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Sixth Form Boys Will Hug Boys – And Not Have a Crisis

Mark Simpson on a new study that shows how much young men – and masculinity – have changed. 

(Daily Telegraph, 30 May 2017)

When I was a teenager attending an all-boys school back in the 1980s, one of the most popular games we used to play in the common room was, ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Queer To Prove We’re Not’. And quite simply, if you didn’t play it you were definitely a poof. (So I played it lots).

Someone simulating coitus behind you while you were potting a tricky black on the pool table was a popular part of the game. Grabbing one another’s lunchboxes as a form of greeting was another. Often this was accompanied with a loud John Inman/Dick Emery ‘OOOOH!!’ noise, which somehow proved that what you were doing was, in fact, totally and utterly straight.

Pretending to be a ‘poof’ was pretty much the only way we were allowed to touch one another when sober. Except for fights. And rugby, which was a major obsession at my school. But then, rugby was perhaps the biggest ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Queer To Prove We’re Not’ game going.

Oh boy, have things changed! Though lots of people seem to be in even more denial about that today than we lads were about our ‘bumming’ on the green baize back in the 1980s.

Here is a ‘touching’ scene documented in a remarkable new study of how sixth form males relate to one another: “Simon was greeted by six boys at the entrance to the common room who then engaged in a large group hug with him that lasted ten seconds.” Simon had not scored a winning try. No one was drunk. It was just his birthday.

The male-on-male love-bombing didn’t stop there. Again from the study: “Another boy, Kyle, entered the common room and proceeded to kiss Simon on the cheek, hug him, and wish him a happy birthday. Kyle and Simon then shared a seat together for ten minutes, with Kyle’s arm placed around Simon’s shoulders the whole time.”

Hugging was “an almost hourly occurrence.” During an IT lesson “Logan sat with his legs across Ian’s lap for a ten-minute period as they worked together on a project… Ian massaged Logan’s leg as he had complained about how he was sore from athletics training.”

None of these touchy-feely displays were seen as gay by the other students, nor did the boys assert their heterosexuality by imitating Graham Norton or making homophobic remarks. Kids today don’t know they’re born.

In fact, homophobia is now as frowned-upon as homosexuality was in my day. Said one boy: “Who am I to judge? Who is anyone to judge? When people are homophobic it really upsets me.” Two male students at the college were openly gay, reported no overt homophobia, and were fully integrated into their hugging peer groups.

Out of a total of 100 male students aged 16-18 the vast majority, 87, were reported to espouse ‘tolerant to positive’ (and most of them positive) attitudes towards homosexuality and engaged in physical tactility and emotional intimacy, offering each other support. Sexism and misogyny were not generally tolerated.

Obviously, I can hear you snort, this was an upper middle class, non-binary sixth form college in Hampstead.

Actually, it was a working class sixth form Christian (mixed) college in a small town in the North East of England, located 25 miles from the nearest city – and considerably further from the nearest Waitrose.

‘Inclusive Masculinities in a Working-Class Sixth Form in Northeast England’, by Callum Blanchard, Mark McCormack, and Grant Peterson makes for eye-opening reading. The result of six weeks observation by Blanchard (who attended the same college himself a few years ago), hanging out in common rooms and class-rooms, combined with in-depth interviews, the results indicate just how radically different modern north eastern masculinity is from the hard-bitten, phobic stereotypes.

You may recall C4 despatching cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry to County Durham last year as part of his TV series on contemporary masculinity All Man, to save north-eastern young working class men from their self-harming, emotionally-blocked ways with his colourful tapestries, outrageous pottery and male feminism.

wrote in The Telegraph at the time about some of the patronising southern assumptions behind the documentary and London-based media in general. How in fact the region has been in many at the cutting edge of changing masculinity in the UK – a post-industrial laboratory for both metrosexuality and spornosexuality. And while it’s true that the NE has some of the highest levels of male suicide in the UK, I have a hunch this probably has something do with the fact the NE also has the highest levels of male unemployment.

In addition to Blanchard’s research, a larger pioneering study of several working class sixth form colleges in the south of England by McCormack a few years ago found similar touchy-feely anti-homophobic behaviour amongst the majority of male students.

There’s abundant evidence, if you want to see it, that most of the younger generation of males are much more at ease with themselves – and with other males – than previous generations. Including Perry’s generation, who despite or maybe because of his cross dressing and feminism, often comes across as possibly the most heterosexual man in the world.

Or this old bugger, for that matter: I still struggle putting an ‘x’ at the end of text messages – young straight men today can’t stop with them.

