10 October 2011

Love and Mates, Ducks and Foxes, Tender and Gentle Bumming

Confession: Whenever I hear a woman complaining about being called "love" or "darling" by strangers, one of my first thoughts is "what about the mens?". But yeah, what about the mens?

If you've lived in Britain for any length of time, you'll have noticed the weird thing we do with pretending to be your bestest buddy evar when we've actually never met you. Sometimes, like if we're selling something, it's transparently mercenary, but at others it's, perhaps even more disturbingly, just our way of being polite. Where I come from, the address is "me duck", for both men and women, and you'll hear "pal", "darling", "chuck" and all kinds of others, but the most common seems to be "mate" or "love", and it tends to be a more working-class turn of phrase. I'd like to say it's because the usual formal politeness sounds too icy and snobbish, but then there's the clipped middle-class "mate", with the overpronounced 't' and dripping with sarcasm and veiled aggression. It's not so much the use of "darling" that's sexist, it's the social act of using this address.

The thing is you see, the word isn't gendered. I've been called "love". I've heard women casually use "love" to address both men and women. Which is why I wonder what about the mens. The only usage of "love" or "darling" that is properly taboo is a man using it for a man. Even two gay men can get away with it as we can, in these matters, legally assign them woman status. Women can hug men, men can hug women, women can hug women without any kind of over-enthusiastic backslapping necessary. Anyone in modern Western society can wear trousers, t-shirts, jackets and ties, but a man has to be very, very Scottish to get away with a skirt. All manner of progressives might have put a lot of effort into lifting social restrictions on women and gay men, but in the meantime, we straight men were restricting ourselves more and more.

We, as a society, are fine with women loving each other. You go round with a bottle of wine, cookie dough ice cream and a Sex and the City box-set when her boyfriend dumps her. We've managed to get our heads round men and women loving each other as friends without wanting to fuck, and it's especially easy if only the woman is straight. Obviously if two gay men want to do fully-clothed emotional closeness together in the privacy of their own homes, we're even fine with that. But straight men don't love. There are only three ways for straight men to directly express affection for each other: as a joke, if we're drunk and therefore joking, and in a gay way possibly as a joke.

It's easy to treat this odd little tendency as homophobic, but that doesn't quite cover it. We've all got fairly used to the idea of two gay men having sex with each other, but two straight men at it either freaks us the fuck out or makes a charming punchline. Speaking of which, flick through this fifty-minute compendium of gay jokes in Friends. The first thing you see is, contrary to what I've said before, how much the three men, especially Joey and Chandler, love each other. The second thing you notice is that a lot of the jokes aren't about homosexuals, but about straight men being afraid of their own potential gayness, especially when they're expressing this love.

What this actually is is bi-phobia. When a straight man gingerly slides his hand down the front of another straight man's trousers, they're not deviating from societal norms but from their own. We can make an exception to the golden rule of Man Goes With Woman, but only for recognised permutations such as quirky sitcom lesbians, Katy Perry and those adorable pet gays you can take shoe-shopping. Heterosexuality isn't about fucking women, it's about not fucking men - though naturally you might have to fuck some women to prove you're not secretly gay.

And oh look, Liam Fox has got a really good friend who he really seems to care about. As with when William Hague shared a room with that man, this obviously means they're buggering together. Not to say that there's anything wrong with that, just that it's scientifically impossible for them to be that close any other way. As I've said before, we're so threatened by the idea of two men just being really good friends that we'd rather imagine Andrew Werrity sweating, grunting and grasping Liam Fox's throbbing manhood as he spurts his hot seed into his quivering arse than ever picture them hugging, saying "I do love you sometimes you know" and then sitting down without tongue-kissing. Not only that, we're so utterly bamboozled by the idea of heterosexual man-love that two happily married men fucking seems more likely, compared to two prominent Tories attempting to make money, consolidate power and expand their personal sphere of interest. What is it about the thought of two straight men together that makes our brains go so downright silly?


  1. In the case of somebody like Fox, whose belief system holds that male-male sex is morally wrong, one might also consider the possibility that there are non-sexual ways of experiencing and coping with romantic love. That is, a gay or bisexual man who felt strongly that it was inappropriate for him to have sex with another man might abide by those beloefs but still fall for one.

    Fear of these subtler permutations of sexuality and sexual/romantic experience reflects a deeper unease about the boundaries of gender, which is where the really big shifts in our society are currently taking place.

  2. Some very interesting points. I very much like using 'love' and 'darling' and, as a gay man living in London with a majority of straight friends, have made a point of using it with my straight male friends too, a lot of whom are working class and either blokey or from ethnic backgrounds that stereotypically might be assumed to be more resistant to that sort of thing.

