a lot of the same parameters. They are lucky if they are able to find sex outside of a committed relationship, they are lucky if they find it within one, they are lucky however they get it, and people don’t have the same judgement about age — he can be young and it’s impressive he has started winning at playing the game despite how young he is. Having a greater number of sexual partners is mainly seen as a positive, not as a negative the way it is for women, etc.

    • Coyote

      “I think you might’ve meant ‘fair’?”

      Oh dear. Yes. That was a typo.

      “There seems to be a little bit of conflating of ‘people who don’t want to have sex at all’ with the be all/end all of what it means to be asexual in this…”

      Yes, I know what you mean… There are probably some passages I could go back and clean up in that regard. Since there’s no universal asexual experience, what I wanted to do was bring up some norms that might be relevant in the context of asexuality, even if they’re not relevant for everyone’s asexuality.

      “I mean the truth is, the societal ideal that men need to be having sex is totally different than the confused idea of what women should be doing when it comes to sex, because women can’t win at the game, but men really can.”

      I like the way you put that.

  • Siggy

    I think there is a potential for your critique to be unfair. I can’t tell whether it is fair or not, since you didn’t provide examples of what you’re criticizing. But whenever someone talks about their experience as part of group X, regardless of how they talk about it, one common response is “but that applies to EVERYONE”. Here’s a good discussion of that response.

    So what I’m saying, there’s plenty of value in men talking about their experiences, even if those experiences are shared by some women. And I’m sure some guys, in talking about it, erase women’s experience. People are bad at talking about stuff. Correct and forgive, until forgiveness is no longer deserved.

    I may comment on other aspects of this post later.

    • Siggy

      And yes I know you acknowledged this issue in the OP. No, that does not eliminate suspicions of unfairness.

      Part of this issue is I’m confused where all these dudes talking about asexuality and gender are. There are like five of us? Um, me, Tim, DJ, redbeardace, and umm TTA and Alok have talked about it but aren’t dudes.

      • Coyote

        Mmm I’m thinking now that the preface I added to the beginning wasn’t long enough.

        Um, if you’re coming away from this thinking “but nobody is saying these things,” that’s actually an acceptable outcome to me. Like, if that’s the part of my post you want to doubt me on, I’m okay with that. The small number of y’all is actually part of why I didn’t want to provide examples, lol. I guess it’ll feel unfair either way.

        • Siggy

          I’m pretty sure ace guys are saying these things.

          • Coyote

            So is the unfairness sense that you acknowledge/have seen the technically accurate statements and personal experience descriptions, but not the statements/implications of gender norm differences? Or… something else?

          • Siggy

            There’s a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether an ace guy is implying too much about women. For example, if I say “men are expected to want sex, different from women” is that too strong a statement? There’s a line to be drawn, but I’m not sure where you’d draw the line or if I would draw it in the same place. (Clearly if we draw the line in different places, that means I am being fair and you are being unfair and not the other way around ;) )

          • Coyote

            Oh, so that’s what you mean.

            Well, the next time I come across something relevant to this post, I can pitch it to you for interpretation.

      • Calum P Cameron

        In regards to where the dudes talking about asexuality and gender are, I think some of us only talk about it in meatspace or in more private (or just more devoid of more experienced talkers) corners of the internet because (probably among other reasons) we are intimidated by the thought of taking a more prominent role in ‘the community’. And I think I have heard some of the things Coy highlights mentioned before, perhaps in some of those spaces, although I can’t actually recall specific examples so maybe I’m just imagining it based on my own expectations of what people “probably” say about it.

  • Siggy

    At the risk of dominating your comment thread…

    I found your comments on hypersexualization intriguing. Hypersexualization is the name of a norm, but it’s also implicitly comparing to another default. Hypersexual compared to what? I’d say they’re hypersexualized as compared to how they “naturally” are, but being ace compels me to reject this monolithic notion of “natural”.

    • Coyote

      Which “they” are you talking about?

    • Coyote

      Ah. Well in that case:

      No, that’s not really where I’d go with that. Guys might be depicted as “highly sexual” in some sense, but when that shows up in rhetoric and media, it’s presented in contrast to (“unsympathetic,” “uncooperative”) women — which to me makes it seem more accurate to describe that dynamic as women being desexualized (in relation to men) than men being hypersexualized (in relation to women). Generally the way I model the concept of “hypersexualization” is the way one group is portrayed in comparison to another/some default (usually het White guys), not the way a group is portrayed versus what they “truly” are.

