The softening of masculinity in English sixth forms

How has a decrease in the stigma attached to homosexuality impacted on the lives of boys in English schools, on their self-images, and on their relationships with one another?
Mark McCormack
1 March 2011

In the 1980s and early 1990s British society was gripped by extreme homophobia. The rise of conservative politics and the ‘moral majority’ coincided with the backlash from the AIDS crisis that resulted in homosexuality being thoroughly stigmatised. Any attempt to foster pro-gay attitudes in schools was deemed an attempt to corrupt Britain’s youth. Section 28 banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, silencing all discussion of gay issues in the classroom. Even progressive teachers feared retribution for speaking positively about homosexuality.

This institutionalized homophobia promoted a damaging and dangerous environment for LGBT youth. But the extreme homophobia of those decades also had a great impact on the lives of heterosexual boys. This is because of the artificial conflation of sexuality and gender. Here, heterosexuality and masculinity are deemed synonymous, and feminine boys are socially perceived as gay. Gender is not only a manifestation of sex: it is the window to one’s sexuality. It is in this framework that homophobia is used to regulate gendered behaviours.

During this period, given the stigma attached to homosexuality, boys went to great lengths to show that they were straight by trying to prove that they were neither feminine nor gay. They espoused homophobic and misogynistic views, and sometimes fought to prove their masculinity. Sociologist Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, summing up the result, described heterosexual boys as being pre-occupied with “three F’s”: football, fighting and fucking. This type of control over gendered expression also led to the suppressing of many emotions. For example, while boys were permitted to vent anger, they were not allowed to emote: the expression of fear, intimidation or love for a friend were all feminised and condemned. Boys grew up to become emotionally stunted adults. This masculinity was damaging to these boys and deleterious to society.

However, my recent research shows that things have changed for today’s youth. Even if poisonous articles occasionally appear in newspapers like the Daily Mail, social attitudes towards homosexuality have markedly improved. And this change is most profound in the most unlikely of demographics - heterosexual male students.

To complete my research into three sixth forms in the south of England, I spent a year hanging out with 16-18 year old boys. I discovered a world that was markedly different from the homophobic and aggressive one I experienced during my school days. Contrary to the ‘epidemic of homophobia’ that Stonewall argues still occurs in schools even today, I found that heterosexual male students explicitly support gay rights. I was surprised not just by these students’ pro-gay attitudes, but also by the passion and intensity with which they held them. For example, Colin was a sporty and popular student at what I shall call ‘Standard College’, one of the sixth forms where I collected data. Talking about gay rights, Colin said, “I believe in equality for gays. I mean you wouldn’t treat them any differently, would you?” Jack also maintained unequivocal support of gay rights. “Gay people should be equal in society. Anything else is wrong,” he said. In fact, all the boys I interviewed at Standard College publicly supported gay rights. Nick, for example, was quite unable to provide a reason for his pro-gay attitude, asking, “Well, why wouldn’t you support gay rights?” It is important to note that these views were not just the opinions of an elite minority in a liberal school. Similar attitudes were also expressed by boys at a nearby college largely comprised of disaffected youth, as well as those at a religious college, where the students were a mix of ethnicities, classes and ability levels. One student at ‘Religious College’, Alex, said, “Since coming here, I’ve met gay guys. They’re cool, and so is them being gay”. Similarly, Zak commented, “One of my mates is gay, of course there’s nothing wrong with it”.

Highlighting the intellectual acceptance of homosexuality, students at both Standard College and Religious College argue that it is homophobia that is unacceptable; not homosexuality. At Standard College, Matt suggested that if someone was to express homophobia, he would be policed by his peers: “He wouldn’t keep at it for long”, he said, “it’s just childish”. Justin added, “They wouldn’t get away with it. We’d tell them it’s not on”. Furthermore, when discussing my own homophobic school experience, Nick said, “…that’s just excessive. It’s like racism used to be”. Ian agreed, saying, “That’s out of order, you wouldn’t find that here. It’s just not acceptable anymore”.

