The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer

touch

Mark Greene explores how in American culture, men avoid all contact rather than risk even the hint of causing unwanted sexual touch.

 

In preparing to write about the lack of gentle touch in men’s lives, I right away thought, “I feel confident I can do platonic touch, but I don’t necessarily trust other men to do it. Some guy will do something creepy. They always do.” Quickly on the heels of that thought, I wondered “Wait a minute, why do I distrust men in particular?” The little voice in my head didn’t say, “I don’t necessarily trust people to not be creepy”, it said, “I don’t trust men.”

In American culture, we believe that men can never be entirely trusted in the realm of the physical. We collectively suspect that, given the opportunity, men will collapse into the sexual at a moment’s notice. That men don’t know how to physically connect otherwise. That men can’t control themselves. That men are dogs.

There is no corresponding narrative about women.

Accordingly, it has become every man’s job to prove they can be trusted, in each and every interaction, day by day and case by case. In part, because so many men have behaved poorly. And so, we prove our trustworthiness by foregoing physical touch completely in any context in which even the slightest doubt about our intentions might arise. Which, sadly, is pretty much every context we encounter.

And where does this leave men? Physically and emotionally isolated. Cut off from the human physical contact that is proven to reduce stress, encourage self esteem and create community.

And where does this leave men? Physically and emotionally isolated. Cut off from the deeply human physical contact that is proven to reduce stress, encourage self esteem and create community. Instead, we walk in the vast crowds of our cities alone in a desert of disconnection. Starving for physical connection. 

We crave touch. We are cut off from it. The result is touch isolation.

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through long lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a hand shake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think, holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. And if you are a man, imagine a five minutes of contact with another man. How quickly does that idea raise the ugly specter of homophobia? And why?

While women are much freer to engage in physical contact with each other, men remain suspect when they touch others. There is only one space in our culture where long term platonic physical contact is condoned for men, and that is between fathers and their very young children.

I found this kind of physical connection when my son was born. As a stay at home dad, I spent years with my son. Day after day, he sat in the crook of my arm, his little arm across my shoulder, his hand on the back of my neck. As he surveyed the world from on high, I came to know a level of contentment and calm that had heretofore been missing in my life. The physical connection between us was so transformative that it changed my view of who I am and what my role is in the world. Yet it took having a child to bring this calming experience to me because so few other opportunities are possible to teach men the value and power of gentle loving touch.

♦◊♦

As a young child and as a teenager, contact between myself and others simply didn’t happen unless it came in the form of rough housing or unwelcome bullying. My mother backed off from contact with me very early on, in part, I think, due to her upbringing. I can only guess that in her parents’ house physical touch was something for toddlers but not for children past a certain age. Add to that, the fact that my father was absent due to my parents’ divorce and years of work overseas, and it meant I grew up without being held or touched

This left me with huge insecurities about human contact. I was well into my twenties before I could put my arm around a girl I was dating without first getting drunk.  To this day, I remain uncertain about where and how to approach contact with people, even those I consider close friends. It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just that it remains awkward, odd. As if we all feel like we’re doing something slightly… off?

Hugs with men or women are a ballet of the awkward, a comedic choreography in which we turn our groins this way or that. Shoulders in, butts out, seeking to broadcast to anyone within line of sight that we are most certainly not having a sexual moment.

Contact with male friends is always brief, a handshake, or a pat on the back. Hugs with men or women are a ballet of the awkward, a comedic choreography in which we turn our groins this way or that. Shoulders in, butts out, seeking to broadcast to anyone within line of sight that we are most certainly not having a sexual moment. We’re working so hard to be seen as sexually neutral that we take no joy in these moments of physical connection.

Not only do we men distrust others in this muddled realm of physical touch, years of shaming and judgement have left us distrusting ourselves. Did I enjoy that too much? Am I having taboo thoughts? This distrust leaves us uncertain about touching another human being unless we have established very clear rules of engagement. Often we give up and simply reduce those rules to being in a relationship. We allow ourselves long-lasting comforting touch with our girlfriends or boyfriends. The vast universe of platonic human touch is suddenly reduced to the exclusive domain of one person and is blended into the sexual. That’s a lot of need to put on one person, however loving and generous they might be.

Which leads to the question, how do we teach our sons to understand how touch works? How to parse out the sexual from the platonic? Is the pleasure of human contact inherently sexual to some degree?  I doubt its a question the average Italian man would ever ask himself. But here in America, generations of Puritanical sexual shaming have made it a central question. By putting the fear of the sexual first in all our interactions, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, avoiding all contact rather than risk even the hint of unwanted sexual touch.

♦◊♦

Many parents step back from physical contact with boys when their sons approach puberty. The contact these boys seek is often deemed confusing or even sexually suspect. And, most unbelievable of all, all opportunity for potential physical touch is abruptly handed over to young boys’ female peers, who are suddenly expected to act as gatekeepers to touch; young girls who are no more prepared to take on this responsibility than boys are to hand it over.

And so boys are cast adrift with two unspoken lessons:

  1. All touch is sexually suspect
  2. Find a girlfriend or give up human contact

A particularly damning message to boys who are gay.

American culture leaves boys few options. While aggression on the basketball court or bullying in the locker room often results in sporadic moments of human contact, gentleness likely does not.

