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Straight men kissing: How heterosexual men came to be comfortable with a friendly peck

Updated Tuesday, 21st August 2012

Younger men are more relaxed about kissing their straight friends without fear of "homohysteria". Is this a shift in what masculinity means in the UK?

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BA (Honours) Social Sciences

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Laurie Taylor:
You know, when I first heard Nellie Lutcher singing and playing that little song [Kiss Me Simple] years ago it wasn't her wonderful swinging jazz style that attracted my attention so much as the sheer perversity of the lyric.

You see as a spotty teenager at the time I didn't find anything at all simple about kissing. It was a perpetual source of embarrassment - trying to stop mum kissing me in public, looking away when dad kissed mum as he set off to work, deciding the right moment to lean forward and try to kiss Pam Wilson on our second date at the Brownmoor Youth club or scrubbing away the lipstick stains left by Auntie Hilda's sink plunger kiss at Christmas. Mannequins kissing Creative commons image Icon The Rogue under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

I've still got worries. I still can't make the right Yum Yum noises when I do that not quite touching cheek kissing so favoured by my chattering friends and - most disturbingly - still can't quite disguise the way that I do, yes I do, I slightly recoil when my friend Alan, my good friend Alan - as is his wont - insists on greeting me with a full on - lips to lips - kiss.

Which is why I suppose I'm the ideal reader really for a new research article called I Kiss Them Because I Love Them which documents what I learn is the increasingly permissible practice of kissing between heterosexual men. It's co-authored by Eric Anderson, Adi Adams and Ian Rivers.

Sociologist Eric Anderson, Professor of Sports Studies at Winchester University, now joins me.

Now you say in the introduction to your fascinating paper - you say in the introduction that this heterosexual kissing acquires a great deal of significance from the one drop theory of homosexuality - tell me what that is.

Eric Anderson:
Yes Laurie and thank you for having me. The one drop theory of sexuality comes from the theory of race, the one drop theory of race, in which one drop of non-white blood made one ostensibly not white. And I've taken it to apply to sexuality where I call it the one time rule of homosexuality.

And what this simply means is that one drop of a gay act, a behaviour that's coded as indicative of homosexuality, in the life of a heterosexual has polluted his entire heterosexual life.

The opposite is not true - so an openly gay man could have sex with a woman once and nobody says 'oh well, maybe he's actually straight'.

So it's a one way rule for this drop - for this one time rule, and it's decreasing.

Laurie Taylor:
You're looking at students here, young men and teenagers; you go out in search of evidence that in fact heterosexual kissing can take place without any implications for this having some significance in relation to homosexuality or possible homosexuality. Tell me just a bit about the people that you interviewed, who were they?

Eric Anderson:
Well one doesn't have to search very hard to find this, I first saw it in the back of my class where two young men, who I both knew had girlfriends, were leaving for the Easter break holiday, and they stood up and gave each other a kiss goodbye, so that brought me some questions about this.

And then I began to realise that this occurs in a nightclub, so I started going to the nightclubs and seeing the nightclubs, started interviewing my students about it and began interviewing other students about it at other universities - this is a normal operation in heterosexual male youth culture in universities.

It's even beginning in sixth forms now - I show between 30 and 40% of sixth form students have done this as well. And it is just a normal operation of their friendship patterns.

Laurie Taylor:
Are we talking predominantly white and middle class here?

Eric Anderson:
My research is on predominantly white and middle class but that's not to say it's not occurring in other communities, we simply haven't done the research to find out whether it is or isn't, so I can't really say, I can't speak beyond the data there.

Laurie Taylor:
What sort of kissing - is this just a peck on the lips or what are we talking about?

How do we measure it, how do we quantify it? I'm going to be like Masters and Johnson here - but I mean how do we quantify it?

Eric Anderson:
Indeed, I show that about 89% of these men have kissed on the lips, a solid kiss on the lips, that lasts for half a second or a quarter second or something but it's designed to have an impact, you hear the lips smack, that sort of thing.

And I show that about 40% of these men - and this is particularly sportsmen in this case - have extended kissing and this is where it looks like they're making out, it's difficult to tell whether it's two gay men, or whether it's two straight men having a laugh.

And essentially what it is is two straight men having a laugh, and of course what that's done is it's opened up a space for gay men to be safe in this heterosexual space as well.

Laurie Taylor:
But I was going to come on to exactly where are we talking about this taking place. You said you saw it in the back row of a lecture, but we're talking about clubs are we, after people have had something to drink - are these the occasions?

