Straight male friendship, now with more cuddling

As homophobia declines, some heterosexual boys are getting cozier and telling each other, "I love you, dude"

Topics: Gender, Gender Roles,

Straight male friendship, now with more cuddling (Credit: iStockphoto/Dizzy)

It starts with “John” hugging “Leo” tightly. Then, a few snapshots into the Facebook photo album, the baby-faced 16-year-old softly kisses his friend on the cheek. It culminates with a shot of the British teens holding up their shirts to reveal their tanned, washboard stomachs and the elastic waistbands of their designer underwear. On the boys’ respective profiles they leave each other comments reading, “I love you,” sometimes in all-caps, along with teeny-tiny heart icons.

These may seem like startling displays of same-sex affection and innuendo for a pair of heterosexual teenage boys — even despite their blow-dried Justin Bieber bangs — but Eric Anderson, an American sociologist, says it’s part of a larger trend among teens and young adults.

“It is normal in the United Kingdom for young straight boys to sleep in the same bed, frequently, and to cuddle,” says Anderson, who has primarily focused his research on white males living above the poverty line. In a recent study, he found that 90 percent of heterosexual undergraduate men in the U.K. had at least once kissed a straight male friend on the lips. Things are not so fluid in the U.S. — he found 7 percent of heterosexual college guys had smooched a straight male pal — but his in-depth studies of American jocks and frat boys, those expected to be the most homophobic, have revealed them to be increasingly comfortable with same-sex physical and emotional intimacy, he says.

His hypothesis runs counter to a New York Times piece just over a week ago about how boys are discouraged from having intimate friendships. It also seems to blatantly contradict recent headlines about bullied gay teens committing suicide. Anderson, author of “Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities” along with two other academic books about male sexuality, says it’s remarkable that these news stories even exist — it used to be that families would be too ashamed to admit that their child was a homosexual. Nowadays, it’s typically “extreme femininity” that’s being targeted: “It’s more femme-phobia than it is homophobia,” he claims. As homophobia continues to decrease at a rapid rate, “boys don’t have to align their behavior with extreme masculinity — they can move much closer toward femininity.”



It’s certainly true that the concept of “metrosexuality” loosened up mainstream understandings of male straightness in the ’90s, and the past decade introduced the “bromance” into our cultural lexicon with movies like “I Love You, Man.” These are signs of progress, to be sure, but they still reek of defensive heterosexuality. Take the “no homo” meme where guys say something “gay” like, “Hey man, nice shoes,” followed by the caveat “no homo.”

Anderson tells me that no stats will convince me of this trend better than talking to some of these boys myself, so he introduces me to John, the British 16-year-old. He gamely tells me via Facebook chat about his relationship with Leo: “i’ll hug him, kiss on the cheek; anything! we’re so close, we genuinely don’t care what other people think,” he writes. “i’m very confident and comfortable with my sexuality.” So much so that he almost seems baffled by my questions about further sexual experimentation with Leo: “nope, never happened haha!” It isn’t about sex, he says. They just love each other as friends and aren’t afraid to show it. As John writes on Leo’s profile, “I genuinely love you an extraordinary amount, for a straight sixteen year old male. In conclusion, you are also my best friend.”

Now, lest you think these boys are all sugar and spice, they also call each other “cunts” and “wankers.” They are football fanatics and hardcore fans of Lil’ Wayne (who can hardly expect any awards from GLAAD after penning lyrics like, “You homo niggas getting AIDS in the ass”); Leo even fancies himself a white rapper. A Facebook status update from John reads, “love walking down the road to college with your trousers round your ankles, just to gain man points.” So they don’t lack stereotypically masculine credentials, and their declarations of love sometimes seem so over the top as to be tongue-in-cheek, maybe even a way to preempt being attacked as gay. Still, formerly strict boundaries are being crossed — and frequently, playfully.

Things are much different stateside. In yearly surveys of young men on either side of the pond,  Anderson has consistently found that the U.S. ranks 25 percentage points higher on homophobia. Why the difference? “The primary reason for a lag between what occurs in the U.K. versus the U.S. is American religious fundamentalism,” Anderson explains. “The U.K. has long-divorced themselves of this.” Aside from religious fundamentalism, there is also the fact that “we shelter our teenagers in America from sex, drugs and alcohol until they’re 18 or 21,” he says. “In the United Kingdom, it’s legal to drink at 18, but 15- and 16-year-olds are going to parties and getting smashed and nobody cares.”

Anderson puts me in touch with Jordan, a straight 17-year-old cross-country runner from Southern California who paints a subtler portrait of change. He’s never seen someone at his high school called “gay” for actually being gay — but it’s still used as slang for “lame.” (Anderson says, “Adolescents are just as adept in knowing whether one means ‘gay’ or ‘gay,’ just as they do ‘duck’ or ‘duck.’”) Jordan has told his best friends “I love you, dude” before and his teammates horse around in familiar sportsman fashion (hugs and ass-slaps are common) – but it stops there. “We don’t ever kiss. I think that would be weird, to be honest.” The craziest things Jordan reports are the time his team had a pillow fight — “a whole 15 guys having a pillow fight, that would seem pretty gay to me” — and when they stayed in a hotel for a competition and “had a huge jacuzzi tub and we all went in together.”

In junior high, he worried a lot about people thinking he was gay because he liked to dress nicely; he was the first guy to wear a v-neck to his school. “I am metro, I guess. I care about what I wear, what I look like and it seems nowadays it’s more acceptable to be like that,” says Jordon, who has the angular bone structure of a leading man and recently got into modeling. His Facebook profile is strewn with glossy head shots from professional photo shoots and some of his guy friends even weigh in to tell him that he’s looking good. “I’m sure people still think I’m gay, but to be honest it doesn’t bother me anymore ’cause I know who I am.”

Anderson says his findings should be taken as tremendously positive news, and “not just because they indicate a better lived experience for male sexual minorities.” He explains, “It used to be that male adolescents — too old to cuddle or emote with their parents but without having a girlfriend — were alienated from this type of human affection and interaction.” Now, a single 16-year-old “receives cuddles and love from his mate, drunk or sober,” at least in the U.K., and can “open up about his fears and anxieties, his weaknesses and failures in a way that men from my generation” — he’s in his 40s — “will read and absolutely disbelieve.”

It’s hard to believe even for someone like myself who is just a decade older than John and Jordan and grew up in one of the most liberal, gay-friendly cities in America. There is no question that homophobia has decreased dramatically — support for same-sex marriage is skyrocketing, even among fundamentalist Christians, and never before have gay celebrities enjoyed such visibility and respect — but these achievements are precarious and certainly not universally enjoyed. Take the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a gay teen who was called a “fag” and teased for being an effeminate Lady Gaga fan. He filmed a video for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, just months before hanging himself outside of his family home in Buffalo, N.Y.  He looked into the camera and said: “It gets better — I mean, look at me, I’m doing fine!”

It’s true, it does gets better, and as a society we’re getting better — but we aren’t there yet.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>