Male friendship has always been a precious thing. It’s worth fighting for. The first and best way to do this is to teach young boys what it means to be a friend. Sharing emotions and normal physical affection are not inherently sexual acts. But on a societal level, restoring friendship to its proper palace means keeping sexuality in its proper place.
In his article “A Photo History of Male Affection,” Brett McKay catalogs the dramatic ways male friendship has changed over time. One hundred years ago, men were far more comfortable showing each other everyday physical affection: draping arms over shoulders, sitting close to each other, even holding hands.
To modern eyes, McKay’s examples look, well, odd. It seems impossible for us not to see some kind of homosexual subtext to these photos. But challenging that assumption is precisely why McKay wrote this article in the first place. “[You] cannot view these photographs through the prism of our modern culture and current conception of homosexuality,” he writes. “What you see in the photographs was common, not rare; the photos are not about sexuality, but intimacy.”
In other words, as crazy as it sounds, we’re the weird ones. The typical ways men have shown each other affection for all of human history are so foreign to us that, when we see them, we don’t recognize them.
That’s the exact phenomenon C.S. Lewis wrote about in The Four Loves, when he said that “those who cannot conceive friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a friend.” [emphasis added]
Lewis was right in more ways than he knew.
Americans are lonely. According to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education, 36% of Americans report feeling “serious loneliness,” as do an incredible 61% of young adults. According to a Cigna health survey, nearly 54% of American adults agree with the statement, “nobody knows me well.” Isolated and glued to our screens, it’s a crisis that’s only getting worse.
The most significant decline in friendship is among men. According to a May 2021 poll, the percentage of men who say they have “no close friends” has quintupled since 1990, affecting nearly one out of every six American males.