American culture leaves boys few options. While aggression on the basketball court or bullying in the locker room often results in sporadic moments of human contact, gentleness likely does not. And young men, whose need for touch is channeled into physically rough interactions with other boys or fumbling sexual contact with girls, lose conscious awareness of the gentle, platonic contact of their own childhoods. Sometimes it’s not until their children are born that they rediscover gentle platonic touch; the holding and caring contact that is free from the drumbeat of sex, sex, sex that pervades our culture even as we simultaneously condemn it.

Is it any wonder that sexual relationships in our culture are so loaded with anger and fear? Boys are dumped on a desert island of physical isolation, and the only way they can find any comfort is to enter the blended space of sexual contact to get the connection they need. Which makes sexual relations a vastly more high stakes experience than it already should be. We encourage aggressive physical contact as appropriate mode of contact for boys and turn a blind eye to bullying even as we then expect them to work out some gentler mode of sexual contact in their romantic lives.

If men could diffuse their need for physical connection across a much wider set of platonic relationships, it would do wonders for our sense of connection in the world. As it is, we can’t even manage a proper hug because we can’t model what was never modeled for us.

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We have seniors in retirement homes who are visited by dogs they can hold and pet. This does wonders for their health and emotional state of mind. It is due to the power of contact between living creatures. Why are good hearted people driving around town, taking dogs to old folks homes? Because no one is touching these elderly people. They should have grandchildren in their laps every day, or a warm human hand to hold, not Pomeranians who come once a week. And yet, we put a dog in their laps instead of give them human touch, because we remain a culture that holds human contact highly suspect. We know the value of touch, even as we do everything we can to shield ourselves from it.

We American men, have a tragic laundry list of reasons why we are not comfortable with touch.

  1. We fear being labeled as sexually inappropriate by women.
  2. We live in a virulently homophobic culture so all contact between men is suspect.
  3. We don’t want to risk any hint of being sexual toward children.
  4. We don’t want to risk our status as macho or authoritative by being physically gentle.
  5. We don’t ever want to deal with rejection when we reach out. (And in our touch averse culture that is the most likely outcome.)
But at the root of all these flawed rationalizations is the fact that most American men are never taught how to do gentle non-sexual touch.

But at the root of all these flawed rationalizations is the fact that most American men are never taught to do gentle non-sexual touch. We are not typically taught that we can touch and be touched as platonic expression of joyful human contact. Accordingly, the very inappropriate over-sexualized touch our society fears runs rampant, reinforcing our culture’s  self fulfilling prophecy against men and touch. Meanwhile, this inability to comfortably connect via touch has left men emotionally isolated contributing to rampant rates of alcoholism, depression and abuse.

And what if the lack of platonic touch is causing some men to be far too aggressive toward women, who, as the exclusive gatekeepers for gentle touch are carrying a burden they could never hope to fully manage?  Women, who arguably are both victims of and, in partnership with men, enforcers of  the prohibition against platonic touch in American culture? The impact of our collective touch phobia is felt across our society by every single man, woman and child.

Brené Brown, in her ground breaking TED Talk titled The power of vulnerability talks at length about the limitations men face when attempting to express vulnerability in our culture. She notes the degree to which men are boxed in by our culture’s expectations about what a man is or is not allowed to do. I would suggest that the limitations placed on men extend to their physical expression though touch. And are just as damaging in that realm.

♦◊♦

But here’s the good news.

There are many reasons why full-time stay at home dads are proving to be such a transformative force in American culture. One powerful reason is the awakening of touch. As full time dads, we are presented with the absolute necessity to hold our own wonderful children. We are learning about touch in the most powerful and life affirming way. In ways that previous generations of men simply were not immersed in. Once you have held your sleeping child night after night or walked for years with their hand in yours, you are a changed person. You gain a fluency and confidence in touch that you will never loose. It is a gift to us men from our children that literally has the capacity to transform American culture.

Accordingly, now, when I am with a friend I do reach out. I do make contact. And I do so with confidence and joy. And I have my own clear path forward.

The patterns in my life may be somewhat set but I intend to do everything I can to remain in contact with my son in hopes that he will have a different view of touch in his life. I hug him and kiss him. We hold hands or I put my arm around him when we watch TV or walk on the street. I will not back off from him because someone somewhere might take issue with our physical connection. I will not back off because somehow there is an unspoken rule that I must cut him loose in the world to fend for himself. I hope we can hold hands even when he is a man. I hope we continue to hold hands till the day I die.

Ultimately, we will unlearn our fear of touch in the context of our personal lives and in our day to day interactions. Learning how to express platonic love and affection through touch is a vast and remarkable change that has to be lived. But it is so important that we do it. Because it is central to having a rich full life.

Touch is life.

SEE ALSO: 

Men! Stop Trying to Control Other Men! (Like the Met’s Daniel Murphy)
“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”

For Crying Out Loud, Can We Please Stop Calling Them Highly Sensitive Men?

Why Men’s Friendships Can Feel Empty

The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men of Touch

Touch Isolation: Insisting Boys Learn Independence Creates an Isolating Trap for Men

 

For those who are interested, here are a few sources on the issues I raise here:

In an article in Psychology Today Ray B. Williams writes about the central role of touch in living happier, healthier lives:

Daniel Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says “in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.” Keltner cites the work of neuroscientist Edmund Ross, who found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Keltner contends that “studies show that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response…”

A clear indication of how central touch is in our emotional and cognitive development can be seen in the range of studies examining touch and infants (both human and animal), here summarized in an article titled The Importance of Touch in Development found on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s web site. The article notes:

Developmental delay is often seen in children receiving inadequate or inappropriate sensory stimulation. For example, orphaned infants exposed to the bleakest of conditions in eastern European institutions exhibited impaired growth and cognitive development, as well as an elevated incidence of serious infections and attachment disorders (1) Much evidence now points to the importance of touch in child development and suggests the possibility that these orphaned infants are not suffering from maternal deprivation, per se, but from sensory deprivation, and more specifically a deprivation of mechanosensory stimulation.

