Males and Their Friends (Alastair Roberts)

Males and Their Friends (Alastair Roberts) April 28, 2015

Saturday I posted a link to an article that compared male friendships (more group-ish) vs. female friendships (more intimate, and more connected one best friend), and Alastair Roberts made a comment that is worthy of a conversation itself. So, with his permission, here is his comment:

The first article is an interesting one, bears out a claim that I have made in the past, and identifies, I believe, an incredibly powerful factor in creating much larger social and personal differences between the sexes. The following are some of the points that I think are important here:

1. Male groups tend to be broad and shallow: larger numbers of persons, but typically less intimate and closely bonded.

2. The article is introduced with the question of whether we go to our best friend or to a coalition of buddies for emotional support. This, I believe, presumes a model of friendship for which bonding is primarily about emotional support. I don’t believe that this is anywhere near as true of men’s relationships to their friends as it is of women’s. The larger character of male friendship groups is related to this, I believe. You can have wide friendship networks if you are not placing so much weight upon intimacy and emotional connection.

3. Male groups have a greater tendency to socialize and bond around agency, ritual, competition, and external action. Men most particularly connect through shared action and competition. I know very little in the way of more personal details about many of the male friends with whom I most closely interact, save for details that have come up in passing. What we have shared about our personal narratives and feelings often aren’t things that draw us close together. We principally bond through sharing ideas, activities, arguments, and obsessions, not through sharing feelings, personal narrative, or secrets.

4. As agency is a crucial element and site of male bonding, it is something that male groups tend to select for and develop. Although competition is, as the article observes, rather suppressed in the group in favour of cooperation, men’s groups tend to be rougher in their interactions and often rigorously test the agency levels of new members. Male groups are far less affirming or unquestionably inclusive. Men often like to spar with each other in various ways, to ‘banter’, to get more physical, to argue, to connect through friendly rivalry, etc. When engaged in competition you develop strengths and a sense of their level. Your skin is thickened, you are more capable of putting yourself forward, closing down others, and resisting gaslighting. Confidence is a huge differentiating factor in the wider world and between the sexes.

5. With an emphasis upon agency and shared external action comes an emphasis upon the development of various areas of status, authority, and hierarchy. Competition is a constant differentiating factor, creating gains and losses for different parties. Through agency and shared external action, individuals are assigned places in the group.

6. Gendered groups tend to pull us towards gendered types. There are clearly exceptions among both men and women in these areas, but any of these persons who want to socialize with their own gender will find it considerably harder. A common tendency in many such cases is to socialize primarily with the other sex instead.

7. The traits of male groups mentioned so far are, I believe, incredibly important factors in explaining the rise and virtually universality of patriarchal tendencies in developed societies. The typical male preferences in modes of socialization mentioned above play out in the following ways: a) Power structures, which depend heavily upon high externally-directed agency and broad networks within which persons are more interchangeable, will overwhelmingly be created, developed, populated, and maintained by men; b) Male modes of preferred socialization will tend to develop traits associated with confidence and high agency, equipping men to act more powerfully in the world.

8. Men very seldom want to be part of women’s friendship groups. However, male groups can be both very attractive and very threatening to women. Male groups produce power extremely effectively. Although many women are more purposefully networking nowadays as a means of getting ahead, women’s groups are not so effective at direct power creation. The power of women’s groups tends to reside more in their moral authority and effectiveness in getting others to act on their behalf. They can exert considerable social pressure in such a manner, even without direct power. However, although they lack the capacity tocreate power so effectively, women understandably want to experience power’s benefits, which is why it is important for them to get male groups to include and empower them, or to exercise power on their behalf. Where this does not take place, male groups become a threat and social pressure will be exerted to get other male groups to pathologize or close them down. These wider dynamics creates various problems. First, preferred forms of male bonding are at greater risk of being prevented from operating, leaving men without the rich connections that they value with male peers. Second, as women join such groups, they will frequently start to alter the dynamics that made them powerful in the first place. Third, as power arises from group and networking dynamics, power will tend to be elevated by highly male groups and start to dissipate the more that women join these.

9. Finally, a remark about the constant debate about whether men and women can ‘just be friends’. There are sharp differences of opinion on the degree to which men and women can be ‘just friends’ and these differences often tend to fall close to gender lines. I believe that this research helps us to understand why. The friendships in question here tend to be one-to-one friendships, rather than friendships within a larger group. While close one-to-one friendships are a normal friendship mode for women, they are considerably less common for men. Likewise, friendships that are about emotional connection and support may be normal for women, but are much less so for men. Consequently, we should not be in the least surprised that, while women will often put such friendships firmly in the ‘friendship’ category, whereas they will be seen as incipient romantic relationships for men.

Theological Postscript

I have focused upon the reality and significant effect of certain differences between the sexes. It would be appropriate for many of those reading this to be concerned about a dangerous ambivalence in these remarks. The differences I have highlighted have, more often than not, provided a foundation for some fairly oppressive social systems. Any acknowledgement of them will consequently tend to be grudging. However, I think that it is important that, in recognizing these differences, we don’t just resign ourselves to the ways that they have been practised historically, nor begrudge what God has created on account of its sinful abuse. Our duty is to pursue a better way, a Christian way, a way in which these differences are put to redeemed rather than fallen ends.

In teaching the biblical doctrine that male and female are one in Christ (e.g. Galatians 3:28), the emphasis is often overwhelmingly placed upon each person, irrespective of their background or identity, standing on the same level ground before God. And this is wonderfully true. Yet our tendency to frame this doctrine in individualistic terms can misguide us here. The oneness of which Paul speaks does not rest upon the fungibility of individuals, on the notion that the differences between detached individuals or the sexes more generally are matters of indifference and that we are largely interchangeable. Rather, it rests on the truth that, however deep and real the differences that may exist between Christians are, they are differences within and for the good of a single body in which all share. This is a body within which all members have a full and equal stake and in which all members belong to and work for the sake of each other. In this way, even pronounced differences cease to produce hierarchies of belonging or status or to establish barriers between people.

And this, I believe, teaches us how to think as Christians of the very real differences that will continue to exist between the sexes. Not as differences to be dismissed as irrelevant to fundamentally interchangeable individuals, but as differences that render us channels for a movement of divine grace in Christ that traverses all of the barriers that lie between us. Not as differences to place us over others, but as differences with which we can serve them. Less as differences from others than as differences for them. The one Gift of the Spirit is re-presented through many variegated gifts of the Spirit, in which God delights to give us a distinct part to play in his own giving to the others around us.

The record of human history contains countless illustrations of the ways in which groups employ their gifts and strengths against each other for self-serving ends. And patriarchal societies provide innumerable cruel and tragic examples of this dynamic in effect, illustrating the destructive and oppressive effects of human sin in the world. The underlying differences that tend to give rise to the dynamics of such patriarchies are probably never going to disappear, but in Christ the Fall’s distortion of their social expression (cf. Genesis 3:16) can be overcome. Rediscovering and celebrating our differences from each other as differencesfor each other is obviously challenging and requires both imagination and wisdom. Yet this is an essential facet of following and imitating Christ. The Church is to be a place where the continuing differences between men and women cease to be weapons or instruments of oppression that we wield against each other, causes of resentment, or occasions for blithely self-serving enjoyment of privilege. Rather, in love both men and women exercise their gifts and strengths as fellow servants of each other, one in Christ, heirs together of the grace of life.

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