Same-sex intimacy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Same-sex intimacy refers to a relationship between two friends of the same sex that has many components of a sexually intimate relationship (e.g. self-disclosures, emotional expressiveness, unconditional support, physical contact and trust),[1] but not necessarily sexual intimacy or sexual contact. The term can apply to the exploration of sexuality outside the home, as well as to the physical activities shared between two friends.[2] Contemporary applications include the "bromance" culture, referring intimate bonds formed between male friends in films such as I Love You, Man, as well as the familial bonds exhibited by close female friends, propagated in the mainstream media by television shows such as Sex and the City.


Historical context[edit]

In Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality, American LGBT historian Jonathan Ned Katz explores notable incidents of same-sex love prior to the creation of the word "homosexual"—a time that Katz describes as "the universe before that great sexual divide."[3] Katz's research suggests that prior to distinguishing this binary (heterosexual-homosexual), men felt freer to explore feelings of intense intimacy for other men without feeling judged or stigmatized by societal views. Katz writes, "We may refer to early-nineteenth-century men's acts or desires as gay or straight, homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, but that places their behaviors and lusts within our sexual system, not the system of their time."[4] One example that Katz examines in his book is the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Fry Speed. In 1837, the two men began rooming together their first night of meeting, sharing Speed's double bed for the sake of logic and convenience, and quickly developed a close relationship. The two maintained an intimate bond until Lincoln's death in 1865. Although there is no evidence that Lincoln and Speed had a sexual physical relationship, Speed once stated about his relationship with Lincoln that "no men were ever more intimate."[5]

Sexual policing[edit]

Throughout the 1700s, there was an extensive sexual policing of young people. The restrictions in place included mandatory chaperones when on dates and attending public events, as well as other socially acceptable customs such as bundling. The latter refers to times when a male courter would spend the night in the same bed as his female companion—which was often both necessary and practical, as many courters lived a fair distance from their love interests and the majority of homes had limited beds. When bundling, both partners remained fully clothed and wrapped in separate blankets, sometimes with a "bundling board" between their bodies, to ensure that no sexual activity would take place.[6] Many intimate same-sex friendships were developed as a response to such sexual policing practices. Intimate relationships between friends were considered a socially acceptable method of sexual expression outside of marriage, as well an outlet for emotional desire that was otherwise limited at this time.

In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault explores the theory of the repressive hypothesis: the belief that throughout the 1800s, sex was not spoken about because of the heavy sexual policing taking place throughout the Victorian Era. Foucault argues that the Repressive Hypothesis was hypocritical and inaccurate, as, in actuality, sex was discussed at great lengths at this time.[7] The restrictions, Foucault argued, were in reference to who was permitted to discuss sex and desire and in what situation.[7] For instance, citizens were encouraged to disclose their sexual desires and fantasies to Catholic priests in the name of repentance. Foucault's research on the repressive hypothesis and similar myths about how sexuality was discussed and perceived in the Victorian Era demonstrates further how sexual practices were policed, regulated, and monitored by those in power.


In the 1800s, "sodomy" referred to a number of sexual activities that were perceived as deviant. These acts included anal and oral sex outside of marriage, bestiality, masturbation, the "spending of your seed upon another man," and the corrupting youth to partake in any of these activities.[8] Officially, these acts were punishable by death, but sodomites were seldom executed for their crimes. This is because these actions were seen as singular acts for which one could repent. Instead, most offenders were whipped publicly, burned with hot irons, or banished from their towns. All of these punishments were determined and carried out by the church.[8] None of these activities branded an individual a "sodomite", for example, but rather as an individual who committed an act of sodomy.

Courtly love and sonnet writing[edit]

At its conception, the term "courtly love" referred to the extensive code created to control the intense feelings of love between a knight and a married woman of a higher social standing.[9] The knight in question would perform great acts of bravery in her name in order to demonstrate his love for her from afar. In later years, the definition of "courtly love" expanded to signify any admiration for a peer and, further, the notion that it was an acceptable form of admiration to create writings or art about your beloved.