Read more about the central role touch plays in human communication in this amazing article in Psychology Today titled The Power of Touch.

Photo from  the Comic Shop

Follow Mark Greene on Twitter: 

Want to Teach Your Little Ones About Gentle Touch?

By Emmy® Winning Animator and Author Mark Greene:

The Naughty Hand is a fun and entertaining children’s story book for iPad, designed the help parents talk to their little ones (age 4-7) about how and why its good to be gentle when we touch others.  See page samples here. Includes link to free sample download on iTunes for your iPad!

More by Mark Greene:

The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

Touch Isolation: Insisting Boys Learn Independence Creates an Isolating Trap for Men

Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men of Touch

Boys and Self-Loathing: The Conversations That Never Took Place

Our Society’s Brutal Economic Message to Straight Men About Expressing Gender Differently: You’d Better Not…

The Lego Rebellion, Vladimir Putin and the “You Might Be Gay” Dinner Conversation

The Dark Side of Women’s Requests of Progressive Men

The Last Late Show With My Father

 

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About Mark Greene

GMP Senior Editor Mark Greene is an Emmy Award winning animator and designer. He blogs and speaks on Men's Issues at the intersection of society, politics, relationships and parenting for the Good Men Project, the New York Times, The Shriver Report, Salon, HLN, The Huffington Post, and Mamamia. You can follow him on Twitter @megaSAHD and Google.
Click here to read more GMP articles by Mark Greene. Get Mark's fully illustrated children's book FLATMUNDER for iPad from iTunes about kid's fears and the power of play. For kids ages 4-8.

Comments

  1. I was thinking about this very thing this morning.
    I personally believe it stems from a profound lack of caring about the inner lives of young boys by most adults. If adults were moved to ask a young boy about his feelings, even once a week, I think it would set the stage for boys to be more expressive as caring, feeling individuals. Instead, they are mocked for crying, mocked for liking nature, animals, people, showing empathy.
    I saw this when I was a kindergarten teacher and see it now as a father. It is heart-breaking that we reinforce such destructive attitudes about boys.
    I was bullied my whole life because people thought I was gay (I am not) simply because I was free with my physical self, toughing people, gesticulating with my hands, asking people how they feel. Those are all things that are shunned from an early age in boys. Simply asking a boy about his feelings could make a world of difference.

  2. Helps explain why dogs are men’s best friends.

  3. ” Historians have written that it was the prosecution and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde that led to the decades of terror in English-speaking societies and the inhibition of any physical expression of affection between men.”
    Commenter: tfferg March 14, 2013, 8:26PM
    http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/when-did-it-stop-being-ok-for-men-to-hold-hands-20130313-2g098.html

    i have read the same on a mens blog. if i remember correct, it also had a contemporary newspaper report. however i didnt save the link, and ive found no corroboration online.
    would anyone know any more, on whether the claim is true?

  4. Mark, I wanted to give you feedback on this part:

    “Many parents step back from physical contact with boys when their sons approach puberty. The contact these boys seek is often deemed confusing or even sexually suspect. And, most unbelievable of all, all opportunity for potential physical touch is abruptly handed over to young boys’ female peers, who are suddenly expected to act as gatekeepers to touch; young girls who are no more prepared to take on this responsibility than boys are to hand it over.”

    The one thing that really bothers me when people discuss sexuality is that they either refuse to acknowledge, or are ignorant of the evolutionary forces that drive such behaviors.

    It makes sense, from a strictly evolutionary sense, that parents would push their boys away from them, and into the arms of fertile women, due to procreative drive. Up until about 150 years ago, it was very common, even normal, for teenagers to be married and have kids, especially in older days when life expectancy was in the 40-50 year range.

    I’m quite okay with all of the suggestions posited in this article, I think it would be better in the future to not just blindly blame society or parents though for something that has been the norm for our species for hundreds of thousands of years.

    • For hundreds of thousands of years, rape and murder have been the norm for our species. It is society’s responsibility, and that of parents, to rise above what you refer to as the norm, both in terms of our species and our culture. My issue is not with boys going to girls for gentle touch. My issue is a culture where it is the ONLY place they can go for it.
      There’s nothing blind about where I place responsibility for the things our children are forced to endure.

  5. It’s interesting to read a man’s point of view on growing up. I have mixed emotions about this. Well I completely see the writer’s point, but as a female I grew up fearful of males having been physically assaulted three times in grade school by male classmates. In adulthood being single (because I am lesbian) it has been constant assaults, harassment and stalkings from men I did not even know just because they think I “owed” them my body because I am female. Going to the gym every day is like living hell. I don’t think men understand what women go through and we don’t even have to be attractive or skinny just having a female body is enough to cause one to be harassed. I also learned it is risky to even be polite and speak to or make eye contact with a male as to some that is the only provocation they need to start pursuing you. I once spoke to a man in store who asked me about my martial arts school shirt, stupid me handed him my business card and then he stalked me for 4 years till I finally had to leave the state. I have taken off running when approached by a group of young males who it turned out were just wanting to ask me for help. I feel sorry for men, but I think they need to understand how rampant rape and physical abuse towards women is and how terrifying it is to be a woman, especially a single woman. If young men would stick up for females instead of saying nasty things to them when in a group of other young men it might help defuse this bad image they have. Like another poster commented being a woman in relationship gives you “protection” from harassment that single women or women out in town alone have to endure. I was involved in martial arts training when I was younger and would suggest judo classes would probably be of benefit to young boys and even grown men needing a safe touch outlet. I noticed guys really seem to take to judo in a way female students do not. I think it’s because in class it is ok to touch and roughhouse with another person.

