When Men Treat Men Like Men Treat Women

When Men Treat Men Like Men Treat Women February 8, 2012

This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  I’m responding to Matt’s post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and this is the second part of my three-part rebuttal.

Matt is worried that acknowledgement of same-sex attraction will warp intense same-sex friendships, even in a world where homosexuality isn’t stigmatized. He’s probably right that it will change guy-guy dynamics, so I’d like to talk a bit about why men have been able to isolate themselves from this danger in the past.

The idea of always being scrutinized and objectified whenever one goes out in public is upsetting. Having no place where you can feel protected from sexual propositions (some of them aggressive or frightening) is scary and oppressive. I’m not using any kind of subjunctive here, because women already live in the world Matt fears men will be thrust into.

The fear that any casual conversation could turn into an awkward at best, dangerous at worst, sexually charged confrontation was at the heart of the elevatorgate brouhaha last year. (Quick refresher, after giving a talk about the need for guys at atheism/skeptics conferences to not aggressively hit on women, SkepChick blogger Rebecca Watson was then aggressively hit on by a guy from the conference while alone in an elevator late at night. Some people in the atheist blogosphere went after her for having the temerity to expect people to honor her request to be treated non-sexually).

I think this kind of fear is much less a threat to established, close friendships than it is a speedbump for the development of friendships in the first place. The fact that men and women do form close, platonic friendships now should allay fears that this will be impossible if men are subject to male gaze.

Guys have privilege in our culture (oh, look, it’s the refresher essay on what I mean by privilege), so they’ve been mostly exempted from this kind of discomfort. Because it is expected that women are not sexually aggressive and the on-average strength differentials between men and women, a guy usually doesn’t feel physically threatened by a woman who invades his personal space, gets between him and a door, or just won’t go away when asked.

I’d like for everyone to be freer from this kind of fear, so I don’t celebrate the idea that men may have part of their life suck a little more. But I do see any shift of this kind as a kind of opportunity. Unwanted sexual attention isn’t a new problem, it’s just a new problem for most guys. So what openness about homosexuality has really done is rip away the decent draperies that kept people from dealing with this when it was a women’s issue. I’d rather we take threats against women and their relationships seriously, but I’ll settle for a renewed focus on this problem now that we’re all in this together.

So now it’s time to take that apprehension and channel it into doing more to build up norms that protect everyone from people who, through ignorance or malevolence, use their sexuality as a weapon. I’ll go into more details about how to compensate for sexual tension in the last part of my rebuttal to Matt.


This post is part of a debate on gay marriage.  I’m responding to Matt’s post on gay marriage and deep friendship, and this is the second part of my three-part rebuttal.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m with you entirely on this, Leah, for what it’s worth.

    A friend and I (he’s a guy) have often lamented the damage done to homosociality in recent years with the stigma of homosexuality + its openness. Among other things, a lot of people no longer feel comfortable using the word ‘friend’ or expressing affection openly (though there are LOTS of other gender dynamics bearing down on this as well). But the response I have had to this has always been trying to be more comfortable with the possibility of confusion (yours or the other guy’s or on-lookers’) and not to reinforce the completely unjust stigma of different sexualities.

  • Just found your blog! Great post. Yes, I agree – I don’t mind the boys getting to taste a bit of our world! I posted recently on a semi related topic on my blog . . . (I was wondering why some of the most adamantly homophobic cultures, are also those which insist on keeping the sexes seperate .

  • Hibernia86

    I don’t think gay men flirting more is going to lead to that much disruption. I know several openly gay or bisexual men and never have I seen them harass anyone. I think most gay men will be the same.

    Women being bothered by men looking for dates is a real problem which many people have brought to our attention, but rarely does the issue of asking people out from the asker’s perspective get brought up. I do support gay men being able to ask people out on dates, but it would also be nice if it were more common for women as well. Men in our society are always the ones expected to ask out the woman and be told whether we are rejected or accepted. A privilege that Women have in our society is that they have a much easier time getting potential dates to come to them and being able to make the final decision.

