What I learned about asexuals from gay men

I spend a lot of time in both asexual and gay communities.  Specifically, I’ve participated in queer college student groups and have lots of gay male friends in their 20s/30s on the U.S. west coast.  Based on these experiences, as limited as they are, I wish to share a few striking differences.  This is not an attempt to critique either asexual or gay communities but an attempt to understand ourselves.

1. One asexual community, many gay communities

One time someone asked me, “Where is the main bisexual website?”  They expected there would be a bisexual equivalent of AVEN!  Nope.

In the past, people have complained when I’ve referred to the asexual community in the singular rather than the plural.  I think whether you call it “the community” or “communities” is arbitrary.  But there is definitely a sense in which the asexual community is more unified than the gay male community.  With gay men, they have their circles of friends, and they might participate in local community events.  Some participate in national activist organizations and dating websites, but these don’t really provide a unified community.

But since asexual communities are mostly based on a handful of websites, we have a relatively unified community that even crosses national boundaries.  The biggest divisions are between AVEN, tumblr, and the non-English sites, but our differences probably aren’t nearly as big as some of the differences within the gay male community.

2. Definition precision

Most of us can recite AVEN’s definition of asexual word for word.  And we think every single word is important.  It’s a consequence of having a single major website with a single definition featured prominently on its front page for over a decade.  It’s also a consequence of many of us having to explain it in great detail to others.

My friends do not have a precisely worded definition for “gay”, and this does not seem particularly unusual to them.  Gay men are attracted to other guys.  Or they like other guys.  Or they think guys are hot.  Or they like dick.  Or whatever.  It’s not that complicated, or at least, they won’t talk about the complications all the time.

3. The behavior-orientation distinction

The behavior-orientation distinction is more important to the asexual community.  Not that it isn’t important in the gay community.  But people will gossip and joke about apparent behavior-orientation discrepancies.  If a bisexual man only has sex with or dates one gender, people talk about it, even if they don’t outright question it.  If a gay man used to enjoy dating women before he was out, it’s often interpreted as being slightly bisexual or fluid.

Whereas, most educated asexuals will ardently repeat the fact that asexuals can enjoy sex.  We talk about aromantics who date, romantics who don’t.  I get culture shock when my gay friends don’t have the same attitude.

For those who participate in gay communities, do you see the same differences, or does your experience contradict mine?  For those who don’t participate in gay communities, do these differences surprise you?

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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7 Responses to What I learned about asexuals from gay men

  1. plaidfluff says:

    I disagree that there’s a single “asexual community.” I know plenty of aces who don’t care for AVEN and don’t really feel like being in a community per se. There’s quite a few outcroppings of asexual sub-circles in other communities as a whole, such as in OkCupid or Tumblr or whatever, and of course there’s crossover between them (especially from the more vocal members of each one), but I think it shows a pretty major amount of confirmation bias to assume that just because you’re involved in AVEN and mostly see other asexuals who are involved in AVEN that it means that AVEN is “the” asexual community. It’s like saying that the Castro in San Francisco is “the” gay community, when really it’s just a place where a lot of gay people happen to gather.

    I think that most of the issues you talk about are just because the general knowledge of asexuality is so young, though. I mean, look back to even the 1980s and you see plenty of people having to define homosexuality with a certain level of precision, and even today a lot of people still get confused about the distinction between homosexuality, transgender/transsexual/genderqueer (which is of course a whole other bundle of issues in and of itself), and transvestite, and certain people have an agenda in which they want to lump as many “deviant” sexualities under the same umbrella as well (see certain conservative Christians who think that accepting homosexuality is a slippery slope towards accepting pedophilia or bestiality, for example). Add to that the fact that a LACK of sexuality isn’t really seen as a form of sexuality by most people and you have something that just ends up slipping under the radar for most people.

    (It also doesn’t help that the term “asexual” is overloaded from a completely different concept in biology.)