The most notable example of frequent and common instances of courtly love occurs in the writings of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote many sonnets to young men that he admired, praising their beauty, intelligence and virility.[10] He addressed sonnets 1-126 to "Fair Youth"—an individual who is commonly interpreted to be male—and later, in Sonnet 20, refers to the boy as the "master-mistress of [his] passion."[11] Additional examples of Shakespeare writing of same-sex intimacy and courtly love are within his procreation sonnets. In these poems, Shakespeare encourages a young man to marry and have children to preserve his beauty, using loving and occasionally romantic language to communicate his message.[12] Additionally, it is believed by many scholars that Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") is also about a man, as he dedicated his book of sonnets to an unidentified "Mr. W.H."[13]

Same-sex and "free love" communes[edit]

While sexuality was heavily policed and regulated in the 1600s, there were many individuals who disagreed with government policies and who opted to rebel. The most notable example of such an instance is Thomas Morton, an English adventurer who wished to live outside of the family-centric, religion-driven settlements being created by the Christian pilgrims. In 1625, Morton founded Merrymount: a commune that opposed the beliefs that he so despised.[14] His followers practiced interracial, pre- and extra-marital relationships, polygamy, as well as many forms of same-sex intimacy, union, and sexual expression.[15] The acceptance of same-sex contact within this context helped to lay the groundwork for same-sex communes that followed.

In the 1860s, Martha McWhirter, a married woman living in Belton, Texas, established a community for women who wished to live together away from their husbands, either permanently or part-time. McWhirter's commune allowed for married women to experience emotional relationships without the risk of pregnancy, as well as experience "sensual pleasures" such as mineral baths and other soothing exercises amidst the company of other women.[16] While not strictly an expression of same-sex intimacy, this community allowed a socially acceptable way for women to explore friendships and their personal erotic desires outside of the confines of heterosexual marriage.[16]

Exploring sexuality outside marriage and the family[edit]

While same-sex intimate friendships gave the participants a much-needed confidant and companion, the realization of self outside of one's family was also important to the formation of these friendships. Following the period of time in which families lived in one room and children learned about sexuality from their parents,[17] a different outlet was necessary for sexual growth among youth. Oftentimes, the practice of a same-sex intimate friendship mirrored that of a heterosexual marriage.[18] Thus, this was considered a socially acceptable method of seeking companionship outside of marriage. As a result, often men and women were encouraged to find companions to spend time with.


Boarding schools and women's colleges encouraged same-sex intimate friendships because of limited access to males and "socializ[ation]…into a world which valued female sensibility and female bonds."[19] Within boarding schools girls formed strong bonds with each other in the absence of other outlets for their emotions and impulses.[19] "Smashing" was a term used during the 1860s and 1870s to describe the intensely romantic relationships paralleling heterosexual courtship formed between young women in formal academic settings.[20] In "Smashing: Women’s Relationships Before the Fall", Nancy Sahli writes "…when a Vassar girl takes a shine to another she straightaway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes…candies, locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as—smashed."[21] Having a crush on, or strong feelings for another girl was common, and celebrated within magazines and other works of fiction.[19]

It was the first time for many women in college that they were away from their families and in the public sphere and most were socializing or living with other women who had similar interests and aspirations.[22] There was no longer a requirement to wed if a woman decided to become an academic and, because of this, women felt free to continue living with their female companions indefinitely.[23] "Boston marriages", or partnerships in which women lived and worked together, shared a bed, and planned how to spend their money together, became commonplace. Many professional, young women opted for this arrangement in order to remain financially and emotionally independent of male support.[22]

College also supported intimate same-sex friendships between males for similar reasons (i.e.: ventures out in to the public sphere, distance from families, easier access to entertainment and friends). Fraternities offered an opportunity for men to live together easily and develop bonds with other males while living in close quarters.

Related physical intimacy[edit]

Bosom sex was often practised between young women. This refers to the act of revealing or fondling of the breasts by a female companion, often while in bed. Bosom sex signified a deep bond and trust between the women performing it. While this practice was not inherently sexual, it is one of the more documented forms of physical intimacy within same sex intimate friendships and today would certainly be categorized as a sexual act.[24]

In "No Kisses Is Like Youres", Professor Karen V. Hansen discusses the relationship between Rebecca Primus and Addie Brown: two African American women who shared an intimate long-distance friendship in the 1860s that spanned over nine years and took place mostly through correspondence.[24] The preserved letters from this time articulate a friendship that was loving and supportive, and, at times, sexually-charged. Addie writes fondly of her memories sharing a bed with Rebecca and of the incidents of "bosom sex" that they experienced together.[25] Addie also frequently refers to Rebecca as her "beloved", writing, "Yours for ever [sic], until death parts us."[26]

Women often held hands, kissed, or caressed while in private settings with other women. This behaviour was acceptable and often encouraged within society as long as these women made no genital contact, the actions were done in a private setting, and such intimacy was not performed in front of men.[20] Therefore, it was not unusual for women to write notes that mirrored the style and content of love letters to each other, even if one or both of the correspondents were married.[27] Women often made statements in these letters that they had the desire to make love to one another, which expressed a desire to court and not necessarily to touch.[28] Anna and Emily Dickinson both often wrote to married friends expressing their desire to be with their female counterparts, and anxiety to be so far away from each other.[27]

