Chapter OneAnother characteristic of men's space that may be influenced by the dive motif is that it tends to be dirty and dark. As we will see when we look at such places as deer camps, cigar bars, strip clubs, garages, locker rooms, and even barbershops, men seem to be more comfortable in the company of other men if there's not too much of the "clean well-lighted place." While it might be tempting to consider this to be womb-like regression, I'm not convinced that it's sexual. It seems enough to say that these are liminal spaces, spaces betwixt and between, where certain rules are held in abeyance and others rigorously invoked.
Many other interesting transformations happen when men (or the individual man) go into the separation mode. Men without women may be a heroic Hemingway theme, but it gets dreary in real life. Without the woman's touch, the male tends to be a bit ham-handed with the cleanup. True, Saddam did not make his bed or tidy up the kitchen, but it gets worse when the whole gang arrives. Making a mess becomes a goal. Language quickly turns raunchy when men get in groups, social hierarchy is supercharged, alcohol is often the necessary lubricant to conversation, uniforms may get donned, initiation rituals (when extreme: hazing) get invoked, urination becomes celebrated, gambling often becomes a pastime, and secrecy is mandated.
Social scientists call the process bonding, and it seems to be at the heart of male secession and reformation into the pack. One key to these groupings is that they are usually voluntary. But why? Perhaps long ago bonding was necessary for the hunt, but why has this coagulation of masculinities into the tribe proven so important that it still influences the rituals of card games, stag parties, and weekend golf?
Answering that question definitively is, thankfully, not my task. Social outcasts need predictable alliances as a matter of survival, but why do men who are not on the lam have so much trouble forging alliances in order to go out for coffee? The question of why men need what sociologists call "boundary space" and "enactments of manhood" in order to bond has become far too tangled up in the nest of gender politics for me to untangle. If you listen to some feminists, you will come away convinced that the primary reason men get together with each other in the way they do is so they can exclude the Other (women, people of color, gays ...). Presumably in the Old Boys Network they slice the pie so that the guys come away with the biggest pieces. That many of these men-only organizations developed concurrent with the opening of the Victorian marketplace seems no happenstance to a few feminists. The modern male fears for his place and bonds to protect it, using complex and unarticulated rituals. There is doubtless some truth in this view.
Some anthropologists contend that male clustering far predates the Industrial Revolution. It is a vestige of the clan creation necessary to hunt and kill efficiently. "Can I trust you with this secret?" is a variation of "Can I trust you to cover my flank?" Medieval guilds institutionalized this behavior. And that's why modern fraternity initiations invariably involve facing danger, while sorority initiations usually call forward some socializing ritual. If you notice, women will join the auxiliaries of such fraternities, but no such male versions of sororities exist. Males need the illusion of danger; women need the predictability of safety. But, interestingly, both sexes seem to take on their gender affect through the company of men. Women become feminine against the backdrop of men, while men become masculine in the company of men. Might that partially explain why men in groups are such a perplexing cultural force to both sexes?
Sociologists weigh in with the explanation that while women's reproductive demands depend on stable community as a way to protect the young, post-puberty males are forever on the edge and anxious. They have not learned the rituals of easy conviviality, of belonging. Just the opposite. Their sexuality is aggressive and often the cause of exile. The best they can do is rough camaraderie, with the rites of passage effected by such artificial means as seemingly endless Masonic degrees or who has to do dishes at deer camp. After childhood, the band of brothers replaces mother as the center of men's lives. In this context, is it happenstance that there was a rapid increase in fraternal organizations after the Civil War as male-only groups asserted a resurrection of lapsed brotherhood? After all, what is the controlling trope of civil war if not brother against brother-fratricide? And what is its resolution if not the reaffirmation of fraternity?
No matter what the explanation, there is no doubt that the subject of male bonding and separation is modern and intense and often the subject of much Sturm und Drang. Sex exclusion has joined racism and anti-Semitism as not just politically incorrect but almost unmentionable. Don't go there.
