This is my submission to the May Carnival of Aces, the topic being “Asexuality and Gender at Play”.
I’m not going to lie, I squealed when I saw what the topic was for May Carnival of Aces. I took and Anthropology of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality class this semester (one of the best courses I’ve taken in my academic career, but more on that later) which culminated in a research project, my chosen topic being how archaic gender norms – namely that men are naturally promiscuous and women naturally chaste – affect how people identifying as asexual view themselves. I made use of AVEN and sought out not only those even remotely in the gender binary, but also people identifying as agender. It was incredibly fun and interesting to hear stories from fellow aces, and I hope to do more of this kind of thing in the future. Below, my findings are copied and pasted:
The term “asexuality” was coined in the summer of 2002 by David Jay. He was eighteen years old at the time, and while he did not invent the orientation of asexuality, he did invent a word to unite people and an online space for them to congregate – AVEN (asexual visibility and education network). A huge landmark for the asexual community was the 2011 Netflix documentary “(a) sexual”, in which Jay spoke about AVEN, saying, “It was a big deal when anyone found the site. It still is. You have people come on here, post this gushy post about their whole life story and looking to be accepted, and everyone else will then come in and accept them.” A supportive space like this is essential for aces (abbreviation for asexuals) as is shown in the first scene of “(a)sexual”. The film begins with a female voice asking everyday people what the first thing they think of is when they hear the word “asexual”. The first person, a woman, replies, “moss.” The second person questioned replies “amoeba.” The third person replies, “a nerdy guy who sits in the back of the classroom and doesn’t flirt with any of the girls.” The fourth person replied, “Equal parts feminine and masculine. No real sexualness about it.” The rest of the responses include, “an insult,” “tad poles changing sexes,” and “I don’t really know. Like, asexual reproduction, a being without sex. But, I mean, there is no way humans could be asexual.” Evidently, there are a wide range of misconceptions surrounding asexuality and those who identify with the label, and my theory is that long-held gender misconceptions play a role not only in misconceptions outside of the asexual community, but in how aces view themselves, and I thought there was nowhere better to investigate than on AVEN.
I posted the following in an AVEN forum saying that I was writing a research paper and wanted to explore gender in relation to asexuality. Trying to be inclusive, as I know that some non-binary people identify as masculine but not necessarily as men, I asked for masculine identifying aces the following question: “Calling all masculine identifying aces! How do you feel about your asexuality in relation to your masculinity? I guess a better question would be, because of cultural norms surrounding masculinity, does identifying as asexual cause any insecurity?” I quickly realized that in my effort to be inclusive that I was actually being a bit alienating, as the second reply began with: I guess I might need to ask a clarifying question, when you ask, ‘Calling all masculine identifying aces’, are you specifically interested in people who think of themselves as “M for Manly”, or just anyone who identifies as “male”?I identify as male, and prefer male pronouns… but don’t exactly think of myself as “masculine”.
The terms “masculine” and “man” often are mixed in the subconscious, but while being a “man” is a social category assigned to people with male biological characteristics, “masculinity” could be defined as a set of culturally determined characteristics that biological males and those who identify as men don’t necessarily possess or resonate with. The reply continued: “Anyway… assuming you are interested in just “Anyone who uses male pronouns”…. I think I sort of sidestepped a whole bunch of male stereotypes years BEFORE being Ace/not Ace was a thing I considered. I was actively awful at all s sports the moment I started primary school (probably called elementary school, depending where you live).
I like writing, and poetry and don’t really feel obliged to be stoic with my feelings. Baking is one of my favorite hobbies. As a general rule, peer pressure sort of… never seemed to apply very effectively. I was always different, and it was never a problem. Cultural norms surrounding masculinity were never really relevant, because I could tell from pretty early on that I was never even remotely in the area of those cultural norms.
Hell, if anything, it [being asexual] made all that stuff easier; If I had had a strong sex drive, if I had felt some need to impress girls, then it would have been far more painful to just completely miss the mark on Male stereotypes. As it was, I got away with just being me. It was great.”
