Male-to-male intimacy ... Obama gets bear hugged on his campaign trail.

Male-to-male intimacy ... Obama gets bear hugged on his campaign trail.

I’ve often felt sad at the limited ways western society allows men to express their friendships with one another, or even their appreciation for the male form. We think nothing of women lounging around together, hugging and kissing hello, holding hands on the street or sleeping next to each other in a bed. Women refer to their friends as ‘girlfriends’, and no one bats an eyelid. As women, we’re given the freedom to reflexively show our affections to one another without fear of betraying some kind of defect.

For men, it’s not so easy. Consider this earlier comment from reader sjrwords on a piece I wrote last week about the appreciation of the naked male form:

"I'm a straight male who likes the sight of attractive female skin, I'm not gonna lie. I'm not offended by seeing nude, scantily clad men. But I am instinctively uncomfortable with seeing male/male intimacy and sexuality in the way we are used to seeing women portrayed.

I can only put this down to conditioning, or what I'm used to seeing. I'm uncomfortable with that reaction. I want to see more homosexual males show affection in public BECAUSE it challenges my instinctive reaction and IS normal."

The impetus to prove masculinity and heterosexuality is rooted in the pervasive, casual homophobia that sadly underpins much of western culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals don’t like gay people, which is the mistake made when discussing the construction of masculine ideals. At its heart, it just means that we have created such a rigid idea of Real Masculinity that some men are now afraid to be confused with being gay – because if you’re gay, by proxy you’re somehow less than A Real Man.

Because we’re so afraid of ‘feminine’ vulnerability in men, we make it impossible for them to behave vulnerably with each other. So rigid is our view of acceptable masculinity that one of the only ways we allow men to bond with each other is through the viewing or playing of sport. Every week during footy season, Australians watch scantily clad, sweaty men roll around on a field with each other, patting each other on their well-muscled posteriors when a goal is scored and hugging each other enthusiastically when a game is won. And curiously, it’s in this space of absolute contact, trust and intimacy that homophobia exists in its most virulent strains.

(In fact, it’s my contention that the reason pack sex seems to feature as a bonding ritual for so many sporting codes is that the players are all subconsciously trying to figure out a way to process the sexual adrenaline they feel with each other on-field, while furiously trying to prove their heterosexuality to each other by way of demonstration.)

The expression of masculinity in the west is so heavily constructed in opposition to femininity rather than anything tangibly related to men and their complexities, and this is hugely damaging to us as a society. We make it impossible for men to occupy any space that exists outside of what we perceive to be a non-threatening vision of masculinity. Men who do challenge this, whether consciously or otherwise, tend to have their credentials questioned, their rights to manhood stripped from them. Consider even the way men are insulted – referred to as girls, sooks, and women. The rigid stereotypes we force men to adhere to are every bit as oppressive as those we apply to women (not to mention reinforcing to them that the worst thing they possibly CAN be is a woman).

I was surprised, heartened and then saddened to read an article a few weeks ago about how social trends with male friendship used to be very different. A book released in 2006 called Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships In Everyday American Photography showcases a time in American ‘when two men pictured with their arms wrapped around each other, or perhaps holding hands, weren’t necessarily seen as sexually involved.’

Picturing Men is described as “a striking visual record of changes in attitudes about relationships between gentlemen, soldiers, cowboys, students, lumberjacks, sailors, and practical jokers. Spanning from 1850 to 1950, the 142 everyday photographs that richly illustrate Picturing Men radiate playfulness, humor, and warmth. They portray a lost world for American men: a time when their relationships with each other were more intimate than they commonly are today, regardless of sexual orientation.”

In an article for the Christian Science Monitor, Jonathan Zimmerman writes that the fear of being associated with gayness strikes boys from an early age ; that while it’s not uncommon in their kindergarten and early grade school years to hold hands and hug, by year 5 such affection has given way to pushing, shoving and taunting. By the teenage years, it’s not unusual for boys to sit separately from each other at the movies to avoid the supposedly unspoken sexual nature of sitting alone with another man in the dark.

When I first read that, I dismissed it as poppycock. Surely such measures were too extreme and paranoid to possibly be real? But I recalled it one evening when, at the cinema, I noticed three boys who’d been sitting in separate rows reconvene at the movie’s end. “Did you like it?” one asked. “Yeah, it was alright,” came the replies.

We can muse all we want about why male affection (in the west at least – anecdotal accounts from Asian and Middle Eastern countries seem to indicate a surprisingly open intimacy between male friends) seems to have gone the way of the dodo. One theory suggests that the introduction of women into public life led to a fear of previously male dominated areas being feminized; therefore, in an effort to distance themselves from the embarrassment of female intrusion, male society became more rigidly anti-feminine. The ‘outing’ of homosexuality is another factor – in an effort not to be confused with one of the newly minted out-and-proud gay folk, men chose to hype up traditionally masculine traits, sadly losing so much freedom of intimacy in the process.

Regardless, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that this fear of male-on-male intimacy is a new thing; that it doesn’t come naturally to men, and that they benefit equally from the freedom to loll about cuddling each other in a non-sexual manner without fear of having their man cards taken away. When I talk about entrenched homophobia, this is what I mean – not that men are necessarily anti-gay people. Just that they don’t ever want to be confused for being one of them. And if the worst thing a man can do is not to hate another man but to love him, how can we really claim to be that civilised a society?