    • EmceeLucas says:

      I’m sorry for your horrible experiences with men, and I agree that we need to be taking a more proactive approach to how we all treat each other. While I recognize why women might be fearful of men touching them even in a platonic sense when sexual assault is a real danger, I don’t think discouraging men from having platonic physical contact is the answer. Perhaps the way in which we go about that contact is what needs to be examined, but that still doesn’t do much about the stigma surrounding men as potential perps. I don’t know, I don’t have the answers.

      That is a cool bit about Judo, I never would have thought about it like that.

  6. I offer the following link at a look at the past of male affection in photographs: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/07/29/bosom-buddies-a-photo-history-of-male-affection/

  7. Mike from MA says:

    Maybe American men should just go ahead and have a gay experience. I love Mark’s post, but if I’m reading it right, fear of gay is still the big psychic stumbling block. I don’t think you’re ever going to reach that promised land of free, open and unsexual physical contact with another man until you acknowledge that touching another man, no matter how friendly you want it to be, is packed with sexual potential, with eros. As it should be. It’s stirring, and it’s alluring, and it’s sexually expanding the way that physical contact and affection between any two human beings is designed to be. You don’t think a man’s gentle hand on your male body is hot as well as soothing? Try not flinching the next time (or first time) you touch or are touched by another man. You want not to be afraid of touch, especially same-sex touch, then stop being afraid of the latent sexuality of that touch. You don’t have to blow the next guy who shakes your hand, but you don’t have to act like it’s your personal apocalypse if the thought crosses your mind.

    As moving as Mark’s piece is, in my opinion it is miles from the starting line of where American men need to go to become better at Human 101.

  8. I am 23 years old and I have the same thoughts everyday. Thank you for this article. Barring handshakes which I have on the day to day basis, I can count the number of times I have actually had platonic physical contact.

    Its unfortunate that touch has become so sexualised.

  9. Thank you so much for posting this Mark. I would love to start a dialogue with you as some of us who are involved in the work with boys and men of color are asking these same questions and looking to present some of these same answers. We are looking to all kinds of sources from our many cultures to find authentic ways to celebrate and embrace masculinity as something that includes touch. I’m exploring this in a series of posts on my own blog where I also hope to touch on some of the aspects of how social location (race, ethnicity, religion and even poverty) change this dynamic. Thanks! – Adam

  10. A Little Cynical Maybe says:

    A few questions/reflections to complicate this matter:

    1. Why do we “need” gentle platonic touch? I am not so quick to accept that as a need?

    2. Similarly, how can you generalize that “we” all want it, that it is not, in fact, something that you or I have been conditioned to think we don’t want, but something that we, in fact, do NOT want?

    3. The article goes to lengths in its wording to uphold a clear distinction between this and “sexual” touch. But what is so wrong with sex? That seems to me as natural as hunger, as natural as thinking a pleasant smell is pleasant. Why is it sad that a man is conditioned not to want a stranger’s platonic touch, but it is “natural” that he is conditioned to think that getting any kind of pleasure out of human contact is somehow wrong? Talk about Puritan…

    4. If hugs are given in an unnatural manner (crotches this way or that), maybe it is because the whole practice itself is a “ballet of the awkward.” I know so-called huggers will not even want to entertain this notion, but really, some of us do not want casual hugs. I remember a time when you were not expected to hug all acquaintances at the end of the night or else face being considered a douche. The time was not so long ago, and I’ve had fond waves or exchange of words that were infinitely more intimate and endearing than these rather forced hugs.

    5. Some people will not know where to draw the line. Some people will not know where the line needs to be drawn. For example, a rub of the shoulders is, to some, a casual exchange, to others, it is a potential trigger and very creepy.

    6. I’m a man, to throw that out there. But I question myself whether this is our struggle alone. I’m not so quick to say so–touch is creepy to me as a casual exchange. I don’t think that this is because I have a fear of touch (that I am uptight, I’ll go ahead and say it for you), but rather because I don’t want to exchange casual touch. Is that so wrong? If so, then why? I think I am no more “naturally” compelled to let you brush up against me than you are to talk about your trauma or politics with me. Than you are to let me show you some boil on my foot.

    We are too quick in our culture to conflate a particular preference with a “phobia.” I don’t have a “phobia” of touching (and it is not a cause of any other preferences), and I frankly don’t see why I should even have to defend that assertion. That’s not “macho and authoritative”; it’s an assertion of one’s personal freedom.

    • A Little Cynical Maybe says:

      I actually want to clarify/qualify my “so-called hugger” statement. It is the kind of person that says, “Come on, come on, I know you want a hug. Why won’t you just let yourself go?” and then you either give them their awkward hug to get out of the more awkward conversation, or you say no, and they force a hug on you anyway.

