Men’s cheating and sexual acting-out may be less about women and more about seeking status from other men.
Marie Claire ran a story last Wednesday called “The Truth About Bachelor Parties.” It opens, as you might expect, with an anecdote about a groom going to a strip club with his friends and family members (including some male relatives of the bride-to-be). As Judy Dutton reports, the groom, “Adam,” ended up having sex with a stripper—but only after being goaded by his friends.
In another instance, the bachelor party sex was premeditated:
Take Kevin, 29, embarked on a “sexual scavenger hunt” during a bachelor party in Montreal. “We said we’d have sex with a stripper, a bride-to-be, a cougar, etc.,” says Kevin. “Two guys were married, one engaged, one single, and one with a girlfriend, like me. I slept with a stripper (full point) and kissed a bride-to-be (half point).” Kevin admits that bachelor parties are male bonding at its worst: “It was a twisted celebration of our bond, another chapter in our history,” he says.
Dutton’s point was that women should be leery of trusting what men say about bachelor parties, claiming that guys often conspire to deceive wives and girlfriends. But she buried the lead: the degree to which men’s infidelity and sexual acting-out is about seeking status from other men.
While it may be impossible for women to find out what their boyfriends and husbands are really up to during stag parties, the big take-away from Dutton’s piece is undeniable: the sexual behavior of even the straightest of guys is driven by the need for other men’s approval.
There’s a name for this behavior: homosociality.
Scholars use this term to refer to the power of same-sex bonds. To put it simply, a man is “homosocial” (it has nothing to do with homosexuality) if he values his relationships with his male buddies over his romantic relationship with a woman. At its crudest, this idea is expressed in the old maxim “bros before hos.”
But while same-sex friendships are wonderful and necessary, there’s something very troubling about the way so many American men act out their homosociality. In Dutton’s article, men are consistently faced with a choice between remaining faithful to their female partners or engaging in competition with other guys. Over and over again, these men choose to break their vows. The “bros” win out.
In the Marie Claire piece, “Kevin” uses the language of scoring to describe having sex with a stripper (one point) and kissing a bride-to-be (half a point.) This isn’t new. Since at least the 1920s if not before, American men have used the language of sports, especially baseball, to describe sex. The terms are familiar to generations of American teens: first base, second base, third base, home run. (While there’s general consensus that simple kissing is first base and intercourse constitutes the home run, there’s long been heated disagreement as to what sexual acts “count” as reaching second and third.) As in baseball, one must “get home” (have intercourse) in order to “score.”
The obvious question hardly ever gets asked. Who’s the opponent against whom you’re trying to rack up points and runs?
It’s obvious from Kevin’s story—and from the lived experiences of countless men—that the competition isn’t “boys against girls.” It’s man-on-man, a homosocial battle to prove who’s got the most “game.” School boys refer to a promiscuous classmate as a “player,” and they say it with admiration. And make no mistake; the player is playing against other guys. Women are just the necessary implements for keeping score.
What’s curiously absent in the Marie Claire article (and in the research on male homosociality and heterosexual behavior) is lust. Most of us were raised to believe that young men are in a state of near-constant arousal, with sex first and foremost on their minds. The reality, as Dutton unintentionally reminds us, is that orgasm is secondary in importance to homosocial validation.
Guys who need to be “goaded” into cheating clearly aren’t unfaithful because of biological imperatives. They’re acting in response to something even more powerful: the need to impress other men. This isn’t limited to “white” American culture either. In the anthology Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their Manhood, the Mexican writer Ilan Stavans describes having sex for the first time in a brothel:
Losing our virginity was actually a dual mission: to ejaculate inside the hooker and then, more importantly, to tell of the entire adventure afterward.
He’s not talking about telling his mother, either. He’s talking about a thrill even greater than orgasm: scoring points and winning approval from the other guys.
Ilan’s words would ring true to “Kevin” and “Adam” and countless other men whose sexual choices are driven more by homosocial pressure than by libido.
As obvious and indisputable a factor as homosociality is in men’s lives, both men and women are reluctant to admit its power. For women, the reality of homosociality can seem almost insulting. If straight men are made “weak” by sexual desire for women, then at least women are foremost on guys’ minds. Many young women are raised to believe that male horniness gives women “power” over men, a power that “smart girls” will use judiciously. Homosociality is a threatening reminder that all too many men are more easily manipulated by their same-sex peers than by their wives and girlfriends.
Guys are unwilling to cop to the power of homosocial pressure because once exposed, the whole thing seems so juvenile. Most men will admit that when they were kids they went to great lengths to impress other boys. Far fewer want to admit that “scorekeeping” remains a major factor in their adult decision-making.
I’m wary of making sweeping generalizations about what a “good man” should or shouldn’t do. But it is clear, surely, that one difference between a boy and man is the degree to which he is able to walk away from the score-keeping that is as the heart of so much of “guy culture.” And as the stories of “Adam” and “Kevin” remind us, until we stop playing these games with the boys, we’ll keep right on breaking promises—and breaking hearts.