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Tag: Foucault

The New Bromanticism

Just over half of British and American men are currently in or have had a ‘bromance’ in the past according to a survey, not by Dr Kinsey, but by Badoo (‘the world’s largest social network for meeting new people’).

The Badoo press release – issued on Valentine’s Day last week – claims that the survey of 2000 men ‘reveals the extent to which British men have embraced the “bromance” phenomenon’. We’ll get to that bit later.

What’s immediately and gratifyingly clear is that the Badoo survey doesn’t insist, as many would and have done, very loudly, that a bromance is a close friendship between two STRAIGHT men – no gayers or gayness allowed, thank you very much.

Instead, Badoo defines bromance as ‘a close platonic relationship with someone of the same sex’. And we all know about that Plato guy and those Greeks….

Badoo’s British respondents listed these famous male friendships in their ‘top ten’:

1. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson

2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

3. Ant and Dec

4. Buzz and Woody (Toy Story)

5. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley

6. George Clooney and Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven)

7. Gavin and Smithy (Gavin and Stacey)

8. Joey and Chandler (Friends)

9. Frodo and Sam (Lord of the Rings)

10. Simon and Will (The Inbetweeners)

Some of these male friendships are more platonic than others. You don’t have to be a slash fiction writer to see something slightly erotic in, for example, Frodo and Sam’s smouldering on-screen relationship – or Newman and Redford’s. I have to say I was pleased but a little surprised that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made it into second place (that movie was released 43 years ago) – I suppose there must have been a lot of respondents as middle-aged as me.

It’s a crying shame that Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin didn’t make the list – but then the era that they reigned supreme as the world’s favourite ‘platonic’ male lovers was well over half a century ago. And they were probably too explicit for today’s tastes.

It’s also a shame also that the great, passionate early twentieth century psychology male double act of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was ignored. But I suppose that the recently-released A Dangerous Method didn’t pull in quite as many punters as Sherlock Holmes 2. And besides, it has a unhappy ending: Freud and Jung have a very messy divorce.

But Freud and Jung personify in an oddly neurotic fashion the way no ‘bromance’ is ever quite ‘pure’ of libidinal impulses: Freud famously fainted more than once in the presence of his anointed successor the young Jung, blaming it on some ‘unresolved homosexual attachment’ – the cigar aficionado considered homoerotic attraction the basis of all male bonding. And although the split occurred because Jung rejected Freud’s all-embracing libido-theory, emphasising instead ‘spirituality’, it was Jung who had the major nervous breakdown after they parted.

It was the non-Freudian Michel Foucault who, as I recall, attributed the emergence of ‘the homosexual’ to the decline in the institution of male friendship. Foucault was immensely interested in friendship:

‘As far back as I remember, to want guys was to want relations with guys. That has always been important for me. Not necessarily in the form of a couple but as a matter of existence: how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences? What is it to be “naked” among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie?’

(Michel Foucault, ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’)

For Foucault, experimental friendship and ‘new relations’ was what male homosexuality was for. Or at least the bit of it that he was interested in that wasn’t about leather and whips.

The arrival of companionate marriage in the early twentieth century left increasingly little room for close male friendships – friendships which, along with greater physical affection such as kissing and holding hands, occassional passionate declarations of love, and also the custom of chums sharing bed (see Abe Lincoln), had meant that the difference between a sexual relationship and a non sexual one was largely invisible to the world. Close male friendships cover the pre-gay past with a blanket of discretion.

Perhaps the popularity of ‘bromance’ even just as a buzzword represents a resurgence of interest in close male friendship, as the medical, legal and social force of ‘the homosexual’ and for that matter ‘the heterosexual’ declines. A quarter of the Badoo respondents admit to having ‘the most fun they have with anyone’ with their bromance partner, and ‘just like Holmes and Watson’ over one in ten are ‘often mistaken to be more than friends’, while 10% of them claim to get stick from their partner for it.

Marriage is also now in steep decline, of course. Fewer and fewer people are getting hitched and if and when they do it’s usually much later than their parents or grandparents. (According to Badoo, 28% of single British men are currently in a bromance, with this figure dropping to 10% for marrieds and 15% for co-habiters.)

