A Scarcity of Affection Among Men

A Scarcity of Attention Among Men photo by lenny montana

Jackson Bliss sees how men have grown up seeing affection as sexual behavior, not social behavior. And that is one of the tragedies of our times.

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Once, just as I was about to step inside Union Station in New Haven, an old black guy with fuzzy grey hair and glasses stopped me on the sidewalk and asked me if I had a light. Though technically I’d stopped smoking when I’d started grad school, my bad habit resurfaced at the end of every semester because of the stress. It was reading period, so I pulled out my lighter with a little guilt and tried lighting his cigarette. The wind was strong and erratic though, extinguishing the flame every time I rolled the flint. As I became impatient, I finally grabbed his soft, wilted old hand and cupped it with mine, lighting his cigarette undisturbed. He took a big puff and exhaled.  Then he nodded his head, smiled at me and said: Thank you, son. By the time I was inside the train station, I was bawling.

The real issue buried underneath my grief was the fact that I rarely got the male affection I’d wanted as a kid. And the sad thing is, I’m not the exception either.

At first, I didn’t understand where the tears were coming from. Maybe, I wondered, it was the anxiety of having to write three thirty-page essays in the next ten days or my secret dread of seeing my on-again-off-again girlfriend in New York who I fought with every weekend like a professional scrapper trying to dodge the first inevitable blow. Maybe it was the dreary Connecticut weather finally getting to me, weather that reminded me of Dante’s description of purgatory. Maybe I was sad because I was a poor grad student from Chicago who sometimes felt lost and out of place in New England. And maybe I was just really vulnerable that day. Whatever the ultimate reason, the tears poured out of me inside the station, on the escalator and even on the train where I looked out the window to avoid the sharp looks of commuters. The real issue buried underneath my grief was the fact that I rarely got the male affection I’d wanted as a kid. And the sad thing is, I’m not the exception either.

♦◊♦

My pops is a good guy, but he’s old school (which means he’s not very good at expressing himself). While he’s slowly learned to respect me as a man, we’ve never been very close. When we hang out in Chicago, for example, I’m almost always the one to initiate things. Because we’re different politically and professionally, we’ve had to strain to understand each other for most of our lives. When I was a kid, we never played in the backyard together (I played catch or soccer with my spunky obāsan). Because I was a latchkey kid, I only saw my parents for four hours a day max, most of our time spent in the kitchen and the TV room.

To be honest, I can’t remember my dad hugging me as boy nor do I remember him being proud of me growing up (except when I graduated from high school, which was really important to him). Even when I gave my MFA reading six years ago in nearby South Bend, I remember not being surprised that my dad didn’t show up. Now, I don’t point these things out an indictment because my dad is a good and hard-working person (and god knows I could be a rambunctious, argumentative and exasperating little punk). My dad helped me a little bit with my college tuition, paid for my final year of high school at my Jesuit prep school and remained emotionally devoted to my obāsan his entire life, even after my parents split up. He was a dad in the only way he knew how to be with me, slowly evolving once he remarried his second wife and had a third son (who he has a much more proactive and affectionate relationship with). It’s only recently that I’ve truly felt he’s proud of me for the man I’ve become, and maybe this is related to my stubborn professional aspirations as a fiction writer, to finishing my PhD and to marrying the love of my life. Maybe his recent respect for me has nothing to do with any of those things. As I’ve grown up and become comfortable with my self, I’ve learned to overcome the big issues I had with him, but I point out the scarcity of affection in my relationship with him because I think it partially explains why male approval was always so important to me growing up, why I still have a soft spot for male affection, why I still find myself seeking the respect of older men.

♦◊♦

One of the pernicious consequences of living in a country still struggling with homophobia, social verticality and patriarchy, is not just the rigid gender roles this system imposes on men (and obviously women), but also the way it prevents grown men from expressing love, gratitude and affection to each other (and often to their sons). Because of this, many boys grow up seeing affection as inherently unmasculine because their fathers never modeled affection and unconditional love as a constituent part of their own masculinity.

One of the major systemic tragedies for boys is the ongoing poverty of male affection in their lives. Boys grow up seeing affection as sexual behavior and not social behavior.

Just as tragic, our system still punishes boys for expressing love and affection to each other (except in the case of sports) by subjecting them to social and sexual taboo, which means boys will grow up seeing affection as (hetero)sexual behavior and not social behavior, which is troubling. For many straight boys, affection will become gendered, the unique behavior of girlfriends, moms and female friends. While girls are victims of the system just as much as boys are, the system victimizes them in different ways at different stages (through slut-shaming, income inequality, domestic relegation, sexual objectification and ownership, for example). But one of the major systemic tragedies for boys is the ongoing poverty of male affection in their lives. As psychoanalytically unsatisfying as it is, for many grown men, there is a void inside us that was earmarked for our fathers’ attention and approval (which can often feel like signifiers of love). It’s a void we carry with us into adulthood, a void that only disappears (if it disappears at all) with friendships that are deeply communicative, supportive and unconditional. This void only disappears (if it disappears at all) with a lifetime of self-forgiveness for the emptiness we feel inside. This emptiness is not our fault, but if we deny its existence or pretend we’ve moved beyond the scene of our childhood trauma, we become victims of our own pathology, innocent bystanders in the crossfire of denial, unlovability and self-reproach.

Men only heal when we surround ourselves with others who are engines of deep and uncontrollable love, people who are compassionate, affectionate, forgiving and open with their emotions. For me, the most recent source of affection, kindness and love has been my wife, who I love more deeply than any person I’ve ever known. In high school, it was my religion and English teachers. In college, it was my brother and my friends. Someday, it will be my own fatherhood, which will give me new emotional space for repairing the tiny broken parts of me and for expressing my endless devotion, explicit love and continuous affection for my baby.  Even though he doesn’t exist yet, even though she hasn’t even been conceived, my love for him is already enormous, already bigger than myself.

