Here’s some news that isn’t the least bit surprising if you’ve ever been around binge-drinking heterosexual men: A substantial proportion of self-identified straight male college students have kissed another man. That’s at least according to a new study published in Sexuality and Culture in which researchers surveyed 442 men from 11 universities across the U.S.
“Forty percent of the participants reported having kissed another man on the cheek, while 10 percent reported having kissed another man on the lips,” reports PsyPost. “Alcohol consumption was related to kissing another man, and participants who were involved in all-male competitive sports or members of a fraternal organization were more likely to have kissed another man.”
I was never in a fraternity, but I played enough high school sports and spent enough time around straight dudes to know that homoerotic behavior is just another way to connect with your friends. In fact, I’ve witnessed several occasions where dicks were gabbed, asses were slapped and legs were humped all in the name of platonic male love. Only now, guys have taken to swapping spit with their bros.
Mark McCormack, one of the study’s authors, tells me that other research by Eric Anderson (another one of the study’s authors), had found straight men kissing in the U.K. (at high rates) and in Australia (at far lower rates). To that end, we’ve written about why straight British men are really into making out with each other. “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,” Stefan Robinson, a researcher at the University of Winchester in England, told us last year.
McCormack attributes the rise in heterosexual lip-locking to a general decrease in homophobia in the West. “Men with more positive attitudes toward gay men are more likely to kiss. And the second part is that men who kissed each other didn’t intend or experience the kisses as sexual (like you might kiss a romantic partner) but rather as platonic ways of demonstrating emotional closeness,” he says. In other words, as feelings of homophobia decrease, heterosexual men feel enabled to be more physically tactile.
Surprisingly, when I ask McCormack about how fraternities — institutions typically associated with the most toxic forms of masculinity — fit into this narrative, he warns against making those sort of generalizations. “Fraternities are diverse institutions, and so, we recommend caution in generalizing,” says McCormack. “Eric Anderson researched a fraternity where men demonstrated very inclusive practices, so not all fraternities exhibit toxic masculinities, and there’s a lack of clear quantitative data about the types of masculinities fraternities develop.”
So why then does he think heterosexual men in fraternities are kissing their brothers? His theory is that any institution or sports team that brings men together is a catalyst for what he calls “homosocial intimacy.” “What both fraternities and sporting teams offer is a venue for men to bond,” says McCormack. “In the 1980s and 1990s, because dynamics of masculinities were frequently suffused with homophobia, these venues were where the most homophobic and macho masculinities prevailed. But in our ethnographic research on sport teams and other homosocial venues, the homophobia is mostly or entirely absent, meaning that men can bond and develop these tactile and emotional behaviors that were censored in more homophobic periods.”
That’s why McCormack thinks that there’s a generational divide when it comes to heterosexual men kissing other heterosexual men. “Young men are doing it more than other generations — but it’s not exclusive,” he explains. “[John] Ibson’s Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography shows this intimacy in the 1900s as well.”
As such, McCormack’s next goal is to better understand these generational differences and whether this is a college phenomenon or if all younger men are behaving this way now too. “And what do older men think about these new trends?” he explains. “Likewise, what do women think about these behaviors?”
Whatever the case may be, per McCormack’s suggestion, it’s better to treat this new facet of male friendships as a positive symptom of reduced homophobia rather than the punchline of yet another stereotypical frat bro joke. Because, as it turns out, those frat bros might actually be more enlightened than you or I.