Forget homophobia. A new study finds that same-sex lip-locks among straight men are the norm in British universities and high schools.
The trend reflects a move toward a "nicer, softer" ideal of masculinity, study researcher Eric Anderson told LiveScience. Anderson, a sociologist at Bath University in England, reported the findings online Oct. 22 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
"The mean, gruff, homophobic macho man of the 1980s is dead," Anderson said.
Based on in-depth interviews of 145 British university and high-school students, Anderson and his colleagues discovered that 89 percent had kissed a male heterosexual friend on the lips at some point. A total of 37 percent had engaged in "sustained" kissing with another man, Anderson said. The men all identified as straight, and they didn't see the kisses as sexual.
"These men have lost their homophobia," Anderson said. "They're no longer afraid to be thought gay by their behaviors, and they enjoy intimacy with their friends, just the same as women."
A recent trend
The trend toward male same-sex smooches has skyrocketed in recent years, Anderson said. It began on the professional soccer field, where players often share exuberate kisses after goals. That made kissing between men acceptable for college and high-school players, Anderson said. Then the players took the same behaviors to nights out in pubs, spreading the trend to non-athletes.
Despite stereotypes of the homophobic jock, athletes were more likely to have kissed another man than non-athletes. Just over 80 percent of non-athletes had kissed a man, compared with 95 percent of athletes. [Related: Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos and Bizarre Facts]
Of the guys in the study who hadn't shared a same-sex kiss, all found the practice acceptable. One student who had never kissed another lad joked with the researchers that when he told his friends about the study, they'd probably ensure that his classification changed. That night, Anderson received a text from the student reading, "I'm in the majority now."
Affection, not sex
Again contrary to stoic male stereotypes, the men in the study reported that they kissed their friends out of affection. One remembered kissing a friend after a meaningful holiday trip. Others compared it to shaking hands.
"I don't want to give the impression that it's like, 'Oh, I love you, mwah,'" Anderson said. "It's like, 'John! Rawr!' More exuberance."
Even extended kisses weren't viewed as sexual, the researchers found. One student recalled kissing his male friend in order to convince two girls to kiss each other, but most of the men interviewed kissed each other for fun.
These longer kisses are often photographed and posted on Facebook and social-networking sites, Anderson said. While they often happen in the context of a night of drinking, the men aren't ashamed of or questioning their sexuality. Nor are they mocking gay behavior, Anderson said. In fact, the practice has made it easier for gay men to display their affection publically.
"It's opened up the same space for gay men to kiss," he said. "Sometimes you see two men kissing and you don't know whether they're straight or gay."
The United Kingdom is less homophobic as a whole than the United States, Anderson said, but Americans should expect acceptance of men kissing on our shores soon enough. Research on American college soccer players suggests that 20 percent of those men have kissed another man, which is a harbinger of the trend, Anderson said.
It's not yet known how the trend of men kissing extends to non-University segments of the British population. Anderson plans to extend the research to minority men and low-income men who aren't in college.
Growing acceptance of same-sex kissing doesn't mean that homophobia is gone, just that masculine ideals are changing, Anderson said. His theory, put forth in his book, "Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities" (Routledge, 2009), is that in times of homophobia, men police their behavior to avoid being seen as gay. When homophobia fades, men can relax and explore behaviors that don't jive with the traditional masculine ideal.
"Decrease in homophobia has positive effects for heterosexual men as well," Anderson said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.