      That sort of thing, you know. It is REALLY aggressive. Sometimes I actually do want a hug, just not from you. And that is okay. It will kill neither of us, haha. I see nothing but the most tenuous of connections to “stress, self-esteem, and community” in this article to disprove that notion. Perhaps we are not “alone in a desert of disconnection,” but rather we are merely selective in who we invite over to the desert house for dinner.

  11. I like aspects of this, but how do we apply this to men who cheat? How can a wife for example feel safe and understanding about her husband seeking “gentle platonic touch” from a female friend when that is almost an oxymoron between men and women? As if latent sexual energy and the risk of going too far isn’t constantly present. There’s nothing wrong with sex and attraction unless more important relationships (like marriage and parenting) are on the line.

    • swoosh.

      • This is the narrative that men and women are constantly confronted with. Its about the point at which connections with others break the boundaries of trust in monogamous relationships. But those trust boundaries are often unspoken and unclear. Created based not on trust and mutual agreement but instead on fear and mutual distrust or distrust of self. Moreover, if we fear any contact as being able to collapse into infidelity then we are right back at the trust question. Can men EVER be trusted?
        If someone is clearly prone to breaking trust with their partner over and over, then there are bigger issues at play.
        That being said, I feel that most people can be trusted.
        Therapist and author Esther Perel is doing groundbreaking work on infidelity. Her book Mating in Captivity is amazing. Her next book will be about Infidelity.

        • Thank you for your response Mark. I’ll be sure to check out her publications. Cheers!

        • Your article made me so sad, and I really do get it. I was with my husband for nine years and we trusted each other completely, so I freely was able to touch my male friends whom I trusted or who were friends of my husband. It was playful and innocent to curl up on the couch together with Tim (our housemate) or Francis (mutual friend) while Shayne (my husband) sat on the floor in front of me getting his head rubbed. I couldn’t count the time they outlast me in staying up late and I ended up sleeping with my head on someones shoulder or leg. It broke my heart when, years later, my husband and I parted ways – and then to compound the pain, that innocent platonic touch vanished. I tried. I hadn’t expected anything would change; especially not within the first year, because I’d known these guys for years and they knew I was mourning my marriage. Things did change, though. I found the platonic touch on my end was being interpreted as a sexual flirtation by a few of the guys, and they responded with sexual touch. I ended up having to not touch at all because my boundaries weren’t being respected and when I let it go too far with one, for fear or accusing him wrongfully, he called me a tease and said it was my fault. I had trusted most men, before that, and thought women who did not were conditioned by a jaded society. Now I’m just confused.

          • I’m so sorry that you’re going through this. I’m a very touchy-feely person, myself, and I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t safely give or receive a hug from my friends.

        • Deidra Springer says:

          Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá is another very interesting study of the origins of monogomy in human culture. It discusses whether, from a biological standpoint, we as humans are capable of that social construct.

  12. barry hendricks says:

    being a man i have wondered why i cant feel those feeling of beiing with someone nonsexually being able to comfort or be comforted by another iether man or women. I have felt that in the past and at times it was magical at other times and most often just a touch or a hug has left one or the other feeling uncomfortable.
    I have had both feelings in my interactions and like i said id prefer the touch being able to hold each other and if it is magical enough enjoy the love that comes out of it whether that be sexual in nature or not with iether males or females

  13. As a 25 year old man with a widening social circle, I have noticed that I respond to touch from almost everyone with a fear response. I have noticed I am more comfortable alone than in a roomful of people, even thought when I am alone I long for others and yearn for contact. It’s a relief to know that I am not alone in these feelings (and not completely crazy). Articles like this one give me the courage to “fake it until I make it” ie pretend I am comfortable with touch and contact until the time comes that I am truly comfortable with it.

    And to Julie, the woman who is concerned about “her” man cheating, I think you need to grow up. If you are constantly paranoid and suspicous of every little touch and move “your” man is making, then it is time for the relationship to be over. You are experiencing some sort of control issue that many women display that continues to boggle my mind. Find a different man that makes you happy. Stop trying to force the universe to pair you with a person who is obviously not making you happy.

    • Actually, my man and I are personally recovering from his cheating behaviors, so to me this is a very relevant question… Not a matter of paranoia or control. He still has several female friends and I understand the value of physical touch. But sadly in his case, he’s a self-identified sex addict… And even less conflicted men could easily make a horrible mistake…

    • And just for the record, Jon, I find your assumptions insulting. This beautiful man makes me extremely happy and vice-versa. Sometimes life does throw you curves and we’re taking steps… Together… But that does NOT mean the relationship has to be terminated. Love and relationships sometimes mean sticking it out and loving each other through problems. And we are. But nonetheless, for us it does change the perspective on this topic somewhat. I was looking for an educated opinion responding to my original question…
      And furthermore… I do not assume that i possess this man I love. I referred to him as “my husband,” but in no way is my attitude one of a nagging, possessive, paranoid wife. I’m a very fair, educated and loving partner and he’d be the first one to say so.
      Not everyone’s experiences are the same as yours. Please consider that before you open your mouth and spew ignorance and unnecessary rudeness…

      • Lolabunny says:

        “Please consider that before you open your mouth and spew ignorance and unnecessary rudeness.”
        Jon is a man. Just another man. Another man like most, with no compassion, rude and sexist, always expecting women to be the “evil” in this world. Don’t expect that much from men.

    • Jon,

      Your response to Julie is unkind and hostile. Please take this as being said gently, I know typed words can’t convey that. I too have social anxiety.