I expected there to be more responses that expressed how culture surrounding masculinity had caused some level of insecurity, but surprisingly – refreshingly – most replies expressed little to no insecurity. Responses ranged from: “Not for me, though my general reaction to anyone/thing that tries to disqualify my masculinity because I’m not typical in all respects is ‘[expletive] you, asshole’ to, “I guess I rarely, if ever, came off as masculine by social standards. If anything, when I wasnt the weirdo in a setting, I fell under the gay best friend category which seemed to piss off alot of the guys. Im guessing it was because I got along with the girls easier as I wasnt deemed a threat” and “Honestly if someone around me starts talking about finding people attractive then I do get a little I guess dysphoric about it but then I also find it really bloody awkward that they’re willing to talk about it”. I was very pleased that a handful of trans masculine and masculine identifying non-binary people replied, and I found their responses the most enlightening as well as the best examples of sexual hegemony and gender self – policing. A trans man whose screen name is Mezzo Forte replied: “I had to acknowledge myself as asexual before I could even begin questioning my gender, as I assumed that my disinterest in sex meant that I couldn’t be a man. My questioning began not long after I learned of my asexuality, realizing that if I’m not straight by default, then I’m not necessarily a girl by default either. It took 4 years of intense questioning and navigating ‘not trans enough’ feelings before finally admitting that I needed to transition. I definitely don’t click with express- ions of machismo/hypermasculinity in general, but I fail to click with hypersexual expression in general even despite being rather sex positive. (Doing the kind of research I do, I have sometimes found myself obligated to attend drag and queer burlesque shows, but while I can see the good in them, they very rarely interest me.) I honestly feel weird about being expected to be attracted to women, espe- cially because I seem to prefer platonic/tactile bonds with man/masc-leaning folks. I get assumed/essentialized as gay quite a bit now, but that’s strangely more comfortable to me than being assumed straight in certain situations.”
A person going by Asexy Samurai replied, “I’m a masculine nonbinary ace who is AFAB [assigned female at birth]. Personally I don’t feel that my sexual orientation has any connection to my masculinity. Being ace doesn’t make me feel any less or more masculine. It wouldn’t even matter if I was in a relationship, or who I was dating, I would still take on the dominant role. I was this way as a small child, before I even knew I was ace or anything else for that matter. Masculinity is simply in my nature.” For some, traits associated with the “opposite” sex (taking intersex individuals into account, biological sex can be more accurately described as a continuum than a binary) come naturally, as opposed to “appropriate” behavior, illustrating “masculinity” and “femininity” as individual character traits rather than universal aspects of being a man or a woman.
After investigating the how the falsehood of the correlation between promiscuity affects male/masculine identifying aces, I moved on to femininity and asexuality. The most striking thing I noticed was the ratio of responses. The previous forum had nineteen replies, while my question for female aces got four replies – one replier identified as male and felt compelled to answer the question “Do you feel that your femininity/ being a woman makes people take your identifying as asexual less seriously because of the archaic notion that women aren’t supposed to like/desire intercourse?” on behalf of female aces; originally I was quite annoyed, but his response was rather enlightening:
Not a woman or enby [non-binary person] but I have to say that from my experience, most of our ace phobia is targeted towards the women. Men who think women aren’t ‘supposed to desire intercourse’ a lot of times will be the same ones getting agitated and confused when a woman tells them they’re asexual and doesn’t want sex. This society sexualizes women like crazy, like I went to look up on Youtube top women athletes but found ‘top 10 revealing moments’ with butt shots before finding what I was looking for. I’ve read about many asexual women who have to deal with straight guys thinking the woman’s sexuality is a challenge for them to pursue, the sexual harassment for being ace, and even corrective rape at the extremes. That’s why from my perspective it seems to be that yes, their sexuality is taken less seriously but for the opposite reason that you proposed.
It is true that women in American society – and Western society at large – are hyper-sexualized, but this sexualization is not an embrace or even recognition of the sexuality of most women – but not all, as the following responses will empirically indicate. The seeming female carnal liberation seen in media is largely fueled by the male gaze. It would make sense in a way that just as a man who doesn’t fill the male quota for promiscuity would be seen as failed, but as culture shifts and women go from being idealized as chaste to idealized as sex objects, it would make sense that they would be seen as “failed” as well, hence “corrective” rape – an alarmingly common event in the ace community, particularly for females. Corrective rape can be seen as violent method of gender policing. While women certainly face their share of challenges, femininity is not policed in the same way that masculinity is. There are more culturally acceptable ways to be a woman than there are to be a man, which is why I think my question geared toward male/ masculine identifying aces got so much more engagement; gender policing is likely a bigger part of the participants lives. The reply submitted by A. Sterling illustrates, I think, why so many less women than men replied to my gender specific question.
