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Monday, November 8, 2010

I Kiss Them Because I love Them

When this paper was reported in our local newspaper it caused a firestorm of criticism, best summed up by the phrase "real men don't kiss other men."   Irate commenters said that they never kissed other men on the lips, because they weren't homos.  And so on and so on.  As if (a) being a real man was some kind of moral imperative* and (b) kissing another man defines you as not a real man.

So first a brief summary of the authors' findings after interviewing 145 varsity and final-year high school men :

  • 89% have, at some point, kissed another male on the lips which they reported as being non-sexual: a means of expressing platonic affection among heterosexual friends.
  • 37% also reported engaging in sustained same-sex kissing, something they construed as non-sexual and non-homosexual.
  • the students understood that this type of kissing remains a taboo sexual behavior, but nonetheless reconstructed it, making it compatible with heteromasculinity by recoding it as homosocial.
  • Male-to-male kissing is increasingly permissible due to rapidly decreasing levels of cultural homophobia.

I quote the introduction extensively because it sums up what I have come to see as some archetypal facts about maleness and heterosexuality.
 Heterosexual masculinity has long maintained hegemonic dominance in Western-European and North American cultures (Kimmel, 1994;Rich,1980). Here, it is traditionally constructed against a backdrop of homophobic social stigma. But the stigma associated with men’s homosexuality (as an identity or behavior) reflects more than just the dislike of men having sex with other men: male homosexuality is also disparaged by others because it has been conflated with a perceived lack of maleness and the adoption of feminine traits**. Because of this conflation, both boys and men wishing to be perceived as masculine by their peers must necessarily disengage from those behaviors that have been socially coded as gay. Consequently, homophobia has become a benchmark for masculinity.
Among British youth, Epstein, Kehily, Mac an Ghaill, and Redman(2001) have argued that,‘‘Even little boys are required to prove that they are ‘‘real boys’’ in ways that mark them as masculine, even macho, and therefore (by definition) heterosexual’’ (p. 135). Accordingly, homophobia does more than marginalize gay boys and men; it also limits their gendered
behaviors. Schwartz and Rutter (2000) described this conflation of gender and sexual identities as the gender of sexuality; however, in the context of this article, we refer to it as heteromasculinity. The desire to be perceived as heteromasculine is understandable in a culture that distributes sexuality and gender privilege unequally.
Sedgwick (1990) explored the relationship between the homosocial and homoerotic, arguing that the suppression of emotional behaviors among men facilitated the maintenance of heterosexual power. Furthermore, Bourdieu (2001) posited that suppression of such emotional behaviors maintains the status quo, the subjugation of women. This hegemonic dominance is further accomplished through the codification of same-sex sexual behaviors as being consistent with a homosexual identity (Anderson, 2008; Lancaster, 1988). Almaguer (1991) has suggested that (in an Anglo-American context) same-sex sex historically carries with it, ‘‘a blanket condemnation of all same sex behavior…because it is at odds with a rigid, compulsory heterosexual norm’’ (p. 77). Furthermore, according to Butler (1990), the only cultural model of heterosexuality we have is predicated upon the avoidance of any sexual desire, thought, or action associated with homosexuality***. This is something Messner (2002) described as being‘‘100% straight’’ (p. 422).
Borrowing from Harris’ (1964) one-drop theory of race, in which a dominant white culture once viewed anyone with even a portion of black genetic ancestry as wholly black, Anderson (2008) has argued that a single same-sex sexual experience traditionally renders the public perception of an individual’s sexual orientation as gay. Calling this the one-time rule of homosexuality, Anderson described how, in most Western cultures, this imperative serves as a cultural mechanism to conflate the complex issues of gender, sexual orientations, sexual desires, sexual identities (and the social construction of sexual acts themselves) into the singular polarized identities of gay and straight—simultaneously re-inscribing heterosexual power and privilege through heteromasculinity while erasing bisexuality.
Furthermore, Schwartz (1995) has suggested that the inverse of this rule does not apply to homosexual men: ‘‘We have demonized the power of homosexuality so that we assume it to be the greater truth of our sexual self–as if one drop of homosexuality tells the truth of self,while one drop of heterosexuality in a homosexual life means nothing’’ (p. 12). This one-way application of the one-time rule traditionally creates a double jeopardy for heterosexual men who reveal an experience with any form of sexual behavior socially coded as gay: it both excludes them from achieving the requisites of heterosexuality and diminishes their masculine capital. With few exceptions (cf. Klein, 1993; Reis, 1961), this rule implies that in Anglo-American cultures, men’s socially constructed heteromasculine identities are framed upon exclusively opposite-sex sexual behaviors. Thus, a kiss on the lips has not been part of the historical repertoire of greetings or demonstrations of affection among men for centuries in Britain (Dinshaw, 1994). As Fox (2004) wrote, ‘‘With the possible exception of a father and a young son, Englishmen do not embrace or kiss one another’’(p. 191). In this research, however,we show that this social construction of heterosexuality is currently being contested.
 [The references are to works cited in the article, the emphases are mine]

