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

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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. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. ‘… 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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/ […]

  2. […] 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, […]

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

  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 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 […]

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

  7. […] 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 […]

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