Before the Second World War, when working class men tended to get married in their late twenties and early thirties, the now-defunct institution of ‘trade’ gloriously filled the gap between adolescence and domesticity. And despite the name, the traffic between ‘normal’ working class lads and queer gentlemen was not always commercial or hedonistic – surprisingly often it developed into a long term and emotionally close friendship.

After being initially rather sceptical, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my attitude towards ‘bromance’. Over time it seems that the ‘romance’ part of ‘bromance’ is becoming less irritatingly ironic – and the ‘bro’ part less annoyingly fratty. And also less insistently hetty. In this Badoo survey at least, ‘bromance’ cuts right across ‘sexuality’.

Like that other annoying word ‘metrosexual’, ‘bromance’ seems to be potentially acting as a solvent of gay/straight boundaries, giving men whatever their sexuality permission to express stuff that they otherwise might not. Facilitating and encouraging close, emotional friendships between two straight men. Or between gay and straight men. Or straight and bi men. Or maybe even between – one day, in the far distant Utopian future – gay men.

The recently launched ‘Bromance’ app, a location-based network ‘that helps you organize activities with friends and nearby people with shared interests’ was mocked by many (including me until I found out more about it). The people behind the app, like Badoo, don’t insist on the heterosexuality of their ‘bros’ – and go one step further in suggesting that ‘bros’ don’t have to be male, either.

Many commenters on gay blogs seemed to think the Bromance app would be only used by ‘closeted gay men’ seeking sex on the ‘downlow’ – while the Brobible agreed, ‘aggressively opposing’ this ‘men seeking men’ app for polluting the heterosexual purity of their bro-ness.

I’ve no idea whether it will be popular or not, but the gayist and bro-ist scorn which greeted the Bromance app seems to be precisely down to the way it might facilitate new kinds of platonic friendships. And new kinds of sexual relationships. Under a blanket of smart-phone discretion. And we won’t know which is which.

Despite all the name-calling, it’s precisely the inability to define what’s going on or the people taking part that is the ‘problem’. I suspect Foucault would have been one of the first to download the Bromance app, in his  fervid search for ‘experimental friendships’. I get the feeling Michel was quite a lonely guy. (Or ‘FUCKING LOSER’ as the Brobible would put it.)

The new technology of information and communication and the new social networks it has spawned seem to be enabling new kinds of relations and experimentation away from judging eyes – and exploiting it, of course. At the same time as perhaps making us all lonelier.

A Badoo spokesperson explained why they commissioned their survey:

‘Everyone always talks about relationships and dating – but actually a bromance buddy is also really important to men. For the 44% of British men that have never had a bromance – Badoo.com offers them the chance to meet someone that’s like minded – whether that’s for bromance or romance.’

It’s not clear where Badoo found their respondents from, and I’m not sure their findings are terribly scientific. I’m not even sure what Badoo is, to be honest. But something is definitely afoot with male friendship.

Another survey published this week should certainly be taken very seriously indeed for what it says about the yearning of British men for close, intimate friendship. According to Travelodge, half of the men they asked admitted they still have a teddy bear from their childhood. A quarter admitted to sleeping with their teddy bear when ‘on business trips’. While 15% confessed they ‘treat their teddy as their best friend’ and ‘share their intimate secrets with their bear’.

Does bearmance stand in for bromance with British men? Or t’other way round?

 Tip: Lee Kynaston & Topak

The Private Lives of Dr Sex: Kinsey Stripped Bare

 By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in The Independent on Sunday, 1997 and collected in Sex Terror)

Growing up in the 1970s, frustrated and bored with waiting for someone to invent the Internet, I got my teenage kicks at the Central Library.

Dropping in on my way home from school, I would furtively rummage through the dusty sociology section looking up dirty words, especially ‘homosexuality’ and ‘penis’. (Blissfully unaware that in the gents both these abstract ideas were freely and really available). One of the most fertile resources for my highly subjective researches was ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’ by a Dr Kinsey (1948).