Eric Anderson:
Mostly university clubs, university parties but the behaviours have become so normal that they're now extending into the domestic sphere.

So in the paper I talk about individuals who maybe are having a bad day and one of their roommates says 'Come here mate', and he gives him a hug, and he gives them a kiss on the lips and maybe a little cuddle to show that he loves him.

So the behaviours are expanding and if you look at any university students' Facebook profiles you'll see these photos are everywhere, they're proud of their actions, they're not ashamed of them in any capacity and they're there for everybody to see.

Laurie Taylor:
And do they insist - or perhaps they only insist after you question them - but they insist on saying there is nothing homosexual about this, there is no question of sexual arousal, this is to do with friendship?

Eric Anderson:
Indeed - and I would say it's insist with a small i, this is not a homophobic form of insistence, this is to say that I'm not gay, I have no problems with gay men, if you want to think that I'm gay for doing this fine, think what you will but I'm just not concerned whether other people think that I'm gay for doing this anymore.

Laurie Taylor:
Presumably the places that you're talking about, these are really rather private places aren't they...

Eric Anderson:
Expanding I would say...

Laurie Taylor:
...I mean these are clubs, university bars?

Eric Anderson:
...but for the most part yes.

Laurie Taylor:
But I mean you've got no reason to think that outside this smal,l white, middle class, university based group there's any other signs of heterosexual kissing becoming sort of more routine, more customary?

Eric Anderson:
No, we do have evidence to suggest that it's spreading.

We've looked at sports teams, sports teams where the ages run from sort of sixth form up to - up into the 30s and in these sports teams I find that basically, the younger [that] one is the more acceptable these sorts of kisses are.

So it is extended away from the university, I think it probably began at the university setting and it's now extending out. And this has only been occurring for about five to seven years, so it's really new in its development but it is expanding.

For example I went to a lower class nightclub to see what was occurring there - so probably not full of university students - and indeed I saw these kisses occurring there as well.

Laurie Taylor:
It's always bad form to ask a researcher questions that probably weren't on their original questionnaire but you didn't talk to women about this, [or ask for] women's reactions to these demonstrations of affection between men?

Eric Anderson:
No I did not, that's research that's yet to be done.

Laurie Taylor:
So we haven't any evidence there at all?

Eric Anderson:

Laurie Taylor:
Now tell me what you read off from this about being masculine or changing definitions of masculinity.

Eric Anderson:
These kisses didn't emerge out of nowhere, they've come from a decreasing culture of homo-hysteria, heterosexual men are no longer afraid to be thought gay, as they once were. That's not to say that they hope that people think they're gay but when we were young if somebody suspected you were gay,you had to stand your ground, you had to be homophobic to prove that you weren't gay.

This isn't the case with these young men anymore. The codes of homosexuality have also greatly decreased, so people can wear pink, people can be softer, there's all types of inclusive behaviours occurring amongst young men today that are alien to men my age - those in their 40s who had their adolescence in the mid-1980s.

So as this culture of masculinity has softened, it has brought not only this form of tactility but also brought more emotionality, and less aggressiveness between heterosexual peers. It's a very beautiful thing and each generation is completely remaking what masculinity means to them.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me ask you about those people in your sample who said that they didn't engage in heterosexual kissing, what account did they give for not doing so?

Eric Anderson:
Well one of them, you probably read in the paper, was quite vocal and said 'I don't have those type of friends'. And it really seems to be that the more social you are, the more friends you have, the more likely you are to have done this.

The more likely you are to sit in your dorm room and read instead of go out and partake in the party scene the less likely you are to have done this.

It began with sort of this football culture attitude, this brotherhood, sort of paternal celebration attitude and it's spreading into the rest of youth culture but, indeed, it did begin with the sportsmen.

Laurie Taylor:
But you see it as indicative of a new form of, in a way, sexual emancipation and moving away from sexual stereotypes, mightn't it be simply that the gay culture has become rather glamorous and spectacles of men kissing are quite common imagery in pop videos and elsewhere?

We're talking really about something which is culturally approved now rather than having any profound implications for the future nature of our attitudes towards homosexuality?

Eric Anderson:
Well if what you'd said is true, that is profound in and of itself.

Laurie Taylor:
[Laughter] Do you know I've never ended an interview on a compliment or on an inverted compliment. Eric Anderson, thank you very much.





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