Working class girls, who were experiencing a separation from their family and the ability to venture out into the public sphere for the first time, also found other ways to explore and express their sexuality. Along with intimacy in same-sex friendships, women would often attend cabarets together, or else avail themselves of the readily available entertainments in the city.[29] They may even attend a peepshow together, bringing their intimacy into the public by viewing other women together in a sexual light.[30]

Young men also often put themselves in hypersexual situations with their intimate same-sex friends, without directly being sexual with them.[31] In Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, John D'Emilio specifically references Fred Ryman and his friend Claude Macy, whom Ryman "can truly say [he] love[s]" who seek out a prostitute together.[32] This was common practice among men who experienced intimate same-sex friendships, and is a practice that has carried on in contemporary times with strip clubs and other such activities.

Whether or not there was also sexual intimacy within these relationships is debatable, as homosexuality was still observed as a punishable offense in the United States of America and the intense need to keep sexuality within the private sphere and away from the public sphere was still present.

Formation of homosexuality[edit]

In 1892, American neurologist Charles G. Chaddock wrote about same-sex desire in a German health textbook, making the first mention of the word "homosexuality". Chaddock defines homosexuality as the "great diminution or complete absence of sexual feeling for the opposite sex with the substitution of sexual feeling and instinct for the same sex." This is the general understanding we have of the word homosexual today, although at that time homosexuality was still seen as "contrary sexual instinct."[33]

The introduction of the term "homosexual" and the understanding that same-sex sexual desire existed changed the meanings of same-sex intimate friendships. While there had always been some physical aspects to same-sex intimate friendships, now such acts were thrown into a negative light. Sodomy and other activities were no longer seen as single, repentable actions, but instead as a lifestyle choice.[34]

American poet Walt Whitman identified his feelings of same-sex attraction as "adhesive love": something falling outside of same-sex intimacy because of its homoerotic undertones. Whitman first mentions adhesive love in Leaves of Grass, referring to it as an alternative take on "manly love" or the love of men for men.[35] He expands on this feeling through several of his poems, talking about his "hot wishes" for strange men he meets in the dark.[35] Whitman saw manly love as a sexual expression that did not necessarily go against gender binaries, but, rather, challenged the capitalistic and Christian-centric spirit of the current American democracy.[27] Whitman understood adhesive love as necessary aspect of comradeship and male bonding. He did not identify as a homosexual, as the word was not largely recognised. However, he wrote extensively about his erotic physical encounters with young men,[36] and by the end of his life had begun to question his sexual identity, as a result of some prodding by homosexual writer John Addington Symonds.[37]

By the end of the 19th century, homosexuality began to be recognized as something outside of church law and was discussed in the medical community.[38] Sexuality became an identifier of a person, the manifestation of their "true nature".[38] Terms such as "third sex", "urning", "tribad" and "invert" were used interchangeably with "homosexual".[38] In response, sodomy between two willing participants of legal age was officially legalized in New York State in the late 1880s.[39] However, public outrage against homosexuality, the fierce protection of Christian moral standards, and the desire to appear tough on "sexual perversion" caused all acts of sodomy to be criminalized until well into the 1960s.[40]

Contemporary usages[edit]

Same-sex intimacy has carried over into the contemporary era. Though our view of it has changed, much of what happens within intimate same-sex friendships remains the same. The two most popular representations of intimate—and often co-dependent—same-sex friendships in modern popular culture are "bromances" among men and the "BFF" culture among women.


Bromance, like the previous forms of same-sex intimacy, allows men to explore their sexuality and experience intimacy outside of a heterosexual relationship.[41] Bromance culture encourages men to find intimate friends or "heterosexual life partners"[42] in order to experience the closeness and benefits of friendship. This is something that men have often been denied within constructions of modern masculinity.

One example of a bromance relationship in contemporary popular culture was portrayed in the film I Love You, Man (2009). In this movie, male characters Peter and Sydney meet and quickly develop a fast and close friendship. Peter is thrilled with his new best friend, but is also hyper-aware of the social confines and emotional restrictions of a same-sex male friendship.[43] He states, "I’m really nervous. There are no rules for male friendships."[44]

Other examples of bromance relationships are visible in current popular culture. Examples include:

"BFF" culture[edit]

BFF ("best friend forever") relationships are similar to bromances, but instead emphasize the close friendships between women. BFF culture is generally more socially acceptable and less stigmatized than close relationships between men, as women have been historically and socially conditioned to seek out and embrace the friendship of other women.[45] BFF culture can also be referred to as "womance".