      It will help your social anxiety a lot to consider your seemingly automatic response to be snarky to people you don’t know just because you disagree with them. That kind of negativity lives within and can poison you and any chance you have of being comfortable in a room full of strangers.

      A wise person (and I’m not saying I’m wise – I screw this up too, especially if the topic is passionate) can allow others to have an opinion that conflicts with their own without seeing it as a personal threat. We are all the product of our environment and experiences, and our perspectives are always going to be a little different.

      I totally understand your aversion to the possessive form of calling a partner “my man/my woman”. For some people, it is very offensive. For others, it’s just natural. In North American society, it is becoming taboo among a subset of the more liberal culture, but not everyone feels that way yet and based on their intent they may not mean it in the way that you think.

      You’re not wrong for feeling that it’s wrong to assert possession of another human being, or to assume control of their lives based on a relationship. It’s just the tone of your response that was equally offensive, because you made an assumption and responded harshly and with sarcasm.

      Please don’t take that as an attack. I’m not trying to attack you.

      I’m just saying that, as someone who also has social anxiety, that outlook and automatic response is not going to help you in faking it till you make it. You’ll find it exceptionally harder to actually make it if you are so quick to assume the negative about other people.

      I hope I haven’t come off as a jerk. If I have, please excuse me. I mean no harm.

      Ps. I can also identify with Julie because my husband cheated too, and I tried to make it work for three years after, then I left. Depending on your history with someone in a serious relationship, it’s not always so easy as just dumping them the first time they display a lack of 100% compatibility. You do that all the time, you’re going to find yourself in a series of very short relationships with a lot of time wasted, and several people with great personalities but a few glaring flaws tossed aside despite their potential to make you happy.

  14. Thank you for posting this. It’s one of the first things that has made me want to raise male children so I can be part of working against this trend in the culture I live in–and a good reminder that there are things I can do about it now.

  15. Speaking of dogs, Harry Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”.

  16. Brad Grammer says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been running support groups for men battling sexual addictions for 15 years. One of my contentions is that men battle sexuality more because they are touch depraved. They are more likely to be sexual because most of their touch is reserved exclusively for sexual behavior so why wouldn’t they struggle with it? They automatically equate touch with sex instead of seeing touch as normal as taking care of your nutritional needs by eating healthy. Healthy touch is imperative to be a healthy person and teaching this men about healthy, non-sexual touch is one of the tasks of the support groups. Thank you once again.

  17. I think a good part of this issue is the fact that society doesn’t allow men to be nonsexual. Men are praised for their conquests, shamed for not having sex, accused of being queer (obviously not really an insult, but still regarded as one by those who are not comfortable with homosexuality or confident in their own sexuality) or weak. This is so ingrained both in the minds of men and women that all touch does become suspect.
    This, coupled with the fact that women start really engaging with men when men are at their sexual peak (high school and just after), really enforces that idea.

    I would argue that we need to start teaching our boys and young men different ideas about sex and sexuality from day one. Less pressure = more comfort.

  18. Regarding the cheating issue, I have always thought that we put way too much value on “owning” another person’s sexuality. Me, my wife, and many of our friends are all simply polyamorous. Being in a poly community does wonderful things to the men in them and they touch each other much more freely and happily than most. I’m not saying everyone wants polyamoury, but the simple elimination of cheating-based jealousy solves so many problems, and shines a bright light on the times a different problem comes up which might otherwise just be chalked up to stray eyes or stray beddings.

    • I understand there is a portion of the population that is ok with that kind of arrangement. Personally, it’s not for me. But more importantly, I believe all relationships are based on trust and mutually defined parameters and boundaries. Clearly, polyamorous or consensually open relationships are different than a husband secretly lying and cheating, claiming one set of values or agreements and privately doing another. It’s not about ownership, it’s about creating safety and having a right to decide what kind of relationship you want to have for your own life. Lying or cheating deprives a partner of that choice.

      • Hi Julie,
        I appreciate the challenges that cheating can create in relationships. I experienced that pain first hand because of a women who could not be honest with two men. Furthermore, I agree that Jon’s comments were uncalled for. I want to be clear that my article is not intended to excuse cheating or dismiss any of the issues that can arise from it. So, I hope you can be comfortable in this conversation without worrying that we are somehow oblivious to the pain that dishonesty creates. You have my unconditional support in that.

        • Thanks Mark. Having said that, in a relationship where there is a strong foundation of trust and mutually defined boundaries, I think this would be so beneficial. Honestly, the deprivation that societal expectations and “norms” have placed on developing young boys is tragic!! Both genders are so wronged by misconceptions and biases which are heavily spread by advertising and imagery in every aspect of our lives. The same as women growing up believing we’re only as valuable as how appealing we can be to men…
          I remember as a little girl sitting cross-legged on the floor of the school library during story time, all the popular girls would make a chain and play with the hair or scratch the back of the girl in front. I was rarely included but when I did get the chance (maybe once), I can still remember how good it felt. And that was acceptable. The boys are expected to wrestle or fight, but never play with each others hair or enjoy caresses in that way.
          Later in my twenties I remember holding my boyfriend’s nephew in my lap (a rambunctious child) and softly brushing back his hair until he was nearly hypnotized… Until someone noticed how docile and sweet he’d become. They teased him and he jumped up, humiliated, and began running amuck again. I remember even then how angry it made me that they couldn’t allow that for him!! Such an important conversation we’re having!!! Thanks for the article.