Photo: lenny montana / flickr

Other articles by Jackson Bliss:

The Importance of Male Self-Love

How to Stay in Love

About Jackson Bliss

Jackson Bliss is the author of The Amnesia of Junebugs, The Ninjas of My Greater Self, Dream Pop Origami + Atlas of Tiny Desires. His essays + short stories have appeared in Tin House, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Fiction, Quarterly West, ZYZZYVA, Fiction International, Stand (UK), Huffington Post UK and African American Review, among others. You can find him at www.jacksonbliss.com and on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Thank you very much for this text. It has made me hopeful for humanity. A sensitive man is the best man for the 21 century and the strongest.

  2. It’s called: g0ys – spelled w. a zer0. G00GLE ’em.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Excellent article. Thank you for writing it. As a female I have to say that I also experienced a deprivation of male affection. Not only is male affection towards a male seen as homosexual in our culture, male affection is seen as sexual towards females, and neither example is ever seen any differently, always with that sexual charge. It harms us all, boys and girls, sons and daughters, men and women. We are human with individual differences and we all need that human contact that has nothing to do with sex.

  4. Dina Strange says:

    Surrounding yourself with people who are full of love sounds to me like emotional parasitism. Eventually you will suck those people dry and then will leave exasperated and angry. It’s okay to get your emotional kicks from someone else but the main source of your emotions should be YOU.

    I grew up with a mother who was emotionally unavailable. I don’t go around sucking men for emotions which i didn’t receive in childhood from my mother…i try to seek it inside myself.

    Other than that, great article. I do agree men need to receive more affection from their fathers and develop emotional bonds with their fellow men. Our culture is sick.

  5. ‘… men have grown up seeing affection as sexual behavior, not social behavior.’

    SO true and as such, it is easy to understand how women are objectified. We become objects to satisfy the human need for affection, but those efforts are most often of the sexual or sensual nature. Brilliant article that illuminates the necessity for healthy, non-sexual human touch for men to truly thrive.

  6. I practically sobbed as you did on the commuter train. You have provided a beautiful and round-about window to naming the hunger we men face for each other. I run a weekly men’s group here in Washington, Missouri, near St. Louis that has a core of 24 men. At least a dozen and a half make it each week to share openly about our lives and to live in brotherhood – at least for an evening. It is beautiful to watch the physical and emotional outreaches of affection among the guys, many of whom didn’t know each other before. You hit the nail on the head clearly.

  7. My Grandfather on my father’s side died when he was 10 in an accident and as a result of my own fathers difficult job in the prisons I can very much empathise with how such men never learned to share their emotions let alone admit they had them. However much of what you say has to do with the environment in which men have been raised as opposed to any failure on men’s part. For instance, you write:

    …”the system victimizes them[women] in different ways at different stages (through slut-shaming, income inequality, domestic relegation, sexual objectification and ownership, for example)….

    You make no contrast here, as if you were talking about black slaves(who in contrast to white people of the time had NO equal in persecution and atrocity). Men do not as a sex oppress women, men have singularly and as a group done so as much as women have to men. Motherhood is a choice today, the state provides for them should a man not fulfill his role(or indeed be forced out of it on purpose). Domestic relegation is no longer even legal(visa vi the new laws on maternity leave in the UK) and don’t get me started on sexual objectification – how often do men value women solely for what’s in their wallet as opposed to how they look physically….please. Its high time men stopped this “sensitive 90’s male” crap and got angry at how the law and society as a whole treats them. We are human beings deserving of REAL EQUALITY, family, rights and yes INTIMACY(which has nothing to do with the “committment” sold as rings, weddings, honeymoons, houses and the learned helplessness of servitude in hateful jobs).

    • You should be mad at the .001% of war profiteers, HMO’s, financial manipulators, and the prison industrial complex, not harping on hierarchies of oppression. The corporatocracy is using your readiness to resent women as a way to control you and keep you in “the learned helplessness of servitude in hateful jobs.” You’re letting your true enemy drive a wedge between you and the potential allies you need to improve your quality of life – what better way to do this than to divide the population in half? They do this with racism, homophobia, and religious intolerance too.

  8. Michael Valentine says:

    Appreciation… this closely related article on Elephant just rolled through again also: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/10/why-men-are-so-obsessed-with-sex-steve-bearman/
    ~ Heart

  9. Ken Maher says:

    The essence of this article is so true. I grew up in an Irish-American family where men showed affection to each other only through teasing. I had five uncles, some of them more merciless than the others. The men in my family never hugged or kissed each other. Fortunately, most of my neighborhood was Italian-American. The men in these families hugged and kissed each other all the time. Most importantly, the father kissed their sons, as well as their daughters. As a child, I found this embarrassing, but as I started having children of my own, I starting kissing them–both sons and daughters. One day, I kissed my father and told him I loved him. He said he loved me, too, as if we’d been saying this all our lives. We did that every time we talked until he died. Nowadays, I hug and kiss my male friends and am thankful for the example my Italian neighbors set for me. I hope my seven children and thirteen grandchildren are thankful, too.

  10. LukeinDetroit says:

    What the hell is an “Obasan”? I really like this website but stuff like this is such a turnoff. If you’re going to use terms that are not broadly understood in your (supposed) demographic at least define them. Otherwise it comes off as really elitist.

    Otherwise, excellent article. You’re central thesis is soooo important and, in my opinion, one of the top ways sexism hurts men too.

    • You’re already on the internet, is a google search really that difficult? Is learning something small really that much of a turnoff?

  11. Lovely article and spot on. Tragic because it is so true. I think your premise that internalized and social homophobia is at the root of this issue is correct. Homophobia hurts us all, not just ‘TEH Gays’.

  12. Jyothirmayi says:

    Well-written, to say the least! Precisely what I felt with my mother, I would say. She is a strong woman, to put it mildly. Life away from the luxuries she enjoyed as a youngster, post-marriage, shook her up and transformed her into a tough-talking, no-nonsense character with a sharp mind and even sharper wit. What she perhaps lost, in the process, was a little bit of affection, which she was rather unwilling to part with wherever I was concerned. With my younger brother, though, she seemed to have no problem showing affection – but that could also be attributed to the fact that he demanded her affection, while I waited for it to come to me! This could be the reason I have had many a women (some of them downright patronizing) telling me I have been brought up like a boy! Not that I regret it anymore; any woman who would marry the man I married needs a spine of lead 😛 ! This could also be the reason why I have always (and still do) hanker after the affection of women older than me – aunts, grannies, teachers, older female colleagues, you name it!

