How entwined must sex be with masculinity that if a man never has sex he is shamed?
There is a social expectation that everyone, but especially men, should not only desire to have sex, but have copious amounts of sex. And it is nothing new. Sexual desire was established as a natural human quality, especially for men, via nineteenth century Victorian medical discourses of sexology. With this normalized sexual expectation came the conditioning and internalization of a notion that if a man does not have sexual intercourse or desire sex, the latter of which is barely, if at all, comprehensible, then he is defective or “less of a man.”
These legacies endure today. If you are to briefly consider what a male virgin symbolizes to society, some initial thoughts that may emerge are of a man who is pathetically lonely, an unkempt “loser,” or a basement dweller living with his parents, all of which are meant to carry negative connotations. What do popular media depictions of male virgins like The 40-Year-Old Virgin or, much timelier, a Vine mocking the status of being an “adult virgin,” inform us of a much larger social perception? To be an “adult virgin” is positioned never as an aspiration, and is surely never a figure who any man should ever strive to be.
Men who have never engaged in sex are people to deride or perhaps even pity. This condescending perception inherently concludes that a man who has never engaged in sexual intercourse exists, not because he does not possess sexual desire, but because he is unable to attract a woman (under the perception of compulsory heterosexuality) to have sex with him. Beyond framing the male virgin as unattractive and inferior, it also places sex upon a pedestal of androcentric achievement — the more sex, the manlier the man. In this paradigm, sex is conflated with success, and remains the goal that every man should aspire to acquire.
Considering my own status as a socially-perceived man (although I identify as a demiguy) who has never engaged in sex, and as an asexual person who does not possess sexual desire, I am conscious of my intersections with experiences of male virginity. My asexuality has been consistently invalidated in relation to my bodily perception as a “man,” who should therefore be inherently sexual. When I have told others that I am asexual, there is a frequent assumption that I may actually be “a virgin who can’t get laid” or am simply using it as cover for being gay. It is easier for society to conceive of a man to be a virgin who can’t “get laid,” residing him to abject failure, rather than a man who doesn’t want to “get laid,” positioning him outside of social intelligibility altogether.
Two months ago, I was featured in Buzzfeed LGBT’s video compilation of ace people for #AsexualAwarenessWeek and happened upon a response in the comments section of the video directed towards me that exemplifies this perception. The comment read: “That Michael P is cute, so it can’t be that they can’t find anyone to bone them. Maybe they’re just super nervous or something.” In this instance, I was being framed as a sexual person who was only not engaging in sexual intercourse, not because I couldn’t find a man who would want to have sex with me, but because of anxiety or even some other unseen possibility. I was unable to be asexual and content with my absence of sexual desire.
There is an ongoing criticism at play in society in which male virgins are being resided to the realm of humorous failure while asexual men remain external to social understanding, incapable of being acknowledged even as a possibility of existing. Both may be engaging in the similar practice of nonsexual existence (although this may not always be the case for asexual men). Within this framework of shaming male virgins and invalidating asexual men for potentially similar absences of sexual intercourse, there is an apparent forgetfulness or suppression of the relationship between toxic masculinity and the sexual expectations placed upon men, which often manifest aggressively and violently.
The disastrous implications of toxic masculinity have rippled outward from these sexual expectations. Men are socialized to idolize sex as the tool that makes them “manly” or “masculine,” which themselves are constructed as qualities that should be aspired to gain. It is this predication on sex that generates byproducts of brutality as men strive to fulfill this gendered objective. As queer people, we frequently navigate this consequential reality daily. We feel the presence of cisgender heterosexual men, especially, as threatening to our safety and well-being, and that is not without valid reason. More generally, so many of us, including cishet men, are witnesses to or perhaps even directly implicated in the tragedies caused by toxic masculinity and the aggressive sexual violence of men on a constant recurring basis.
How then can we, rightly, critique and call out men for their violent sexual aggressiveness, yet simultaneously be silent as male virgins and asexual men are shamed as “undesirable” failures or biological impossibilities? It remains undeniably crucial to call out men for the violence they inflict, as it has always been, and will continue to be, as portrayed most recently through what has been dubbed the “Weinstein effect.” Yet, if there isn’t space for men who have never been sexual, whether in their status as virgins or as asexual people, without derisiveness or disbelief, it will remain difficult to divide the pernicious relationship between aggressive sexuality and constructions of manhood. Validating the status of male virgins and the existence of asexual men may be a needed step in the project of unraveling toxic masculinity.