Part of the mythology of men is that they have sex on their hormone-soaked brains. When I was a teenager, the myth was that men thought about sex every 15 seconds, that's around 4,000 times a day! I didn't know if this was true back then, but it seems much less plausible given what we know now. Men turn out to be nowhere near as heroic as this urban legend suggests. Recently, a study conducted among mainly heterosexual university students at the Ohio State University found that any difference between men and women in thinking about sex was much more marginal than previously thought. Results revealed that men thought about sex 19 times a day, while the figure for women was 10. The authors of the study provided a cautionary note too: male students may be talking up their own statistics as part of masculine bravado.
Actually, the more I look at the research on male heterosexuality, the more I think of it as mythical, akin to a culture, and as such ever-changing. Bear with me. My colleague, Dr Michael Flood, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong in Australia is an expert on the social lives of heterosexual men. He argues that male bonding now powerfully organises the sexual lives of many young straight men. To illustrate this point, he cites the example of one of his research participants, "Curtis", who insists that he and his best male friend keep each other in mind when they have sex with their girlfriends because "we just do everything together". Flood concludes from his interviews that "heterosexual sex is a means to male bonding and masculine affirmation." Such close and affectionate male-to-male bonding between heterosexual men, only sometimes with an apparent sexual dimension, has entered popular parlance as 'bromances.'
When thinking of male heterosexuality, we need to look at it as much more than about the sex act itself. Like other cultures, male heterosexuality comes with a range of specific values and customs, such as male bonding, fashion and leisure styles, rules (e.g. on how to look after your mates), getting as much sex as you can with as many partners as possible (and talking about it), or alternatively developing deeper and intimate relationships with women and men. If you think I am going too far with this culture analogy, I disagree.
Take Professor Jane Ward, from the University of California Riverside, who studied the accounts of white "str8 dudes" who advertised for sex in the company of other men via the online forum, Craigslist. For these men, heterosexuality was highly prized. But, as one man described himself and what he wanted, "Hot masculine white dude here... looking for another hot white dude..."
Despite some considerable initial skepticism, Ward eventually concluded that most of these men were identified as straight because heterosexuality is their culture, as well as a marker of being "really normal", despite any same-sex practices. And so with their male sexual partners found on Craigslist they were into "use of heterosexual pornography, the disavowal of gay culture .... [and] insistence on 'normal' heterosexual male bonding." So, remarkably, what some might count as a rather severe lapse of heterosexuality actually ends up reinforcing particular ways of being straight. Many men on Craig's list were living the surfer or skater dude lifestyle, and wanted to "assert their heterosexual [often white] identity" with other dudes, just with an added sexual twist. Incidentally, some say that the term "bromance" emerged from the 1990s skateboarding lifestyle, where it was common for straight men to share beds while on the road. So heterosexuality turns out to be a state of mind, much like California itself, and sexual identity continues to be a poor predictor of actual behaviour.
Heterosexuality as a culture is never just a given, nor it is static or monolithic. In the case of 'bromances', some men are obviously remaking the cultural meaning of man-to-man intimacy - both emotional and physical. In Hollywood romantic comedies like I Love You, Man, the "mini-romance" is between the male leads, regardless of what is going on with their female suitors. And so it is that 'bromances' have become so important in our culture. More and more men are dealing with how to express their obvious affections for their mates. As I have argued in previous blogs, as homophobia (fear of homosexuality) loosens its grip on men, there is now more room for men to express themselves, regardless of ongoing anxieties inevitably attached to masculinity. Perhaps the most striking example of this change emerges from research with 145 university and sixth form college male students in the UK in 2010. A full 37% of the sample admitted to engaging in "sustained kissing" with other men, which they construed as non-sexual. They re-cast this behaviour as acceptable affection or playfulness between straight men, or as "Pete" asserts: "I can tell you why I kiss my [male] friends. I kiss them because I love them."
While others, like Labour MP Diane Abbott, have recently argued that "masculinity is in crisis", I would argue that this is not true. Contrary to this crisis thesis, masculinity is unwaveringly creative, inventive and fast changing. The rise of the 'bromance' since the 1990s is just one part of the incredible cultural adaption of men to social upheaval since the 1960s. During my lectures, if I talk about male-to-male intimacy, I can't help but notice that some older men in the audience tend to cringe. But many young straight men enthusiastically mention they don't have a problem with kissing or even sharing a bed and spooning with their male friends.