Illustration by Dave van Patten

This Guy Studies Man Caves for a Living; Here’s What He’s Learned

They’re not just for sports. They’re also for puzzles, Xbox and fantasizing about being with other men

No one is more masculine at work than Tristan Bridges. An assistant professor of sociology at SUNY Brockport, Bridges focuses on the ways men resist, reproduce and ignore changes in gender relations. Toward this end, he has studied male bodybuilders, men who are feminists, fathers’ rights activists and male bar regulars. His current research involves couples — both straight and gay — who have man caves in their homes. He recently shared some of his early findings with MEL.

What interested you in man caves in the first place?
Initially, I was interested in men’s-only spaces and how they’ve transformed throughout U.S. history, but I eventually decided to focus on just the “man cave.” So I’ve been conducting interviews with people in their man caves. I have them give me a tour and tell me how the room came about and the role it plays in their relationship. Then I interview their partner to see what role he or she thinks the man cave plays in their relationship. Younger men tend to think of these spaces as “bachelor pads,” but older men tend to think of them more as “tinkering dens.”

I wouldn’t have guessed tinkering dens. I would’ve guessed that man caves were predominantly about the male obsession with watching sports.
Me, too. I assumed going into this that they’d all be sports dens and that I was going to see a ton of pool tables, leather couches, lots of televisions, bars and so on. But that hasn’t been my experience. Lots of them have in fact been tinkering dens.

For instance, one of my favorite interviews so far was in an older couple’s house. They were in their 70s, and their eldest son, who was in his 40s or 50s, had just moved out for the first time in his life. The husband led me into his son’s old bedroom and said, “I’m so excited. I’ve had ideas of what I wanted to do with this room for a long time, but we’ve been helping my son get on his feet. Now he’s done it, and I want his room.”

He opens the door and there are a series of card tables inside with puzzles on each of them. Some of them were more complete than others. I asked, “Wait, are we actually in the man cave right now?” He looked at me and said, “Are you kidding me?! OF COURSE WE ARE! My wife would never let me have this many puzzles out at the same time!”

So as opposed to a place to watch sports, for some men, the defining feature of a man cave is, “My wife would never let me do X, Y or Z.” Or: “She doesn’t like this chair, and it’s my favorite chair, so we relegate that chair to a room in the house that only I use.”

Why do these men feel as though they need a whole separate area of the house to “be themselves” or to pursue interests their partners might not like?
When I’ve asked straight men what role a man cave plays in their relationship, the most common answer I get is, “I feel like the whole house is hers. And this is a space for me.” When I follow up with, “Okay, but do you think she has spaces in the house as well?” They typically respond, “Absolutely! She has tons of spaces that are essentially hers.” When I press them on which rooms those are, they list off rooms associated with domestic labor, not with leisure — the kitchen, the laundry room, etc.

I think some of this has do with the fact that men feel as though the domestic space isn’t something they have ownership of. I also think it’s a result of men getting more leisure time than women in heterosexual relationships.

Kind of completely on the other side of the equation, how much of this do you think is a response to, even subconsciously, the women’s movement?
When the second wave of the women’s movement started to pick up steam in the 1960s and 1970s and women started moving into the workforce en masse, male bodybuilding became extremely popular. I always thought that was an interesting relationship. One way of looking at it is that the lives and professional pursuits of men and women started becoming increasingly similar. As a result — whether consciously or subconsciously — we began celebrating something that made them look different again. I think that’s one reading of man caves, too — they’re sort of a backlash against the women’s movement. At least with a lot of the heterosexual couples I talk to. Many of the men say things like, “She has her spaces.” There’s an implicit, “Enough is enough. Let’s have something for me.”

And yet, in a few households, you’ve discovered that the man cave is actually her space.
Yeah, I’ve interviewed more than a few heterosexual couples where the woman refers to a room as her man cave. Lots of those have been sports-den type places. It could be a heterosexual couple where the wife is really into a team and her partner doesn’t care about sports. To tease him about his masculinity, she creates a man cave so as to say, “You’re not a man in this house.” Both of them are in on the joke. Which tells us that it’s not just the people in the room that qualify it as a man cave, but what activities are taking place there, and what objects they collect there. Those are the things that designate a room as a masculine space as opposed to who uses it.

Were you surprised that women were drawn to man caves, too?
The belief that men and women are fundamentally different from one another is deeply rooted in our society. But whenever someone has tried to study how extensive those differences really are, they’ve come to the same basic finding: We’re much more similar than we are different. It goes against much of what most people think, because we exist in a culture that believes in gender difference. Each of us expends energy on that myth every day in either small or sizable ways. We build institutions around these beliefs, and it perpetuates the idea. So men might feel like they need man caves. But if they do, it’s not a biological need; it’s a cultural one.

Along those lines, what’s the difference in the man caves you’ve seen in straight households versus the ones you’ve seen in gay households?
The man caves in heterosexual homes often are an illustration of power dynamics in the relationship. This has been much less so with the gay couples I’ve interviewed. Their man caves are still a serious domestic space where the couple entertains and undertakes activities, but the couples talk about them in a shared way. It’s something that both partners have ownership of. Whereas in heterosexual relationships, man caves are a space that men are either relegated to or the only space in the house they feel they can stake a claim on. Gay men don’t feel like that.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve learned from your research?
That most men don’t ever consider their man cave finished. Almost to a man, they’ve told me, “I’m still working on it. It’s a project.” One guy’s garage really stands out in this regard. There were lawn-care products hanging on the walls, and two garbage cans with a piece of plywood on top of them. I asked, “Are we in the man cave yet?” He said, “Yeah! This is where I’ll put the bar!” I figured he’d just recently decided to build a man cave. But when I spoke with his partner, she said, “Oh, no, he’s been talking about the man cave for five years.”

What do they generally say they’re going to do with it when it’s finished?
Almost every guy tells me he’ll use it to “have people over and entertain.” The conversation gets awkward, though, when I ask him who he’ll have over. Because often, the men will explain, “I don’t have time to have friends over right now. I work a lot and I have children, so I don’t really have friends. But eventually this will be a neighborhood hangout for guys.”

That’s kind of depressing.
Maybe. I think it plays into the idea of man caves being a fantasy — a fantasy of male friendship and camaraderie. Research shows that men don’t have as many friends as women, and the kinds of friendships they do have are much less meaningful than those available to women. So maybe part of what they’re building with a man cave is a fantasy of different relationships with men.

Like their own personal Elks Club or something?
One of the things historical research on gender has shown us is that segregated spaces for men have been in rapid decline in recent decades. Men used to get away a lot just to be around other men. Workplaces used to look like that. As fewer of those places exist, men have found ways to build them elsewhere. It could be that man caves started to rise up just as other institutionally sanctioned segregated spaces started to decline. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it wouldn’t surprise me.