Yet a generation ago exclusion on the basis of sex was the norm. The English club system at the end of the high Victorian era (Athenaeum, Reform, Union, Traveller's), in which men often spent the night, or at least stayed until the feeding of the children was over, rarely arched a feminine eyebrow. The invitation-only Bohemian Club outside San Francisco, now only a vestigial parody, was the object of some deference in the 1950s and 1960s. That men of position and power took off their trousers and peed on trees and howled at the moon was excused as a Saturnalian release from a more usual life of restraint and responsibility. No more. One reason why so much attention was focused on George Bush's and John Kerry's memberships in Skull and Bones at Yale is that this kind of boys-only institution has simply evaporated. If you want to see this for yourself, drive around your town and observe the wrecks of old Moose halls and Masonic temples. The only old-line institution that still hangs the "No Gurls Allowed" sign is the Masters clubhouse (not golf course) in Augusta, Georgia. Hootie Johnson, club president, has essentially dedicated his life to being the last man standing at the locker room door.
Whatever these male-only institutions were, they are no more, at least not in their traditional form. Writing in the North American Review in 1897, W. S. Harwood calculated that fraternal orders boasted 5.5 million members out of a total adult male population of roughly 19 million (p. 617). Why did so many American men join fraternal orders? What were they looking for and what did they find? What should we make of a bunch of small-town salesmen with painted faces and loincloths dancing ceremoniously around a bonfire? Why were the lodges so readily accepted by women that they joined the auxiliaries? And then-poof-they were gone.
The fraternal lodges themselves can't figure it out. A few years ago the Shriners commissioned a study to develop ways of attracting people born between 1946 and 1964. Here's what they found, according to Jeffrey Savitskie reporting for USA Today about these Baby Boomers:
- About 25% belong to civic or community groups. Only 7% are members of a fraternal group.
- Nearly 40% are involved in unpaid community activities, such as church groups, youth-related work and counseling.
- Only 5% view leisure time with other men as "very important."
Almost everyone you talk to about this subject has anecdotal evidence of the clustering differences between men and women. Here's mine, drawn from family life: My wife has at least three book clubs that meet with admirable regularity and seem to produce instant and intense conversations. My two older sisters have always had best friends who seemed to move easily and unceremoniously in and out of their lives. And my two daughters, both grown, have instantaneous contact with a whole sorority of women via the Internet or their cell phones. They all understand Sex and the City.
Meanwhile, whenever I want to see my men friends somewhere other than at work, we have to schedule some event. We have to get four for tennis or golf, field comparable teams for pickup basketball, and if we ever go out for lunch we need a compelling reason. I don't think I have ever gone to a movie with just one other guy. Although I buy stuff, I always shop alone. And we have to name a reason before we can powwow: one of us is getting divorced or moving away or has died. Or we have to name the eating group (for years it was the Melancholy Troubadours; I don't know why-we never sang-but the melancholy part was correct enough) so it will seem like we had been scheduled all along. Maybe the male Sex and the City is the Magnificent Seven, the 1960 remake of The Seven Samurai. The men get together all right, but only kicking and screaming, and only because there's a town to save-a j-o-b to do.
At the university where I teach, there was a men-only consciousness-raising group that I just couldn't bring myself to attend, even in the interests of this project. I was afraid I'd have to read books by French philosophers. So to see what I escaped I e-mailed a colleague who used to attend to find out how it was going. His response:
I participated for over seven years; we met one evening every two weeks, taking turns as leader. I joined after I separated from my wife, thinking it would be useful to have a support group of fellow men. When I joined, the group had already been in existence several years. We had a book which suggested format and activities and sometimes we discussed other books, usually of the self-help variety, or movies. We also did some joint activities, such as a weekend canoeing trip or a fencing class. But the men's group gradually dissolved, due to people leaving town or dropping out. We were never successfully able to recruit new members. There were some personality clashes and also differing notions about what the group should be doing. It ended 2003.
I was disappointed that I didn't make any friends within the group, only acquaintances-perhaps because I didn't have enough in common with them. The group ranged in age from late twenties to fifties: married with kids, married without kids, divorced, or single. Since the group dissolved, I've only seen one of the members and that only once-he also is faculty.
I'm not in touch with any local men's groups now, and I don't know of a men's only book club.
I know there are a few men-only poker games in my little community. But part of being a dilettante is that I don't have to talk about books or smoke cigars, so even in the interests of research, I've stayed away.
In the summer I go back to my home turf in Vermont and things change. I see the guys I grew up with. Even then we have to be cautious not to spook each other with the fact that we are getting together for no reason. I don't think this skittishness is because we are afraid of being emotional; after all, we're all graduates of Dr. Phil's therapeutic culture. It's just that we don't know how to do it. No practice. What's interesting is that once we get together we enjoy ourselves and often remark that we should do this again. Sometimes we do, but with no regularity. Each time it's an effort.
