Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneThe Oppressed Heterosexual Male
Posted at 11:14 pm on August 6, 2010, by John W. Payne

Back in April, Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz wrote an article for reason castigating some libertarians for looking to a supposed libertarian golden age–usually sometime in the late eighteenth or late nineteenth century–and claiming that we have become dramatically less free since those halcyon days. Boaz conceded that the government has grown in terms of GDP and interferes with many aspects of our lives that it did not in the past but argued that many Americans are freer now than they were then: both slavery and Jim Crow are dead; women are far more autonomous than they once were; gays and lesbians are now capable of loving whom they choose fairly openly; etc. These changes are partly attributable to government policies but also owe a great deal to radically different cultural norms. In a similar vein, I would like to argue that heterosexual men have actually lost some of their freedom because of a more restrictive culture…but probably not in the way that you think.

Until the late nineteenth century, the concept of sexual orientation did not exist. Homesexual acts, especially those between two men, were harshly condemned and punished, but those acts were not part of a broader identity. At the same time, marriage did not have the central role that it does in our culture today. Extended family, communities, churches, political parties, fraternal orders, and intimate friendships all demanded far more loyalty from individuals than they do currently. It was commonplace, and sometimes even expected, for these intimate, same-sex friendships to be emotionally closer than marriages. Writing in the New York Times a few years ago, historian and author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage Stephanie Coontz explained the vastly different sociological terrain:

From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including physical touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.

Similarly, Neil Miller, author of Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, wrote that romantic–but not necessarily sexual–relationships between young men in nineteenth century America were relatively common and considered to be “rehearsal for marriage.” During the Civil War the situation was such that when Walt Whitman–who would almost undoubtedly be considered “gay” by contemporary standards–worked as a nurse at Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C., he openly showed physical affection to the soldiers under his care. In a letter to a friend from the hospital, Whitman wrote of one soldier that he had grown deeply attached to: “Lew is so good, so affectionate–when I came away, he reached up to his face, I put my arm around him, and we gave each other a long kiss, half a minute long.” I have no idea if this kiss was platonic or sexual for the young soldier, and that’s really beside the point. What is remarkable is that physical affection between two men was pedestrian enough that it raised no eyebrows in a crowded army hospital. I’m fairly certain that today, a public 30 second kiss between two men in a military setting would not only lead to harassment from other soldiers but also a possible undesirable discharge from the service.

If we look back even further in our cultural history to Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s plays celebrate friendships between men that strike many modern readers as, well, a little gay. Most famously there is Hamlet’s address to the skull of his friend Yorick, “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft,” but this is hardly an isolated case. For another example we can look to deep friendship between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. As Shylock attempts to take his pound of flesh from Antonio, Bassanio declares that he loves Antonio above everything in the world, including his wife:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life:
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.

Most contemporary readers likely find something unusual about Bassanio’s love for Antonio, but until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, this kind of deep, same-sex friendship was celebrated as equal to or greater than married love.

So what changed? Obviously, such a massive shift in cultural norms has multiple causes, but I think one critical factor was the emergence of sexual orientation as a concept. Once people started speaking about the love that dare not speak its name, people could no longer deny its existence, which immediately made all physical affection between men (and to a lesser extent women) suspect. When there was no concept of homosexuality, only sodomy was verboten, and that was hard to prove. However, once homosexuality became an identity, almost all non-violent physical contact and even most emotional intimacy between men could be seen as evidence that a man was “like that” to his peers.

Once that was established, almost the only socially acceptable place for a man to find emotional intimacy was in a romantic relationship with a woman–a complete historical anomaly. Of course, there were never any laws passed that prohibited intimate friendships between men, but the social stigma of even being perceived as gay has served as a severe limitation on the liberty of men to form deep, lasting friendships and express physical affection with each other throughout the twentieth century and to this day.

In the last decade, however, American culture has once again come to celebrate intimate friendships between men, albeit without most of the physical affection common over a century ago. The most obvious example of this phenomenon can be seen in many of the so-called “frat pack” movies such as Old School, Superbad, and I Love You, Man. While the male characters in these movies are primarily heterosexual and pursue women in the films, the heart and soul of the movies is in the deep friendships they form between each other. I Love You, Man is the most overt about this theme, suggesting that even if a man has found a woman to marry, he is still incomplete without a male best friend.

This is no doubt a positive development, and we can hope that the stigma attached to male-male intimacy will evaporate as quickly as it first appeared. Still, it is a great irony that that anti-gay social opprobrium arguably restricted the emotions and behavior of gay men less than straight men. In much the same way that slavery binds not only the slave to the master but also the master to the slave, bigotry constrains the liberty of both its target and the bigot.

Filed under: Culture
Comments: 5 Comments


  1. The opposite is not stigmatized. It’s commonplace for a woman to seek emotional intimacy with other women outside of her romantic relationship with a man.

    Comment by Christine Harbin — 2010-08-07 @ 8:55 am

  2. ‘The most obvious example of this phenomenon can be seen in many of the so-called “frat pack” movies such as Old School, Superbad, and I Love You, Man.’

    Frat-pack? The more common parlance is BROMANCE.

    Comment by TODD TRIMMER — 2010-08-11 @ 4:27 pm

  3. (I would have no trouble putting my whole name here except that I do not want this comment following me in Google searches until the end of time.) I think you are making an important and valuable point. Friendship between men has suffered tremendously. I would also argue that this is also a result of a society that values monetary success exclusively — a society where friendship, emotional bonds (except to close family members) and loyalty to others are suspect as soon as they become “too” strong or get in the way of making money or of an organization’s “bottom line.” We worship those who devote all their energies to the pursuit of money and accomplishment and designate as failures those who don’t do this, no matter what other qualities they may have.