The veracity of these pro-gay attitudes is supported by the experiences of openly gay students at these schools. At Religious College, Max was elected student president by his peers. Openly gay and self-identifying as ‘a queen’, Max talked positively about his time at the school: “It’s great here. I talk about gay stuff all the time, and people are interested…I’ve not got hassle for it at all”. Other openly gay students reported being happy at Religious College, too. Greg said, “I was a bit worried about the religious thing at first, but it’s good here”. Keith added, “Being gay just isn’t that much of an issue”. At Standard College, there was just one openly gay student; Tom was a quiet student who kept himself to himself. Previous research suggests that while openly gay students tended to come out if they maintained high social capital - that is, if they were already popular and had the physical size to ensure that they avoided marginalisation and bullying - it was different for shy kids of slight build like Tom. Yet he suffered no harassment. This was another indication that pro-gay attitudes had had an effect on this environment. 

Touching and feeling

While these positive changes are welcome, they are not the most surprising aspect of how straight male students are behaving in these schools. The most dramatic change is with respect to how young men physically interact. Rather than being rough and aggressive with each other, there is a great deal of physical closeness between these boys. On one afternoon, you might note, as I did, that Adi was sitting with his legs resting on Ryan’s lap, while Ryan gently played with Adi’s shoes. Sam sat in Liam’s lap nearby, talking with Baz. There was no explicit reason for this touching, except that it served as a sign of affection. On another day, Jack was seated on the windowsill of the common room, his feet placed on the seat of a chair that was rested against the wall. Nick started talking to Jack about their plans for the weekend, and rested his hands on Jack’s knees. Jack, who was wearing shorts, seemed not to notice. As Nick leant forward to emphasise his point, he ran his hands up Jack’s thighs and back down again. Jack must have been aware of this physical touch, but was not perturbed by it. Indeed, Nick’s actions were seen by many, but challenged by none. This form of tactility is a normal part of male interaction at Standard College.

Physical tactility is also exhibited at Religious College though not the prolonged tactility that is evident at Standard College. This may well be because the majority of students at Standard College have known each other since they were 12 years old. At Religious College, students join aged 16 and friendship groups have not had the time to develop in the same way. Here, though, boys tend to hug each other on special occasions, embracing for several seconds. Zak and Anthony, for example, could just sit together in the sun, listening to music, their arms occasionally touching as they chatted. None of this physical closeness is accompanied, as I might have expected, by homophobic language. These boys don’t care if their actions could be interpreted as gay.

In addition to being physically tactile with each other, these boys take care over their appearance in ways that not so long ago would have been coded as feminine or gay. For example, Tim is heterosexual and he is viewed by his male peers at Standard school as the most attractive boy there. Tim styles himself in a much more attentive, sexualized and feminine manner than the norm - adopting a metrosexual look. His clothes accentuate the slenderness and femininity of his body. Tim’s t-shirts, a size too small, are worn to highlight his physique, while his low-slung jeans reveal his underwear—a stylish fashion accessory with designer label on show. His hair is highlighted with blond streaks, and he wears a fake tan. Tim also accessorizes his clothes, wearing bracelets, necklaces and rings, which he changes to suit the outfit he is wearing.

Esteeming metrosexuality, the other boys at these colleges also talk about their appearance in open and feminised ways. For example, one day Jon asked Sam (who was wearing shorts), “Have you been shaving your legs”? Sam replied, “No. I’ve got hair, it’s just blond”. In order to investigate, Jon moved closer, running his hand up and down Sam’s leg. “They look good”, he said. The discussion then attracted Grant’s attention, who confirmed, “They do look good”. Another time, Oli stroked the back of Nick’s hair, gently rubbing the nape of his neck as he discussed Nick’s botched attempt at hair dyeing. Steve also touched Nick’s hair, saying, “Yeah, it’s really dry”. Nick responded, “I know. I had to put loads of conditioner in it!” It is clear that in these schools, masculinity has undergone some kind of change from the macho version of fighting and homophobia. Indeed, there has been no physical fight between boys at these schools in the past year.

So what’s going on?

