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.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Men Getting Up Close and Personal

Last night, I participated in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s daily show Life Matters, hosted by the ever-dynamic Natasha Mitchell on Radio National. The topic for the day was ‘Male Intimacy’.

Being on live radio is a pretty strange experience; I’ve only done it once before, on John Sutton‘s excellent, but now defunct, Ghost in the Machine on Eastside Radio in Sydney. (I see a pattern here: the only time I get to be on radio is on Australian stations. Clearly, I’m only a prophet in distant lands.) I don’t think I was the smoothest speaker ever as I repeatedly found refuge in verbal tics like ‘sort of’ and ‘actually’ again and again. Embarrassing stuff. (You can check out the audio link to see what I’m getting at; I go on at about the 20 minute mark but the whole show is worth a listen.)

Anyway, on to male intimacy. Natasha had me on to talk about cross-cultural differences, and so I talked a bit about how growing up in India meant being socialized into a domain of relationships with men where physical contact was relatively unproblematic: I often put my arms around my friend’s shoulders, inter-personal space was not negotiated rigorously, and physical contact was common. And as I noted on the show, I was warned–by those already resident in the US–to not expect such contact when I crossed the waters, and more to the point, to desist from such overt displays of friendship with any male friends that I might make in the US. Much of the content of those warnings was spot on; I found a male culture that set much store by the careful maintenance of a physical space between its members.

Of course, intimacy isn’t just about physical contact; it can be engendered by conversation, by shared activities. Here, interestingly enough, it has been clear to me for a while now that even in cultures where men are comfortable showing physical affection, they might not be so comfortable talking about matters close to the heart: sexual insecurity, feelings of masculine inadequacy (perhaps in the professional domain, perhaps in the physical or romantic) and so on.  And in this dimension, I found that Indian men were less inclined to open up about their insecurities: the social expectation of a certain kind of masculine stoicism seems to cut across cultural and national boundaries.

Men have evolved other rituals for bonding though: sports for instance, whether it is an outing to the stadium or the actual playing of a sport, or working out together at a gym (A pair of men bench-pressing together can generate an interestingly intimate, shared space!). I mentioned these on the show though I did not get a chance to talk about how these rituals can often be built on a foundation of misogyny and homophobia: the aggressive description of ‘weaker’ men as ‘pussies’ or ‘pansies’, for instance. This again, in my experience, cuts across boundaries: Indian men are just as likely to be misogynistic or homophobic as their American or Australian counterparts.

As someone who sets much store by his relationships with other men, I find this topic particularly fascinating and hope to think a bit more about it – aloud, in this space, somewhere down the line. In the meantime, comments welcome.