  13. Maybe this was addressed in other comments, and, if it was, ignore.

    As a female, I kind of relate to all of the struggles that you experienced as a male. While, perhaps, the struggles are more pertinent or common for males (I will not pretend that I know how the experience may possibly affect me as a male) I want to point out that some of what has been addressed has does happen to females. My father showed me what it was like to be a weak woman. My vulnerability was showcased and outlined through his inability to be emotional. In fact, my brother was able to show more emotion than I was….i was subscribed to subservience and tears and cries for leniency.

    As a female reading this article, I am conflicted. As a minority individual, I feel conflicted. I feel like white privilege as a male allows you to write this article. What is manliness? It is different, depending on social economic status, geography, religion, etc.? It’s not necessarily this universal law of masculinity. I’m not saying that is what you are saying. I also want you to know i completely understand the premise of your piece, in its overall statement. However, (and I understand, everything before the but is a lie) it’s not all explanatory. It’s not that simple. It’s not that simple. It could be that simple. but, simplicity is academic. It’s not that simple.

  14. Nice job, Jackson. I related to your emotion after you walked away from the old man you helped.

    My regret of little affection growing up is being replaced by strong relationships with other men full of verbal and physical affection. My own brothers seem to be the ones with the most hesitation to change!

    Thanks for the great article.

  15. Jackson, don’t lose that “soft spot” for male affection. It’s the emotional game changer that makes you a better man. Your insights and openness have gained this older man’s respect.

  16. Great article. Definitely one that I can relate to in many ways. Thanks!

  17. My dad has always been hardworking to make sure that my brother and I always had a house to live in, good food to eat, and an education to carry us through into the future. However my dad has always been a reclusive man. He lacks the ability to express emotions, and I wonder if he actually even understands his own emotions let alone mine. His reclusiveness has built a massive wall between us, and deprived me of the fatherly affection that would have built my self confidence and self esteem that I needed especially through the rough high school years.

    I did not figure out until later on in life that some of the resentment I feel towards life is the lack of fatherly-son experiences. As I have observed other father and son relationships, I have seen good ones and bad ones. Seeing the bad, I appreciate the good character my dad is, and from the good I can’t help but think the deprived affection between us has left me without a strong emotive understanding as a man. I now have to try and develop this understanding on my own, which is important for my desire to be socially successful.

  18. I think this is prevalent in most western cultures, but latin countries have it better in many ways (although worse in many others). I’m Brazilian, and I’m always amused with foreign people who got surprised with our “warmness”, since we talk with strangers in every place (really, every place), touch a lot, and don’t even have the concept of “personal bubble” (took me a while to understand it when I first heard about it in a movie). So, it’s routine for men to hug and kiss each other, and for fathers to get very physical in their relationships with sons. And even though we are a pacifist coutry and don’t have the warrior culture, we are still victims of this idea of the “male hero” being strong and somewhat violent. Men don’t talk about their feelings. Men don’t cry. Men tough it up, because they are supposed to be the “pillar” of the family, and they can’t show weakness. Ever. This is so f*cked up, in so many ways… Thank god it’s slowly (ever SO slowly) changing.

  19. I don’t know what Jackson Bliss is talking about. My Observations: I see heterosexual guys hugging and even kissing each other on the chick or neck, and telling each other, I love you, you are my brother. “I would do every thing for you” even holding hands like girls do.
    Disclaimer: It only happens when they are drinking together. LOL
    That is why I do not drink. Too macho here. LOL

  20. Brilliant article. I can relate to your experience in many ways. Thank you!

    Earlier this year my father told me he loved me for the very first time in my 37 years of consciousness. It touched me deeper than anything that I’d experienced before. It’s something I yearned to hear even though my mother always assured us that my father loved us.

    We need to break the cycle and learn to communicate with both sexes on every level including showing affection. This article gives me hope that there are others out there thinking and trying in a similar way to me. 🙂

    Big hugs

  21. Daniel Dewey says:

    ctrl + f “suicide” 0 of 0.

    While the article and comments touch an important topic, I feel like the elephant in the room is being ignored here. I don’t see the value of discussing this topic without while ignoring some of it’s greatest effects, like the 3+ to 1 gender disparity in suicide rates. Statistical evidence is part of how you move from sharing stories to changing systemic inequality.

  22. Jackson,

    Thank-you. My dad worked two jobs in order to raise 5 kids. I wish there was more physical affection but I came to cherish the attention and time he devoted to me. Though exhausted and beat, he never turned me away. Our father’s absence or lack of affection may have something to do with the competitive nature of our productive lives. Dads who can remain affectionate in the face of this pressure are truly heroic. I wish you were to receive an appreciative hug.

  23. What a beautifully written piece – thank you!

    I think it’s a generational thing – we’re becoming a lot more in touch with our emotions now (thank god!). You say “for many grown men, there is a void inside us that was earmarked for our fathers’ attention and approval” – i think this is the case with so many grown women too, including myself. I only started emotionally connecting with my father about 2 years before he passed away. The years I have spent trying to get approval from men have literally wasted me and worn me out. And if I had just felt that connection from my father, I’m sure I would be in a totally different place right now. But I understand why he was the way he was. His own parents were emotionally cold and distant and my mother sidelined him emotionally in their marriage, rather focusing on her children. So I get it. And I’ve forgiven him.

    Fathers play such an important role in the shaping of their children’s emotional lives.

    Spot on article.