    Asking someone out is a very subjective and hard-to-read situation. It is often impossible to know how they will react. And while I agree that there are many men who sexually harass women, it is also true that many of the guys labeled as “creepy” are just socially unsure boys who are struggling to figure out how to ask a girl out, something that often isn’t taught and is very subjective and easy to mess up. It isn’t that they are evil monsters who hate women. It’s that many of them are boys who mean well, but who are told that they have to make the first move because of their gender but who go on to make mistakes simply because there is no rule book on how to do it right. It would be nice if there was more gender equality in who is expected to make the first move.

  • Lukas Halim

    I remember having a guy strike up a conversation with me on a train and thinking, “What’s up with this? Is he hitting on me?”

    Opposite sex friendship is awkward b/c they can be confused with heterosexual interest. Depending the cultural understandings about homosexuality, the same may or may not be true for same-sex friendship.

    Esolen has a nice thought experiment:

    “Imagine a world wherein the taboo has been broken and incest is loudly and defiantly celebrated. Your wife’s unmarried brother puts his hand on your daughter’s shoulder. That gesture, once innocent, must now mean something, or at least suggest something. If the uncle were wise and considerate, he would not make it in the first place. You see a father hugging his teenage daughter as she leaves the car to go to school. The possibility flits before your mind. The language has changed, and the individual can do nothing about it.”

    Read more: http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=18-07-021-f#ixzz1lttch5lz

    • Patrick

      That’s an utterly terrible argument.

      Imagine a world where ownership of cats is seen as morally wrong. In that world, someone argues,

      “Imagine a world where the taboo against owning cats has been broken, and cat ownership is loudly and defiantly celebrated. You see your neighbor petting a cat on his lawn. That gesture, once an innocent one, now must mean something, or at least suggest something. If your neighbor were wise and considerate, he would not make it in the first place.”

      Do you see the obvious problem with this? For this argument to have any weight at all, we have to begin with the assumption that owning cats is morally wrong. But I don’t begin with that assumption. So the argument is completely unconvincing, and if its offered as a way of convincing me that ownership of cats is wrong, I’m going to find it laughable. It presumes what it intends to prove.

      And in fact the argument regarding homosexuality is even more terrible. Because anyone is potentially a cat owner, most people are heterosexual, but only a small number of people are homosexual. And all someone has to do to clarify potential interpersonal confusion regarding potential homosexual interest is just say that they are, or are not, gay.

      • Matt Gerken

        The cat thing is a nice attempt, but you’ve really butchered the analogy there. For Esolen’s argument to be a valid we don’t have to assume that gay activity is wrong, we simply have to assume that intimate male friendship is good. I freely admit that this isn’t going to change many hearts and minds. I think that most advocates of gay marriage and the normalization of gay behavior (which I think was always clearly in the argument, I certainly wasn’t trying to hide that opinion) could simply say “whatever the cost to straight male friendships, it’s worth it to get rid of all stigma against homosexuality.” I’m just showing you that, as Leah admits, there’s a price to pay, and for me that price seems pretty hefty.

        As a side note, I’m pleased to see throughout all of these arguments a fairly wide concensus on one important point: the normalization of gay behavior (gay marriage being one aspect of that) does indeed affect social interactions and society at large in a way that touches all people, not just homosexuals. I say it does so for the worse, and many of my interlocuters say it would do so for the better. But at any rate at least most of us have moved on from the fatally individualistic “gay marriage won’t possibly affect straight people so shut up and leave us alone” argument.

        • Patrick

          I was addressing the argument made by Lukas Halim. My analogy was spot on for the purposes it was used.

          As for the honesty of your argument- I make no apologies for the interpretation I’ve placed on it. The onus is on you to admit what sort of society you’re asking for, and to promote it in a straight forward manner. Its not just “normalization” in a vague and clinical sense that you’re opposing. Your argument attacks not just gay marriage as bad- it attacks, just to pick an obvious example, Leah’s willingness to publicly admit that she’s bisexual.

