Hugo Schwyzer says that according to ‘homosociality,’ American men find the approval of other men more desirable than sex itself.
Pop psychology suggests that men are hardwired for promiscuity; women for monogamy. Men’s predilection for sexual variety may be oversold, but the urge for erotic novelty may be bolstered by something other than lust. Perhaps what’s really driving many promiscuous (and, sometimes unfaithful) straight men is not the longing for sex itself, but the hunger for approval from other men.
That hunger explains why so many guys feel compelled to kiss (or a host of other things) and tell.
In Guyland, Michael Kimmel’s marvelous work about contemporary young men, the author interviews a fraternity member who recalled having sex with a young woman whom all of his “brothers” thought was incredibly hot. The frat boy remembered that all he could think of while hooking up with this woman was what his “bros” would think if they could see him at that moment. The boost to his ego that their imagined approval would bring, in other words, was more powerful than his own sexual excitement—even though his fraternity brothers were not, in fact, watching or (yet) aware of his “conquest.”
Similarly, in describing his own coming-of-age in rural Mexico, Amherst professor Ilan Stavans writes in the anthology Muy Macho of his ritualized first visit to a brothel: “Losing our virginity was actually a dual mission: to ejaculate inside the hooker and then, more importantly, to tell of the entire adventure afterward.” (Emphasis mine.)
Why would ostensibly straight men spend so much time thinking about other guys while having sex with women? The answer is what Kimmel calls “homosociality,” the idea that for American men in particular, the approval of other males is more important than virtually anything else. As strong as their libidos are, guys in this culture have an even more compelling urge: to be validated by other men.
Homosociality explains much of what seems so nonsensical about certain kinds of male sexual behavior. For example, a woman who finds herself harassed by construction workers or by men hollering at her from a car may wonder what expectation the harassers have. “Do they really think I’m going to go over and talk to them when they whistle like that?” a woman may ask. Relatively few men think street harassment is an effective pick-up strategy; these guys are showing off for other males. Women are the glue young (and not so young) male harassers often use to accomplish their real goal: bonding more closely with their buddies and mutually affirming their masculinity.
Homosociality doesn’t just show up in harassment; it drives many men’s actual sexual behavior with women. It does it in obvious ways, as with a group of bachelors at a strip club. It does it in a more oblique fashion as well in terms of men’s seemingly private sexual choices. The frat brother that Kimmel interviewed never speaks of how he feels about the hot girl he hooks up with; his enthusiasm is reserved for how his bros feel about her. That willingness to do virtually anything to win the admiration of other guys—including cheat on a wife or a girlfriend, or share sexually explicit photos of an ex—is a heartbreakingly familiar, if often unnamed, dynamic.
Perhaps the real homosocial pleasure, though, isn’t in the telling itself, but in the imagining of the sharing of the story. The frat guy hooking up with the super-hottie obviously wanted his male peers to find out eventually. But his pleasure came not merely from letting them know that he had sex with a particularly desirable woman, it came from contemplating their reactions before they knew about it. The actual revelation of “what happened last night” is almost anti-climactic compared to the delicious validation that comes with imagining other men’s envious, even awed responses to this evidence of his masculine prowess.
Most of us walk around with an internalized audience. The internalized audience is that Greek chorus in one’s head, made up of parents, peers—perhaps pastors and professors—and so forth. When you do something, even in secret, that you imagine might either delight or scandalize members of that audience, you spend time ruminating: “What would they think if they could see me now?” Men and women both have internalized audiences, though those audiences “judge” differently. Women are rarely socialized to praise promiscuity in other women; the fear of being labeled a “slut” remains stronger for women, though that may be changing.
The concept of homosociality dovetails nicely with the male version of the internalized audience. In other words, status-seeking young men don’t just perform for other flesh-and-blood males (fathers, brothers, coaches, alpha guys)—they perform for the internalized audience of those figures. That’s true when a guy is fantasizing about sharing the news with his bros, but it’s even true when a man may have no intention of sharing the truth with anyone. For men who, for any reason (often because of adultery) need to be secretive about their extra-marital sexual lives, it’s certainly possible that the validation that comes from imagining the status-boost that would come if their buddies knew who they were bedding is almost as good, or perhaps even better, than actually letting them know. Just as a little boy, playing alone on a court or a field, imagines that he is in a stadium in front of a huge cheering audience, so too a somewhat older boy, getting it on in a hotel room with a stereotypically gorgeous young woman who isn’t his wife, may imagine something remarkably similar.
Proof of the extraordinary power of homosociality may lie in how men and women stereotypically talk about sex. It is popularly believed that in same-sex friendships, it’s common for women’s discussion of the sex they’ve had with men to be much more graphic (in the sense of talking about how everyone involved felt) than men’s discussion of the sex they’ve had with women. If this is true, then it reinforces the point that men’s story-telling is not about the exchange of detailed information, but about the opportunity to gain status in the eyes of other men. Other men may want to know that you got the hottie into bed, they may want to hear your general claims of how good it was (and how good you were), but any further detail about what transpired is positively unnecessary. For homosocial reinforcement to work, that it happened is enough—how it happened is irrelevant.
Both men and women kiss and tell. The difference is that thanks to homosociality, for many guys the real pleasure lies as much in the latter as in the former.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
Photo credit Anthony Gattine/Flickr