Monday, February 3, 2014

Masculinity as an invisible wall

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

For some time I've wanted to write a post about what it's like to be ace and cis male.  But I find it difficult to talk about, because the "male experience" is so difficult to pin down for me.

There are some fairly obvious things to say about how overt, aggressive sexuality is associated with masculinity, and how asexuality is thus seen as emasculating.  The Thinking Asexual makes this point at length.  However, I think there is more to say, because the experience is not uniform.

My personal impression is that the the masculine stereotype is increasingly recognized for what it is: a ridiculous cartoon that is just so far away from our experience.  David Jay echoed this impression in an interview:
I think there’s this sense that masculinity, as it’s traditionally articulated, is really problematic, so masculinity isn’t something that we seriously address. Also, it’s not something that’s presented to us in a serious way. In [current] culture, it’s presented to us almost comically.
Certainly there are places where macho masculinity is taken seriously and sincerely.  I have basically intentionally avoided these places all my life--and what is left?

I think it's quite clear, based on the groups I'm in, that I have not escaped masculinity, not at all.  My profession is physics, a notoriously male-dominated field.  I like board games and video games--also male-dominated.  I make friends among atheist groups--also male-dominated.  And the rest of my friends are gay/bi men who, contrary to stereotypes about "fag hags", don't seem to have any female friends at all.  These days it seems most women I interact with are from the ace community.

There isn't anything obviously masculine about these various groups, certainly not the macho kind of masculine.  You might hypothesize that there is no pattern to it, that it is historical accident which groups are male-dominated.  Video games and board games, for instance, were marketed towards boys for a long time.  But I think I can identify a few patterns:

Men are competitive, so they like games.  They are rational, and not emotional (except for anger, which doesn't count for some reason), so they accumulate in rationalist groups.  They love to explain how things work--a scientific value.  They also take initiative.  They take leadership.  They are the agents of change.

Some of these "male" characteristics have some loose correspondence in the hyper-masculine stereotype.  But unlike the stereotype, these subtler aspects of male socialization are hidden.  Physicists don't think of themselves as particularly masculine, and yet here we all are, influenced by our male socialization.

I think I only realized this after I started identifying as queer--as gay in particular.  Slowly I realized that I had been navigating invisible walls all along.  I hated wearing flashy things because it was against my male sensibility (I still hate flashy things).  As a man, I loved to discover truth and explain it (which I still think is a positive value).  I was socialized to be assertive and take initiative (also still a positive value).  I was pro-LGBT, but I didn't think about it excessively because that's not what straight men do.  I wanted a girlfriend because that's what (male) success was.  And it was my personal responsibility to find a girlfriend.

In the ace community, one of the big mysteries is, where are all the cis men?  Are cis men just less likely to be asexual, or does their socialization act as a barrier to identity?  Many explanations are offered.  One particular suggestion is that masculinity is so at odds with asexuality that it is difficult to identify as an asexual man.  But we could use this same fact to argue that men should be more likely to realize that they are different, and thus more likely to identify as asexual.

This is just wild speculation, but I suspect many cis men don't see male-ness as limiting.  Hypermasculine stereotypes create some visible barriers, but we just leap over them because we don't take them seriously.  Yeah, sure, there's some masculine stereotype out there, but let's leave that one for the jocks.  In the mean time, more subtle aspects of male socialization create invisible barriers.  If asexual men could see these invisible walls, they would realize the need for an asexual identity.  But since the walls are unrecognized, they are an effective obstacle.

The fact that I wasn't particularly into sex, that didn't bother me.  Male hypersexuality is just a stereotype, right?  Anyways, I didn't have a problem with sex.  Sex never prompted me to think I was different.  I realize now, what ultimately prompted me to think I was different was not a mismatch with the male stereotype, but a mismatch with an unspoken male role.  That is, I never felt the motivation to initiate relationships, even though as a man I knew I was supposed to.