An asexual man, particularly a celibate and/or sex-averse asexual man, is a bit like a symbol of religion in a fiercely atheistic society: some will dismiss him as a fantastical impossibility, while others will react with varying levels of animosity, out of the sense that he is an intrusion threatening the validity of their own worldview. In one corner, we’ve got the asexophobes who don’t acknowledge that asexual men even exist, which is necessary to their general dismissal of asexuality as not a real orientation but simply a new way to label an exclusively female tendency toward disinterest in sex or sexual inexperience or repression. In another corner, we’ve got the asexophobes who accuse asexual men of: being too emasculated by exposure to feminism and feminist women to express their sexuality, being closeted homosexuals, being too socially inept or unattractive to obtain sex, etc. While many ignorant sexual people with little to no knowledge of asexuality often make the assumption that only women identify as asexual (which is in itself a roundabout expression of buying into the misogynistic stereotyping of women as naturally less sexual beings than men), others are downright angry at the idea of men identifying as asexual, and they’re especially angry at the idea of men having an enthusiastic aversion to sexual participation. I’ve noticed that the sexual people who feel anger toward male asexuality are usually other men.
The reason? Male asexuality is a powerful challenge to mainstream masculinity, which hasn’t changed its attitudes toward male sexuality at all, even after three waves of feminism. No matter what else has changed about how we view men and women, masculinity and femininity, no matter how men have changed since the 1960s, one thing remains utterly the same: successful masculinity depends heavily upon the male’s active sexuality.
The role of sex in masculinity performance is connected to other important markers of successful masculinity: power, money, dominance, and the approval of other men. All one has to do is pay attention to mainstream media to see that we collectively associate sex with power and money, regardless of gender but especially for men. The more money a man has, the more powerful he is, the more sexually desirable he is. The more sex he has and the more sexual partners he has, the more masculine he is, which wins the approval not only of women but of other men. Sex is also a part of male dominance: over women, naturally, but also over other men, even when the man in question is heterosexual. In male society, men can have a sense of where they rank next to each other, based on these elements of masculinity. Sexual promiscuity is something to be proud of, if you’re a man, while sexual inactivity is shameful. Men respect other men for their sexual accomplishments and disrespect men who don’t measure up to a certain sexual standard. Men compete with each other sexually: who can rack up the higher number of sex partners, who can build the best reputation as a skilled lover, who’s had sex with the most desirable women (or men), etc. They dominate one another with their sexual performance according to these parameters.
21st century America views the male as a hypersexual being: he is supposed to value sex above almost everything, he is supposed to have sex at every given opportunity, and we sexualize all of his emotional attachments, regardless of the gender of the other person and the male’s own identity, with the exception of his love for his children. We cannot, as a culture, conceive of a man experiencing intense or passionate love for another person in a completely nonsexual manner. If a man loves someone with emotional intensity, romantic tones, etc, the only possible explanation the public sees is sexual desire for the loved one.
It’s worth contemplating the possibility that one reason for this modern view of men is that unconsciously, we are only comfortable with a man’s intense or tender emotion for others if sex coexists with that emotion as a buffer against the “femininity” of the emotion. A man who loves his friend too deeply or too passionately without wanting sex from that friend is being too emotional or sentimental, which is counter-masculine. But if a man loves someone deeply because he desires them sexually, now all of a sudden, we’re more comfortable with his emotion because his sexual desire is the dominant, masculine energy behind his pursuit and attachment to the beloved. (Of course, we as a society no longer conceive of passionate or intense love independent of sex, regardless of the gender of the people in question, but this inability to separate love from sex is particularly relevant to men because of the way it connects to masculinity. Women have always had a bit more room for intense nonsexual attachment, simply because women haven’t been construed as hypersexual beings in the same way as men and their feminine image does not depend upon sexual performance. Also, women are perceived as more emotional than men anyway, which is an assumption unfair to both genders.)
One interesting observation I’ve made is the way that certain sex-positive feminists or sex-positive people, who adopt their own feminism-disguised attitude of compulsory sexuality, actually (unintentionally) encourage and bolster the very patriarchal conceptualization of masculinity that includes compulsory sexuality and sexual performance as defining features of itself. Men don’t have the same shame attached to their sexuality that women have, thus compulsory sexuality means something different for men than it does for women. Sex-positive feminists who pursue the idea of women having a lot of sex consistently as the expression of their empowerment, freedom, and rebellion against misogynistic control of female sexuality, without giving due respect to voluntary sexual inactivity, fail to realize that not only are they creating a new, unhealthy paradigm of sexuality for women–one that ironically circles back around to feed into rape culture–but that they are also affirming mainstream masculinity’s compulsory sexuality tenet that plays a part in men’s misogynistic treatment of women. The kind of compulsory sexuality that feminists recognize as overtly anti-woman is the kind that demands women be sexually available to all men, at all times, for the sake of pleasing the men. The kind of compulsory sexuality sprouting from sex-positive feminism is actually more along the lines of masculinity’s compulsory sexuality: creating shame around not having sex, rather than having sex.