    The only exception to this rule is that a man is expected, morally, to love and care for his wife and children. Every bit of love and attachment, therefore, is channeled to them, with nothing left to give to anyone else, unless that person is a parent, a brother, or a friend from childhood that one is lucky enough to live next door to. To expect to form and maintain a “bromance” with any man one meets after college is to invite not only doubts about one’s sexuality, but about one’s maturity and emotional balance as well. At any rate, it is for all practical purposes impossible, as there is no avenue for such a friendship to form and maintain itself.

    It’s interesting to notice as well that just as gays began to be seen as a minority deserving civil rights (which, of course, they do), speedo-style swim trunks for men became nearly taboo on American beaches. A strange combination of homophobia and a subtle but strong bias against male sexuality suddenly made the outline of male genitalia “gross” and “obscene” — and those who feel this way most strongly are young people themselves, especially young women. I find the boxers that I am now forced to wear (which, when I was young, were only worn by old men) extremely annoying when I’m on the beach. I’ve also noticed that young men in general are far shyer about showing their bodies in a locker room than men who grew up in the ’60s or earlier.

    For very complicated reasons that I can’t quite tease out (it would make a great cultural study for some cultural commentater), I would agree that something very repressive happened for men, and for male sexuality in general, between the ’70s and now.

    Comment by Larry L — 2011-01-03 @ 10:38 am

  4. Fascinating stuff. I have read old letter from my grandmothers and great grandmothers (women born in the 1800s and who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries as very happily married women) in which they express great love for their female friends. I never interpreted it sexually. Eleanor Roosevelt had such correspondence, which of course biographers and other have always linked to possible lesbianism … From what I have seen of family letters, I think that when authors offer that kind of sexualizing analysis, they are just being sensational, and are not advancing understanding. The level of emotional and physical intimacy that many 19th century women shared is to be envied, not demeaned as necessarily having a sexual motivation or component. It isn’t about sex.

    For men, the societal repression is worse than for women. People of both genders need emotional intimacy, which is best if there can be easy and comfortable physical affection available of a non-sexual nature. Confining intimacy to one’s spouse alone makes no sense to me.

    Among my younger friends, some are members of organizations for men who share similar positions in their companies, etc — that, in part, promote at least some form of mentorship, for lack of a better term, that at least partially approaches a level of intimacy beyond just what drinking buddies or sports friends share. It’s telling that these organizations are all organized under the guise of helping each other with business problems ( a societally-sanctioned purpose). Yet, it’s a step, albeit a small one. It demonstrates the profound need out there.

    It is a terrible shame that same sex friendships today are at risk of being characterized as “gay” unless a certain arms-length distance is maintained. I’m not sure where all this came from, but America men in particular are deprived of the sort of male friendship and emotional intimacy (a non-sexual concept) that could help them stay sane, strengthen their marriages, be better fathers, etc.

    I have good, open communication with my wife of over 20 years, but I often need another guy’s perspective on things too, not in the least career issues, marital issues, dealing with childrens’ issues, aging parents… a long list. I am very fortunate to have one male friend I feel comfortable talking to about the deepest things in our lives, and that we feel comfortable with hugs, arms around each other, physically showing our affection, etc. It is all completely non-sexual and nothing over the top. Our friendship is not based on unrequited homosexual urges, for each other or anyone else for that matter. Our physicality with each other is not about sex at all. Yet I feel like I have to state that — even here, in a comment on this article — just to make sure a clear picture is given that I am not talking about hugging my friend as some kind of proxy for sexual feelings for him. It’s not about that. My buddy tends to get touchy-feely mainly when alcohol loosens him up, which is not the case for me, but he clearly craves the intimacy as much as I do. In fact, he usually gets hands-on first… It is a form of affirmation of our friendship that helps both of us cope with lots of things. We have talked about several times about how lucky we are to share the level of comfort we do with each that we can have physical expression of our love and friendship for each other. We also talked many times about how other guys we know are missing out, and what a shame they have so many barriers are up, but there is little we can do to change things, even with our other close male friends. He and I theorize that we are more comfortable being affectionate with each other than other guys are with guys at least in part because we grew up (thousands of miles apart) in loving families where my grandfather and in his case, his dad, were big on hugs, a warm touch, etc., even after we were grown. We can’t go back in time and duplicate that for our other close friends, but they are definitely missing something important. My life is richer and my path a little easier because I have this friend.

    But just as having it only with your spouse is limiting, so can it be with a single best friend. I have several other close friends with whom I can talk about most things — and I deeply wish I could have the same level of mutual comfort and closeness with them that I have with my buddy who greets me with a big hug and who will sit on a couch with me for an hour or more with arms around each other as we talk through things hard and easy, happy and sad. I wish I knew how to foster that kind of intimacy without making friends uncomfortable.

    Comment by William Mason — 2011-02-07 @ 2:27 am

  5. I do think modern women are heavily to blame to this situation. Modern gals monopolise their husband’s emotional and sexual energy (even being jealous of his relationship with his biological kids) and then wonder why hubby gets bored or resentful after ten or so years. Straight women themselves need to encourage male-male friendships aggressively if they want change.

    Personally, even as a straight male, I’m not crazy about seeing the outline of a girl’s genitals in a bikini. Hey ladies, unless you’re under thirty and a supermodel, don’t wear bikinis. Nobody really wants to see your “thang”.

    Comment by Jon — 2011-08-13 @ 11:46 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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