          • Julie, be careful that your husband isn’t a sociopath. I dated one for two years thinking he was the perfect, most kind and supportive boyfriend…though he had a habit of lying. It turned out he was cheating constantly, and when I found out he tried to poison me to death. Don’t dismiss this. I wish someone had told me to look for the red flags.

  19. there is a programme being taught in schools globally and growing in America, which teaches children peer massage and the incredible benefits of touch physically, mentally,emotionally. I have been working with this in schools in Liverpool UK for over 5 years and now boys aged 11 are comfortable taking part and sharing this gentle platonic caring and vital touch of which you so eloquently speak. there is hope to redress this imbalance. Please help spread the word and promote MISP (massage in schools programme). It is simple yet incredibly powerful and will certainly contribute to the social change we very much need. Thank you for your insightful article.

  20. I’m a married female. I have a divorced male friend 30 years older than me with whom we hug and hold each other platonically. We love hanging out with each other and I suspect I play an unspoken role in providing that affection for him because he lives alone and his children are all grown up and out of the house. It’s not something we talk about with each other and I haven’t talked about it to anyone else either. It’s a different feeling from if we were in our 20s and doing this, it seems it would be a much more loaded situation. And this is where I’m going to get a lot of backlash and comments. I’m the one that feels aroused and excited by the contact. That’s my body’s response and I don’t pursue it, but it’s there and that’s just me. It can’t be denied that there isn’t a little bit of charge of energy between us. Part of being a human animal. I find a lot of joy in our friendship that is enriched by the touch between us. I am just describing our situation. Now let the judgements and tomato slinging begin…

  21. It’s a good article and some of the comments are good too.
    I too have experienced the joy of parenting very young children.
    There are some differences between how males and females are treated
    (which the article goes far in describing)
    which I despise.
    I’ve met men who were accused of inappropriately touching their children
    and as a result were forced to remain separated.
    My sympathy is with falsely accused men.
    I hope I can be forgiven for the way I state that.
    It comes from my experiences in my own circumstances.
    In an attempt to be really fair I would say
    “My sympathy is with falsely accused people.”
    Please notice how the sentence is different when it says
    “people” instead of “men”.
    After reading the comments
    (and having my initial reaction to them
    which I will not even venture to describe here),
    I went back to study Julie’s original comment.
    And I also went back to study this sentence early in the article:
    “In part, because so many men have behaved poorly.”
    In Julie’s commment she wrote:
    “how do we apply this to men who cheat?”
    and:
    “How can a wife for example feel safe and understanding about her husband seeking “gentle platonic touch” from a female friend when that is almost an oxymoron between men and women?”
    My reaction, to all three of those excerpts, is this thought, the same as Mark Greene stated in the article:
    “There is no corresponding narrative about women.”
    As a man, who has tried to live a decent life, and has been falsely accused,
    by a woman, and distrusted and despised,
    not only by her but by people in court as a result,
    I am sensitive to statements which seem
    to connote, imply, or emphasize bad behavior by men,
    without similarly connoting, implying, or emphasizing bad behavior by women.

    • I don’t know if this will make you feel better, but I completely trust my boyfriend and think he’s an amazing person and would never cheat on me, but I’ve had to give up some friends who would hug him and be too affectionate towards him and stuff. Not because I thought he might cheat, I’ve never got mad at him about this, but because it became obvious that they were trying to get a sexual response out of him and failing. It would make me furious with THEM. And the fact that they would do those things right in front of my face means they are no friend to me.

      So I have the same problem with my boyfriend hugging women sometimes, but not because I’m afraid he’ll do something, but because I might lose a friend again. I actually keep my boyfriend away from most of my female friends because, this is terrible to say, most of them have a great need to try to make every man they know feel sexual attraction towards them. I’m fine with that as long as they aren’t doing it with the man that I love. As soon as they start doing that, I have to drop them as friends.

      So I have issues with this, but it’s because I don’t trust the women I know. In fact, I distrust women so much right now that it makes me feel sexist because I tend to assume that all of them are pretty sleazy. But that might be because I’m in my 20′s. I hope these women mature when they are older.

  22. Thank you for this Mark. I had not thought about the abrupt shift that boys experience in being expected to start getting touch from young women and the intense pressure this puts on both boys and girls. I feel sad about that.

    I am hugely grateful that over the past ten years I have experienced and become comfortable with platonic touch from men as part of participation in the ManKind Project (.org). I have a big group of male peers, some straight, some gay, from all kinds of backgrounds, who are rewriting this script. Facing the homophobia, confronting the internal dialog, and creating a peer culture where real, supportive, nonsexual touch is the norm. Real hugs. Real connection. Men who lean on one another and feel comfortable holding one another.

    This has made my ability to be fully present and physically intimate with my wife MORE powerful, because confusion about what I am needing is gone. I can melt into her arms when that is what I need. And I am free to offer myself (to give and receive) as a man rather than a boy looking for touch.

  23. Odd. I experience touch from adults as more often than not an attempt to manipulate or control. Children can be insecure; it’s natural that they cling. But then they grow up, and cling a lot less, if at all. If an adult, man or woman, gets touchy-feely, it’s usually because they have something in mind that’s not necessarily in your best interest — and I’m leaving sex entirely out of the equation there. Even handshakes strike me as a determined bit of phoniness, and I avoid them like the plague. I doubt if homophobia has anything to do with it, since I react the same way to women who are not very, very close. And from admittedly intermittent and partial observations, I haven’t noticed that people from “touchy” societies, such as Italians, are any less messed up than we are (though the mess is somewhat differently configured). The guy who gives you a big hug is no less likely to cheat you than the one who gives you a nod, and the latter is at least more sincere.

