Redefining masculinity: why showing affection is no longer a fairytale

Mark McCormack and Eric Anderson report on young men in Britain and the US who are no longer afraid of openly displaying affection.

Best mates: young men no longer fear showing affection.

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It was a special day for Martin, celebrating his 18th birthday. His closest friend, Justin, a member of the football team, had bought him several presents. Other classmates had gathered to see Martin open his gifts. Halfway through, Martin became emotionally overwhelmed by his friend’s generosity, and hugged Justin in front of all his friends.

This event occurred in a normal English sixth form during a regular school week. Martin and Justin, both popular heterosexual students, were expressing the love that they had for each other in an open and public manner. Given that homophobia has traditionally forced men to avoid public displays of emotion, this scene may read like a fairytale. However, it reflects the reality of the everyday experience of teenage boys that we documented over the course of a year in three ordinary sixth forms in the south of England.

Formally interviewing 44 students, and speaking with hundreds more, we found that the ability to express emotions was a valued characteristic among teenage boys. Discussing his friends, Rob said: ‘I could have a serious chat with any of them, but at the same time still have a laugh.’ Tim agreed, saying: ‘I talk to my best friends about everything... It’s really important for me to be able to do that.’ And the discussion of emotions was not limited to expressions of platonic love: it included fear and anxiety, too.

This ability to talk about emotions is part of an expansion of behaviours that teenage boys can engage in without ridicule at these schools. In addition to discussing topics often considered ‘feminine’, the male students also took great care in their appearance. Many not only dyed their hair, but discussed the best conditioners and moisturizers; their t-shirts highlighted their slim physiques, while low-slung trousers revealed designer underwear.

Homophobia was completely absent from these schools, and all students espoused pro-gay attitudes. Straight boys maintained good friendships with openly gay students, and at one sixth form, they elected an openly gay peer student president. This corresponds with data from another project, where we interviewed bisexual youth at 30 schools across Britain. While it is quite possible that homophobic attitudes exist with younger students, this change among 16-18 year olds is substantial and profound.

The fear barrier

This is clearly different from school life in the 1980s and 1990s, where schoolground homophobia was pervasive and gay students stayed closeted. This fear of being thought gay – something called homohysteria – was so powerful then that male youth would do anything to avoid the ‘stigma’ of homosexuality.

With the backlash from AIDS and its stereotyping as the gay disease combining with a dominant conservative politics and the rise of the Christian right, homophobia reached its apex in the late 1980s. At this time, General Social Survey data showed that 70 per cent of Americans thought that homosexuality was ‘always wrong’. Add this to a cultural conflation of masculinity and heterosexuality, where feminine behaviours in men were seen as proof of homosexuality, and British and American men avoided any behaviour that could be interpreted as ‘unmanly’. This resulted in many heterosexual men being aggressive, discussing their own heterosexual desires and deploying homophobia – all to ‘prove’ that they weren’t gay.

But gradually, as the gay rights movement encouraged gay people to come out, straight men began to encounter openly gay people: at work, on television, through the Internet. The growing realization that homosexuality wasn’t disgusting meant straight men began to lose their homophobia. And as men became increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, the barriers to being emotionally open and physically tactile with their friends fell away. This led to a virtuous circle of decreasing homophobia and more inclusive masculinities which resulted in the tactility and emotional openness modelled by the boys in our research.

Softening masculinity

Even though decreasing homophobia is an uneven social process, and while our findings are primarily with white middle class youth, we believe there has been a significant change for adolescents growing up in the US and Britain today. In addition to the three sixth forms studied, we have worked on numerous projects in both countries. From men in a US fraternity to students at a British university; from soccer players across the US to rugby and football teams in Britain; all of our research has found this decrease in the prevalence and significance of homophobia and the corresponding softening of masculinity.

Our findings can also be verified by watching television. In Britain, not only has Big Brother had a gay and a transsexual winner, but the latest X Factor stars, a group of five boys called One Direction (aged between 16 and 18), hug and cry for all their fans to see. Meanwhile, soap operas from Hollyoaks to Coronation Street all feature regular gay characters, whose sexuality has become mundane. And in the US, sit-coms like Will & Grace greatly raised the profile of gay people on television.

These changes are also supported by quantitative research on attitudes toward homosexuality in both Britain and the US. Recent research by the Pew Research Centre found that 69 per cent of Americans under 30 now support gay rights. In Britain, a 2010 Equality and Human Rights Commission report found that only 15 per cent of young people thought same-sex couples are always wrong. Accordingly, while homophobia continues to rage in many parts of Africa and Asia, its decline among young people in Britain and the US is as steep as it is welcome.

Mark McCormack is a Lecturer in Education at Brunel University. His book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, is due to be published by Oxford University Press in December. Eric Anderson is a US sociologist at the University of Winchester. He has published widely on masculinities, sexualities, sport and homophobia. His books include The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating; and Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities.