While writing my book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, I went looking for groups of men and women to compare their experiences and attitudes. Within walking distance of my home, I found an active “divorced moms’” group with more than 75 members. Then, I trolled the Internet to find something that sounded like a divorced dads’ group, which turned out to be, essentially, one guy living 30 miles away.
The apparent lesson: Men don’t form groups. At least as much as women do. According to a study by the Center for American Women and Politics, young women are more likely to volunteer for nonpolitical groups; another study found that older rural women were one-third more likely to participate in weekly group activities. Book groups tend to be all-female. More women go on “girlfriend getaways” than men take trips with other guys, and the women-only travel business is booming.
Two years later, I got an email from Troy Schmidt, a young man in Washington’s Virginia suburbs who had read my book. He asked me: “Would you like to talk about your book with a group of young men who meet every week?”
I did. So, I made my way to a Mexican restaurant in Arlington, VA, where about 15 mostly single, mostly white men between the ages of 21 and 35 were talking over plates of burritos, some making sarcastic quips, others listening supportively to heartfelt tales of break-ups or jobs lost. I learned that, despite the odds, the data, and the stereotypes, it is possible for men to form groups in which they become friends and confidants.
“I’ve got a prefabricated social group,” said Kevin Sheehy, a 29-year-old University of Virginia graduate who had returned to the Washington area after three years in Oregon. “We talk about sports a lot and there’s a lot of banter, but it’s also a pretty vulnerable group of guys relative to the general population. People talk about having a bad week, being on the verge of being pushed out of jobs, bad break-ups. It’s a pretty supportive group, but after talking about the tough times someone is going through, we get back to the banter, the levity.”
Arriving surprisingly punctually at 7:30 every Tuesday evening, the men sit around a long table where everyone orders burritos. They have small rituals. When they’ve all been served, they bump their foil-wrapped burritos. As people start to eat, Stuart Taylor, a founder of the group, stands up to offer a brief prayer. Almost no one drinks, although Taylor said, almost defensively, that “drinks are more popular in summer.” Most guys are in T-shirts, although an incongruous-looking older man was there in a three-piece suit with a red handkerchief. The most common topics of conversation are dating, sports, and work, and—despite a lot of joking — guys are there to help others with their romantic, work, or other problems.
The group, which calls itself Burrito Tuesdays, has been meeting since August 2013 and has about 375 men on its group-messaging app, said Andrew Thrash, the group’s 28-year-old co-founder and another UVA grad. There are a handful of regulars like Schmidt, but many men show up only occasionally. The biggest gatherings, with about 80 men, happen when the group celebrates another 50 meetings under its belt. (For its 150th meeting, when the restaurant’s water-heater broke, the guys showed up to help unload and install a new heater, got the kitchen to reopen, and had the place to themselves.)
Thrash said that he and Taylor founded the group so that “men have a space to get to know other guys, feel comfortable, and have the ability to be vulnerable with friends they can talk to,” Thrash said.
Burrito Tuesdays doesn’t have a Facebook page or advertise itself. People hear about it by word of mouth. “A girl I dated told me about it,” said 27-year-old Richard Schweikert. “The girl didn’t work out, but the group did.”
How is this group working so well in an era when Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote of Americans “bowling alone,” eschewing group activities? Or when former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy spoke of a loneliness “epidemic,” with rafts of data showing that men are more likely to be alone than women at almost all ages? After all, one in three adult men live alone, suicide rates among men have been rising rapidly and are nearly four times the rate among women, and some studies have even found that loneliness can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking and obesity.
Once upon a time, 50-60 years ago, men joined a lot of groups. There were Rotary and Lions and Elks Clubs, labor union locals, veterans’ organizations, and church groups. Men would come to fraternal organizations to talk and organize charity drives, and bring their wives for monthly dances at the “lodge.”
These have withered, vestiges of a more civic-oriented and more male-dominated era, and there’s not much that’s taken their place. There are some intentional men’s groups today like the Masculinity Action Project in Philadelphia and some men’s ministries, which focus on getting men to be more caring and in touch with their feelings, shedding what some call “traditional masculinity.” Then there are the misogynistic groups that hide in dark corners of the Internet. Millions of men who play online games or are in Reddit groups say they have friends, and golf buddies usually are “side by side” friends, but close “face to face” friendships are more common among women.
Men need friends as much as women do, but many factors have militated against male friendships. Many men and boys think that having friends—except as posses for activities like sports, drinking, or chasing women—is unmasculine or “weird.” Men are less likely to acknowledge being lonely or vulnerable and reach out to others. Even married men, when asked, “Who’s your best friend?” typically say, “my wife.” By contrast, women often name another woman.
Burrito Tuesdays doesn’t have an agenda, and steers clear of the treacherous terrain of today’s gender wars. No one brings up “masculinity” in the fevered tones found on campuses or among the chattering classes. Nor do they bring up politics. If controversial topics come up, they generally try to listen and understand, rather than argue about who’s right, according to Schmidt. Although they talk about relationships, Thrash said: “This isn’t a forum for men to say things that are inappropriate.”
Many Burrito Tuesday members are devout Christians, with some having met at their churches. Thrash, a member of an Anglican church in Washington, emphasized that the group isn’t religious, “but a good number of us are believers in Jesus.”
So, why do they come?
“It satisfies a longing I have for male companionship and stability, something that’s always the same every week,” said Russell Galloway, a recent graduate of Birmingham Southern College in Alabama. “One reason I come here is to put seriousness on the back burner for an-hour-and-a-half. There’s a lot of joking and sarcasm, but we all feel comfortable pulling out our real selves. It’s like Thanksgiving with a functional family.”
Donnell Washington, a 30-year-old from nearby Alexandria, said simply: “It’s about bros meeting bros. And about being vulnerable when you get to know them a bit.”
Again, talk of “vulnerability.”
Sheehy laughed and nodded when I asked if he thought that vulnerability made them more attractive to women. “In an area with a lot of well-educated, progressive women, I think it’s a plus to have less of that masculine stoicism,” he said, adding that “my therapist in Portland had a meme: Being in therapy is the new being tall.”
“Men’s relationships with other men are extremely important—to encourage and support and help each other,” Thrash added. “Most men don’t have that.” As Schmidt recalled, he first came to Burritos when a three-year relationship with a girlfriend ended. “It was the first place I felt I could talk about it and, after that, several of the guys made an effort to invite me to hang out.”
Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, history professor, and policy analyst, discusses these and other issues facing millions of American men in his recent book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.