    I'm a fairly... militant kind of person I suppose and therefore always challenge people when I think it's needed and joke that I have a policy of 'gaying to death' any new straight acquaintances who demonstrate any discomfort and, in particular, my brother's mates who I have become friends with. Many of them start of a bit homophobic, or at least a bit ignorant and uncomfortable about it, and I find if you are just completely open and make a concerted effort to expose them to gay sexuality and discuss the issues they eventually crack. I now kiss and hug them all when greeting them, discuss who I fancy with them and have very relaxed and genuine relationships with them. Almost all of my straight mates have been to Brighton Pride and/or various gay bars and clubs with me.

    As for the issue of straight men talking about feelings, etc. I think this is still a big issue but it's changed a lot in recent decades, especially in London and other cities. Most of my straight mates, both those from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, now talk about feelings and shit that's going on in a fairly open way and I think having close female friends and gay male friends can help a lot with this.

    Anyway, that's my two-pennies worth.

    tw: @roblugg

  3. Jennie:
    Interesting. Obviously any clear-cut divide between sexual and non-sexual love is artificial, but we only bother to make that distinction when it's between women or women and men. Between men and men we recognise the fluidity and hide from it, shaking uncontrollably.

    Interesting. I've definitely noticed that gay male friends of mine are much, much better at expressing affection to straight men than other straight men are, because they lack that inhibition. One very good friend of mine once bear-hugged me, no backslaps, in the middle of a crowded pub when I said my dog had died, as he clearly had no straightness to lose.

    Same with "love" and "darling". Gay men get a free pass to break all the straight rules, and we're fine making loopholes for you or reclassifying you as women or whatever. But that "I love you and think you're awesome, come 'ere" shit wouldn't wash if you were straight.

  4. I don't know if 'biphobia' is entirely the right word for what you describe. I think bisexuality comes into it but because people are scared of what will happen when men do not respect the strict boundary between straight and gay. But I think of it more as homo-anxiety than homo or biphobia.

    The anxiety is vital in 'male bonding' in keeping up things like sports such as football and rugby, and even tennis (which is well gay), and in allowing men to e.g. pair up at the gym and admire each other's muscled torsos in training. If men stopped caring about that line between 'straight' and 'gay' much of masculine culture would disappear.

  5. I dunno. More and more often I am seeing depictions of strong platonic love between men (even where it is the character's primary emotional attachment) where they don't appear worried about "looking gay".

    Off the top of my head, I'd think of Freddie, Cook and JJ from the second batch of Skins. (For those who don't know, it is a Channel 4 comedy/drama about sixth form kids who lack life experience.) It's a little too early in the morning to be thinking of a better example, sorry. They hug often, declare without awkwardness or embarrassment that they love each other and want love from each other (of the being there and camaraderie and emotional sort, rather than sweaty boners) and Cook, the thuggish pitbull-on-a-leash hard man, kisses Freddie on the mouth at one point before pushing him when emotionally in pain and trying to express, in his inarticulate kiddie way, that he loves him but is deeply hurt by him.

    This is only one depiction of strong platonic love between men which is normalised and depicted in a non-farcical and pitched-at-poignant sort of way. It's getting more and more acceptable in UK media, and as kids in Britain grow up less homophobic than previous generations have, I am sure that this male bond will provoke fewer and fewer sniggers as time goes on.

    I live in Japan where teenage boys will hug, cuddle, and sit on each other's laps in the way that teenage girls in the UK do without being afraid of looking gay. It seems a lot healthier.

  6. Elly:
    Well, you're the expert here, but the impression I get is that homo-anxiety and bi-phobia come from the same place, this fierce desire to separate homo and hetero, and contain the rampant, thrusting gayness somewhere safe and a long way from your precious locker room.

    Interesting. I'm not saying we're not getting better at it, but actual humans do tend to adjust a bit slower than the ones on telly. Hmmm Japan though.

  7. yes Alex but the word 'bi-phobia' is misleading. Biphobia and homophobia are used to denote quite hostile fear and hatred of particular groups. And I don't think most men have that hostile fear and hatred. They are just scared of their own (Homo)sexuality. You're the expert in language and you are using in unsubtly.

  8. I dunno - if you look at what gets called "homophobia" in that Friends thing, it's definitely not hostile fear and hatred: most of it is confusion and embarrassment. "Transphobia" extends to denying or omitting the existence of trans people (I believe you've used it in that sense yourself) - and that can quite easily apply to bi-phobia. "Phobia" is a pretty unsubtle piece of language in itself and I'd say it's that concept that needs to be refined. We've not even got into all the uses for just being straight-up shit-scared of something.