A man is never supposed to NOT be in the mood for sex. It doesn’t matter if he’s straight, gay, or bi. It also doesn’t necessarily matter who the potential sex partner is. If someone offers a man sex, he’s expected to enthusiastically want it. The idea of a man saying “no” to sex and meaning it is so unbelievable to us, as a society, that male rape victims are still often viewed as a myth. This is one of the more extreme consequences of the compulsory sexuality aspect of masculinity. A man can’t say no, without failing at masculinity in the moment. For women, the issue of saying “no” is tied into the misogyny, compulsory heterosexuality, and rape culture of our society; it is more an issue of a woman’s “no” not meaning anything or having power, when she says it. For a man, “no” isn’t even supposed to be in his vocabulary, when it comes to sex. We have men tied up in a situation where he’s supposed to want sex constantly, having sex makes him more of a man, and he’s also supposed to be incapable of emotional passion and intimacy outside of a sexual context. Saying “no” to sex, if you’re a man, is a rejection of masculinity, love, and intimacy–not just a “no” to the sex. Arguably, when women say “no” to sex, their femininity isn’t in jeopardy. We encourage women to say “no” more, because saying “no” and having that respected, as a woman, is something we’ve had to learn that we’re entitled to do. But no one’s encouraging men to say “no” to sex when they aren’t truly enthusiastic about it, are they? No one’s even imagining that men want to say “no,” ever.
So along comes the asexual male. Maybe he’s bored by sex and apathetic. Maybe he’s repulsed by sex. He doesn’t care about it. He doesn’t need it. He doesn’t particularly want it. Maybe he really doesn’t want sex. Maybe he’s the sort of asexual that, if put into a sexual situation, he panics to some degree. He’s a man that looks at sex–this all-powerful entity that brings society to its knees, that gives men everywhere status and respect, that is both the cause and effect of successful masculinity in society’s eyes–and says, “No, thanks.”
Think of what a radical challenge to masculinity that is! If an asexual man is to have his masculinity considered valid, that forces us to recognize that masculinity is not innately dependent upon sexual performance. We remove the power of sex within masculinity, and we remove masculinity’s power to compel sex. Stripping sex of its role in masculinity would demand a truly major reconstruction, maybe even a permanent deconstruction, of masculinity as something distinct from femininity. That’s why male asexuality/celibacy pisses some people off. Those people feel their own conceptualization of masculinity threatened, perhaps their own masculinity threatened. That’s also why others fail to even imagine that an asexual could be male, because not wanting sex is so anti-masculine to our sensibilities.
If the asexual man is romantic or if he’s an aromantic that still wants and likes emotional/physical intimacy, if he just wants to hold hands and cuddle and be life partners with someone (or many someones)…. what sort of image does that give him? Even the most ardent, progressively thinking feminist must admit that the idea of a man having hardcore, powerful sex compared to the idea of a man cuddling his partner fully clothed in a nonsexual situation evokes very different responses to each man’s masculinity. Who would you say is more masculine?
Sex is power, aggression, dominance, activity, energy, and sometimes even violence. We might say that sex is masculine, if we’re making our associations based on traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, which we probably all do on some level no matter how feminist we are because social conditioning is hard to deactivate. On the other hand, romance and romantic gestures and nongenital physical affection (like hugging, cuddling, holding hands, etc) is sweet, soft, sentimental, passive, vulnerable, etc. In other words, feminine. Sexual men may do the latter without being seen as feminine but only because they’re doing it in correspondence with the more masculine sex. Asexual men who don’t have sex but engage in romance, romantic behavior, or physical affection are behaving in the “feminine” ways without the “masculine” sex to diminish the femininity of those other behaviors.
Another thing to think about is the challenge to our gendered view of rape that asexual men pose. As I said before, because we view men as hypersexed beings and view their masculinity through a lens of compulsory sexuality, we have a major tendency to dismiss or fail to notice that men can be raped and are raped. Asexual men, particularly sex-averse ace men, force us to acknowledge that men can be raped and can be raped by both men and women. That’s a thought that makes everybody uncomfortable, from the sexist men who support the hypersexualized view of their own gender to feminist women who believe that women can only be the victims of rape and men, the perpetrators.
The interdependence between sex and masculinity is an issue that must be dealt with as asexual visibility continues to rise, because men who are effectively asexual (or demisexual or gray-asexual) and especially men who fall somewhere on the sex-averse side of the spectrum can face a tremendous challenge with identifying as asexual. For a man to merely admit to himself that he doesn’t want to have sex is sort of a big deal. Simply accepting the fact that they can be asexual and that it’s a legitimate thing for them to be, will force them to confront this masculinity problem. Coming out as asexual is a whole other can of worms for men because then, they’ll be opening themselves up to the public’s criticism not just of asexuality as an orientation but of their masculinity. Furthermore, these men who, deep down, don’t really want to have sex, need to learn that they can still experience intimacy and love and romance and primary partnership while being sexually inactive and that their desire for any or all of those things still makes sense, even though they’re asexual.
How do we conceive of an asexual man’s masculinity? Can he ever be as masculine as sexual males? How does the asexual man conceive of and experience and construct his own masculinity? How can broader society reconfigure our idea of masculinity to include asexuality and sex-aversion? What breakthroughs might result from masculinity becoming ace-friendly?