Note: This article also appears on The Huffington Post.
The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) Facebook page recently posted a question for male aces: does being cis-male and an asexual make one “less of a man?” That is, does being an asexual diminish one’s inner sense of masculinity or the way others perceive our masculinity?
Oy. Well, that kind of binary thinking – plopping things readily into either the masculine or feminine category – is anathema to gender/sexual justice, as we know. If we tease the probable intent out of an awkwardly worded question, however, I think there’s a useful prompt for discourse therein. What’s the relationship between the American cultural construct of masculinity and asexuality? Can one accouter themselves in the trappings of ‘manhood’ if they lack that libido upon which so much of cultural masculinity is predicated? And, most importantly, can one be perceived as a “man” without the element of a robust (rampant, even excessive) sex drive?
First, full disclosure: I don’t identify as male, but as agender or non-binary. For some, that may negate anything I have to say on the matter of cis-manhood or the cultural stereotypes around it. Second, throwing myself up for comparison against that cultural construct, I don’t really fare well. If we presume the simplest, monolithic definition of masculinity perpetuated by our media, to be a “man” includes some level of interest in professional competitive sports (especially as an exclusive refuge from women), a gastronomical penchant for meat and beer, and some dalliance with hunting and/or guns. For the sake of honesty, I willingly admit that I know nothing of sports (Trivia Crack gives me a 62 average, or D-, in this category), I prefer good wines over beer any day, and I despise violence and weapons. Add to that a fondness for classical music, a love of gardening, and an unabashed bibliokleptomania, and I’m certain I’d make poor company for John Wayne.
All right, jocularity aside, the generally accepted academic construct of masculinity includes, at a minimum, emotional detachment, using violence as a solution to conflict, self-interest, and entitlement. “Real” men are not concerned with emotional intelligence, which is deemed weak, but with strength and material acquisition.
This is a broad-brush and thus highly problematic view of masculinity, or course, but it’s one that’s accepted, recycled, and imposed on us by our media. (I take care to differentiate between biological ‘maleness’ and socially constructed gender. The latter is the subject of my study, here.) Perhaps I’m an outsider to this variety of male culture and identity, but I was indeed born cis-male, and I’ve seen it in action more times than my eyes can bear. I’ve observed it in men who assume they’re entitled to sex and in the undercurrent of privilege and entitlement that inform and sustain stereotypical masculinity. A complete picture of cultural male identity is way beyond the scope of a brief editorial like this, but we do know that it often includessocializing cis-men to suppress emotions that aren’t directly connected to aggression or lust. The admonition to “be a man” is presumed to mean ignoring pain, eschewing a full acknowledgement and experience of sadness or loss. To be a “man” is also to channel aggression into ambition that takes little or no account of the rights of others. It’s the image of masculinity we see with depressing regularity in film, television, and print. Conversely, it’s mirrored in the construct of “femininity” advanced by the same institutions, many of which focus on physical attractiveness to men as the essential quality of womanhood.
If you think this archetype of the impassive, predatory male swigging his beer, slinging his gun, and stalking women for sexual conquests is a thing of the past, the events of the past week may compel you to guess again. Donald Trump’s hot mic glorification of sexual assault falls right into the traditional assumptions of masculinity, evidenced very well by the cadre of men who leaped to his defensewith the feckless excuse that it was “locker room banter.” Rudy Giuliani reiterated the stereotype of the predatory male with the statement that “men at times talk like that.”
We want to believe that Trump represents the exception, and I’ve lost count of the well-intentioned friends who try to minimize his words with the response “I don’t know any men who speak that way.” But these men, and this type of privileged thinking, exist in great number – Trump’s ascension to presidential nominee is ample proof of that. Witness, too, the context of many of Trump’s most grievous rhetorical attacks on women: The Howard Stern Show. Stern is another example of the vast industry of manufactured “male” identity, an incredibly well-paid individualwhose listeners tune in specifically to hear him demean and degrade women. (”I’d rather have a retarded hot woman than a slob who’s a doctor,” said Stern of beauty pageant contestants.) Let this serve as a remind that patriarchy and misogyny can’t be pinned on one blowhard ignoramus, but are systemic problems sustained by powerful institutions like media, government, and religion. To the extent that traditional masculinity is a credible construct, it is both a product and producer of men like Trump and his supporters.
Which brings us back to the question of how useful it is to be ‘masculine’ and how sexuality (or in this case, asexuality) relates to manhood. Sex and the drive for it is an integral part of the self-identity of most people on our planet, to be sure. As an asexual, I seek equal standing and dignity in the ranks of our species, not to elevate my identity above others. (I don’t think anyone would argue for an imposed asexuality in any identity.) But the question of masculinity vis-à-vis asexuality invokes the urgency of remaking masculinity by combating the cultural construct of manhood that presently prevails, a paradigm that has done so much harm to people in marginalized groups. In simple terms, I think we ought to be asking not if asexuality reduces one’s stature as a “man,” but rather “what can we do to change the cultural construct of maleness that has wreaked so much damage?” The lack of a sex drive shouldn’t preclude one from the sense of being masculine, but neither should being a “man” continue to include the types of privilege that lead to the objectification of women and subjugation of other identities.
The future paradigm of cultural masculinity should be broader, smarter, and more peaceful than its historical precedent, because if being “less of a man” means being less like Trump and his ilk, we should all pursue that end.