Published in Cosmopolitan, March 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
There is a quiet revolution taking place at house parties and boys’ weekends around the country. Aussie guys are hugging each other, chasing each other around with wet towels and even going in for the occasional pash with their mates. And they’re not doing it quietly, either. Like any other party trick, they’re capturing it on camera and uploading the results to Facebook. Witness the rise of the – very public – guy-on-guy kiss.
The same sex snog is nothing new. Women have been mining it for attention for years – think Katy Perry, Sandra Bullock and Megan Fox – to the point that when Miley Cyrus tried it on Britain’s Got Talent last year, she was met with little more than a stifled yawn. The guy-on-guy kiss is something more interesting, though… perhaps because residual homophobia and pressure to be seen as a “bloke’s bloke” make the stakes so much higher.
But if those Facebook uploads are anything to go by, those stakes are getting lower. A recent UK study found that 89 per cent of the heterosexual, university-aged men they surveyed had kissed another man on the lips – and 37 per cent had engaged in a “sustained” pash. So what’s behind it all?
Gay for play
Just as there are all sorts of reasons a woman might kiss another woman – attraction, experimentation, humour – so too do guys kiss guys for different reasons. For some, like 22-year-old Eric, it’s a way of testing out desires they’re not sure of. “I’ve kissed another man maybe three or four times,” he explains. “They were all really caught-in-the-moment type of things. It felt like a relaxed atmosphere and I had a curiosity. I think all guys do, it just depends on whether they act on that or not.”
“As it turned out, it wasn’t really something I enjoyed and I’ve got no interest in anything sexual with another man now. But at the time I had to find out somehow, and trying was the only genuine way to do so,” says Eric.
For others, like the guys in the UK study, it’s a non-sexual way of expressing affection for their friends. But for many guys – especially the ones doing it most publicly – it’s all a bit of a game. “Men play [at being gay] to beat other men,” explains Will, 25. “It’s like ‘I bet I can run fastest’ or ‘I bet I can get highest up this tree’, except it is a test of how ‘gay’ you can get without squirming.”
The new cool
Will and his friends call this game “gay chicken”. Sociologist Dr Eric Anderson, who co-authored the UK study, calls it “banter kissing”. Anderson says the increase in this kind of behaviour – and men’s increasing willingness to be open about it – are signs that today’s young men are “no longer afraid to be thought gay to the extent that they used to be”.
Indeed, that’s part of the whole point of games like “gay chicken” – the winner is the guy who is least afraid to be thought “gay”. Think when Hamish Blake and Adam Hills kissed on Spicks & Specks. The joke worked (and made them only look cooler) because they were both so unfazed by it. “What we’re seeing here is a distancing from masculine icons of 1980s,” says Anderson. “Rambo, The Terminator, Ronald Regan – that kind of stoic, violent, homophobic masculinity.”
Still, there are limits to this brave, new sexual world. “I think at this stage it’s acceptable in the confines of a joke,” observes Eric. “Pretend stern thigh touches, pretend hand holding, smacks on the cheek when someone gets you a beer.”
It also matters where you do it. “As far as I’m aware, most of it happens at house parties,” says Simon, 27. “The pub is a bit public – that would be seen as actually gay. But if you knew enough people there, you might.”
And as Dr Clifton Evers, author of Notes for a Young Surfer, points out, part of gay chicken’s cool factor is that the guys involved aren’t fussed about being thought gay, but the punchline of the joke is that they’re not. “The only way guys can kiss another guy is if they can prove themselves as otherwise straight,” says Evers. “It has to be in a particular context and there are strict rules around this. There’s a fine tuned awareness of when you’re allowed to kiss and when you’re not allowed to kiss, when you’re allowed to hug and when you’re not allowed to hug.”
Indeed, Will admits, “If any round of gay chicken were to end in a sincere kiss, it would become very weird.” Not, he hastens to add, because anyone “would have a problem with that,” but because the point of the game is that you’re not supposed to like it. “If you did,” he says, “it wouldn’t be a test. It would just be fun.”