The XX Factor

Do Teenage Boys Need More Intimate Friendships?

Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images

Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Times ran a fascinating piece on Niobe Way, an NYU psychologist whose work focuses on friendships between adolescent boys. In her new book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Harvard University Press), Way argues that boys in our culture are suffering from a lack of emotional intimacy with their male peers, especially as they reach their later teenage years. This disconnection from previously strong support systems, she says, has the potential to leave many boys isolated and emotionally insensitive later in life.

Aware that this argument might sound a little hippy-dippy, Way defends her work by citing the fact that her conclusions are based on self-reporting.

“This is not some academic read I’m doing…The boys are aware of the power of their relationships. They are overtly saying, ‘I want him, I need him, I miss him — no homo!’ And then they grow up and become depressed.”

In general, I’m inclined to be supportive of Way’s “call to action.” While my own teenage brother tends to be fairly articulate (though not at all mushy) about his feelings, many of his friends seem totally emotionally dead, at least to my outsider eyes. Straight boys—and we should acknowledge the importance of sexuality here (which the Times piece doesn’t); without generalizing too much, gay guys do tend to be better at this kind of thing—definitely need male companionship if, for no other reason, because sometimes their female friends and romantic partners just aren’t going to understand their experience. The most disturbing implication of Way’s work .  is the hyper-anxious ‘no-homo’ attitude that still dominates teenage interaction. It’s dangerous not only because of the obvious threat it poses to LGBT people, but also because of the way it is precluding healthy, non-sexual-but-intimate relationships between men.

While Way’s work is a great step in this direction, I do wonder if her actual definition of intimacy is completely accurate. She dismisses images of “teenage boys as grunting, emotionally tone-deaf creatures who bond over sports talk and risk-taking” as bad stereotypes and bromance films as nothing more than “code for hanging out and puking together.” But I’m not sure that these archetypically male activities are really devoid of intimacy. A lot of bonding—and often, too much sharing of feelings—can happen during a drunken night, and there’s nothing innate to sports or videogames that precludes closeness.

In fact, I suspect that these are actually situations in which boys develop emotional ties: While it may not be recognizable as intimate in the same way that, say, having coffee with your best girlfriend is, something meaningful is probably still being exchanged in those grunts and groans. However they express themselves, though, Way is right in pointing out that we’ve got to start helping boys become more sensitive, socially well-adjusted men.

That is, unless we really do want them to come to an end.