  24. Jeez but I live in a strange corner of the universe.
    two weekends ago i went to the baptism of the son of one of my proteges… I’ve known him since he was 14, when his Dad, a real old school guido laborer, would bring him to clean up sites on holidays and weekends…
    My boy. despite my best efforts, still makes too many fag jokes as do his brothers…
    I got to the church and hugged and kissed 4 different men.
    At the reception were a few more guys whom i hadn’t seen in a while and we all hugged and kissed..
    We’re talking about Masons and Iron workers, Tats, scars and beer bellies…

  25. Jackson,

    Hi and many thanks for a wonderfully thought provoking article. As someone else said articles like this are one of the reasons that I joined GMP and love contributing.
    Reading your piece reminds me of my relationship with my father. Some of the gaps have been filled through being part The Mankind Project and my local i-Group (men’s group). However I believe that some of the holes that remain are specifically father shaped and we’ll have to see how they are filled…
    Love and blessings,
    Sh

  26. “Men only heal when we surround ourselves with others who are engines of deep and uncontrollable love, people who are compassionate, affectionate, forgiving and open with their emotions.” It’s been so good to hear voices of men that are taking time for self-discovery; to hear your thoughts and feeling instead of me just having a stereotype living in my head and the examples of men who aren’t so inclined to ‘figure things out.’ If I were to generalize, I would say that men my age (midlife) tend to think of affection as a prelude to sex and that’s tough for a woman to navigate and get what she (I) truly need. Thanks for putting this out there. Much appreciated.

  27. Mike from MA says:

    Thank you, Jackson, for writing about this with the sincerity it deserves.

    With any luck, the average man of the future won’t have to wait to win a Super Bowl to reach out for the men closest to him and hug them with all the love and affection he’s got.

  28. This is exactly the kind of post that brings me back. It has helped to articulate the relationship between my brother and my dad. My dad was not affectionate in general, but the father-son detachment is unique to their situation. The difficulties are ongoing… sure, we’ve grown up, but while my dad and I have been able to bond as adults, my brother and my dad have grown apart. Mom and dad are approaching their sixties. Mom’s cancer battle has highlighted the finite nature of life. We would all like to be together while we still have the opportunity.

    In general, this is an excellent article for people who are planning to become parents, and those who have had difficult relationships with their parents, male, female, trans, intersex, etc. Above all else, it is important for people to know that they are not alone in their experiences and feelings. It is a chance to express that, yes, this is a problem that can be addressed, and there are people who are willing to change the way they parent for the (emotional) better.

    Thank you for sharing your work and perspective and also clarifying your position in spite of tedious arguments that serve only to cut down an important message. Such work investigating masculinities is so important because we previously did not have a vocabulary to describe the experiences unique to men. Feminism and masuclinities studies serve to deconstruct the gendered pathologies of our social existence, and it takes a lot of guts to chastise the “old ways” that have gone unquestioned. Keep on posting. Keep on sharing. You can help a lot of people… so many people who have been negatively affected by long-standing social norms.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Salvice,

      Thanks so much for what you wrote. I really appreciate that. I’m sorry to hear about your Mom’s cancer battle but I wish her (+ the rest of you) much strength, health + perseverance in her fight. Good luck with everything + thank you again. It means a lot. Be well + gambatte!

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

  29. Ryn Shane-Armstrong says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article, Mr. Bliss. While I respect your personal experiences, as well as your critical perspectives on gender roles, I none the less feel that you may be painting with too broad a brush here regarding the supposed “needs” of men. My beef: one man’s affection is another man’s imposition. I tend to be more like you, frankly — and as a public school teacher I work hard to create safe space for boys to develop a sense of well-being through “affectionate” engagement — but we’re both white dudes from the States. It’s quite likely that our bias towards cultivating more intimacy between an among men is culturally-informed and in some ways reflective of our various privileges. I never hug my Chinese father-in-law, for instance, because it would only serve to highlight the stark differences between us. I have learned to traverse the spectrum of affectionate communication (or try, anyway). There are many ways to develop closeness with other men; the trick is to be flexible.

    Also, there’s something to be said for sincerity, is there not? Nothing is more alienating and pathology-inducing than fake intimacy. Consider this interesting piece from Slate published just a few days ago: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/09/30/don_t_hug_it_out_hugs_are_awkward_falsely_intimate_power_plays_that_must.html

    In a sense, the author (a woman), is taking your proposition one step further in deconstructing the nature of “affection.” She suggests it’s far more complex than simply doling out more pats on the back:

    “But the most pernicious aspect of the act is the false sense of intimacy it imposes over all human relationships, from the most superficial acquaintances to the deepest friendships. It doesn’t matter if we love each other, hate each other, or don’t know each other at all—we’re all expected to awkwardly collide at the same rate, reducing a potentially intimate act into a rote affectation.”

    In the end, I suppose I’m more apt to throw my hat in with gentleman like yourself — I guess I’d rather error on the side of closeness and camaraderie. But the above criticism is valid. I’d be curious to get your response to it.

    Again, thank you for the considerate writing. I look forward to reading more from you on this and other subjects!

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Hey Ryn,

      Great hearing from you. Quick thing, I’m actually white + Asian, don’t be fooled by my appearance because hapas (people of mixed Asian ancestry) can read as white, Asian, black, etc., etc.. Just wanted to point that out, but I don’t expect you to know that. It’s cool. Now on to your questions/comments (which I really appreciate, by the way):

      I hear you about the Chinese father-in-law. My obāsan was 100% Japanese + she resisted my affection with her for years, but eventually, she did learn to embrace the embrace. She even learned to kiss her family on the lips (though it was tough for her). I’d like to think that it simply took her time to see that our fam in America was more physical than what she was used to. Some people can adapt, others can’t. I even witnessed the same thing in one of my Turkish friends who is an orthodox Muslim. Now she hugs all her friends. It’s something that I think can be learned. At the same time, I’m all for respecting people’s cultural definitions of affection since every culture views it differently. It’s always better to let people decide in their own time/space what cultural practices they adopt, so when we’re talking about cross-cultural exchange, I think it makes sense to be respectful. But there are other ways of being affectionate too. Ultimately, in an ideal world, both of you will learn how to express affection to each other in each other’s cultural vocabulary. Obviously sometimes that doesn’t happen.

