I’ve been thinking about friendship and male intimacy for a few years now, prompted by a talk I saw as an undergrad and further developed by reading Catholic writers like Patheos’s Leah Libresco and Eve Tushnet (I’ve always liked to read Catholic writing on friendship; I suspect it’s because they trace their views through Aquinas to Aristotle, but this is admittedly a bit outside my expertise). My latest for The Daily Beast on the topic went up this morning.
Men don’t touch each other anymore, at least not very often or without excuse. For the average straight American man, physical contact is most often gruff—a pat on the back, a punch on the arm, or, most warmly, a firm handshake—and the only socially acceptable way to express emotional closeness is through irony. We show people we care by ribbing and insulting them, and nothing more sincere than that can be expressed without some kind of cover (alcohol is a common one, and films like Superbad serve as good examples).
The only way we seem to know how to talk about closeness is in romantic terms, and that’s obvious in the language we use (“bromance”) and in how often male relationships are played up as romantic for laughs. All the cultural scripts we have to describe platonic male affection and friendship seem either ironic or nonexistent. In 22 Jump Street, a running joke is that police officers played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum quarrel like a couple, experience jealousy as if they were a couple, and even break up and reconcile like a couple. Looking at how the real and messy and complex friendships at the center of television shows likeComedy Central’s Broad City or HBO’s Girls (NSFW; it’s HBO’s Girls), it’s hard to imagine male friendships playing out similarly.
This isn’t just something prevalent in pop culture. A comprehensive review in 2011 showed that same-sex friendships in women involve more dialogue, personal disclosure, guidance, and affection. Same-sex friendships in men are seen as more competitive and less important and supportive. On the whole, friendships among women were more personal and intimate than friendships among men.
What happened? Depends on who you ask. Some writers, like Anthony Esolen, blame the prevalence of homosexuality in our culture. Others, like J. Bryan Lowder at Slate, argue that homophobia is the culprit. What’s been lacking from this conversation is actual data:
This is at heart an empirical question—in what conditions is platonic male affection common and in what cases is it restricted? One way to go about answering it is to explore groups of men where homosexuality is destigmatized. Do we see less emotional and physical intimacy, as Esolen might predict, or more?
A sociologist, Eric Anderson, has been conducting research on masculinity and homosexuality for more than ten years. Looking at sports teams and schools in both the U.S. and U.K., he’s shown that these contexts are becoming much more tolerant of homosexuality but also more willing and likely to act in ways previously deemed feminine or gay.
In one such study, Anderson and a collaborator, Mark McCormack, spent fivemonths in a British high school, hanging out in the common room, an area usually unsupervised by teachers. Reading the methodological notes was a fun experience—the researchers describe dressing like students, listening to popular music and watching popular shows, looking the other way as students broke rules (such as copying homework), and even breaking rules themselves (like starting volleyball games in the common room). They noted that they were invited to bars and house parties, and they corroborated their observations of student behavior with school staff.
The school was demographically similar to England as a whole and very middle class. All the students interviewed, though, were strongly against homophobia. One student interviewed said homophobia was actively policed by his peers: “When I was in middle school, some kids would say ‘that’s gay’ around the playground, but they wouldn’t get away with it any more.” Another said, “You might find [homophobia] before [high school], but not here. It’s just not acceptable anymore.” The researchers note that they never heard any homophobic slurs used, and this was supported by interviews with openly gay students.
Though some physical and emotional intimacy was treated ironically (such as saying “I’m turned on” and laughing after a long hug between friends), physical touch and intimacy were widespread and usually went without comment. The researchers describe physical intimacy among the students as immediately apparent. Students lounging in the common area played with each other’s laces, sat in each other’s laps, stroked each other’s legs, held each other’s hands, and threw arms around each other’s waists. This is far from Esolen’s idea of male friendship on life support, reduced by gay tolerance to little more than drinking beer together and watching sports.
Between when I wrote this article last weekend and when it went up today, The Harvard Humanist Chaplain and fellow Patheos blogger, Greg Episten, wrote about the crisis in male friendships. He suggests:
Maybe we atheists and Humanists would be better off if we could acknowledge reality a little more often:
1) If men show up in droves, it may be because they’re suffering, not trying to dominate.
2) This is further evidence that feminism is good– great, even– for men, not just women.
3) Giving men more training in and positive reinforcement for connecting with one another deeply will help them, and it will help the women in our community feel more comfortable…which will in turn further help many of the men.
I’m skeptical that male loneliness drives male presence in atheist spaces, and I’ve seen enough male toxicity in atheist spaces (and sexism, for that matter) that I don’t think it’s quite so innocent as Epstein suggests (though it may be true for the community at Harvard, I don’t know). Nonetheless, I think it’s a genuine problem and anything atheist and humanist communities can do to discourage toxic masculinity, the better.