    “Starved for touch”? I have difficulty even comprehending what those words mean. Certainly I’ve never felt that way. The only time that I can conceive of an adult wanted to be touched in the ways you extol are when that adult has been driven back into a childlike state by severe injury or illness (mental or physical). I believe the only adult male that I ever felt it a good idea to touch was a rather feminine gay man who had been grossly insulted by someone (this was a number of years ago) and was crying. He needed a hug, because the insult had caused him to temporarily regress, but he didn’t need it after he got himself together again, which he did quite quickly. In such cases, touch is more like first aid. When the person gets back on their feet, the need to be touched is over. You don’t go chasing a perfectly healthy person around with a bottle of iodine and a Band-Aid, and I think you ought to be asking yourself why you feel the need to do that.

    • Hi GA,
      An interesting view you take on all this. But if you read all the comments on this and other articles I have written on this issue, you’ll see there are a lot of men here who would like more platonic touch in their lives. I’m not saying its a universal rule, but all the research and studies show that touch is not simply a source of comfort for children or a way to deal with an injured adult, it is a significant and central mode of communication and connection for all of us.
      To read more about the central role touch plays in human communication there is an amazing article in Psychology Today titled The Power of Touch. I have pasted this and other sources above at the end of the article.

  24. This is an interesting article, but it seems to be narrowed in on a particular subset of the male populace. While this subset might be the majority, I can assure you that there’s plenty of camaraderie between men expressed via handshakes, fist bumps, greeting hugs.. that the need for additional rubbing is really a matter of personal preference — not some unforeseen need that is somehow hindering character development.

  25. But not everyone wants to be touched. I hate being touched by non-family-members; I put up with the social groping that women are required to tolerate, but I hate it. I love it when my husband touches me, and my children, and that is absolutely it. I think I don’t understand what people, male or female, get out of casual touching? And why it’s a problem if absent? I wish, in my case, it WERE absent!

  26. It does not help to lump (in the heterosexual community) MF touch with MM touch. The two are loaded with very different anxieties.

    To carry on and informed discussion on this it is essential to acknowledge the role of media and pornography that promotes the idea that men are entitled to female bodies for sexual pleasure. This is the context that makes all of this so difficult.

    Promoting the idea of platonic MF touch must come after the dictates of media culture have been addressed.

    MM platonic touch is a far safer and more radical (as in getting to the root) place to start.

  27. It does not help to lump (in the heterosexual community) MF touch with MM touch. The two are loaded with very different anxieties.

    To carry on an informed discussion on this it is essential to acknowledge the role of media and pornography that promotes the idea that men are entitled to female bodies for sexual pleasure. This is the context that makes all of this so difficult.

    Promoting the idea of platonic MF touch must come after the dictates of media culture have been addressed.

    MM platonic touch is a far safer and more radical (as in getting to the root) place to start.

  28. This was beautifully written and took me down a hallway of thought that I had never been down before. What an amazing and informing point of view. I agree wholeheartedly that platonic touch is healing and transformative and integral to our health and wellbeing. This is one of those things that makes SO much sense and seems so undeniably obvious, but gets overlooked due to the archaic, and wholly outdated, values of decorum that are steeped in fear. I believe that platonic touch is based on kindness and to pull that out of the equation due to perception is not only heartbreaking but wrong on so many levels that I can’t even begin to count them all. Thank you for writing this.

  29. Thanks for starting the discussion, Mark. This is a big problem for both men & women.

    It’s up to each of us to make it safe for those around us to be comfortable touching or being touched as they prefer. We can also give ourselves permission to be more loving.

    The experience of the Burning Man arts and culture festival was a revolutionary one for me. It introduced me to a culture of goalless non-sexual touch and the incredible benefit this has for human health. So much of our expensive and broken healthcare system could be dismantled if we could create communities of love & affection.

  30. Your article brings up a lot of very charged feelings for me, Mark. I can identify with some of your personal history, but not all. I am a gay man and up until the age of twelve my relationship with my mother was affectionate and cuddly almost to the point of being inappropriate. I would also get hugs from my father, whom I loved, but he had a very difficult and volatile personality, whereas my mother embodied ongoing unconditional warmth.

    But when I was 13 my father died from alcohol abuse, and at the same time, my mother abruptly ended the intimacy we had (around the same time my dog died, which didn’t help much). Nothing took its place, and for a variety of reasons I was subjected to extreme bullying both at home (from my older brothers) and at school.

    37 years later I have never really recovered from the pain and craving for love this left me. I especially craved physical affection from other men, which is what prompted me to get into various men’s groups in my 20s and 30s. Unfortunately, a big mistake I made at the time was my presumption that other guys, especially straight guys, were invested in these groups because they shared this same pain and neediness.

    Much to my embarrassment, I found out that was not the case. They had issues, all right, but a need for physical affection from other men was rarely one of them. In this regard, the responses posted in this from from “Gordon” and “A Little Cynical Maybe” are notable in what they reveal to me about heterosexual men. It leads me to wonder if I will ever be free of the hurt that haunts me.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Greene has written about the effects of touch isolation for the Good Men Project. He points out some of the ways […]

  2. […] Mark Greene explores how in American culture, men avoid all contact rather than risk even the hint of causing unwanted sexual touch.  […]

  3. […] The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer […]

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