      Another thing, my wife is a 100% Peruvian American + her family hugs + kisses each other every single time they see each other (as do most Latinamerican families), which includes me. I hug + kiss her dad, her mom, her sister + vice-versa, so I don’t think it’s white privilege. Actually, I’d make the argument that white families are sometimes the least affectionate physically (not necessarily emotionally, or verbally). Frenchies, Italians, Argentines kiss each other on the cheek. Russians kiss friends on the lips. Many African cultures allow friends of the same sex to hold hands + it’s not seen as queer performance at all. Even many Arab cultures allow male-to-male physical affection. I’m sure there are tons of exceptions to this rule but I actually think that the average non-white family (whatever that means) is probably more affectionate than the average white family. But then again, many Russian and Irish families seem very affectionate too. It really depends on the family I think, but I don’t see a positive correlation (personally) between whiteness + the privilege of affection.

      In terms of the Slate article you reference, I skimmed the article too + I thought it was really interesting. But for me, I kept these things in mind:

      As you pointed out, the author was a woman, which is really important. Without a doubt, women have a right (+ often a need) to create safe space for themselves in an economic system that often sees their body as an object of pursuit/desire. Also, most women are culturally allowed to be physically affectionate with each other, so many women probably get more affection from their friends + family anyway. And, forced hugs, forced affection or mandatory embracing can absolutely be a form of oppression. I think I totally agree with that. But there are many ways to be affectionate to someone, not just physically. Just telling someone, “you’re an amazing person. I really respect you” is also affection. And for me, if I notice that someone doesn’t like the physical type of affection I’m giving him/her, I back off so they don’t feel threatened in any way. Some people don’t like affection, some don’t know how to deal with that, so I refrain from doing it again. It’s really important for us to let people decide for themselves if/when they’ll accept affection from us. In that case, it’s enough that they know we really care for them. I totally agree with you, though, that it should always be sincere + I agree with the Slate author that it should never be forced (to me, that’s not affection, that’s forcing people to touch you, whereas if they have affection for you, you shouldn’t have to force them at all). The other thing I think the author is arguing is that we don’t have a choice with the expectation of hugging. I think we do, I just think we feel forced to follow social customs. But to me, that’s not a deconstruction of affection (because it’s not real affection, it’s certainly not sincere or heartfelt), that’s a deconstruction of the expectation that people need to hug regardless of their (lack of) personal connection, + on that level, I agree with her entirely. That said, I think that learning to be physical affectionate is an important skill to learn because it helps us feel connected, it helps us feel both loved + lovable. At the same time, that expression of affection won’t be right in every context with every person. In the context of my article, I think physical, emotional, verbal affection, for example, SHOULD be appropriate with families, just as I think that many times, it’s both important + appropriate with our friends, wives, husbands, neighbors, but if anyone doesn’t like that, of course we find other ways to show our affection + respect their space. And hugging is just one variant. While being patted on the shoulder + told I did something well may not work with some boys, it definitely would have worked with me growing up!

      Lastly, my friend, when you’re a teacher, especially a HS + middle school teacher, there are constraints placed on you that are often major obstacles to physical affection, which sucks. I have several friends who are public + private HS teachers + they’ve all told me they can’t even touch students, even if they threaten them. But I have faith in you + am sure that you find small ways to give boys the space to be complex humans beings with a full spectrum of emotions, feelings + thoughts + also find small ways to show your affection that don’t put your job at risk. I’m lucky because in the 3 years I’ve taught in college so far, I ended up hugging like 95% of my students, but usually only at the end of the semester (or if something really bad happened to them + they came to me for support). I think college gives you a little more leeway, but in every instance, just like for you, you play it by ear + pay attention to what people are willing + unwilling to do. After all, being sensitive to people’s needs is as loving as expressing that love to them in words + deeds.

      Thanks so much for contributing to this conversation. I really appreciate it. Be well, man.

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

      • Sam Jandwich says:

        Hello Jackson,

        I thought I’d chime in as well, because when reading the article I found myself thinking along the same lines as Ryn above… not so much in terms of affection being an imposition perhaps, but more as it being something that men have some fairly well-developed alternatives to. However I guess the problem with these is that they are highly culturally nuanced, and lead to the exclusion of people who aren’t imbued with that culture/understanding.

        To give a personal example, I was quite close to my two male cousins (my mother’s sister’s sons) when we were all younger, but that changed markedly once they started going to a private all-boys high school, whereas I continued on in the co-ed public system. I just found that when my cousins were exposed to this all-male environment, they learnt what could almost be described as a secret language. They way they speak to other men really is amazingly complex and sophisticated in its indirectness. The way that they can evoke strong emotions and opinions through the use of metaphors, and by what sound like throwaway lines but when you analyse them are filled with all sorts of meanings and double-entendus, really is an amazing thing to behold.

        And when you look around it’s easy to see examples of this sort of quite intimate camaraderie between men in all sorts of contexts. Sport is the obvious one (just listen to the reverence that football or motor racing commentators have for the people they’re talking about. The tightly-wound love poems they spin are almost shakespearean in their subtlety), but statements by male business people, politicians, academics, ultra-masculine musicians (eg blues and country singers), and religious people can be just as powerful and affecting. Sit on a park bench next to a couple of old homeless men and you’ll probably have a similar perception.

        The trouble is, you need to know this language, and conduct all your own dealings within it, or else you will be excluded. Direct expressions of emotion are possible within this culture, but there is a very fine line between “holding your own” and over-sharing.

        You could go into all sorts of analyses about why this situation exists – and for a start I would suggest that in view of the fact that being overtly emotional is frowned upon, men have had to come up with ways to fulfil their need for emotional closeness with other men by skirting around the issue… however in this respect I would argue that the “masculine” or “patriarchal” culture does that pretty effectively.

        Of course if this doesn’t work for you, or if you’re not part of this culture, then the rules are not so clear-cut… and I think articles like yours are very helpful in helping men on the “outside” to get closer to their emotional side.