“As to this question, I would suppose that it is so, but I also suppose that I don’t think of it very much because I don’t consider my given gender very integral to how I live my life. Probably, people do question my sexuality because of that bias but it is not something that I generally concern myself with as I do my best to live and think however I want regardless of the gender that people view me as. (I kinda take the ‘what even is gender’ approach seeing as I’m not at all girly and reject most ‘girly’ things but am also not the popular concept of masculine or boy- like.) Of course, I think in some ways (possibly also influenced by this bias) some people might be less likely to believe a boy saying he’s ace than a girl because they might think that it is less believable for a boy to not experience sexual attraction than a girl as people more commonly (wrongly to my understanding) think of females as having less sexual attraction/desire than males.
Would definitely say it affected my coming to terms with my asexuality. I didn’t think it was unusual since no one around me talked about sex, only romance. I legitimately didn’t think sex was something other people thought about like at all until around 18 when I realized people were engaging in sexual activity even when they were Christian like I was at the time. Double delusion there. Take me less seriously? I’ve only had one instance of coming out to someone who didn’t take me seriously, and I don’t know if it was because I was young (18? I think? or 19. Before I was 20) or because I was a female. I imagine people definitely don’t think as much about a woman not wanting sex than a man because of stereotypes. I think if I were to come out to people, they wouldn’t really react to it since women aren’t expected to be the super sexual ones. I feel they’d react only if I was male. But this is an assumption not based on real life experiences.”
Age could certainly be a factor in the above experience, which is an excellent example of sexual hegemony; I doubt an 18-20 who identified as straight has ever had their identity doubted because of their age. The final response read:
“I was raised in a very Conservative environment. I’ve told my Conservative Christian mother and a friend of similar beliefs that I am asexual, and though both of them were very kind about it, I suspect both of them just think it’s a “natural womanly thing” to feel that way. When I was young I used to read my mom’s Dr. Laura books on marriage advice, and they were chalk full of instructions for women to just have sex for the sake of their husbands. To put up with putting out for their marriage to survive. ‘You might not enjoy it, but just do it.’
As such, I grew up under the impression that women just didn’t like sex. When an asexual friend of mine came out to me, I was outwardly supportive but inside I was just like ‘…That’s normal. That’s just part of being a woman. Everyone feels that way.’
While it seems secular society at large hoists a heterosexual-male- oriented sexuality on women – particularly asexual women – within religious circles, the old adage of women being naturally far less sexual than men is very much still considered true.”
While living as any binary gender and being asexual is not simple in a hyper sexualized culture, identifying within the gender binary does add some ease to at least one aspect of overall identity. As the comments at the beginning of “(a)sexual” clearly indicate, people largely don’t know what asexuality is or place incredibly negative stigma on it, and when that is combined with a gender identity completely outside the Western binary, simply existing authentically is complicated drastically.
The first reply read:
“for me the interaction of being ace and agender is just neutral, they just go right along with each other. i don’t really know how to explain it. and for which is easier, I’d have to say that coming out as ace was easier as opposed to coming out as agender and being misgendered all the time and feeling kinda awkward at first about correcting them. or your pronouns not being “grammatically correct”, or if you still live with your parent(s) as a minor, it can be hard. whether that being hanging out with other lgbtq+, or trying to dress a certain way, such as androgynous looks. but that can be applied to more than just ace and/or agender.
struggles would be the fact that nobody believes that either identity exists. “your either boy or girl” or “late bloomer” stuff like that. it can get really annoying. And i know that everybody on here can relate to that at some point or another. Or that people don’t understand when you say agender or asexual. They have usually thought it was 1 word and not two, and it can be hard to explain.”
The pressure to dress androgynously in order to visually “cue” an agender identity can be seen as a unique type of gender policing. The above response illustrates the intersection of difficulties encountered by those with “a” identities – that is, identities characterized by a lack of something seen as essential to being human – first having to explain that one can indeed exist without the “essential trait”, weather that be gender or sexuality, shooting down antagonism, and then “performing” said identity to prove its validity, being it by dressing androgynously or by being single; never mind the fact that many asexuals view sex and romance as separate things and date people they are not physically attracted to. Sexuality and gender are often viewed as overlapping, and in the case above, it may be correct to say that is the case for this individual. A response made by JanusDarkFox further illustrates how the terms can intersect:
“My Agender feels pretty interconnected with sexuality/romance. To me, maybe because I’m Agender, means I have no sense of what homo or hetero is internally. Because my own gender is neutral, there isn’t a sense of what’s male or female towards others to find that sexual or romantic attraction. Unless there exists an opposite of what my own gender is or finding others with the same gender to my own.