  • killerbee13

    I may not technically be an asexual man, on either count actually, but as a demisexual who is universally read as male by those I don’t bother to correct, I feel I have a place in this conversation.

    Strangely, (or perhaps not that strangely considering complicating factors) I’ve never actually *felt* this pressure to be sexually active. I mean, I’ve always known it exists in some intangible sense, but in school I always semi-deliberately surrounded myself with people who didn’t place much in the way of social pressures on me. This is not to say that most of my friends were probably ace/aro-spec, in fact looking back on it now I can only think of one that gives me that impression, but they were all nerds, to put it simply. And not the kind of nerd that’s sad about it, the kind of nerd who’s generally pretty okay with that characterization.

    Basically, I think that however pervasive a social norm seems, it’s generally still possible to find (even by accident) a corner of society where it’s merely a forgettable detail about that movie you hated but were forced to watch by your older sister last month. The extent of my thoughts on the matter (until long after I had started identifying as ace/aro-spec) was “I don’t really have the time or patience for a relationship right now, and it doesn’t seem to be an urgent matter”. And even that only in high school, in middle school I was always just shocked to realize that dating and sex were even things people my age might be doing.

    On the other hand, at home, things were *also* different, for some of the same reasons. But rather than get into that in a comment thread at two in the morning, I think I’ll save it for when I finally get around to writing my autism post. The summary of the status of sex-based social expectations in my family is that they manifested in both more and less subtle/overt ways than you’d expect. The fact that I didn’t give off an impression of being interested in sex was taken to be less interesting than (and somewhat subsidiary to) the fact that, honestly, I wasn’t all that interested in other people in the first place, so rather than anyone discreetly asking me if I’d had sex, I just got openly questioned as to whether this week’s celebrity was hot, which was always answered in exactly the same way, that is, the simple word “eh” after half a minute of absolute bewilderment as to what the question even meant.

    This is probably really rambly, and for that I apologize, just barely too late to be in advance. Did I mention it’s two and I’m on my phone, which only shows 4 lines of my comment at once and each is only like 5 words wide?

    Someday, I’ll write an actual blog post(s) about the matter(s), which will benefit from an actual structure and the full facilities provided by an awake brain and won’t be the rambly collections of disjoint sentences that I get when I try to write after midnight.

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    You put into words all the reasons I feel uncomfortable about it when I read the things asexual men write about being asexual men. Also I am very tired, but I think your hypothesis at the end of this post is worth developing more and maybe making a separate post about. Asexual men’s existence definitely threatens the idea that men are sexually insatiable because they’re men.

  • Calum P Cameron

    That last bit. Being viewed as a threat to the excuses of the patriarchy or whatever. Yes. That. That’s what I’ve been trying to express in talky words for a while. That’s what I’m uncomfortable with.

    Well, that’s one of the things I’m uncomfortable with. I am a very uncomfortable person.

    Anyway. Thanks.

  • March 2016 Carnival of Aces Roundup | Valprehension

    […] When Dudes Talk Gender & Asexuality | The Ace Theist Coyote unpacks some of the oversimplifications and other problems with the ways some asexual guys talk about the tensions between their gender and their asexuality. […]

  • Asexuality Archive

    Just caught this in the Carnival Roundup…

    This strikes me as somewhat off the mark. It feels like it’s less about asexual men talking about being asexual men and more about the cissexist heteronormative misogynistic culture that spawned the issues they’re (or perhaps more accurately, I’m) talking about. Women aren’t mentioned because they’re largely irrelevant in that world. Trans people and nonbinary people are not mentioned largely because they do not even exist in that narrative, except as a fear or a punchline. It’s not right, but recognizing the frame of reference is important.

    From my perspective, it’s sort of a case study in #whyineedfeminism. I had this toxic soup of “Masculinity™” poured over my head for years. I didn’t drown in it, like some people have, but it did make it hard to breathe occasionally. Sometimes, it still does.

    When I speak about how asexuality and being a man intersect, I speak from that frame of reference because that is the view of the world that shaped that intersection. I had to scrape off all of that sludge to figure out who I am. And I am speaking to other people who are still covered by that sludge in a way that I know they’ll understand. (And the impact of all of that noise and nonsense and gunk is not limited to asexual men by any means.)

