Why are more and more straight men locking lips in public – and does it mean the end of homophobia?
‘Sexual minorities have made tremendous cultural and legal improvements towards equality’, says Eric Anderson, of Bath University.
When two students asked Eric Anderson, a sociology lecturer at Bath University’s department of education, if he had heard of the game “gay chicken”, he shook his head. “I had no clue what it was,” he says. “So they showed me.” The students – both men – went in to kiss each other.
“The challenge was that whoever pulled out first was the loser,” Anderson explains. “But because men are no longer afraid of this, they ended up kissing.” Anderson was inspired to carry out a new research project.
Growing up in the US, Anderson did his PhD on “the intersection of sport, masculinities and declining homophobia” after coming out at 25.
His research subjects caught the interest of students at Bath, hence the question about “gay chicken”. Anderson discovered that the game had almost died out in the UK in the last few years “because nobody ever loses”, and began to consider heterosexual university students’ views of kissing other men. “I started going through my students’ Facebook profiles, with their permission, and was inundated with hundreds of photos of men kissing on their nights out,” Anderson reports.
He was intrigued, and decided to investigate further via formal research. He interviewed 145 students, a mixture of men studying sports-related subjects and every third man who left the library on a particular day, from two different universities, plus other male students from a sixth-form college. The results of his survey showed 89% of the polled men saying they were happy to kiss another man on the lips through friendship. And almost 40% added that they had engaged in “sustained kissing, initially for shock value, but now just for ‘a laugh’.”
“I started telling people about it, but found that a lot of academics literally did not believe me,” Anderson explains. “One professor excused it as ‘something in the water at Bath’ – even though the research covered three different educational establishments. Others flatly told me that they did not believe me. From their ‘adult’ perspective, this action was unfathomable. They have been stamped with attitudes of acceptable behaviour as a part of their entry into adulthood, and kissing was not permitted between men when they were young. So although they had not been in students’ clubs or pubs in 20 or more years, they assumed that nothing had changed. This is known as human plasticity theory; people are stamped with a belief system that they cannot easily shake.”
In contrast, Anderson, 43, now believes homophobia is dying out on university campuses, and says attitudes to male kissing reflect that. “Sexual minorities have made tremendous cultural and legal improvements towards equality – the media is saturated with images of sexual minorities, and homosexuality is almost normalised today,” he says. “This is particularly true of youth. Young people have disassociated themselves from homophobia the way they once did from racism.
“This is not to say that all youth are gay-friendly, but there’s an awareness that anybody can be gay without the homohysteria – where men try to act in sexist, hyper-macho and homophobic ways to prove they are not gay – that used to exist. Young men are becoming softer and more inclusive.”
Anderson says men are now kissing each other to show their “intimacy towards one another”, but not in a homosexual way. “The kisses seem to be stripped of sexual connotation, and given the percentage of men doing them, they certainly do not indicate a hidden homosexual desire.”
The trend, he adds, is not just in a few UK universities or even limited to Britain. “I’ve interviewed graduate students who did their bachelor degrees at other universities, and been to undergraduate clubs and pubs from Bristol to Birmingham to Edinburgh – I can definitively say that although the percentages might vary depending on the city, the class and the racial background, these kissing behaviours are happening all over the country. I have also found it occurring in a fifth of the 60 university soccer players I interviewed in the US, and have a friend who is beginning formal research into male kissing in Australia after recording it there.”
The soaring popularity of male kissing is, Anderson believes, partly thanks to the behaviour of professional sportsmen, especially top football players. “That has been mimicked by footballers at lower levels – a kiss in a moment of sporting glory. When these men brought it into the pubs, their kisses made it OK for other men to do the same. The knock-on effect is that gay men can now kiss in student spaces as well.” He believes that his findings indicate that the UK is “near the end of homophobia being acceptable for youth in the UK”.
He explains: “You would be gravely mistaken to think that most youth are homophobic. Kids are coming out earlier and earlier – contact theory works: we all have gay friends and family members today. Homophobia is in rapid retreat – it’s just not the issue it was when I was a kid.”
He expects “many academics and executives will shake their heads at that statement”. “When I say that homophobia is in retreat, people often point to one case and think every gay person is oppressed,” he says. “One academic said to me last year, ‘what about Matthew Sheppard?’ [a gay American student who was beaten to death in 2001]. I replied, that was 6,000 miles away, and 11 years ago. We’re very good at holding one case of bullying up as a belief that this is the common experience, but the common experience for gay kids is that they are treated just fine.”
Anderson is now moving his research on to cuddling. “Last week, I was talking to my second-year students about two straight men cuddling; they laughed, ‘what’s the big deal about that’,” he says. “I polled them, and found that 14/15 said they had spooned another man, in bed, sleeping all night long. Gone are the days in which men would rather sleep on the floor or head to toe; not only do they share beds and cuddle, but they are not homosexualised for this.”