As an example of emotional openness, the study cites a student, Jayden, whose offer of a date has been knocked back by a girl. ‘“I’m gutted to be honest. I mean, I really care about her. We’re good friends, but I wanted to be more than that, and she doesn’t. Honest, I’m proper gutted.” Instead of telling him to ‘man up’, his chums offered their support and sympathised with him. “I know mate, you’ll be gutted. We’re here for you, though.”

The masculinity that many middle-aged commentators blithely bang on about as being ‘toxic’ or ‘in crisis’ or ‘default’ – and somehow universal and monolithic – is probably the masculinity of their own youth, projected blithely onto today’s youth, whether or not it has any relevance.

Even in what many in the south would see as the ‘butch’ and ‘backwards’ north east, traditional masculinity is increasingly a ‘niche’, almost lonely affair. Only thirteen of the one hundred male students were categorised as embodying an ‘orthodox’ form of masculinity. These boys disliked ‘out there gays’, and what they saw as feminine behaviour in boys, distancing themselves from the gay students.

In fact, they distanced themselves from most of the college – completely avoiding the touchy-feely common room and secluding themselves in a classroom on the other side of the school. They also distanced themselves from one another – no hugging, or touching, except for play fights.

But as further evidence of how much has changed, even this ‘orthodox’, retrosexual masculinity thought overt homophobia ‘mean’. Their use of anti-gay terms was strictly saved for one another, to police their ‘soppy’ behaviour: “I called Ross a ‘poof’ cause we were talking about girls and he said he loved someone.”

Of these 13 ‘trad’ boys, nine were members of the college’s rugby team – perhaps because then they did at least get to touch one another on the pitch. The rugby coach seemed to be an old skool guy himself, over-fond of the phrase ‘man up’, telling one injured player: “You’ll just have to man up and get on with it. We’re a man down here.”

Edward Carpenter – The Utopian Uranian

Mark Simpson on the forgotten ‘English Whitman’

On his 80th birthday in 1924, five years before his death, the socialist Utopian poet, mystic, activist, homophile, environmentalist, feminist and nudist Edward Carpenter received an album signed by every member of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Cabinet. Glowing tributes appeared in the socialist papers as well as the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and even the Egyptian Gazette.

He was hailed by the philosopher C.E.M. Joad as the harbinger, no less, of modernity itself: ‘Carpenter denounced the Victorians for hypocrisy, held up their conventions to ridicule, and called their civilisation a disease,’ he wrote. ‘He was like a man coming into a stuffy sitting room in a seaside boarding house, and opening the window to let in light and air…’.

In the early Twentieth Century Carpenter was a celebrity, a hero, a guru, a prophet, a confidant: an Edwardian Morrissey, Moses and Claire Raynor in one. Multitudes of men and women – but mostly young men – had beaten a path to his door in his idyllic rural retreat-cum-socialist-boarding-house in Millthorpe, near Sheffield to sit at his vegetarian, be-sandled feet, or take part in his morning sun-baths and sponge-downs in his back garden.

Soon after his death, however, his charismatic reputation faded faster than a Yorkshire tan. By the middle of the century he was the height of fashionability, and regarded by many on the left as a crank. When that manly Eton-educated proletarian George Orwell decried the left’s habit of attracting ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England’ everyone knew whom he was dissing.

Today very few would. Despite his extensive writings, despite – or perhaps because of – the way many of his causes and indeed much of his lifestyle have become mainstream, and despite the brief renaissance of his works with the gay left after the emergence of gay lib in the 60s and 70s – a movement which he appeared to predict – and a hefty, worthy and yet also fascinating new biography by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty; Verso) notwithstanding, it sometimes seems as there’s almost nothing left of Ted, as his friends called him, save his beard and sandals (he seems to have introduced sandal-wearing to these shores). He’s become the Cheshire cat of fin de siècle English Utopianism. In fact, one could argue, and I will, that the thing that connects most of us with Carpenter today is EM Forster’s arse.

George Merrill, Carpenter’s uninhibited Sheffield working-class partner touched Forster’s repressed Cambridge backside during a visit to Milthorpe in 1912:

‘…gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most peoples. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.’

Inspired by Merrill’s tykish directness, Forster, went home, sat down on his probably still-tingling buttocks and wrote the first ‘gay’ novel Maurice, which famously featured a love-affair between Scudder the sunburnt and impetuous groundsman Alec and the uptight, middle-class Maurice. Though it wasn’t to be published until after terminally timid Forster’s death, DH Lawrence saw the manuscript and was himself touched: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is in many ways a heterosexualised Maurice. And of course, when Maurice was made into a film in the 1980s starring James Wilby and Rupert Graves succeeded in making millions of rumps, male and female, tingle at a time when homosexuality, as a result of Section 28 and Aids had become a major cultural battleground.