According to the sensational biography by James H Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey-A Public/Private Life, published last year to scandalised uproar, the Good Doctor’s interest in these words was less academic than mine. Apparently he was ‘a homosexual’, driven by personal demons, who cruised parks, bars, cinemas and public lavatories and frequently had sex with the men he interviewed. In other words, the Good Doctor was a pervert and his research was to be handled with rubber gloves.

Gathorne-Hardy’s Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred Kinsey aims to liberate Kinsey from the nonce-wing of sexology by refuting Jones’ reductive approach to his sexuality, arguing that he was as complex as his subject-matter, that the sex-pioneer from Indiana was a living testament to the value of his own refusal to countenance that there was such a thing as ‘a homosexual’; there were only homosexual or heterosexual acts. On Kinsey’s famous 0-6 scale, where 0=exclusively heterosexual behaviour, 3=equally homosexual and heterosexual behaviour, and 6=exclusively homosexual (and 7=Harvey Fierstein), Kinsey moved in his own lifetime from a Kinsey 0 to a Kinsey 4.

Gathorne-Hardy argues persuasively that Kinsey’s bisexuality and pro-active approach was actually a help rather than a hindrance in his research, contrasting it with that of the ‘blue rinse’ brigade who conducted the research for a recent American sex survey. (As one respondent put it succinctly: ‘I’m not gonna tell someone who reminds me of my mom that I suck cock.’)

Gathorne-Hardy also demonstrates why Kinsey’s data, despite all the statistical brickbats hurled at it, is probably still more accurate than any gathered since. Recent sex surveys both here and in the US have sneered at Kinsey’s failure to ‘random sample’. But the trouble with random sampling in regard to these sex surveys is that it isn’t random. Around 30% of people randomly selected in the recent mammoth British sex survey refused to take part. In contrast, over a quarter of Kinsey’s data was garnered from 100% responses from the Universities, factories and associations he visited. Even when you remove the so-called ‘dirty data’ of prisons and homosexual groups, this has little or no effect on the findings that most people who attack Kinsey today are concerned with — that more than a third of all adult American males admitted experiencing sexual contact with another male ‘to orgasm’.

And yet one can’t help feeling that Gathorne-Hardy should have spent less time refuting Jones and more time reading Foucault, whom along with Freud he has no time for. Gathorne-Hardy, like his behaviourist subject, is allergic to theory. But this fetishism of facts, refreshing as it was in a 1940s sexologist, is simply frustrating in a 1990s biographer. What is most interesting about Kinsey is what is omitted here.

Gathorne-Hardy dismisses as ‘irrelevant’ and a ‘swamp of words’ Foucault fan Thomas Waugh’s intriguing observations on Kinsey and the scientific study of sex: ‘How can the pleasure of looking be separated from the pleasure of erotic looking… the drive for visual pleasure, in which knowledge and desire are interlocking terms of power?’ And yet, on the very next page, Gathorne-Hardy, introducing Kinsey’s study of the female orgasm, cites a story which graphically presents precisely this question.

Beck, a pioneering sex researcher was examining a woman for a collapsed uterus. Her cervix was clearly visible through her labia and he was about to probe here when she told him to be careful: if he touched her she would almost certainly have an orgasm. ‘Beck suddenly realised he might have a chance to see the female orgasm in action. He ignored her and… “swept my finger three or four times across the space between the cervix and the pubic arch, when almost immediate orgasm occurred…”.’

Foucault may have been too ready to play the French phoney, but I can hardly think of a single historical figure more deserving of a Foucauldian hermeneutic than Kinsey. Everything is there: the confessional, the integration of power, knowledge and sex, observation as a form of control. Kinsey even insisted that his male assistants have sex with him, arguing that it would help them with their homosexual interviews. If they objected this was taken as proof of how much they needed to have sex with Kinsey to overcome their inhibitions (judging by the plates of some of his young, beefy assistants, I can’t help feeling it’s an argument that I would have used too).

In effect the Institute for Sex Research was one gigantic sexual panopticon with Kinsey at its centre, surveying the most private, most intimate behaviour of literally tens of thousands of people. Kinsey personally observed hundreds of acts of coitus and masturbation, and his institute filmed and photographed thousands more. As an example of the whimsical power of this voyeuristic potentate, on one occasion, Kinsey ordered the ISR to film a thousand different men masturbating to determine whether men actually ejaculated, i.e. threw out their semen, or whether it just fell out (most men are dribblers was the disappointing conclusion).

