I had a friend in college who loved challenging other guys to games of “tongue chicken.” The game involved him and a challenger facing each other with their tongues out and slowly moving their heads toward each other. The first person to turn away lost. If their tongues connected, they both won (although I never saw it come to that).
The game falls into a category of straight male behavior loosely defined as “gay stuff straight guys do with each other that is in no way gay and actually proves how straight they are, and if it weirds you out, then you’re the gay one.”
But straight male kissing is a common practice in the U.K. now, and it has nothing to do with toughness, or making light of homosexuality, says Stefan Robinson, a researcher at the University of Winchester in England. It’s a way to show genuine affection toward each other.
Robinson recently spent a year observing a U.K. university men’s sports team, and found every member of the team had made out with another teammate at some point—and that was in addition to cuddling with each other. All identified as straight.
“They completely disassociated kissing another man from being a sexual act. They live in a time now that if they were gay, they wouldn't be afraid to say it. But they just aren’t,” Robinson explains.
The research is part of Robinson’s soon-to-be-published Ph.D. thesis, and involved 600 hours of observation, in addition to private interviews with each of the team members. “It’s the most in-depth observational study on bromances and same-sex kissing and cuddling ever,” Robinson says.
That project is an extension of a separate study from Robinson published this week in the journal Sex Roles that finds we’re in the midst of a bromance explosion, a surge he attributes to a decline in homophobia.
It’s just not gay men and women who’ve benefited from advances in gay rights over the past decade. Wider acceptance of homosexuality has allowed straight men to forge deeper emotional bonds with each other, Robinson’s study finds.
Robinson interviewed 30 heterosexual-identifying male university students about their relationships with other men for the study. “It turns out bromances do exist in real life, and aren’t just a media creation,” he says. “Everyone knows the bromance from Hollywood—Scrubs, 21 Jump Street, every Seth Rogen movie.”
The modern British bromance is nearly identical to a traditional straight romantic relationship, according to Robinson’s findings. Bromantic partners go on dinner dates together, and talk about being emotionally invested in and making sacrifices for each other. The only thing missing is sex. “At these points in these men’s lives, we find the bromance is more important to their lives than their romantic partnerships,” Robinson says.
Such male closeness was typical prior to the 20th century, when “the idea of homosexuality didn’t exist,” says Robinson. Back then, it was common for straight men to cuddle and express their fondness for each other in their diaries. But the practice declined when homosexuality was demonized.
“Now is the first time in our culture that homosexuality is recognized as a legitimate and accepted sexual orientation,” Robinson says. “So there’s very little stigma associated with bromances among youth.”
His research indicates a remarkable shift in how men process their feelings. (Or, at least, who they choose to process those feelings with.)
“In the late 20th century, research shows men of all ages relied on their romantic partners to discuss their feelings,” Robinson says. Male conversations revolved around “more aggressive topics” such as sports, work and office culture and the military.
Modern, straight British men “can find emotional support from their bromances, so they don’t need women in that sense. They don't have to invest their emotions in women—they can invest in men.” That’s led to more casual straight sex, and fewer straight marriages, Robinson says.
Indeed, the rise of the bromance coincides with both men and women delaying much of what we once associated with adulthood. Those typical markers—going to college, getting a job, marriage, buying a house—now occur later than ever in a man’s life, so much so that Robinson speculates it may soon be common for bromantic partners to be roommates late into adulthood.
Not quite until death do them part, but close.