Before Merrill, Edward Carpenter’s buttocks had been touched by the American sage Walt Whitman and his passionately romantic poems about male comradeship, frequently involving working men and sailors, whom he travelled to the US to meet (though it is unclear whether here the touching was literal or metaphorical). Carpenter became a kind of English Whitman figure, though more outspoken on the subject of toleration of same-sex love than Whitman ever dared to be in the US – if not, alas, nearly as fine a poet (another reason why his work hasn’t endured).

Lytton Strachey decreed sniffily that Alec and Maurice’s relationship rested upon ‘lust and sentiment’ and would only last six weeks. Whatever Merrill and Edward Carpenter’s relationship was based on – and Robotham argues that it was rather complicated and not what it appeared to be – it lasted nearly 40 years, and was an inspiration to many.

Carpenter was nothing if not sentimental, when he wasn’t being just patronising. He described Merrill as his ‘dear son’, his ‘simple nature child’ his ‘rose in winter’ his ‘ruby embedded in marl and clay’ and delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’. Raised in the Sheffield slums and without any formal education Merrill was almost untouched by Christianity. On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night on Gethsemane Merrill’s response was “who with?”

It was Merrill’s – and the innumerable other working class male lovers that Carpenter had both before and after meeting him – lack of ‘self-consciousness’, or perceived lack of it, that attracted Carpenter, who was born into an upright upper middle class family in Hove, Brighton (and it was his sizeable inheritance that financed his purchase of Milthorpe and his comradely life in the North). He was drawn to the working classes because he saw them as rescuing him from himself – as much as he was rescuing them.

‘Eros is a great leveller’, Carpenter wrote in The Intermediate Sex. ‘Perhaps the true democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society’. He observed that many ‘Uranians’ ‘of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way.’

It’s worth pointing out that even Wilde and Bosie’s relationship, which was to cause Forster and many other homosexuals at that time such grief, was based on their mutual enjoyment of rent boys. Carpenter disapproved of such exploitation, but it’s not impossible to imagine Wilde, or one of his characters, jesting that people like Carpenter were socialists only because they didn’t want to pay for their trade.

Robotham to her credit doesn’t shrink from pointing out the limits of Carpenter’s socialism: ‘Carpenter never queried his own tacit presumption that the lower classes and subordinated races were to be defended when vulnerable and abject but treated with contempt when they sought individual advancement.’ To this it could be added that if Carpenter succeeded in abolishing class, then with it would be abolished the interest in the working classes of men like Carpenter. Each man kills the thing he loves.

What though was working class youth’s interest in Carpenter? In a word: attention. It seems they were flattered to be singled out and treated with casual equality by a gent, and an attractive, charming one at that. One young lover wrote of Carpenter: ‘You feel inclined to get hold of him as a boy would his mate’ and talked of his ‘Handsome appearance – his erect, lithe body, trim and bearded face, penetrating eyes and beautiful voice.’ Carpenter was to continue attracting young working class men to his door well into silver-haired old age.

Carpenter had a contradictory view of homosexuality, seeing those exclusively attracted to their own sex as psychically androgynous ‘intermediates’ like himself who were ‘born that way’ – but also as harbingers of a new age, the cultural ‘advance guard’ of socialism in which a Utopian androgyny would be the norm. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for a future world of Carpenters. George Bernard Shaw for one was enraged by the idea that ‘intermediacy’ should be recommended to ‘the normal’ as the desired way to be.

EM Forster described Carpenter’s mysticism as the usual contradiction of wanting ‘merge with the cosmos and retain identity’ at the same time. This in fact described pretty much everything, from Ted’s attitude towards comradeship and homosexuality, class and socialism, and even Millthorpe where he would write standing in a sentry box he had built in his garden while his ‘retreat’ was overrun by guests.

His championing of androgyny and female emancipation also had contradictions. Robotham describes his horror and disgust at the androgyny of a Siva statue he witnessed on a mystical visit to India as being ‘akin to the disgust he had felt at seeing the female nudes in a French art gallery…’. For Carpenter, ‘acceptable femininity consisted of lithe gay men and supportive, tom-boyish sister figures.’

