Love in male friendships is still a challenge

February 16, 2023

Among young men especially, the words “no homo” or “bro” often ring out in the company of their male friends if they pay their friend  a simple compliment, especially if they utter the words “I love you.”

The “no homo” or “bro” plays the comment off, making it all seem like a joke in fear of being looked at as less masculine.  Of course the phrase, “no homo,” is problematic, because it wrongly suggests gay males can’t be masculine. But what if it didn’t have to be seen as a joke, and the friend was serious about their comment? What has led straight men, young and old in America, to not be able to express love for their fellow male friends?

Daniel Baltz, an instructor at SIU pursuing his Ph.D. in sociology, said it is tied to masculinity and gender norms.


“Women are more free to be, you know, vulnerable with one another, and even challenge gender norms because being perceived as not feminine does not lose them privilege, whereas men being perceived as not masculine does lose them privilege,” Baltz said.

Baltz said the fear of losing that privilege, i.e. being viewed as manly and receiving the social benefits that come with it, is a driving force for many men to make sure they constantly appear manly.

This fear of losing masculinity is also tied to sexual partners or the sexual identity of men, Baltz said.

“So it’s, as understood through sort of masculinity, as it exists: the appropriate choice for a man is a woman as a sexual object,” Baltz said.  “So anything that’s derivative of that is not [seen as] masculine.”

According to researchers, sexual identity is simply how one thinks of themselves in terms of whom they are sexually or romantically attracted to.  Sexual identity is an important part of a man’s identity, and for a heterosexual male, that identity typically includes a mask of masculinity around their male friends.

Sexual identity can also lead to a large amount of insecurity among men, making them worry about how they will be perceived with even small comments or actions.

Chris Wienke, a sociology professor at SIU, said, “I think it corresponds with the rise of like, this idea that some people are gay, some people are straight… this idea that our sexual tastes or preferences make us a certain kind of person.”


Appearing as not masculine is a fear for many men and one that, according to Baltz, doesn’t have proper grounds.

“Men have the exact same emotions women have, there’s no biological difference that would make them more or less vulnerable,” Baltz said.  “The reason it’s viewed as weak is because we associate weakness with women, and emotion with women, and with femininity.”

A Bud Light commercial from 1995 pokes fun at the idea of love between men.  In it, an almost certainly heterosexual man fishing with his father and brother tells his father, “I love you, man,” only for his father to shut him down completely by telling the son that he is not getting his Bud Light.

While this is meant to be a humorous commercial meant to sell Bud Light, it also highlights two problems: men can’t seriously say “I love you” to another man without adding a rebuttal, and if a man hears the words “I love you” directed towards him, he launches a defensive to save his own masculinity.

Wienke said a reason for this could be because it’s “tied to kind of expected constructs of masculinity; [men are] supposed to be independent, strong, courageous, you know, not emotional or dependent on others.”

“Men can admire other men for their feats of grandeur, their success, courage… but expressing a love, affection, kind of goes up against our understanding… of what it means to be men,” Wienke said.

Many men struggle with ensuring that they are seen as men in America.  They are overly cautious about how they express themselves, making sure not to cross certain perceived lines of masculinity.  Expressing love is occasionally one of these lines.

Around the world, however, it is much more customary for men to express their love.  In many Arab, North African, Asian and Northern European countries, it is quite natural for platonic male friends to hold hands as a sign of affection.

Wienke says, during the formative years of their sexual identities, European adolescents are taught that sexuality is a normal part of humanity.

Because of this freedom to be expressive sexually, men in these countries often are able to communicate their feelings of love to platonic male friends much more effectively than their American counterparts.

Baltz said people of other cultures may be able to do this because both masculinity and femininity are “highly contextual.”

“What I will say is that symbols and language mean different things.  They’re in different places in different times, so there may be things that seem more or less masculine while viewed from the outside, but from the inside they have a different meaning,” Baltz said.

These differences in effective communication between males are built into different cultural norms across the world, and according to Baltz, “most societies do have [a gender binary] to a certain extent.”

These binaries, or gender classifications in which a person is categorized as male or female, depending on the context and system that surrounds the culture itself.

“All cultures have some system of gender that regulates their behavior, often accompanying an idea of masculinity and femininity,  And there may be countries where those are more loose in defining behavior, but I think for the majority of people… all cultures have those things.  They just look different,” Baltz said.

Because of these differences, other countries may be able to communicate more effectively.  Something that is seen as not masculine or even gay in America may be completely acceptable within the cultural archetype for masculinity in another country.

There’s a lot of work to be done in America to change the thought of what is socially acceptable.

“We have a society that is very much entrenched and held up by systems of privilege that benefit certain people, and undoing those would take a lot of changes and a lot of work,” Baltz said.

There is, however, some hope for progress and future expression.  Wienke points out the expression “I’d take a bullet for this guy” as a phrase of love, and how men in the military and sports often express affection among their teammates or fellow soldiers.

Soldiers, and especially high-level athletes including bodybuilders, who “promote a certain kind of masculine” [Wienke],  are typically held with high respect among men in society, as they have achieved what many men only dream to.

The freedom with which these elevated men express their love for one another could be an example worth noting.  If these “macho men” can express feelings of love for another and not worry about being seen as feminine,  or in other words not masculine, why can’t other males?

“I think legitimizing and giving equal value to men and women, to masculinity and femininity… is a big part of making men a little more complete as humans, able to those intimate relationships that are so tightly leased right now,” Baltz said.

It’s crucial that society embraces the ideas of equal value to masculinity and femininity; without it, men may never be able to express the feelings they really have for their fellow male friends.


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