The Distorted Rules Of “Manhood”

Illustration for article titled The Distorted Rules Of “Manhood”

In the last few weeks, more than half a dozen gay or lesbian youngsters have taken their own lives in response to bullying or harassment. It's important to recognize the role that homosociality plays in the harassment of GLBTQ youth.


Homosociality is a primarily male phenomenon, particularly common among young American guys. Simply put, it's the idea that the approval of male peers (and male authority figures) is the driving factor in men's lives. Well documented by sociologists, the theory of homosociality suggests that winning approval from other men is more important to young men than anything else, including validation from women.

A few years ago, C.J. Pascoe wrote a marvelous study that I reviewed here on the blog: Dude, You're a Fag. A study of compulsory heterosexuality and gender norms in a California high school, it's the best work I've ever seen on the role public displays of homophobia play in shoring up fragile masculinity. From that post:


Pascoe writes of what she calls the fag discourse. The discourse manifests itself in the almost incorrigible way in which young men label each other "fags" while seeking to avoid having that label applied to them. According to this discourse, fear of being called out publicly as a "fag" is the primary driving force behind what Pascoe cleverly calls the display of "compulsive heterosexulity." Playing on Adrienne Rich's classic notion that contemporary society functions with a discourse of compulsory heterosexuality, Pascoe notes that among young men desperate to establish their masculine bona fides with their peers, what we see in American high schools amounts to compulsive, almost frantic efforts by young men to prove their manhood.

Anyone who has worked with adolescent boys knows how much anxiety many of them feel about their own masculinity. It's not news to say that our sons, like their fathers before them, often have to endure or participate in physical or at least verbal violence that we tragically and falsely believe is necessary to transition into manhood. It's not news that boys torment each other with the "fag" epithet. And it's not news that the real stigma in being labelled a "fag" doesn't lie in the association with homosexuality, but with being seen as feminine.

As Deborah David and Robert Brannon pointed out in their pioneering 1976 work on masculinity, The Forty Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role, there is one cardinal rule for American men: "No sissy stuff." While the feminine can be defined in a variety of ways, David and Brannon (and their successors in men's studies) point out that American masculinity begins with a negative definition: what is manly is, first and foremost, that which isn't feminized. A boy will be teased far more often for throwing (or talking, walking, acting) "like a girl" than his sister will be for being too much "like a boy." Since the 19th century, the equation between male homosexuality and femininity has been a powerful part of American boyhood. And thus tormenting "faggots" (be they authentically queer or not) has become an essential part of proving manhood. At its crudest, as Pascoe and others note, you either have to beat up queers (verbally or physically) or risk being associated with them. In high school, there is rarely middle ground for young men.


None of this is to suggest, of course, that young lesbians don't also suffer public harassment from their peers. But while there certainly are girls who make life miserable for their queer sisters, the primary tormenters of lesbians are not straight women, but rather the same group of young men who are so vicious towards young gay men. Young men may eroticize one particular kind of "faux lesbianism" (the sort that is a staple of straight porn), and they may nag their female friends to "make out" at parties, but their feelings towards genuinely queer young women are hardly positive. Lesbians, after all, remind all of us that women can be happy without a romantic relationship with a man, a reality that makes those who insist on male sexual indispensability uneasy.

When we look at what the factors are that make life so miserable for young gays and lesbians, it's tempting for progressives to point the finger at religious traditions that are hostile to sexual pluralism. But the young men in American high schools who are beating up other boys whom they suspect of being gay are rarely doing so in order to comply with a misunderstood dictate from the Torah or the Pauline epistles. It's not faith that drives the hate as much as it is an overwhelming desire to establish masculine bona fides. "I torment faggots, therefore I can't be one; I beat up queers, therefore I'm a man." That toxic equation may be aided and abetted by conservative religion, but it isn't rooted in it. Rather, the hateful behavior is rooted in the rigid rules of American masculinity, a masculinity predicated on a contempt for and a paranoia about even the slightest whiff of femininity among the be-penised.


As we fight to build a more accepting world for young queer folk, we need to fight hard against the inflexible rules of gender conformity. There are many ways to do this, but perhaps the best way to "inoculate against cruelty"is (as I've written before and as Michael Kimmel has argued) is to encourage strong non-sexual relationships between boys and girls at every age. As I wrote in a review of Kimmel's Guyland,

The received wisdom from the "When Harry Met Sally" generation is that men and women can never be friends without sexual desire on the part of one or both people in the friendship ruining everything. Kimmel notes that young people today (many of whom were born after the iconic Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan film came out in 1989) are much more comfortable being "just friends" with the other sex than their elders were at their age. Kimmel notes that boys who have close female friends are much less likely to exhibit the worst and most destructive tendencies of the Guy Code. After all, the "guy code" is wrapped up in the notion that approval from other men (specifically, homosocial validation of one's masculinity) is the most precious commodity a young man can pursue. Even heterosexual conquest is, ultimately, a means of gaining approval from the guys. Young men who have friends of both sexes are less likely to be held hostage to solely masculine approval; they can receive non-sexual validation from their female friends - and that validation is less likely to be connected to the brutal "sturdy oak" ethos of the Guy Code.

And they are less likely to participate in the relentless onslaught of cruelty towards their gay and lesbian peers.

This post originally appeared at Hugo Schwyzer. Republished with permission.


The photo above was taken at a candlelight vigil for Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate taped him having sex.


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I completely agree that opposite sex friendships are key to model healthy relationships in adult life.

But I am gonna push back a bit on the idea that religious traditions which define homosexuality as inherently sinful aren't related to teenage male homophobic torment.

The ability to commit violence (physical or emotional) is, in my experience, intimately linked with an ability to see the victim as an "other," and therefore not worthy of equal human treatment. A religious tradition which explicitly defines homosexuals as the "other" is complicit in furthering that violence, whether or not it's literally preached from the pulpit every Sunday.

I'm not sure how to change the culture without challenging the pillars it's built upon.