What do images of hard-bodied muscle hunks have to do with the disappearance of homophobia? No, I have not gone bonkers. I have just spent a weekend talking to six adorable straight athletes about homophobia, homoerotica, homosexuality, and rugby, which is enough to drive any self-disrespecting queer mad.
It was wonderful and insightful, and there was nothing going on at all in the showers (that I know of). So what did we conclude after 48 hours of male bonding and philosophizing about the state of the world?
We found that being a bloke in a 21st-century Western society is rather like being at Oxford in pre-war England. Traditional "male" pursuits happen in video games, Africa, and Afghanistan, while at college everyone's speaking in funny voices and wants to sleep with Sebastian. Too many literary allusions? Well, here it is in plain English: The male cults of fascism that dominated the early 20th century have given way to a "feminization." "Feminine" values such as showing emotions, caring about others, and peaceful conflict resolution have become dominant traits of the West, whereas the traditionally "male" values of self-sufficiency, a stiff upper lip, and war mongering are now playing the role of the enemy; they exist primarily in societies that the West is actually or potentially at war with (the Arab world, Iran, etc., take your pick). Members of societies espousing these values are termed "traditionalist," "retrograde," "old-fashioned," or "zealous"; men who talk, touch, and tickle are termed "modern," "intelligent," and "progressive."
We now have the first generation of men who do not learn later in life that their male traits are undesirable in a modern "dialog society" but know that from the very beginning. We have male sex symbols and male beauty pageants, and everyone with abs and a full set of teeth has done porn. Heteros embrace and kiss, half the guys I meet are bisexual anyway, and admitting to a bit of male fondling on the side seems to be de rigueur in trendy pubs. The straight members of the English rugby team who were filmed kissing each other intimately shrugged it off with a cool "so wha'?" They are an entirely new generation of men, "feminized" from the womb on and thus making a wonderful mockery of the distinction between "male" and "female" traits in the first place.
At the same time, the "feminization" process has allowed the male body to be fetishized in a way that was formerly limited to clandestine gay words. Images of muscle hunks are now ubiquitous, we concluded, not because gays are more accepted but because a more "feminine" world can cope with the stylized fetish of the hard male body. In other words, whereas at the beginning of the last century, we lived in "male" worlds, suffered "male" wars, and idolized soft-singing women, we now live in a "feminine" world, in which dialog, joint dish washing, and equality are the norm. So the muscled firefighter or the French rugby hunks from the Dieux du Stade calendar become the fetish that our soft and flabby but essentially peaceful world lacks.
I have always wanted to know what straight dudes think about the Dieux du Stade calendar. I know what I am thinking when I look at them, and I know what my Swiss friend Sylvia thinks: "I'd do him... and him... oh, yes, him, definitely. And him. Oh, wait, I've done him!" But what effect does erotic (homoerotic? ) imagery have on the straight male? The answers will surprise you.
All my test rabbits agreed that there were certain images of male bodies that were erotic. They agreed that some men are attractive, that it would be acceptable and even desirable to touch such a man, feel his muscles, delight in the beauty of the human body. Frank admitted that he had a fetish for powerful partners; he enjoys the fact that his girlfriend is taller and heavier than he is, and he loves to actually feel the powerful body of a rugby player come down on him. I did not try to get any of them to commit to a particular sex act, but we did rate body parts according to homoerotic desirability by the straight male: facial features, chins, necks, strong arms, and ripped abs. All six would like to touch (caress) another guy's abs or biceps, four of them his legs, two of them his buttocks. None was after his dick, understandably. All six agreed to kiss a hot rugby player. (Note to self: Learn to play rugby.)
Curiously, all six were a little annoyed by the way gay men objectify male athletes. We stand accused of only seeing the body and not the achievement of the man. Other than that, it's quite all right for gay men to watch rugby from a slightly different angle, and all six agreed that more athletes should come out of the closet; it would not reduce the attractiveness of the sport at all, or of any sport. Agreement there.
As for the reasons that straight males of today can admit to erotic fascination with the male body, whereas any such talk 100 years ago would have been almost certainly ridiculed? These days, you don't have to be the tough guy anymore. It's much more liberating to be just a human being first and a man second. There are certain expectations of a "male" role (toughness, resilience, etc.) that ruled male behavior for centuries and are now gone. Men who are able to adore or appreciate another male body without hangups, and, more importantly, who are able to talk about it openly, are less likely to start wars. It is "male" societies that create the problems of this world. False pride, priggishness, the focus on power relationships -- these are all "male" traits that are rightfully left behind.
The final frontier, then: gay sex, gay partners, gay stuff. Why did David buy Benedetto Casanova and bring it to the seminar? Mostly because he was interested in the time -- the 18th century, and Italy. He decided to ignore the gay bits in the book and focus on the historical aspect. "Ultimately, I found that I can enjoy the descriptions of gay sex, too," he said. "It may not be my cup of tea, but you know, it's just sex, and it kind of works the same way, minus the breasts. It wasn't too bad."
What did the others think of queerness? Not much, really. Flippancy or outrageous dress did not bother them, nor did two men kissing on the bus. They only thing they agreed on hating was gays who shove it in your face all the time, who have no other subjects to talk about than gay stuff.
I understand, guys, so let's talk rugby instead. Enough queer stuff. England-Wales weren't half bad, ay? Smashing game. Ooh, and ah do fancy that Owen bloke. Inne looking brave in them tights?! Pwoah!
Follow Marten Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/webmarten