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(Update: Blogger hasn't fixed its problem with the "adult warning". Will go back to posting at my WordPress blog)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Deep Secrets

It's a staple of all the conversations we have, gay men and straight women, that straight men are emotional pygmies, that they don't want intimate friendships, that they can't express their feelings, that they don't love other men.

It's worse than that, actually.  They do, when they're young.  It's only as they grow up that they deliberately step away from intimacy into emotional indifference.  This newly released book , Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, makes the the point that intense intimacy among boys in early and middle adolescence is very common, but it is replaced by competition, mistrust and loneliness as they grow into men.

As the publisher's puff says:

“Boys are emotionally illiterate and don’t want intimate friendships.” In this empirically grounded challenge to our stereotypes about boys and men, Niobe Way reveals the intense intimacy among teenage boys especially during early and middle adolescence. Boys not only share their deepest secrets and feelings with their closest male friends, they claim that without them they would go “wacko.” Yet as boys become men, they become distrustful, lose these friendships, and feel isolated and alone.

Drawing from hundreds of interviews conducted throughout adolescence with black, Latino, white, and Asian American boys, Deep Secrets reveals the ways in which we have been telling ourselves a false story about boys, friendships, and human nature. Boys’ descriptions of their male friendships sound more like “something out of Love Story than Lord of the Flies.” Yet in late adolescence, boys feel they have to “man up” by becoming stoic and independent. Vulnerable emotions and intimate friendships are for girls and gay men. “No homo” becomes their mantra.

These findings are alarming, given what we know about links between friendships and health, and even longevity. Rather than a “boy crisis,” Way argues that boys are experiencing a “crisis of connection” because they live in a culture where human needs and capacities are given a sex (female) and a sexuality (gay), and thus discouraged for those who are neither. Way argues that the solution lies with exposing the inaccuracies of our gender stereotypes and fostering these critical relationships and fundamental human skills.

At sixteen, my best friend and I loved each other completely.  It had nothing whatever to do with sex and everything with intense friendship.  It was entirely innocent.  It never struck me that perhaps we grew apart because we were both "manning up" -- though we were an unusual pair, neither of us sporty, both of us fascinated by ideas.  I always thought that the reason we grew apart was because he found girlfriends and I, well, I didn't, not really, not like him.  After all, it is the expected path of our society that the intense friendships of 12 or 14 or 16 are replaced with the intense emotion of marriage.  You are expected to love your best friend less than you love your wife.  Because loving another man  -- even non-sexually -- is simply not kosher.  It's something you might indulge when you're sixteen, but real men end up loving their woman more than their man.  That's the way it is.

I never had a problem being intimate with my friends.  But the men I tried to befriend did.  They were uncomfortable with intimacy, even when they didn't know my sexuality.  They found it hard to talk about their fears and weaknesses, their loneliness, their need for love and empathy.  I'm told by blokes who have navigated the rapids of male friendship more successfully than I have that sportsmen (o happy breed!) can bond, and ultimately can talk about those things which are dear to their heart.  For me this is an alien world.

Men are afraid to be intimate, to show their pain, to discuss their lives because, as the blurb above says, "human needs and capacities are given a sex (female) and a sexuality (gay), and thus discouraged for those who are neither".  

In this context there is no more sinister phrase than "you have to man up" or "making a man of you."  The users of these baggage-loaded horrors have someone like John Wayne in mind, taciturn, noble, violent, suffering in silence, a loner who doesn't even connect to his women.   Real men are strong, of course they are.  And noble.  And brave.   But they're also empathetic, caring, compassionate, loving, supportive, generous, and friendly.  Straight or gay.  And our culture takes sensitive teenage boys and turns them into lonely, unconnected automata.  As my elder son says:  so much of the sex obsession men have is really about trying to connect in the only way they know.   And that is desperately sad.

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