I find it wonderful to see that the insights I have blindly striven towards are not in fact unique, and that there is a whole academic discourse about maleness and heterosexual self-identity.  I have come to the same place these analysts have reached under my own steam, with my own understandings.  In fact the very first post in this blog was about heterosexism:

It's something I've always known instinctively: straight men aren't afraid of gay or bi men for the reasons we think they are. Straight men, like gay men, care much more about how other men see them than about how women do. They act macho not to impress women, but to impress men.
I also did a couple of articles in Wilde Oats relating to this very topic:  The End of Gay discusses how increasing acceptance of gayness will lead to the strict barriers between heterosexual and homosexual being broken down; while Gay Then and Now discusses how gayness is perceived over the twenty years of Ethan Mordden's Buddy cycle of novels, and how greater tolerance has seen the edges of gayness become less sharp.

The authors of this study make it quite clear that they are talking about a special group here:  university and high school students, not the general population:

Sam suggested that much of the reason there was so much more kissing at the university was because of the liberal environment:‘‘I never kiss any of my friends back home,’’ he said. ‘‘And I can’t imagine it going down too well.’’ When asked about how his friends showed him affection back home, he said, ‘‘Punching and rubbing their knuckles into my head.’’ Comparing the two cultures, he said,‘‘I much prefer a kiss and a cuddle!’’
It's also clear that the kisses are not seen as sexual:

For the young men in our study, this type of kiss has been socially stripped of sexual significance. Whereas kissing a male friend on the lips would once be coded as a sexual act, the symbolic meaning of kissing has been differently interpreted by our informants. Here, kissing was consistent with a normal operation of heteromasculine intimacy. Highlighting this, when Pete was asked about which friends he kisses and which he does not, he answered, ‘‘I wouldn’t kiss just anyone. I kiss my good mates.’’He continued,‘‘You kiss a friend because there is no fear of being rejected; no fear of being knocked back.’’ And when Pete was asked about how he measured who was worthy of being kissed, he said,‘‘It’s not that there is a system to who gets it
or not. Instead, it’s a feeling, an expression of endearment, an act that happens to show they are important to you.’’
A number of other informants spoke of loving their friends (‘‘mates’’), too: kissing became a symbol of that platonic love. Mark said,‘‘They [the kisses] happen because you are the guy’s mate. It’s an, ‘I love you mate’ type of kiss.’’Tim agreed,‘‘Kissing others guys is a perfectly legitimate way of showing affection toward a friend.’’ Ollie, a third year engineering student, added,‘‘You do it sometimes when out having a laugh with your mates, yeah. But I suppose it’s also a way to show how much we love each other, so we do it at home, too.’’
There is an element of deliberate boundary-pushing too.  These men are well aware of the taboos they are breaking, and they do it on purpose:  "having a laugh with your mates".  They could as easily beat up homos to "have a laugh".  They do not.  They kiss each other.  They know exactly what they are doing.  They are being, in the best sense of the word, subversive:

Many of the students said that they also engaged in sustained kissing with other men. Of the 145 heterosexual men we interviewed, 48 said that they have (and sometimes regularly) engaged in provocative [my emphasis] displays of same-sex kissing, which they described as being part of the repertory of jocular banter among friends. This extended kissing may be enacted for shock value, even though our data suggest that this type of intimacy between heterosexual young men is now so common that it does not seem to elicit the desired effect.

I liked this aside:

Of the 25 men who have not socially kissed in our research, none were opposed to it. Ricky joked, ‘‘When I tell my mates what this interview was about, and they find out that I’ve not kissed a guy, you know what’s going to happen? [referring to his belief that one of his friends would kiss him]…I’m not bothered by it,’’he said.‘‘I’ll let you know if it does, so that you can change your statistics.’’ The primary author received a text message from him later that night, reading,‘‘I’m in the majority now.’’

