Masculinity as an invisible wall

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.

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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6 Responses to Masculinity as an invisible wall

  1. Victrix says:

    Your last sentence I can very much relate to. I’m planning to do (and have started) my own post on this exact same topic (though it may take a while for me to get around to finishing it).
    One thing that I always find odd though is the lack of males, for me I see quite a few online but also offline my meetup group if not gender balanced is male dominated so I don’t see this aspect except when mentioned online.

    • Siggy says:

      It’s possible that in certain places there are counterforces tilting the balance back towards men. For instance, asexual activist leaders appear more gender-balanced (see DJ, RedBeardAce, Hinderliter), because men are socialized to take leadership roles, and also maybe because people in general are socialized to more quickly recognize men as leaders. But still, of all the panels I’ve been on, I think I’ve always been the only cis man, and my local meetup group is also female-dominated.

      • Victrix says:

        I don’t know if there are counterforces at work, might try bringing it up at the meetup this weekend. I think my area is a statistical anomaly when it comes at looking at gender and asexuality in that the figures seems to be more the reverse, we have more females (or non-binary) that are more into the activism (though I have noticed that the males are more likely to be more assertive in the meetup organisation). I’ve also seen more females (or non-binary) in activism in Australia. Or maybe I’m not seeing everything, I don’t know what the events are like interstate and most activism is locally based so not often seen.

        • queenieofaces says:

          There was a period of time when the Boston meet-up was about half and half, but with the recent new influx of people (start of the school year + AAW), it’s tipped back toward women.

  2. Sciatrix says:

    It’s funny that you mention winding up in hobbies/professions/spaces that are male-skewed and not being really conscious about it. I’ve always been quite conscious of my hobbies and interests that are female-dominated, even if they are not “stereotypically feminine” in the same way that physics is not “stereotypically masculine.” For example, I expect that many people would not be surprised that knitting is heavily female dominated, because it’s the sort of thing associated with the female equivalent of the “hyper-masculine jock” you mention–very girly, very housewifey, and so forth.

    On the other hand, dog training is roughly as female skewed as knitting is. There are men in both hobbies, but they are very definitely a minority. This being despite the fact that dog training is no more “girly” than physics is “manly”–I have for example known trainers to hold things like dried liver in their mouth and spit them at the dog as a reward. But the people in that hobby are generally still very aware that that it’s a female skewed hobby.

    Are women more likely to notice the walls of their socialization than men are? The “hyper-feminine” stereotype exists just as the hyper-masculine one does, and women in my experience are similarly likely to assume it’s a caricature with no relevance to their lives. Even in ace groups, people frequently notice and worry about the absence of men–just as you’ve done here, but this is true even of people who are the “more common” gender. It’s really interesting to hear that guys just don’t think about gender very much until they actually cross boundaries of male socialization–if that’s what you’re saying here?

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, that is what I’m saying. Many men don’t really think about gender that much, or at least I didn’t. When I first learned about trans issues, I had trouble understanding how people could feel one gender or another was more appropriate to them. I didn’t particularly care about being male or feel it was an important part of my identity. But after soaking in the concept for longer, I became more convinced that if I were assigned a different gender, I too would experience dysphoria–it’s just that I never had to think about it before.

      Countless narratives reinforce the idea that being male is the “default” gender, while being female is a modification of that. This can be seen in a trope sometimes called “The Smurfette Principle”. In the Smurfs, you have a cast of all male smurfs, each one embodying a different character trait. And then there’s Smurfette, whose one character trait is being female. Stories today usually aren’t as egregious as the Smurfs, but the cultural narrative persists.

      It was my implicit assumption that this is more true for men than for women. You point out that some women experience similar patterns. Now that you bring it up, I’m sure it is true. But I think our culture more strongly reinforce that men are default, and that men do not have to think about their genders.

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