Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's OK, women are present.

Intimacy is defined as the experience of emotional closeness. This experience varies between people though it usually occurs when we are emotionally open with another (in terms of thoughts, feelings, desires, fears). Often this emotional openness involves a component of feeling vulnerable. In general men are prone to experiencing difficulties with intimacy due to a mismatch between vulnerability and their perceived social role as strong, in control and independent. This is always a fun discussion to have in my experience as there is nothing men love to do more than conflate sex with intimacy, a conflation that is so amusingly wrong*.

Conflation = Amusing.
Gendered views of intimacy roughly break down into a masculine expression of intimacy as doing something for the other person, with males often report feeling closer to their partner/others when doing things for them. This makes sense as doing something for another person allows men to express their emotions in a manner which is congruent with social role norms. Unfortunately, if both parties are male and attempting to express intimacy by doing things for each other then (a) we are not doing anything together, and (b) 'doing' as expression has limits. When we function in this manner we need women present to facilitate intimacy by facilitating discussion. I have come across additional arguments for why intimacy is expressed in this manner, particularly a fear of being perceived as homosexual by expressing intimacy with another man either verbally or non-verbally (for example the “I’m not gay” hug or “man smacks”).

If its with a girl I do things for her, it its with a guy I do things with him.

The title of this blog post came out of a number of brief conversations I had with men about their views of men expressing intimacy. The general consensus (likely because of a sampling bias, i.e., I know classy guys) was that these men were intimate with each other in different ways than they were intimate with women but they still were having conversations with each other that involved emotional sharing. When I asked how an intimate discussion between men (without women present) would go, almost invariably, there was a clarification that these men were happy to express their vulnerability when talking about their partners, or people they desired. The conclusion mostly reached was that intimacy without women present for the majority of men I talked to largely involved discussions or participation in common interests. All of this simply led me to think about the different ways that I express my intimacy with women and men, what differences there were and whether I was content with these differences (I do realise that many men do express vulnerability and intimacy with other men in different fashions, I am trying to suggest that we should increase our participation in masculinity in that manner).

Men doing together.

What can we do differently? I would like to think that increasing insights into our masculine experience of intimacy would lead to different behaviours in a relatively natural fashion. The realisation that for many men challenging this idea of appearing in control and without vulnerability is (a) difficult and unhealthy to maintain, and (b) reduces our ability to feel bonded and intimate with our male friends.

* Conflation discussions were rarely amusing and more often involved me looking befuddled before I understood, then looking a little embarrassed.

P.S. Thank you to all who have discussed masculinity and their experience of being male with me over the last few weeks, these conversations have been incredibly helpful, intimate and aided me in my personal exploration of this topic.


  1. The conflation of love, sex and intimacy never fails to astound me. I have different conversations with people - often but not always women - on this subject, and enjoy seeing these three aspects un-conflate themselves from the lived experience of others. Follow up conversations on this subject with those same people have been magical. Intimacy is one of the things I value most highly, and one of the things that I see present in the world and people's everyday lives far more than they seem to.

  2. Nice work, K. Intimacy is very interesting because most dudes have a way of doing it where they create 'acceptable environments'. Hugging a dude closely after a sporting triumph or during for example a concert - not frowned upon and very much acceptable. But I might be pre-empting your future discussions.

  3. "When I asked how an intimate discussion between men (without women present) would go, almost invariably, there was a clarification that these men were happy to express their vulnerability when talking about their partners, or people they desired."

    Is this perhaps another way of women being present; in mind, if not not in person?

  4. Thanks all for the helpful comments.

    @Transcendancing I remain astounded at the difficulty I have in un-confounding these ideas. Doing so almost always productive and fun.

    @Jarrad I would argue that many of these created environments again place the intimacy in an area that is focussed externally (e.g., hugging following a sporting victory). I have signposted the creation of these sorts of environments as an area for potential future discussions.

    @Helen I apologise for the lack of clarity. The intention was to indicate in such situations that women were still present in their minds.