I found this little anecdote rather touching:

Another student, Matt, highlighted how important emotional intimacy was to him, telling a story about breaking up with his girlfriend. ‘‘I was really lonely,’’he said. ‘‘Really depressed. So one night I asked my housemate who is one of my best friends if I could sleep in the bed with him. He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Come on,’ opening the covers to invite me in.’’ Matt continued,‘‘He kissed me, and then held me. It was nice…. I sent him a text the next day saying, ‘I’ve got the best friend in the world.’’’Matt’s story highlighted not only the intimacy he shared with his friend but that a kiss can also transcend the spatial context of partying.

And, consistent with the view that those who have substantial heteromasculine capital can more easily push the boundaries, more sportsmen (55% or more) have kissed other blokes than non sportsmen (14-22%) 

Finally, despite nearly 90% kissing other men on the lips, only 40% have had a sexual experience with other men.  The 40% is more or less consistent with Kinsey's research:

37 per cent of the total male population has at least some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm between adolescence and old age.

 (Quoted in The End of Gay)

None of this implies that lip-kissing is a custom which will inevitably spread to the rest of the population from this group of elite, self-confident young men.  But definitions of maleness are changing, and have changed in the past.  From the Restoration until Victoria ascended the throne, men wore high heels (to show off their calves), make up and wigs.  When I was a teenager, it was considered effeminate and unmanly to wear deodorant.  "The manly tang of honest sweat."  Even homophobes wear deodorant now.  And they probably also use aftershave and conditioner.  How unmanly!  Earrings or earstuds on men were considered a clear proof of effeminacy as well as evidence of "communist" or "radical" tendencies.  So was long hair.

No doubt men kissing other men, on the cheek or on the lips, will in time become as unexceptional and unexceptionable as male deodorant, earrings and long hair.

Altogether a fascinating study.


* I certainly felt that my effeminacy was worse than if I'd been a rapist or thief or murderer.  This is of course the very definition of a taboo:  how could one rationally consider same-sex love or sex as worse, much worse, than rape, theft or murder?

** My own perceptions are that gender dysphoria -- men not acting like 'real men' -- is a much greater taboo than men having sex with other men.   Even within the broad church of gay-shaded men, effeminate behaviour is despised.  "I don't mind gays as long as they act straight".  Et cetera, et cetera.

*** Indeed.  So in reaction (during the decades of maximum homophobia in the first 70 years of the twentieth century) gays in reaction created their (our) own culture:

When Mordden started writing in the mid 1980s, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic.  Gays had won few rights.  Anita Bryant, the orange-juice queen, had in 1977 run a vicious scare campaign about gays “recruiting” our children.  It was only a little over a decade since the American Psychological Association had declared (in 1973) that being gay wasn’t a “mental disorder” (some straight individual psychiatrists and psychologists have yet to come to terms with that).  The noisy and occasionally violent revolution which started after Stonewall, just over 40 years ago now, hadn’t yet delivered the huge advances we’ve gained.  If you were gay or gay-shaded there was a battle on.  Lines were clear.  Either you were with us or you were against us.  Any deviation from the party line was treason.  But this implied that there was a “gay lifestyle”, a “gay culture”.   Gay men weren’t just different from the broad mass of humanity because they preferred sex with other men.  They (we) thought differently.  We dressed differently.  We had good taste.  We were good at interior design and the arts. We had “the Knowledge”.  Once it was enough to call a man ‘musical’ to label him as gay.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Snuggly warm photos. I'm so jealous I could just spit. If an older man goes back to college, can he kiss the guys?

Nigel said...

They *are* nice photos aren't they? I spend a while searching for good photos for my posts.

Can an older man kiss the guys? Of course! Will they kiss him though? Some people aren't comfortable with guys outside their age group, so they won't (can't) make friends. And these are kisses between friends

Tom said...

I wonder how much this goes on where I'm from, the U.S.? It's probably much less common here, even at privileged colleges. We're more resistant to stuff like that over here.

Nigel said...

Honestly, I don't know. My guess would be that things are moving in that direction in the US, too. I think that's one of the reasons the Christianists are so shrill. They see the inexorable shift in perceptions and culture. But I would say that I also guess that the US is on average behind the UK and Europe.