One example of a BFF relationship that closely links to historical examples of same-sex intimacy is that of Meredith and Cristina on Grey's Anatomy. Two surgical interns, the women are drawn to each other because of the fact that they are stubborn and determined to succeed in the male dominated platform of surgery. They become fast friends, and talk to each other about everything. Their relationship blossoms into one of same-sex intimacy, with them hugging and holding hands when they walk, sharing a bed platonically, and later raising Meredith's daughter together while she is temporarily separated from her husband.[46]

Like bromance relationships, many different BFF relationships are visible in popular culture. Some examples of these relationships are visible in:

In contemporary society, the label "intimate partner" can now be applied to any individual who is in an emotionally, physically and/or mentally fulfilling relationship, be it same- or opposite-sexed, and does not necessarily apply only to those have physical sex. Intimate partners are not defined only by sexual contact; the definition is as broad as same-sex intimate friendships.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Monsour, "Meanings of Intimacy in Cross- and Same-Sex Friendships", Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 9, no. 2 (1992): 277.
  2. ^ John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 109.
  3. ^ Katz 2001, x
  4. ^ Katz 2001, 9
  5. ^ Katz 2001, 5
  6. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 22
  7. ^ a b Michel Foucault, "The Repressive Hypothesis", The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990)
  8. ^ a b D'Emilio 1988, 30-31
  9. ^ Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. "Courtly love," (8th ed., Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014).
  10. ^ Rictor Norton, "Enter Willie Hughes as Juliet: Or, Shakespeare's Sonnets Revisited" Gay History and Literature Canon, last modified June 19, 2008
  11. ^ William Shakespeare, "Sonnet 20" The Sonnets, Lit2Go Edition (1609)
  12. ^ William Shakespeare, "Sonnet 1" The Sonnets, Lit2Go Edition, (1609)
  13. ^ Donald Foster, "Master W.H., R.I.P." PMLA 102 (1987): 42.
  14. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 3
  15. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 4
  16. ^ a b D'Emilio 1988, 81
  17. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 56
  18. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 111
  19. ^ a b c D'Emilio 1988, 191
  20. ^ a b D'Emilio 1988, 126
  21. ^ Nancy Sahli, "Smashing: Women's Relationships Before the Fall", Chrysalis 8 (1979): 21.
  22. ^ a b D'Emilio 1988, 192
  23. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 193
  24. ^ a b Karen V. Hansen, "'No Kisses Is Like Youres': An Erotic Friendship Between Two African-American Women During the Mid-Nineteenth Century", Gender & History 7, no. 2. (1995): 160-61.
  25. ^ Hansen 1995, 160
  26. ^ Hansen 1995, 162
  27. ^ a b c D'Emilio 1988, 127
  28. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 27
  29. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 130
  30. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 131
  31. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 109-110
  32. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 110
  33. ^ "homosexuality, n.", OED Online, (Oxford University Press: 2014).
  34. ^ John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988).
  35. ^ a b Jonathan Ned Katz, Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 109.
  36. ^ Katz 2001, 170
  37. ^ D'Emilio 1988, 129
  38. ^ a b c D'Emilio 1988, 226
  39. ^ Katz 2001, 270
  40. ^ Katz 2001, 69
  41. ^ Elizabeth J. Chen, "Caught in a Bad Bromance", Texas Journal of Women and the Law 21, no. 2 (2012): abstract.
  42. ^ Dogma, directed by Kevin Smith (1999; Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Entertainment), DVD
  43. ^ I Love You, Man, directed by John Hamburg (2009: Universal City, CA: DreamWorks SKG), DVD.
  44. ^ Glenn Whipp, "'I Love You, Man' and the Rules of Male Friendship", Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), March 23, 2009.
  45. ^ Christina Simon, "BFFs & Mean Girls: Why Best Friends Forever Can Be Harmful to Girls" BlogHer Editors. November 8, 2011. Accessed November 13, 2014.
  46. ^ Samantha Highfill, "'Grey's Anatomy': Why Meredith and Cristina Are the Best Female Friends on TV" | May 14, 2014. Accessed November 13, 2014.
  47. ^ "What Is Intimacy and Why Is It so Important?" Archived 2015-02-10 at the Wayback Machine. - Relationships Australia. January 1, 2013. Accessed November 13, 2014.