        Cheers

  30. Wonderful article Jackson. like someone else said, it’s these pieces that make GMP stand out over the rest.

  31. Agreed. Affection and sex are overlapping, but not identical, and a lot of the masculine insanity about sex is just a desire for affection, love and connection. Sad, really. I’m grateful I have men and women in my life with whom I can be affectionate.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Dave,

      Yup, I totally agree with you. Men want + need affection too, but sometimes they don’t know how to receive it because it didn’t come their way enough, or because they’ve grown up seeing affection as being in another jurisdiction. So glad to hear that you have people for affection. That’s awesome. Be well.

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

  32. Brilliant brilliant article!

    My husband went to comfort an uncle who just lost his wife (they were married for 6 decades!)….I told him to give him a hug for me…sometimes that’s all you can do…and sometimes just sit there and listen (and eat!)…

  33. Fantastic article, Jackson – thank you for writing about such an under-discussed topic. I had a similar relationship with my father, and that sort of distance has had a lasting impact. It’s the main reason I make sure to express affection to my son. And without realizing how great an effect the dearth of fatherly affection had on me, I unwittingly wrote it into my latest novel, as a layer of complication between my 17 year-old main character and his widower father. Sincere gratitude for your exploration of the subject.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Steven,

      Thanks so much, man. I can’t tell you how happy I am for your son + for you. Good luck with your writing too!

      -j1b

  34. Tom Brechlin says:

    Very moving and greatly appreciated. I would venture to say that I am more then likely your dads age so I can happily admit that within my life span, I was able to break that mold. I’m in my 50’s and my dad and I suffered through the proverbial “generation gap.” He was a great man and almost 40 years after his death, I miss him more now then ever before. He’d be 100 years old had he lived but I say this only to give you a better idea as to the generation gap we experienced. Hell, my moms house in Oshkosh, was the first on the block to get electricity. When I came of, my dad was nearing retirement and he had a long haired hippie at home .. free love and all that. But I accepted him for who he was and the included the lack of affection. Oh, I knew he loved me and like your dad his love was shown through his providing a good home.

    Now, where I kind of struggled is where you speak of healing. There was no healing in my case but instead a matter of taking that which was great in my childhood and adding to it. Hugs and kisses were abundant between my kids and I. Now that they’re grown, it’s not stopped. My son and I hug all the time. I recently had to put down our family pet, a Golden retriever, where he and I were devastated. In fact I wrote an article here at GMP about it which was more for my processing grief then anything else. It was a time where my son and I leaned on one another. We cried in each others arms. My heart was hurting for the loss of Ernie but my pain was compounded by seeing my son in so much pain as well.

    As I said, I don’t see it as healing but simply growing. It’s expected that each generation be a tad better then the previous but that generally applies to status or wealth. In my case, the goal was to add a dimension that was lacking in my childhood. An affection which was understandably lacking but often times wished for.

    Thanks again for your article …. Good job!

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Tom,

      Thanks so much, man. I really appreciate you sharing your story + contributing to this conversation. As for the topic of healing, I’d argue that your son + you helped each other heal from that tragedy of putting down the family pooch. Also, the act of being affectionate to your son + receiving affection from him, I’d argue anyway, is incredibly healing. Nothing removes pain, but certain things help us through it + in time we heal from our pain. Without the love you + your son gave each other, maybe you’d never recover from that pain. And I don’t think humans can grow unless they can learn to heal in some way. People who are stuck in pain don’t grow, they stay where they are. I know quite a few victims + their pain is still very strong. If they’d healed, though, they would grow in people who could deal with, or understand, or self-forgive themselves for their pain, but many martyrs, for example, don’t because they identify with their pain. Anyway, we may not agree with this, but the love you described with your son, I see that as a source of healing. Not the solution to all your problems, but a way to find love, consolation, affection + support during a tough time. The actual healing may take a lifetime, but it’s easier + probably faster when we have people, places, things we can do that help us get through it. And also, for me, when I express love for other people, I find that it helps me heal just a tiny bit. But everyone’s different. Thanks again for sharing. Really appreciate it.

      Peace,

      -j1b


  35. One of the major systemic tragedies for boys is the ongoing poverty of male affection in their lives. Boys grow up seeing affection as sexual behavior and not social behavior.

    I don’t think its as simple as seeing it that way but being taught that it is that way. As guys we are taught that the only affection for us is sexual affection. We are taught that social affection is something that gets in the way of our being useful.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Hey Danny,

      I agree, but I think we learn things in a lot of different ways, + one important way is through modeling. I’d argue that modeling is one way boys are “taught” to see affection as sexual instead of social behavior because many boys don’t see their own dads as affectionate, they don’t see other boys being affection with each other, and most straight boys see affection in the women in their lives. This is essentially being taught something. I think that boys seeing something in a certain way is just another way of saying that society teaches those boys something.

      peace, blessings,

      -j1b

      • True, I think it is very culture specific. For example, when I travelled in India I saw more men holding each other’s hands walking down the street, than I saw men and women holding hands (one also sees many women holding each other’s hands). As was explained to me by someone living there, in many areas it is precisely because affection between people of the same gender is NOT seen as sexual in any way that they show affection to their friends in public more than their own spouses, since even holding hands and kissing aren’t very acceptable in public between heterosexual couples, because it IS seen as sexual, something that should be kept private.

  36. Veronica Grace says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    I was thinking about this today and how it will affect my sons.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Veronica Grace,

      Thank you. I really appreciate that. Just the fact you’re thinking about it bodes well for your sons because it means you’re not just empathetic, but you’re concerned about the type of people they are + the type of people they’ll become. They’re lucky to have you.

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

  37. Jackson Bliss,

    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

    The older I get I realize how great were my parents. I got lots of love and affection from my Dad and Mom.

    I have a 16 year old who is so dear to my heart. I make a point of always telling him I love him. He got his interim grades last week and I saw he was struggling with AP Psychology. We sat down and I told him how proud of him I was and how much Mom and Dad loved him. I told him I spoke to Mom, who was a Psych minor in college, and we were going to help him get on track. He grinned. Afterwards, I went over and hugged him and told him I loved him.