    HAVING SAID THAT I'm a bit arachnophobic but I've got quite a fascination with spiders and will spend hours looking at pictures and videos of them, so maybe there is a connection between that kind of phobia and homophobia.

  9. I used 'transphobic' beceause feminist discourse is VERY hostile towards trans people. Bordering on hateful and actually being hateful in the case of Julie Bindel et al.

    I don't think men's anxiety around their (homo)sexuality is hostility to other people or perceived groups of people. It is a complex psychological thing to do with *themselves*.

    Sure it can erupt into homophobia - many football chants are actually homophobic I'd say. And there are no out gay footballers in the UK.

    But calling everything 'homophobia' is just gay.

  10. Well, like I said, "homophobia" can range from discomfort at the unexpected tingling in your trousers to the full Pat Robertson.

    But surely if you're a big straight heterosexual and you're worried about another man's bottom looking too pretty, that's still less homo-anxiety than it is bi-anxiety. After all, there never seems to be an accompanying worry that they're going to get bored of tits, is there?

    PS Are you going to do your your quaint feminism shtick for us again?

  11. I'm not a performing monkey.

    You really like referring to men's bottoms alex I think it is a bit like with those spiders.

  12. I MENTIONED TITS TOO #notagay

  13. Alex:

    I know that media isn't really an accurate reflection, but I've been an expat for five years so don't have much else to go on except downloaded stuff off the telly and online newspapers etc. I guess I was being a bit too optimistic!

    re: Japan
    Japan is weird. As far as actually being gay and out, it is very backwards in its general attitude. The idea is that one can do whatever one wants with whatever consenting adult, but don't ever talk about it, and you get married to someone of the opposite sex so you look like a proper grown-up.

    Having the temerity to be out and proud, and at the same time not being a gimmicky tv presenter or actor, can get one ostracized or frowned over as a nonconformist or loose cannon or whatever. There are, however, "confirmed bachelors" and likewise "confirmed bachelorettes".

    You don't get much gay-bashing homophobia though. Homophobia-related violence, aggro, posturing, etc are very much rare-to-unheard of. I think that this is part of why the general attitude has not progressed much: because there is very little in the way of criminal or overtly destructive homophobia. Gay people still feel marginalised, but end up being repressed or secret about it rather than getting aggro in the street etc.

    Homosexuality in teenagers is completely different. It's seen as part of growing up. Romantic friendships and so on. Also, physical affection between same-sex teenagers is not seen as unusual or sniggerworthy. Children and teenagers really are the only ones, gay or straight, who can express platonic physical affection for each other in public- kissing in public isn't seen as an activity appropriate for adults. So... in one way, adults are expected to act as asexuals in much of society, apart from marriage which is a "I am a stable grown up and I won't let you down if you promote me" sign. (Conversely, back home, actual asexuals often feel under pressure to pretend to be sexuals or be classified as weirdos.)

    So, in some ways healthier, in other ways horribly repressed and weird. That's Japan.

  14. But then... I do see drunken same-sex salarymen in their 30s on their way home on the last train falling asleep on each other's shoulders and cuddling now and then. It gets fewer frowns and tuts than if they were of different sexes, generally.

  15. As far as I can see this is about male emotional expression, full stop. Not whether it's gay or straight or onto whom it is released, though the licence appears to be that homosexuals can do this because they cannot be accused of being homosexual if they do.

    I just sit here groaning. Men wrote all the poetry, created all the art. They are capable of emotional expression in its most profound and passionate forms.

    There is absolutely no excuse for this failure now, and to make out that only women can do it or men who are somehow 'feminised' is thick. I know that's what everyone thinks, but it's thick.

    What one in fact needs is a war against people of whatever gender or whatever sexual orientation (all these things are irrelevant, mere excuses) who cannot feel deeply and cannot express those feelings, when they have them, with unashamed brilliance. That is the sole discussion that should be had, and the only point worth making.

  16. All the poetry and all the art? Are you sure? All of it?

    I'll agree with you that its's funny how poetry is seen as girly, what with the Victorians seeing it as the super manly literary form and novels as a frivolous thing for women.

    But I'm not sure about your idea about people not "feeling deeply" or "expressing their feelings". Different people cope with their emotions in different ways, and the fact that someone doesn't cry and write a poem about it doesn't necessarily mean they don't find an outlet. Are we allowed the excuse of "I expressed my emotions alone in the privacy of my own bedroom, listening to Disintegration"? Are we allowed to use sport as a proxy to let out our joy and disappointment over real things. Do we have to be sober for this, or can we get drunk, have a little cry and then blame the booze so we don't look gay? You're making an awful lot of assumptions that just because people don't express their emotions to you in ways you understand, they don't have them or express them at all.