Of course, it doesn’t take a Foucault to see that the thousands of in-depth sex interviews that Kinsey conducted could themselves be interpreted as a form of sex, (even if you didn’t know about his habit of measuring his male interviewees erections). One indignant NY hotelier famously made the connection. Fed up with the constant stream of disreputable types of men lining up in his foyer to be interviewed by Kinsey who was lodged in one of his rooms at the time, he turfed the Doctor out shouting, ‘I WILL NOT HAVE YOU UNDRESSING PEOPLE’S MINDS IN MY HOTEL!’

Kinsey started a trend that has become unstoppable. Nowadays any sex surveyor has to begin their interviewer with the question, ‘When was the first time you were interviewed about your sex life?’ Kinsey’s sexual liberationist approach has become mainstream. Turn on the television, open a newspaper and be confronted with another ‘sex survey’ or new series claiming to ‘uncover the secret of sex’. Even Republicans are at it. Kenneth Starr, the right-wing Kinsey, conducts an investigation into sexual behaviour even more ambitious and more famous than Doctor Sex’s. Relentlessly making the private public in the name of the public good, he aggressively pursues evidence of extra-marital, extra-vaginal sexual activity.

And you can be sure than when Mr Starr extracted a confession of oro-genital contact from the President of the United States himself he had no doubts about the relationship of knowledge to power. (Interestingly, like Clinton, 40% Kinsey’s respondents didn’t consider oro-genital contact as ‘sex’).

Explicitness is now as compulsory for our age as hypocrisy was for Kinsey’s strict Methodist father. Given this, Kinsey’s increasing fascination with homosexuality was entirely appropriate, since homosexuality is the most ‘naked’, most ‘explicit’ kind of sex – i.e. non-reproductive, non-institutionalised sex-for-it’s-own-sake. The number representing exclusive homosexuality on the Kinsey scale-six-is ‘sex’ in Latin. Little wonder then, that as our age has become more obsessed with sex it has become more obsessed with homosexuality.

However, there is a huge irony here. Kinsey’s ambition to demolish the category of ‘the homosexual’ by revealing the common-ness of homosexual acts has not been realised. Instead, homosexuality is in some senses even more ghettoised than in the 1940s. Male-male activity, precisely because it is more visible, is probably less common these days. Knowledge about ‘sexuality’ of itself changes the meaning and practise of what people do with their bodies. In Kinsey’s day it wasn’t queer unless you were taking it or weren’t ‘tied to the pier’ (as sailors used to say); nowadays any sexual contact between males is ‘gay’.

But, despite some admirably thorough leg-work and some astute observations, you won’t find these points discussed by Gathorne-Hardy. He’s too busy using Kinsey as a behaviourist battering ram against theory, psychoanalysis and religion. The end result is that Kinsey himself is lost in the noise of liberal partisan warfare.

Gathorne-Hardy repeatedly cites Richard Webster’s ‘Why Freud Was Wrong’ like some kind of charm warding off evil spirits and refuses to seriously discuss Kinsey’s unconscious life because he doesn’t want to give credence to Jones’ idea that Kinsey was ‘pursued by demons.’ But Kinsey himself confided to a friend that he was afraid of psychoanalysts, apparently he had a feeling that they could divine his ‘innermost and most secret thoughts’.

Whether or not Kinsey might have benefited from some psychoanalysis is difficult to say, but this biography probably would. Kinsey was himself the best example of the limits of sexual liberationism. He died an unhappy, broken, impotent man in 1957, aged 63. According to Gahorne-Hardy, this was due to overwork and the result of the triumph of the reactionary forces that “cut off” Kinsey’s funding. But perhaps it may also have had something to do with Kinsey’s own driven, controlling nature and his masochistic tendencies – later in life he liked to suspend himself from the ceiling by his scrotum, and he announced to a surprised friend that he had recently circumcised himself in the bath.

Kinsey and Gathorne-Hardy may not have had much time for theories about the super-ego, but it looks as if an especially punitive one had plenty of time for Kinsey.

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.