Men Without Women: Is There A Male Friendship Crisis?

Men Without Women: Is There A Male Friendship Crisis?

Male friendship is formed around jokes, favors, and associations -- all things under attack.
Bill McMorris
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I got a telephone in my room right when “Boy Meets World” was getting big. I saw the characters chatting on the phone daily and mistook a studio cost-cutting device for how friends interacted. So I grabbed the school directory and called up my best friend at the moment, Sean.

“Hi?”

“Hey, it’s Billy”

“Okay…”

The call was over in seconds. We played full contact 500 on an asphalt driveway the next day with nary a mention of the awkward conversation. Like I said, my best friend. I never realized that the exchange made me more likely to commit suicide. At least that’s what Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade says in Salon’s latest men-are-doing-it-wrong column.

Wade says American men—specifically white heterosexuals—lack the intimate bonds necessary to lead fulfilling lives.

“The friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships,” Wade writes.

It’s an observation rooted in experience. Go to enough barbecues and you’ll notice that people tend to self-segregate: Women form circles around living room tables and discuss their feelings; men crowd around the grill, eyes locked on the meat, to discuss grilling techniques.

It wasn’t always this way, Wade argues.

Research shows that boys are just as likely as girls to disclose personal feelings to their same-sex friends and they are just as talented at being able to sense their friends’ emotional states.

But, at about age 15 to 16 — right at the same age that the suicide rate of boys increases to four times the rate of girls — boys start reporting that they don’t have friends and don’t need them.

That’s also right around the age where boys stop focusing on their friends and start chasing girls in earnest, which could explain why “if a man does have a confidant, three-quarters of the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife.”

Why this is a problem is unclear. Male communication is defined by compartmentalization. When men get together, they talk about things. When they come home from work, they talk about themselves, which is why wives are so eager to get them out of the house.

The fact that American men lack intimacy probably has more to do with dwindling marriage rates than the quality of one’s friendship. Wade, a Jezebel blogger who writes things like, “relationships are the context for domestic violence, rape and spousal murder,” is probably not very interested in facilitating these kinds of relationships. Instead, she’s out to change the nature of male friendship.

“To be close friends, men need to be willing to confess their insecurities, be kind to others, have empathy and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest,” Wade says.

Bill Cosby addressed this very issue in his Thanksgiving Comedy Central special this year. His car broke down at 2:45 a.m. while returning home from a trip. He called two people: his friiieeend Ed and his wife. Mrs. Cosby shared her insecurities about Mr. Cosby’s substandard auto maintenance. Ed hopped in his car.

Wade laments that men talk about things, rather than feelings. But it’s not just talk—we do things for one another. Men don’t demonstrate the strength of their bond by saying, “I consider you an intimate friend,” though that may be enough for women. They hop in their cars. The act itself is the expression of friendship, just as the salute conveys respect of rank in the military without verbal confirmation that a superior officer is present.

Cosby’s friiieeend Ed seems a better pal than the men we see regularly connecting in the intimate relationships that Wade prescribes. They share their feelings, talk through their emotions, relate to their bros how they arrived at their decisions, and bare their souls to one another. They do so without the aid of a football game. We call these men reality television stars, yet another studio cost-cutting device. From “The Jersey Shore” to “The Real World” to “The Ultimate Fighter,” we see men talking about their most insignificant feelings and are revolted, not because it is unmanly, but because the stuff they say is repulsive to right-thinking members of society.

Wade’s got a solution for this: In order to increase our candor and self-disclosure, we must embrace self-censorship.

In Wade’s utopia men will open up to one another if we stop saying the naughty words I’ve mistaken for terms of endearment all these years. No more saying the dread homophobic slur “you suck,” if your buddy drops a pass during a game of pick-up football—and, come to think of it, no more tackling either.

But saying nice words for the sake of saying nice words doesn’t really do it for men. There are plenty of people around to wish me a “good weekend,” but only my closest friends call me up on Saturday and say, “We’re going to the bar tonight. Are you going to be a Paddy or a Pussy?” Wade may have missed the fact that we live in the age of irony, but American men are well aware. We relish the empty insult over the empty compliment, an idea so self-evident that even the TED Talk community picked up on it.

