Men, Women, and Public and Private Intimacy

In response to my post on male intimacy (which followed my appearance on the ABC’s Life Matters), a female friend of mine–a Brooklyner who has traveled in India–wrote to me:

What about intimacy with women? I don’t necessarily mean the romantic kind of intimacy. In India men share affection with each other openly but it’s taboo to do so with a woman, whether she be that man’s friend or spouse. How does it affect one’s ability to open up to a woman and to share affection? I feel that in the West, though men do not openly show affection to each other they do so with women. Because of that they might be better equipped to drop their guard with women and open up to them.

Good question. Public displays of affection between men and women are still rare in India, still likely to evoke stares, giggles, a raised eyebrow, sometimes verbal disapproval or catcalls or the local equivalent of ‘get a room.’ And as I noted in my post, it isn’t clear to me that being more open to physical displays of friendly affection with men makes Indian men more likely to open up in conversation–whether with men or women–about their insecurities or anxieties: stoicism still comes out ahead.

But then, it isn’t clear to me that the greater social acceptance and tolerance of public intimacy between men and women in ‘the West’ translates into any greater intimacy with women either, especially when it comes to a similar unburdening of the soul in conversation. Anecdotal–and some not-so-anecdotal–evidence suggests to me women in the West still find their male partners reticent and unwilling to open up; the ‘boys don’t cry or navel-gaze or revel in existential angst with their partners’ model still prevails. True, there is far more social conversation–in movies, novels, plays, blogs–about these matters, but how much of that translates back into an open, frank, conversation between men and women in a shared, private space is unclear. It still remains easier to talk about anxiety and insecurity in the abstract; it still remains easier for men to physically demonstrative with women than to allow access to the sanctum sanctorum of raw need and fearful hope.

These–admittedly imprecise and incomplete–observations suggest to me public and private intimacies–or physical and conversational intimacies, for that matter–are orthogonal to each other: the presence or absence of one does not seem to provide conclusive evidence about the presence or absence of the other. From the outside, looking in, it still seems women do a better job of generating intimacy than men, and their ability to do so does not seem correlated in any meaningful way with the presence of public displays of intimacy.  None of this is to discount the friendships that men are able to form with each other; it is just that the male expectation of what a friendship is to provide is already tempered by their understanding of the kinds of relationship they view as possible with other men.

Note: As a gay friend of mine pointed out to me, this discussion is sadly lacking a gay perspective. I remain acutely aware of that, and welcome enlightenment in that regard.

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