How did this markedly improved social environment for both heterosexual and gay students at these schools come about? It is tempting to look for institutional reasons. But there have been no openly gay teachers, or even gay-sensitivity programmes to bring about such changes at these schools. Indeed, at the time of the data collection, Standard College did not even recognise homophobic bullying in its anti-bullying policy. Instead, following Professor Eric Anderson’s theory in his book Inclusive Masculinity, I argued in my research conclusions that this change is brought about at the cultural level. That is, these schools are affected by larger societal trends concerning attitudes toward homosexuality and masculinity.

This decrease in cultural homophobia has only just recently resulted in substantial policy shifts within education. Since the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, government action concerning homophobia and the inclusion of sexual minorities has become increasingly progressive. This started with the Every Child Matters agenda (also launched in 2003), where gay rights campaigners successfully argued that if children were to “be healthy” and “stay safe”, it was necessary to eradicate homophobic bullying and promote inclusivity. More recently, there have been further shifts to inclusivity in institutional directives. OfSTED, the UK school inspectorate, has made equalities into a key issue that schools must address. Sexual orientation is one of the named equalities that schools must protect, and not doing this can result in the school failing its inspection. Crucially, the new framework is no longer concerned with just tackling discrimination. Rather, schools must also promote inclusivity and diversity. In this regard, OfSTED has shifted from a reactive approach, compelling schools to tackle homophobic bullying when it occurs, to a proactive one where schools must be able to show the ways in which they have promoted diversity and inclusivity.

While these policy changes are important, I suggest that this policy shift is the result of a recognition that attitudes toward homosexuality have fundamentally changed in the wider culture. These changes have come about through young people being exposed to pro-gay media messages, openly gay pop stars, comedians and (increasingly) their best friends. Social media has also influenced this. For example, the vast majority of students belong to social networking sites like Facebook. Here, they are asked to identify the gender to which they are attracted, and the relationship status drop-down menu now includes civil partnerships. All of this provides for a much more open and diverse social landscape than that available in the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the most surprising aspects of my research is the speed at which we have arrived at these pro-gay attitudes and feminised behaviours. This, I think, is the result of a virtuous circle of decreasing homophobia. In a highly homophobic culture, boys are not allowed to engage in tactile or emotional behaviours. Yet as homophobia decreases, boys start to engage in these behaviours at some level - it may occur while drunk or within private spaces, but boys start to get closer to each other both emotionally and physically. And as boys emote or touch, they see that these behaviours aren’t disgusting; that hugging, being supportive and emotionally open are positive things. This then leads to lower levels of homophobia, as boys cease to care whether they are socially perceived as gay.

In his book The World We Have Won, Professor Jeffrey Weeks describes the positive advances in attitudes toward homosexuality as “the inevitable reality”. While levels of homophobia will continue to vary according to geography, race, class and other forms of social context, the decline in homophobia in my research appears to primarily be the result of wider cultural, political and legal changes regarding declining homophobia more broadly. Perhaps it is obvious that the rise in gay visibility and the increasing ordinariness of homosexuality will impact positively on both gay and heterosexual men. Nevertheless, this is something we should all celebrate.

Where to from here?

Battles over sexuality in education are not finished, despite such positive changes. Declining homophobia is an uneven social process. Sadly, homophobia probably still persists in certain schools - research tells us that homophobia is more elevated in religious schools as well as those with higher numbers of ethnic minority students. It is important that teachers, activists and academics all work to improve attitudes toward homosexuality in these settings. However, we must also go beyond ensuring that school students maintain pro-gay attitudes, to provide a more holistic education around sexuality.

One oft-repeated argument against educating students in their sexuality and sexuality in general has been the idea that students are either (or both) too innocent and/or too immature to discuss these issues properly. My research shows that both of these arguments are quite false. Not only are students already highly informed about homosexuality, they are both able and eager to engage in discussions on issues of sexuality. Yet all we offer in schools at the moment is sex education that has best been described as ‘prevention and plumbing’. Despite a rich sociological literature that explores the meanings, influences and impact of sexualities, we restrict students’ education on sexuality to a conservative, moralistic and tedious non-curriculum of little more than how to use a condom. That needs to change.

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