    For a couple of months now, I’ve been considering trying to write an in-depth series about being an asexual man, full of interviews and other perspectives (including transmen and AMAB non-men (although, clearly, in that case, it wouldn’t be about being an asexual man, but rather about how being asexual interacts with external societal [mis-]gendered expectations and internal realities)), because to be quite honest, I’m really getting tired of being one of the only voices out there on the subject. (I don’t even particularly want to write this series because of that, but no one else seems to be doing it, so…) Right now, when I try to speak beyond my own experience, it’s pretty much all random anecdotes I heard “somewhere” or full-on speculation. I want to get more data so I can have a firmer understanding of the wider picture.

    To some of the other things mentioned:

    For points 1 and 2, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. When an asexual man is talking about being an asexual man, why should he talk about women or non-binary people? Certainly, it would be wrong to erase their experience, or to claim that those things are only expected of men, and so forth, but I’m not seeing how staying on topic is an issue. If something I’ve written is the root of this, please point it out, so I can understand what you’re saying with some deeper context and possibly fix what I’ve said.

    About the gendered cultural expectations regarding having sex, the way I’ve viewed it is like this: Everyone is expected to HAVE sex, but men are expected to DO the sex, while women are expected to go along with it (but only in “acceptable” circumstances).

    I know that when I’ve used the word “hypersexual”, I haven’t meant to imply some sort of oppression context or even a comparison to some other group or to some default state. Instead, I’ve used it to describe the expectation of a sort of super-charged, always-horny, always-looking, always-willing, thinking-about-sex-every-seven-seconds mentality. I guess if the prefix requires a comparison, then it’s a comparison to reality, because everyone knows that the vast majority of people are not even remotely like that, even while they’re pushing that expectation.

    And please please please do not use asexual men as faceless pawns in an attack on stereotypes of masculinity. What you mention is one of the ingredients in the toxic gunk that’s poured on us. That TTA post about how asexuality is a “challenge to masculinity” treats ace men as some sort of abstract hypothetical for the purposes of argument and it makes me cringe every time I see it get mentioned. (It’s the same sort of feeling I got from Bogaert’s book, like, “Hello? We’re right here? It’s actually possible to talk to us about things.”) I’m not saying don’t write about it, but if you do, please tie it to specifics and actual testimony instead of positioning us as The Magicial Key To Taking Down The Patriarchy™.

    • Coyote

      Hello redbeard.

      “This strikes me as somewhat off the mark. It feels like it’s less about asexual men talking about being asexual men and more about the cissexist heteronormative misogynistic culture that spawned the issues they’re (or perhaps more accurately, I’m) talking about.”

      I’m… not sure how you could come to that conclusion from the things that I wrote.

      “For a couple of months now, I’ve been considering trying to write an in-depth series about being an asexual man, full of interviews and other perspectives (including transmen and AMAB non-men (although, clearly, in that case, it wouldn’t be about being an asexual man, but rather about how being asexual interacts with external societal [mis-]gendered expectations and internal realities))”

      Grouping people who are male but weren’t assigned male at birth in with people who were assigned male at birth but aren’t… I think those demographics would have too much divergence in expereince for it to be useful to group them in together like that.

      “For points 1 and 2, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. When an asexual man is talking about being an asexual man, why should he talk about women or non-binary people?”

      That’s referring to when someone is already talking about women and nb people — as in, when a statement is framed like “Unlike other genders, *men* have *this* experience.”

      “Certainly, it would be wrong to erase their experience, or to claim that those things are only expected of men”

      …which was what I was talking about, yes, I’m sorry for not making that more clear.

      “Everyone is expected to HAVE sex, but men are expected to DO the sex, while women are expected to go along with it (but only in ‘acceptable’ circumstances).”

      More or less.

      “I know that when I’ve used the word ‘hypersexual’, I haven’t meant to imply some sort of oppression context or even a comparison to some other group or to some default state.”

      That’s what it does though.

      “because everyone knows that the vast majority of people are not even remotely like that”

      Everyone?

      “And please please please do not use asexual men as faceless pawns in an attack on stereotypes of masculinity.”

      So…. that’s the thing you think I’m doing?

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