Gender and Support Systems

by Ann Friedman

In the comments on my post about quitting my job, some folks took up the question of whether men are more likely than women (or vice versa) to have strong social support networks. Jess wrote,

I've come to think The Patriarchy is a Very Nearly Equal Opportunity Bastard, but it never occurred to me that men are less apt to have a support system for things like this-as in, less likely to have family support and stuff?

These discussions can veer into the realm of gender essentialism and stereotypes pretty quickly, but I'm feeling bold today. Let's talk about it anyway. Eric Vanderhoff replied to Jess, "Men are culturally expected not to need it and much less apt to seek or receive it." And Socioprof added, "Men in general tend to have less social support than women. This is across race and increases with age."

Anecdotally, this rings true. The women I know maintain much closer friendships with each other (more regular contact, more likely to share intimate details and ask for each other's help, more physical affection) than heterosexual men I know. There's research that says men and women even define friendship differently. According to the Encyclopedia of Women and Gender (there's a reference book for everything!), "one of the most consistent findings in gender research is that men invest most heavily in their wives as support providers whereas women most often turn to women friends and family for support." This is probably why men suffer more than women in a break-up.

From an early age, most women are socialized to be more nurturing and relationship-oriented than men, so perhaps this isn't surprising. My guess is that homophobia also plays a huge role. Men are taught to perceive intimacy with other men as gay. You can see it in trend stories about "man-dates" and movies about male friendship, which often veer pretty quickly from depictions of platonic affection to defensive homophobia. There's even a social stigma attached to cross-gender friendships. Just ask Slate's Juliet Lapidos and her best friend, Jeff. Or me and my bestie Josh. (No, he's not gay. No, I'm not gay. No, we've never dated. Yes, we are super tight.) If all of these relationships are socially off-limits, who's a man to befriend?

I thought about this gender gap in support networks when I read the Times article about Jared Loughner. For all of the explanations that have been offered for his actions -- a culture that glorifies violence, easy access to guns, poor access to mental health care -- Loughner's lack of a strong emotional and social support network has not been a prominent part of the post-tragedy narrative. It's been taken as a given that this young man was a loner. We've come to expect that perpetrators of headline-dominating acts of violence will be young, single, heterosexual men like Loughner.

There are consequences to the fact that many men don't have the social support they need and deserve. I think this is changing as our societal understanding of gender evolves. But it's changing slowly. I, for one, can't wait until bromance is not just a punchline but a part of every dude's life.