    I think my behavior came from my family, where I got steady love and affection as well as care and protection. Home was my safety net. Dad was a Marine. I knew feeling safe and protected were important. As I look back, I now realize there were no threats in the backwoods of the Deep South! Lol! My Dad will always be my hero in life. He grew up under Jim Crow. Yet he prevailed. He spent 25 years in the USMC. Afterwards, worked a blue collar job to provide for and protect his family of 6. He also showed us love and affection the best way he knew how. See my Dad was really on 15 when he joined the USMC. He was 6’1 and there were no birth certificates. Being Black, he was viewed as canon fodder for the Korean War. He was shipped out to Korea within weeks of completing his training landing at Inchon. But he survived! He was always a brawler and survivor. I am just like him. Lol!

    My son has a more gentle personality. But, he will brawl if forced. He is not as fearless as myself or Dad. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

    You have done a masterful job here sir! Truly masterful.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Jules,

      That’s an amazing fucking story! So glad you grew up with that love + support, + even happier to hear your story, which is really touching. Everyone deserves that, everyone needs that + the world is a better place when love is a constant in their lives. I have tons of love + respect for your pops, not just the fights he fought, not just his strength + determination, but also the legacy of love he + your mom passed down to you. Makes me so fucking happy to know about stories like this. Keep being a great parent + be well. Your son is truly blessed to have you two.

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

  38. Jackson Bliss: Men only heal when we surround ourselves with others who are engines of deep and uncontrollable love, people who are compassionate, affectionate, forgiving and open with their emotions.

    Well…no.

    Being immersed in a matrix of loving people is a good way for PEOPLE (not just MEN) to heal. But it is certainly not the only way.

    There are certainly plenty of people – men and women both – who have found this kind of healing in deep solitude, on what’s often call the mystic journey or path.

    I think we need to be careful not to make two mistakes:

    1. Don’t make this a gender essentialist issue, or even a cis-gender issue. It is a HUMAN issue. Let’s queer it up, so we can clear it up.

    2. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you know about is healing by using one sort of modality, then you’ll naturally be unable to see, much less discuss, other possible modalities that may work just as well, or even better, for some folks.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      Hey Paul,

      First off, I wrote that men must surround themselves with “others” who are sources of love + compassion because I meant ALL people, not just men. This is proven by the fact that I included my wife as a source of love + affection. Second, any time you’re talking about masculinity, you’re going to be slightly essentialistic. Beyond that, I think it’s clear that I’m not making a generalization about all men because some men were fortunate to grow up with affectionate fathers, affectionate brothers, etc., etc., but for many men I know, that wasn’t the case. Third, while I’m absolutely positive that some queer boys probably struggle with a lack of affection from male figures in their family, the essential difference (+ it’s a huge one) is that most queer boys learn to connect affection with masculinity because they express it to each other. That’s an epiphany many straight boys will not have until much later in their life. Lastly, if you honestly think I’m suggesting this modality as the only way men cure themselves, then I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding both about this article + about me. This article is not a panacea + doesn’t pretend to be. What it does do, is open the possibility for some men to confront the pain they carried with them because of the relationships they had with their dads (a pain many men deny they even have) + help them deassociate affection with sexuality + also prevent the gendering of affection. All of those are good things, I think. There are probably a million other approaches to this issue too, but the place for those is not in this article. My article isn’t dogmatic. It’s just another contribution to a much larger dialog taking place both in the Good Men Project + in gender + queer studies, so you should contextualize your reading of my article i the bigger framework.

      • Brilliant article, and brilliant response. Whereas I think this issue is not exclusively for men as sufferers or healers, I think it’s applicable to a MUCH larger proportion of men than women in our society. In fact, I would say this issue goes to explain much of the underlying oppression of men, which exists subconsciously, and therefore is not as available to either men themselves or women for examination. It’s a recent revelation for expression of this issue to find voice in a blog like TGMP. Women are free, at least, to find emotional acceptance in the confidence of female friends without the fear of what seems like almost inevitable rejection, and certainly with no chance of losing their “woman card.” This is why, I believe, women far too often get men who are emotionally distant or damaged because of this phenomenon. I believe things are changing rapidly with a concerted effort by fathers to be more nurturing and present in the lives of their children, as you are an example.

        • Jackson Bliss says:

          Paul2,

          Thanks a lot, man for being part of this convo. Yeah, I basically agree with you. One of the reasons I probably dated so much when I was younger was because girls were sometimes just so much sweeter with me. And it wasn’t just men: I sometimes marveled at the way female friends spent the night, cuddled with each other. Just two nights ago, my wife + I were watching ANTM, + three of the female models were taking a bath together! You’d NEVER see that shit with straight boys. I think you’re right though. Ultimately, for people who grew up with a lot of love from both parents, they don’t have the same issues + as gender roles erode, I think fathers are getting better in part because they don’t want to transfer their voids to their kids. Good hearing from you.

          Peace, Blessings,

          -j1b

      • Justin writes: First off, I wrote that men must surround themselves with “others” who are sources of love + compassion because I meant ALL people, not just men.

        Thanks for the reply, Justin.

        Yes, I got that your “others” included all sorts of people, not just men. But you misunderstood what I was pointing to.

        I’ll just use myself as a case in point. I went through this essential healing but it certainly didn’t come from surrounding myself with others who were able to generate loving energy. I took a totally different path – a more inner, personal, path of apartness from others to get this healing.

        So what I was objecting to was your exact phrasing that connecting with loving others is the ONLY way for men to get this healing. That’s simply not the case, and it’s not helpful (IMO) to state that it is.

        We certainly do have to get our bliss hits of loving energy from somewhere, if we’re going to heal such primal wounds. But it really doesn’t have to be from other people. I’ve known people (and I imagine you have too) who’ve had little capacity to connect to other people on any level because of their wounds, and have gotten their own bliss hits from animals.

