Despite what the media shows us, Andrew Smiler insists that very few guys are in relationships just for the sex.
I think American culture has become fearful of men’s ability to love, especially the depth of men’s love. While I readily admit that mainstream media isn’t the best place to look for “depth” or “meaning,” I’ve recently been struck by just how off-base the common media representations are.
Men just want sex is one of the common messages. This was particularly striking during the Super Bowl; Teleflora’s ad featured an attractive woman wearing a black teddy, she puts on stocking with garters, red lipstick, then looks directly at the camera and says “guys, it’s simple. Give, and you shall receive.” For Teleflora, love means sex and little else.
Then again, during the Christmas and Valentine’s shopping seasons, male love seems to be limited to buying expensive gifts, like cars and jewelry. I don’t know anyone who can afford to give a new car as a gift, but in the commercials, it’s almost always a guy. Kay Jewelers has spent years telling me that I’ll get sex – or at least a kiss – if I buy jewelry for my sweetie, hitting both the sex and gift-giving themeIt’s not really any better on scripted shows, especially comedies. Here, I see all these young men who can’t figure out what they’re feeling (except lust) and can only express their love through grand, dramatic gestures. Even though TV husbands routinely say they love their wives, we’re much more likely to see and hear the couple bickering than really being together as a couple or acting like they genuinely care about each other.
I’ve also learned that passion, and especially sex, go away after marriage. Analyses of television’s content tell us that married couples are rarely shown kissing passionately, holding hands, or having sex. Newly forming couples, unmarried couples, hookups, and affairs all get this kind of screen and script time, but not married people. There’s no passion or desire there.
I study men’s relationships, and the reality is that men’s love is much more complicated than all that. When men talk about love – and they will, if 1) you ask them, 2) you are genuinely interested in listening to what they say, 3) you are not trying to convince them they’re wrong, and 4) you are not in the early stage (and possibly, any stage) of a romantic relationship with them – they’ll tell you that love is amazing. They’ll tell you it makes it hard to concentrate on almost anything else, that they can’t stop thinking about their sweetie, and that just thinking about their sweetie makes them happy. They’ll tell you it’s the best feeling in the world, possibly even better than being the guy who makes the play that wins the big game.
They’ll also tell you it’s not about the sex, it really is about how good the relationship makes them feel. Not that they’re generally interested in being celibate, but very few guys get into relationships just for the sex.
When men talk about their experiences of being in love, they do it with an intensity that we don’t expect from men, as several folks have discussed in the last few days and weeks on this site like Mark Radcliffe’s Don’t Fall In Love, Fly In Love, or Mark D. White’s Love With Abandon. My favorite might be Jim Mitchem’s short description: “And then she appeared on my first day at a new job. And my heart jumped out of my chest. I knew. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. She was the one”.
We don’t expect to hear that kind of intensity from men when they talk about their feelings. If a guy had that kind of intensity when talking about his favorite team, his car, and maybe even his job, it wouldn’t surprise us in the least.
That kind of intensity can make men “crazy in love” and lead to all those grand gestures the media shows us. It can also lead to violence; it’s easy to imagine two guys getting into a fight over a girl, and that’s the premise of the new movie—and Valentine’s day release(!)—“This Means War.” We also hear about this kind of violence in the news every few weeks when a man kills his ex, himself, and possibly their kids or her new partner.
That power and depth isn’t limited to romantic relationships. It’s also present in a guy’s close friendships with other men. It’s why the bonds forged in combat are so close and why those men are willing to lay down their lives for each other. And it’s why guys who get betrayed by a friend take it so personally, and why it can take them so long to become close friends with someone else.
Today when we talk about men’s friendships, it’s “bromance” and “man-dates.” I’m not sure why these terms have become so popular, but conflating friendship and homosexuality is certainly a good way to make American men self-conscious about becoming friends with another guy. Instead of wondering if a guy is willing to hang out with him or help him when he’s in a jam, we now want that guy to wonder if he’s going to be hit on? In effect, we’re discouraging men from having other male friends.
That depth of feeling is also present in men’s connections to their children. It helps explain why generations of men have sacrificed their health to work jobs in horrible places that killed them – slowly or quickly – in order to support their family. Yet the idea of men as competent fathers is the exception; male caregiving is a common joke in the media, especially for working class dads.
We used to rely on men’s love and passion; it helped us build and protect America. But it doesn’t seem to have a place in 21st Century America. Now, men’s love for their partners is just about sex and giving gifts, men’s friendships are subtly discouraged by applying sexual terms, and men’s ability to care for their children is an ongoing joke.
I think men’s love scares us. I think we need to face our fears, and I think we need to take men’s love seriously.
Andrew Smiler, PhD, (http://andrewsmiler.wordpress.com/) is a visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University (http://wfu.edu) in Winston-Salem, NC. His sexuality research focuses on normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. He is the author of the forthcoming “Challenging Casanova” (2012).