The gender binary is often tied in with a sexual binary – bisexual erasure demonstrates this as well as ace erasure. As much as Western society like to loop gender in with sexuality – think the age old stereotypes of the feminine gay man and the macho lesbian – identities like Two Spirit fully take into account a spiritual perception of the two aspects of being; perhaps mainstream asexuality acceptance would lead to embracing non-binary identities and vice versa.
The response of my final agender informant was an excellent example of the possibilities growing up unheeded by sexual/gender hegemony would hold.
“I imagine that if one went to a high school (as opposed to being homeschooled, which I was) they might have a harder time with most of this than I did. My main social interaction through my teenage years was in a theatre I was very active in, and the stereotype that theatre kids tend more towards being LGBT+ is not comp- letely unfounded. Nobody really noticed my lack of conforming to gender there, or if they did, they certainly never said anything. Additionally, one of my moms is trans and she was very active in local LGBT+ activism when I was growing up, so I never had any sort of idea that being anything other than straight and cis was weird, which I know a lot of kids end up with. I don’t feel that they [identifying as asexual and agender] do, or at least, not any more than other aspects of one’s personality interact. I think that realizing that I was asexual (and aromantic) made it easier for me to realize that I was also agender, because once I’d realized that there were already two things that I just didn’t get it was easier for me to accept that there was also a third – but that’s it as far as I can tell. Being asexual [was easier to come out as]. Much easier. I can see how it might’ve been more challenging if I weren’t also aromantic, but as it was, it was just “yeah, still not interested in any of that stuff, still won’t be”, and that was about it. I’m hoping to finally come out as being agender this year, but I still haven’t worked up the courage to do that to most people. I haven’t felt there are really any challenges to being ace, but that’s probably due to a combination of my circumstances, the people I know, and the fact that nobody ever seemed to genuinely expect me not to be. College was a little hard with that, as that’s the first place I encountered anyone with the “you don’t go out with people? You haven’t even kissed anyone? Weird” sort of opinion, but I’ve had no issues since then. I’ve found that people are actually more weirded out about my being aromantic than being asexual, which I don’t get, but hey. Being agender, though, there’s first getting it through people’s heads that that’s – as they say – ‘A Thing’ (although that can also be a problem with being ace, it just wasn’t for me), and then there’s getting them to accept it and use the right pronouns and all. Plus, I do have gender dysphoria about my chest, so that’s something I have to manage. As far as I can tell people have a harder time adjusting to gender differ- ences than sexuality differences. I’m also somewhat lucky in this in that I have an already gender neutral name, so while I would want to change my name if it weren’t, that’s a thing I don’t have to worry about.”
Having asexuality be an easier identity to make public than being agender makes perfect sense, as we live in a society segregated by and obsessed with gender, and I find it rather fascinating that the person above attended a college where asexuality was known as “ a thing” yet being agender was not – though I suppose it makes sense. As more progressive views in regards to sexuality are adopted, American gender views are still incredibly backwards.
I would conclude that in conservative religious circles, gender conceptions complicate asexual identity perception, but it is overall the attachment to a binary gender system, which in turn extends to a binary view of sexuality, which vastly complicates asexual identity. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that demolishing the attachment to a binary view of gender would free the minds of aces to fully embrace their identity, that non-binary acceptance and asexuality acceptance are irrevocably linked.
If you read to the end, thank you! In print form, my research typed double space filled thirteen pages.
An additional note: an ace friend of mine read my paper today, and she found the final response to be as intriguing as I did. While I grew up in a conservative Christian home, my friend grew up in a much more liberal, secular home with parents who quietly supported LGBT rights, yet we both when through phases where we felt we were bizarre or wrong in being ace – in her case, long before she discovered the term. Hate towards the LGBTQIA community doesn’t need to be present for a budding queer child to feel alienated, all there needs to be is silence.
Until next time,
Keep oooooon Aceing It!