        And then there are those who walk totally alone, and find their bliss hits dwelling in the deepest and darkest solitary shadows. I’m not a Christian, but CS Lewis’ book “Till We Have Faces” was a masterful retelling of an ancient myth on just that subject.

        What I think is really useful here – when we’re speaking to other men and some women who are struggling with the exact issues both you and I have struggled with, is to avoid reductionist advice, making it sound like there is one way to do things when (clearly) that is not the case. I do a lot of teaching, particularly through writing – and being conscious of what I say, what I mean and how my words could be understood or misunderstood is very important to me – and I think it would be to anyone serving a teaching function in any venue – as you surely are doing here.

        • Jackson Bliss says:

          Paul,

          This argument is getting tedious, but I’m gonna respond because I know both of us care greatly about this discourse. So, let’s have at it:

          First off, it’s JACKSON. At least get my name right.

          Second, I never stated that being surrounded with loving people is the ONLY way for us to heal. I don’t think that + I wasn’t arguing that. The first thing I argued for was deep, love, unconditional friendships that help people heal. Of course that could be animals. It could be art. It could be a million things, but I’m not gonna list every possible solution, that would have made this essay ridiculous. The second thing I argued for was self-forgiveness, but I deliberately don’t offer solutions on that because different people learn to forgive themselves in different ways. The third thing I talk about is that for men who have a paternal void, they need to be honest with themselves about its existence so they’re not victims of their own pathology. This is a solution of openness + brutal honesty. I also talk about fatherhood as another possible way that men who did not get enough affection from their dads can help themselves heal (it certainly helped my dad + many other new fathers I know). But in this summary alone, I’ve offered a NUMBER of possible solutions, which directly counters your narrative that my essay was the “only way for men to get this healing,” as you said. No, that’s patently untrue. Many cannot = only, just on a sentence level since the “only” that you’re fixating on offers a parenthetical qualifier “if it disappears at all,” which syntactically denies a reductive solution at all since this language clearly implies that these solutions may not work at all. On the sentence level, I think that’s pretty clear. My essay talks about a number of different strategies, but they’re certainly not exhaustive by any means, nor are they intended to be. Maybe you or someone else will write another essay about healing with animals (and if you do, I promise I won’t write comments suggesting you’re being reductive for only talking about animal healing).

          And by the way, we have two dogs that I love very much + they’ve certainly helped me heal a great deal. There’s absolutely no reason why animals shouldn’t be included in the sentence, “men only heal when we surround ourselves with others who are engines of deep and uncontrollable love, people who are compassionate, affectionate, forgiving.” At the same time, I’m not sure the love I have for + from my pooches has helped me deal with the issues I had with my dad. They’ve helped me heal in other ways, but not that specific issue. For other people maybe it would, but not for me. That void, or a tiny remnant of that void, is still there, it’s just been closing up over the past 10 years.

          I think the part of your comments that I find most unconstructive (+ a bit condescending), is the way you tell me to pay attention to my language because that’s what you do in your own writing.

          Ultimately, you can’t argue that I’m being reductive when my essay offers between 3-5 open-ended suggestions on how men can heal + simultaneously concedes that those things might not work at all. There’s obviously a clear awareness of contingency in my language that I think you’re conveniently ignoring. You’re also ignoring the fact that I rightfully acknowledge that my essay doesn’t apply to all people in all circumstances. Clearly I know that. But what it does do, is reify a space for men to deassociate affection with femininity, confront their paternal voids (those who have them) + deconstruct affection as a (hetero) sexual performance, + instead, consider affection as a social expression instead. And while women can + should enter into this dialog in a number of important ways, my focus is on men This essay is about the lack of male affection, that’s it central focus.

          As I said before, there are probably a million approaches to this issue too, but the place for those is not in this article. My article isn’t trying to hit every major point. It’s just a small contribution to a much larger dialog taking place. As I said before, you need to contextualize your (polemical) reading of my article in the bigger framework.

          Anyway, that’s how I see it. Thanks for your thoughts.

          Peace,
          -j1b

  39. Articles like this are what originally attracted me to GMP. It’s an honesty that we hunger for, whether we know it or not.

    I was thinking about this issue the other day. It seems like, in general, men seek affection (validation) throughysex, and women seek validation outside of sex. It’s due to the patriarchal value system of course and men are validated outside of sex and women only through sex. But what about the women who don’t fit into popular ideals of beauty? They have to find that self compassion, and really that’s what we all need.

    I was reading Malidoma Somé, the west African shaman, as he was describing various rituals that could help heal westerners and multiple ones included all the participants speaking to the troubled person and telling them how important they were to them. He described a sincre display of validation and said that it is incredibly important for people to be seen, felt and heard. Western culture’s isolationism prohibits this to a great degree. Regardless, I think my point is that self compassion is a requirement but it is not enough.

    • Jackson Bliss says:

      John Brier,

      I agree with you + really appreciate your contributions to this conversation. Thanks.

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

  40. Thank You Jackson Bliss

    Wonderful article

Trackbacks

  1. […] a sensate experience and arrives at an emotional experience of intimacy. I just came across a wonderful article on how boys are so often deprived of physical affection from their parents, and how this impacts […]

  2. […] A Scarcity of Affection Among Men — The Good Men Project says: January 1, 2014 at 10:31 am […]

  3. […] a sensate experience and arrives at an emotional experience of intimacy. I just came across a wonderful article on how boys are so often deprived of physical affection from their parents, and how this impacts […]

  4. […] with me because we are raising two young men in a world that is struggling with gender equality. “A Scarcity of Affection among Men” by Jackson Bliss was a piece I found particularly […]

  5. […] A Scarcity of Affection Among Men […]

  6. […] As my article on the lack of male affection points out, most men grow up devoid of male affection. Male self-love initiates (and in some cases, […]

  7. […] Bliss, Jackson. “A Scarcity of Affection Among Men.” The Good Man Project. October 7, 2013. http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/a-scarcity-of-affection-among-men/ […]

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