I am writing this in Vermont in my little study at camp (which you'll see in the office chapter). Maybe a vignette will help here. Our summer camp is part of a group of seasonal camps on the shore of Lake Champlain. A camp is the Yankee term for a summer cottage, not fancy, seasonal use only. For a few months we are part of an enclave of summer campers who spend bits of time together and then go back to their jobs elsewhere. We own our own camps, but we rent the land from the nearby town. So we are all rootless. It's been like this for the last hundred years. The women have no trouble with social tendrils. They have tennis day (Wednesday morning), when they all play doubles and men are not allowed, and then something called ladies' lunch afterward. They also have book clubs, gardening groups, groups to plan dinners, and lots of barely organized things like going walking or biking during the week. They often go shopping together.
But the guys are left high and dry. A few years ago a fellow academic decided the men should gather and have lunch. He called this ploughman's lunch, after the English pub lunch of beer and cheese. Now right from the get-go this is a fraud worth noting, as I discuss later, in the chapter on men and food. Ploughman's lunch was an advertising gimmick started by pubkeepers after World War II as a way to sell snacks off-license before the real afternoon drinking could begin. Ploughmen and shepherds did not drink beer and eat cheese in medieval times, as appealing as it is to imagine. When I tell this to my fellow campers, aka ploughmen, they say they like the idea anyway.
Not only do we have trouble meeting for lunch (although we all know each other), we have no idea what to talk about. That's why the beer at midday is important. We are confused about where to meet and what to do. So we move from camp to camp, with one of us responsible for giving a "little talk" about our work or our hobbies, at the end of which we politely clap. None of the young men come. Although we are supposed to get together once a week, we cancel a lot and usually meet about once a month. The women, as you might imagine, find this amusing.
Yet in my past I was a member of all manner of single-sex groups: Cub and Boy Scouts, YMCA basketball league, summer camp, and prep school, where getting together was no problem. In college I almost pledged a fraternity. My dad had the same male-only education, only his included a college fraternity and an all-male medical school. In later life, however, he was not a member of any single-sex clubs. But both my grandfathers seem to have spent parts of their weeks in the company of fraternal organizations, one in the Grange and the other in the Masons. I have some of their paraphernalia (funny hats, swords, sashes) to prove it. Yet they spent almost their entire lives in the same little Vermont towns. What the hell did they need these clubs for? Ironically, I'm the one who needs the clubs.
When I was doing research for this project I went to a dilapidated Masonic temple in Charlotte, Vermont. I went with Ken Ross, who was interested in taking pictures there. While Ken was busy setting up, I looked at the pictures on the wall. There prominently displayed was a photo of my great-uncle Walter. He was a kook in my family, but up there on the wall he was a grand pooh-bah. I never knew this. Uncle Walter never moved an inch in his entire life. Now the average American changes houses about once every five years.
So what gives? Can the recent disappearance of men's groups really be laid at the feet of feminists who have busted up the supposed "dominant male hegemony"? I'm reminded of a famous cartoon from my youth. It's by James Thurber and it's part of a series he did called Battle of the Sexes. The cartoon has a giant woman glaring over the top of a house as her gray-flannel hubby approaches. That image is about as dated as the opposite view-that men are trapped in the three-piece suit with attache case. When I show the cartoon to my students they wonder what's so funny. I really don't think women, or the perception of women, has much to do with the disappearance of male-only groups. I don't think the disappearance of the Masons has much to do with getting out of the house and away from Her.
Perhaps men my age have given up male clustering because we are a generation that has grown up from My Lai to Tailhook to wilding in Central Park to gang rape on college campuses and to the boom-boom room of Smith Barney. Perhaps we share a deep male suspicion of men in groups. But I doubt that too. What we learned about Abu Ghraib, the sprawling 280-acre gulag, complete with sniper towers and razor wire, was that servicemen and -women seemed almost equal in committing atrocities. The pictures were especially shocking because both male and female soldiers are seen mugging for the camera while behind them are haphazard piles of naked Iraqi men. Some anthropologists now claim that the once seemingly logical view of man as hunter and woman as gatherer, man as pack hunter and woman as keeper of the household, is sexist bunk.