          And for the record, I’m not admitting that the normalization of homosexuality has negative consequences for close male friendship. I’ve been bracketing that as I commented. I’ll take it seriously as an empirical claim as soon as its proponents do so- ie, as soon as they provide empirical evidence.

        • anodognosic

          Gay marriage itself has very little to do with your argument, except maybe insofar as it would make it even harder to turn the tide on homosexual visibility. The only thing your argument can be for is the re-closeting not only of homosexuals, but of homosexuality itself, to such an extent that even social policing of queerness will die down. Gay marriage adds nothing further to the supposed decline of same-sex male friendships, and, as some have argued in this series, actually contributes to a restoration of same-sex intimacy.

        • butterfly5906

          As many people have pointed out, Esolen’s argument isn’t even against the normalization of homosexuality, it’s against even the slightest bit of acceptance or tolerance of homosexuality. Because if a man thinks that it is possible that a stranger he meets might be gay, even if homosexuality extremely taboo in the society, all of the problems you listed will still stand. The only way to protect male-male friendships from ever having to have even a moment of doubt is if people think of homosexuality as so rare that it doesn’t even cross their minds.

          But the main problem with this is that homosexuals exist in noticeable numbers. The only way to remove that fact from the public’s consciousness is to repress them so hard that they will not ever mention their own existence. (In your defense, I don’t think you are proposing this.) And, as many people have pointed out, removing the stigma of homosexuality can go a very long way to easing the tension that comes up if one friend is, or is perceived to be, attracted to the other. Accepting homosexuality will not destroy same-sex friendships, in the same way that the society-wide acceptance of heterosexuality does not destroy opposite-sex friendships. The potential for sexual attraction makes things slightly awkward until both parties are sure that there is no attraction, then the friendship continues on like normal.

          Also, I’ve never heard, outside of this conversation, that gay marriage won’t possibly affect straight people in any way. I’ve only heard people say that gay marriage will not “destroy the institution of [heterosexual] marriage.” The arguments you’ve brought up are about how it may affect male-male friendships, not male-female marriages.

  • anodognosic

    I just happened to be reading an interview that sheds some historical light on this issue: http://www.salon.com/2012/01/22/the_invention_of_the_heterosexual/

  • fred

    Part 1: The Abbreviated Version of The Public Health Case Against Gay Marriage

    Gay marriage is bad public policy based on the assertion of proponents that sexuality is either heterosexual or homosexual. This assertion is untrue and discounts environmental factors such as societal norms completely.

    Yes, some people are born genetically 100% homosexual and some are born genetically 100% heterosexual, but it is natural to understand that few people are genetically 100% anything. If true, that people do NOT in part or in whole choose to be homosexual, but rather are born that way, then there would be no bisexuality, nor would there be any pedophilia, necrophilia, or bestiality.

    Promiscuity is the bane of society. Over the millennia promiscuity has lead to death and disease beyond measure and this outcome has been exemplified most by homosexual and bisexual males. Male homosexual sex is mechanically conducive to the spread of disease more so than heterosexual sex. Furthermore, the promiscuous nature of male sexuality is amplified when both participants in the sex act are male. The male sex-drive, either as a function of genes or of societal norms, is greater than that of females. Women seem to have a natural understanding that they are more at a health risk when engaging in promiscuous sex themselves or engaging with a promiscuous partner. Women, more so than men, have tended to favor fidelity and as that value changes as a matter of choice, for either men and/or women, then death and disease in the population will increase.

    Society approving of gay marriage will lead to more boys and men who ordinarily would never have experimented sexually with other men to do so because gay sex will be considered an acceptable act that does no extraordinary harm. Some of the experimenters have been and will be the children of gay male couples who have modeled same sex sexual intimacy. Children watch their parents and generally do as they see them do; or at least try out the behavior.

    The current medical statistics prove that the harm is in fact extraordinary and that it centers on the gay male community. Gay marriage will at best be a zero sum game and at worst be a promulgator of death and disease reaching well into the heterosexual community in the form of increased incidences of new sexually transmitted diseases with greater resistance to modern medicine.

    Part 2 is The Fiscal Case Against Gay Marriage