Illustration by Joaquín Kunkel
“Who’s your crush?”
I am in eighth grade, staying over at someone’s house towards the end of a long party, and am currently on the spot in a game of truth or dare. My mind whirls frantically as I try to get my thoughts in order. Should I deflect? Make something up? In the end, I can only give them the truth.
There’s a moment of silence as they decide whether or not to believe me, before much awkward laughing ensues and we move on. While this story might seem innocuous enough at first, the issue at hand is that my answer to that question, to this day, has not changed.
Asexuality is an orientation so rare in a given population, often at one percent or lower, that I first encountered the word on a subreddit. Asexuality doesn’t refer to a specific orientation or condition, but rather to an entire spectrum of identification. For me, that manifests as a strong desire for romantic intimacy and a long term relationship, but an almost total lack of sexual desire, or sexual physical intimacy. To put it plainly; while other boys may have fantasized about hooking up at 15, I dreamt about holding hands or cuddling. As a consequence of this, I felt somehow out of sync with my male friends for most of my childhood.
I’ve never been the most exemplary, or even average specimen of the masculine ideal, so some of my experiences will differ from the masses. That said, as I grew up, it appeared as though most of my male friends became suddenly entranced with the physicality or possibility of sexual relations. Talk in the locker room gradually changed from moaning about PE to sharing stories of hookups at the last party. At one point or another, most of my classmates were no longer virgins. I was not judging these people — we just didn’t share the same feelings. I was disconnected from the rest of my classmates. When I saw an attractive classmate in the hallway, I could certainly acknowledge, to myself and others, that I liked their appearance. But that would never extend to desire of physical intimacy with them, or anyone else.
Since I felt alienated from the experiences of my peers, I turned to the internet and media in general to explain what they could not. Maybe I was just missing something. But all the examples of males and females only highlighted this disparity of experience. Seldom did an action movie not have a love interest for the male protagonist or an allusion to explicit scenes even when it directly distracted from or outright contradicted the plot. Meanwhile, women in video games had such little clothing and oversexualized features so as to be unrealistic. Clearly, sex was central to the masculine experience.
Since my efforts to find examples contrary to this typical portrayal of masculinity focused on sex and sexual conquest were going nowhere, I tried to understand how this could be the reality of the situation. Why is sex so important to the male experience? Is everyone really this horny all the time? Almost every facet of masculinity I could identify, from verbal aggressiveness and bravado to musculature and feats of strength, circled back to sexual prowess. While the presence of asexuals is nonexistent in media at the moment, it was still apparently stranger to have a male asexual than a female one.
Broader studies on the portrayal of masculinity in popular culture bear my impressions out. One study acknowledges that highly popular films such as Predator, Robocop and Die Hard, “star men who embody the stereotype of extreme masculinity Media, which then reinforce long-standing cultural ideals of masculinity. Men are presented as hard, tough, independent, sexually aggressive, unafraid, violent, totally in control of all emotions and — above all — in no way feminine.” In contrast, the portrayal of women in movies infamous for these tropes, such as the James Bond franchise don’t just degrade women through these roles — they create and substantiate this behavior not only as being acceptable for men to engage in, but also as expected.
My conversations with other people upon coming out were complex, mostly because I was on some level rejecting this core masculine ideal. Some just stared in outright shock. Others didn’t seem capable of putting together my male identity and asexuality in the same plane. Nonetheless, there were a great many people I’ve found since who just accepted my identity and moved on, but almost all the issues I encountered circled back to the sense that me being a boy outweighed my asexual identity.
On a certain level, it makes sense that asexuals would not receive much representation on the larger stage. They comprise such a small portion of a given population that it would not make much sense from a business perspective to feature such a small minority so prominently. My issue lies in the portrayal of masculinity as a whole. Media in general, but males in particular, are so hypersexualized that it’s damaging to the expression of their sexuality. Just to take an example: if a succubus is trying to seduce a man, why is he left with no choice of rejecting sex? The expectation that the question of whether a male will have sex when offered is a foregone conclusion hugely damaging, both to him and to those around him. If society is starting to accept the idea that women can independently refuse sex based on their own desires, then men need to be given the same choice.
From the recent rash of sexual scandals plastered across almost all entertainment and political spheres, it’s clear that society has deemed the behavior of the oversexualized male as intolerable. Consent is more important than ever, and women are rightly finally beginning to be recognized as having this right. However, if we want males to change, males have to be given a different societal mould to occupy. Criticizing a male for being sexist or misogynistic when he’s raised in the hypersexualized masculine ideal of the current media landscape is not addressing the root cause of the problem. The media needs to highlight nuanced male identities, and ones that are not always connected to sexuality. While this male behavior is not to be excused, at the same time it should be recognized as symptomatic of how males are viewed by society, and how limited their actions within that framework become.
Nico Raney is Deputy Copy Chief. Email him at [email protected]