Carpenter’s works were taken up by the gay libbers and New Left in the 60s and 70s partly because of his rejection of male and female sex-roles and also because of his proto-gay-commune lifestyle in Millthorpe, with his open relationship with Merrill (and also several local married men). For Carpenter, the personal was political long before it became a lapel button.

But in the 1980s gay lib was replaced by gay consumerism, ‘intermediates’, particularly many working class ones keen to advance themselves, turned out to be the vanguard not of a back-to-basics socialist Utopia but of High Street Thatcherism. The mainstreaming of ‘lifestylism’ happened largely because it was divorced from politics – and Carpenter – and became about shopping. Which would have horrified Ted who had an upper middle class disdain for ‘trade’ (the shopkeeping kind).  Lord only knows what he would have made of the consumerist androgyny of the metrosexual.

Perhaps the most lasting and pertinent thing about his life is a question: How on Earth did the old bugger get away with it? How did he avoid a huge scandal? How did he end up so lionised in his old age? Especially when you consider what happened to Wilde?

The answer is probably the same reason for his lack of appeal today. His prose now seems often strangely precious and oblique and replete with coy, coded classical references. Worst of all for modern audiences, he necessarily downplayed the sexual aspect of same-sex love. His most influential work Homogenic Love, published in 1895, the first British book to deal with the subject of same-sex desire as something other than a medical or moral problem, rejects the word ‘homosexual’ ostensibly on the grounds that it was a ‘bastard’ word of Greek and Latin, but probably because the Latin part was too much to the point.

Class helped too: when the police threatened to prosecute some of his works as obscene he was able to scare them off with an impressively long list of Establishment supporters. Even his live-in relationship with Merrill was often seen as one of master and servant (and in fact that’s how Merrill, who was financially dependent on Carpenter, was legally described).

ESP Haynes suspected that Carpenter might not be as simple as he presented himself, that his mysticism ‘gave him a certain detachment which protected him against prosecution as a heretic’. To which Rowbotham drily remarks: ‘As for the non-mystical Merrill, he just tried out the idealistic admirers’. (Or as that other Northern vegetarian prophet Morrissey was to sing many years later: ‘I recognise that mystical air/it means I’d like to seize your underwear.’)

Whatever Carpenter’s survival secret, it’s rather wonderful for us that he did, and although his haziness may be part of the reason he fades in and mostly out of consciousness today, as Robotham concludes her sympathetic yet clear-eyed study: ‘One thing is certain, this complicated, confusing, contradictory yet courageous man is not going to vanish entirely from view.’

(Independent on Sunday, 5 October, 2008)

Size Hero: How Steroids & Muscle Marys Conquered the World

Mark Simpson on how steroids got into our bloodstream and changed the shape of masculinity

(Guardian CIF, 6 Dec, 2007)

‘Roids may sound as Eighties as Cher’s black-lace bodice. But they’re baaak, even bigger and bustier than ever.

According to a series of recent reports, steroids, or ‘juice’ or ‘gear’ to the initiated, once an exotic drug of cheating athletes and freaky bodybuilders have entered the mainstream and have become just another lifestyle product for young men: some boys as young as 12 are reportedly taking the drug.

And this despite the frightening possible side-effects meticulously listed in these press reports, including liver, heart and kidney damage, atrophied testicles, erectile dysfunction, depression and raised aggression. (Though, arguably, you could also experience most of these simply by following Arsenal FC.)

The key to this mainstreaming of steroids is vanity. If you want to get into people’s bloodstream these days, promise to make them like what they see in the smoke-glass gym-mirror. According to the surveys, the large majority of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier – all traditionally acceptable ‘masculine’ ambitions – but rather to look more attractive. To look shaggable. Or just make you look.

In other words, young men are taking steroids the way that many gay party boys have taken them for years: to look good on the beach or dance floor or webcam. ‘Muscle Marys’ – as they’re called by envious, less-muscular gays – are apparently no longer a strictly gay phenomenon. Muscle Marys are where masculinity is at, Mary.

It shouldn’t be so surprising. We don’t really need surveys to tell us this. It has, after all, happened right before our eyes. It’s the media that has mainlined steroids into the culture and our kids. Unlike, say, very skinny girls, very muscular boys are very popular. An anti ‘Size Hero’ campaign like that we’ve seen against Size Zero is somewhat unlikely. Steroids are an essential, prescribed even, part of the way that the male body has been farmed and packaged for our consumption since it was laid off at the factory and the shipyard in the 1980s.