Contra Wade’s claims, men do not shun intimacy because of masculinity, but because of femininity. We fear women’s judgment more than that of the Lord, which may be why men are 25 percent more likely to censor their Facebook posts than women.

If we are to engage in Wade’s personal disclosure relationships, we first must feel secure. That is why men have always felt comfortable in clubs, fraternities, and other exclusive groups. Membership implies discretion: What happens at the Rotary Club stays at the Rotary Club, enabling men to open up and speak frankly. While men enjoy access to these types of bonds in, say, college fraternities, these places vanish in adulthood.

The disappearance began in 1970 when the National Organization for Women decided that the pinnacle of equality was drinking on a floor covered in sawdust. They sued to force the doors open at McSorley’s Old Ale House, a New York City icon that existed for 116 years as an all-male establishment, and won. The battle culminated in 1987 when the Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to equality trumped freedom of association and forced the Rotary Club to accept women. Only thirteen cities in the United States have more than four all-male clubs and, with social organizations nearly extinct, feminists have set their sights on the most masculine and tightly-knit club of all: the infantry.

The erosion of “male space,” as psychologist Helen Smith convincingly argued in her otherwise problematic book, “Men on Strike,” has played a key role in the social isolation of men. “Our culture has steadily made it almost obscene for men to congregate on their own together,” Smith writes. “Men are discouraged and actively made fun of or denied the ability to be in all-male groups by the law and by the disapproval of certain segments of the culture.”

One thing that never occurs to Wade is that women have an easier time forming intimate relationships because men aren’t trying to elbow their way into their heart-to-heart sessions. Men do not enjoy this luxury in the days of public shaming against the likes of (formerly) all-male Augusta National.

I have a friend—a close one in fact, but we’d never say that aloud—who no longer goes to bars because he can’t enjoy a drink with Rihanna playing in the background. I had him in mind when I formed an unofficial group of writers called The Drinklings. We congregate once a week at an undisclosed cigar bar, the last bastion of male territory (you can guess the sex of the person leading the charge against these establishments). The night begins with the same regulars, but every once in a while a woman joins us. The nature of conversation changes the second she arrives. The jokes become tamer, the social observations bland, and bar etiquette—paying cash for small tabs, never forcing a waiter to line-item drinks and food for a dozen people, not discarding $15 cigars after three puffs—goes out the window. The proverbial sawdust on the floor turns to egg shells: We’ve banished male attendees for less, but no one knows how to say no to a woman.

“That’s right, I’m crashing guy’s night,” a female friend gleefully announced when she arrived several months ago. As the marathon meeting wore on, her countenance ranged from unwilling dental patient to suicidal dentist. She soldiered on, relating at every turn of the conversation how much she was learning by “crashing guy’s night.” She left, the sighs of relief visible in the haze.

“I don’t understand why you’d put yourself in a situation you know doesn’t make you happy for the sake of preventing someone else’s good time,” a friend later said. “I feel like women just like ruining our things. It makes me miserable.”

The statement had everything Wade calls for in a friendship: He disclosed an honest personal feeling that he wouldn’t disclose otherwise if he didn’t trust those around him. Debate, rather than a boycott campaign, ensued. (Private Conclusion: for a small minority of women, yes. Public Conclusion: how dare that misogynist!)

Wade may be correct in her diagnosis about the isolation of American men, but the concept of how and why we form tight bonds—jokes, favors, formal association—is foreign to her.

She thinks masculine social interaction is the problem, femininity the corrective, a diagnosis that has helped to demonize and isolate millions of young boys in American schools. We force-fed the ADD/ADHD/Aspergers/Depressive children—the ones we used to call boys—of my generation therapeutic drugs and now in adulthood, Wade wants to force-feed us therapeutic talk. The nice words may prove even more harmful to male friendships than the ADD drugs. At least a boy could win friends by giving the latter away to classmates cramming for a test—the college version of hopping in your car.

Wade ends her diatribe against masculinity as any good abusive spouse that’s trying to control a partner’s friendship would: “Man up and make some friends. We can’t do it for you.”

No, you can’t, but we can do it in spite of you.

Photo By JSmith Photo
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