    • Siggy says:

      To clarify, I wasn’t referring to AVEN as the asexual community, but rather as one hub of that community (which is not necessarily the only community, but is suitably large that it can be called “the” community). But it depends on how unified you think communities should be before they count as part of the same community. It’s the lumper/splitter problem.

      If the differences I observe are due to the recency of asexual awareness, your prediction is that over time, asexual communities will more resemble gay communities?

      • plaidfluff says:

        I don’t know if I have a prediction for the long term, but my hope is that eventually we don’t even need a “gay community,” “asexual community,” “trans community,” etc., and that there’s just “community.”

  2. This all pretty much makes sense to me, and gels with my observations of the asexual community v. gay men. I think it’s important to think about cause, though. Inferring from what you’ve said here and elsewhere, I’m guessing that your working theory might be that the main reason for things like the ‘behaviour/orientation’ split is simply because asexuality is a young sexuality and so far almost everyone we see in the community has passed through a single, specific filter (the AVEN front page, for example). I think there’s other reasons. For a start, what we’re not seeing in the ‘community’ are the people who get information about asexuality second-hand, who form or validate their asexual identity from talking to someone who’s read something about someone who has been through the AVEN front page. So I don’t think you’re really comparing like-for-like, you’re comparing the pretty hard-core, identity-driven few who comprise the asexual community with a much wider range of men who happen to be gay.

    Secondly, I think there’s practical reasons for difference. Gay men don’t need to worry too much about the ‘behaviour/orientation’ divide because it often makes very little difference to their lives- their sexualities don’t change much between ‘likes to be in romantic/sexual relationships with men’ and ‘is sexually/romantically attracted to men.’
    However, with asexuality, there is a massive difference between ‘doesn’t have sex’ and ‘doesn’t feel sexual attraction.’ Apart from the fact that the first way leads to slut-shaming and erasure of ‘compromising’ romantic aces, while the second way involves a tacit recognition of LGBQ rights, I don’t think there’s any way you could rally around the first definition in today’s society (much less society 10 years ago) without being completely taken over and eclipsed by other groups who don’t have sex or who prioritise not having sex (the religious right, involuntary celibacy, pathologisation of marital sexual dysfunction, etc.). I don’t think that the fact that we’re a small community is what gives us definitional coherency, although I’m sure it helps. I think the reason we have definitional coherency is because we’ve really needed it.

    • Siggy says:

      Good points all around. The recency and small size of the asexual movement is one explanation; differences in needs for gay men and asexuals is an alternative explanation.

      I would predict that a comparison of asexuality to bisexuality would reveal more similarities. Bisexuals have similar needs for precise definitions and behavior-orientation distinctions. However, bisexuals have a much less coherent community, which confounds comparisons.

      • Yeah. I never thought there was any sort of coherent and active bi community, but, from what Nat said at the asexual conference, there actually is, at least in the UK, and they compared it to asexuality a couple of times, but I can’t remember any specifics.

        Actually, I think the bisexual and asexual communities have a lot to feed off each other. Bisexuality is another ‘invisible’ sexuality, that you have to loudly proclaim in precise words, and I think, apart from asexuals, people who currently identify as ‘bisexual’ probably have, as a group, the most to gain from the distinction between romantic and sexual orientation. Already, I know a decent number of bi people who are starting to define themselves as ‘___romantic ____sexual’, and that’s going to make bisexual identities even more concrete, analytical and orientation-based.

  3. Iam-X says:

    I see the same thing with guys calling themselves g0y (spelled with a zero). It seems that it is a human behaviour to form a community with like minded people who wear the same “label”. Gays like to call themselves a community, although they are not unified.

    The truth is, there isn’t really a g0y community as g0ys can be any guy from a 1 on the Kinsey hetero/homo scale up to a 6. G0y is just the philosophy that explains why men are also attracted to other men but don’t identify as gay, and that is almost most men but not gay men.

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