A generation of young males have been reared on irresistibly – and frequently chemically – lean and muscular images of the male body in sport, advertising, magazines, movies and telly, even in the cartoons they watch and the computer games or toy dolls (or ‘action figures’) they play with. It seems all that’s left of masculinity in a post industrial, post paternal world, apart from a science-fiction-sized penis, or a right foot good enough to get you into the Premier League, is a hot bod. Men and women – but especially men – will give you kudos for that. So will people casting reality TV series.

Even Action Man (GI Joe in the US) is now a Muscle Mary. Perhaps because he’s only twelve inches tall, Action Man seems to have been hitting the ‘juice’ big time. He’s also got himself a nice deep all-over tan – to better show off his pumped muscles.

Since the 1960s his bicep measurements have more than doubled from a (scaled up) 12″ to 27″ and his chest from 44″ to 55″. His current ‘cut’ physique would be rather difficult to achieve just by eating corned-beef hash rations – especially since, as far as I’m aware, a portable plastic gym isn’t yet one of his basic accessories. In an example of life imitating art, or at least squaddies imitating dolls, steroid abuse by soldiers is increasingly common: US soldiers in Iraq have been caught ordering steroids online, and it was recently alleged that a sizeable proportion of Blackwater mercenaries are on ‘the gear’.

Muscle Marys aren’t just for Xmas – they’re also for High Office. Arnold ‘Commando’ Schwarzenegger, seven times Mr Olympia, who has admitted using industrial quantities of steroids since he was in his teens (though denies he takes them now) is today the walk-on-water Green Governator of California and Republican inspiration to David Cameron – after a successful Hollywood movie career playing an under-dressed heavily-muscled male masseur pretending to be an action hero. Quite an achievement when just walking without painful chafing must have been difficult.

Partly because of Arnie’s 80s ‘special effects’, Muscle Marys are de rigeur in the movies today – even in middle-age. The ageing star of a recent epic blockbuster whose career has largely been built on his six-pack was widely rumoured to have been on so much ‘gear’ trying to look ‘invincible’ that he frequently had to be stretchered off the set at the end of the day, poor love. Meanwhile ‘Comeback Kid’ Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone (aged 60) was caught by Australian customs with several vials of his comeback secret earlier this year.

The ailing James Bond franchise successfully re-launched Bond and made him more attractive to younger viewers by reincarnating him in the pneumatic form of Daniel Craig – Bond became his own big-chested Bond Girl – and last year’s smash hit film ‘300′ featured ‘Spartans’ who looked less like ancient warriors than Muscle Marys at a Toga Party. Or the “juiced-up” professional wrestlers in Speedos that so many boys today have on their bedroom walls.

WWE wrestler Chris Benoit’s recent murder-suicide of his wife and child and intense media speculation about whether it was steroid-related (steroids were found at his house and his post mortem testosterone level was ten times normal) has caused a major scandal in the US. But it has been as obvious for many years that most of these guys were sprinkling more than sugar on their Cocoa Pops (and Benoit was actually relatively scrawny compared to some wrestlers).

That’s, after all, what people were looking at. What they were paying to see. Pro wrestling is showbusiness, and steroids are the business – at least when it comes to making spectacular bodies.

As a result of this and other recent steroid scandals in American football and baseball – including at High School level – a panic has emerged about the use of steroids by US athletes. But this has tended to obscure how mainstream steroids already are in the US and how, as in the UK, they’re principally (ab)used by non-athletes (only 6% of users played sports or considered themselves bodybuilders).

In the UK there have been calls to ban the sale of steroids online, crackdown harder on gyms selling them and educate young people about the dangers. Well, everyone is in favour of education, and no one is in favour of teens using steroids, but it’s unlikely that any of this will seriously reverse the Muscle Mary/Size Hero trend.

Steroids can’t be uninvented – or filtered out from the culture’s bloodstream. They’ve already changed the shape of masculinity. What’s more, unlike most if not all of the expensive supplements advertised in FHM, Men’s Health and Nuts as ‘muscle-builders’ and ‘fat-burners’, they actually work. And I know whereof I speak: I dabbled with the ‘juice’ myself as a callow youth. They certainly did what they said on the tin: I only stopped because they made me even spottier and angrier than I already was.

In an age when what’s authentically masculine is unclear, but what’s hot is as in-yer-face as a nice pair of pecs, injecting synthetic manliness, despite the possible risks to your actual man-bits, is not going out of fashion anytime soon. The only effective way to discourage their use will be to come up with a new generation of muscle-building drugs that work as well as steroids but have fewer side-effects. I’d certainly take them.

Steroids are the metrosexual hormone – they make men saleable and shaggable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what else to do with them.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

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