Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch


 Mark Greene has one clear reason we should all fight for gay rights.  Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.

“Boys imitate what they see. If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness between men they will grow up to imitate that behavior…What do boys learn when they do not see men with close friendships, where there are no visible models of intimacy in a man’s life beyond his spouse?” -Kindlon and Thompson, Raising Cain
(With thanks to BRETT & KATE MCKAY)

Recently I wrote an article titled The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer in which I asked people to consider the following:

American men, in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives.

American men, in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation. Homophobic social stigmas, the  long-standing challenges of rampant sexual abuse, and a society steeped in a generations old puritanical mistrust of physical pleasure have created an isolating trap in which American men can go for days or weeks at a time without touching another human being. The implications of touch isolation for men’s health and happiness are huge.

Gentle platonic touch is central to the early development of infants. It continues to play an important role throughout men and women’s lives in terms of our development, health and emotional well being, right into old age. When I talk about gentle platonic touch, I’m not talking about a pat on the back, or a handshake, but instead contact that is lasting and meant to provide connection and comfort. Think, leaning on someone for a few minutes, holding hands, rubbing their back or sitting close together not out of necessity but out of choice.

Yet, culturally, gentle platonic touch is the one thing we suppress culturally in men and it starts when they are very young boys.

While babies and toddlers are held, cuddled, and encouraged to practice gentle touch during their first years of their lives, that contact often drops off for boys when they cease to be toddlers. Boys are encouraged to “shake it off” and “be tough” when they are hurt. Along with the introduction of this “get tough” narrative, boys find that their options for gentle platonic touch simply fade away. Mothers and fathers often back off from holding or cuddling their young boys. Boys who seek physical holding as comfort when hurt are stigmatized as cry babies.

By the time they are approaching puberty, many boys have learned to touch only in aggressive ways through rough housing or team sports. And if they do seek gentle touch in their lives, it is expected to take place in the exclusive and highly sexualized context of dating. This puts massive amounts of pressure on young girls; young girls who are unlikely to be able to shoulder such a burden. Because of the lack of alternative outlets for touch, the touch depravation faced by young boys who are unable to find a girlfriend is overwhelming. And what about boys who are gay? In a nutshell, we leave children in their early teens to undo a lifetime of touch aversion and physical isolation. The emotional impact of coming of age in our touch-averse, homophobic culture is terribly damaging. It’s no wonder our young people face a epidemic of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy, rape, drug and alcohol abuse.


In America in particular, if a young man attempts gentle platonic contact with another young man, he faces a very real risk of homophobic backlash either by that person or by those who witness the contact.

In America in particular, if a young man attempts gentle platonic contact with another young man, he faces a very real risk of homophobic backlash either by that person or by those who witness the contact. This is, in part, because we frame all contact by men as being intentionally sexual until proven otherwise. Couple this with the homophobia that runs rampant in our culture, and you get a recipe for increased touch isolation that damages the lives of the vast majority of men.

port2And if you think men have always been hands-off with each other, have a look at an amazing collection of historic photos compiled by Brett and Kate McKay for an article they titled: Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection. It’s a remarkable look at male camaraderie as expressed though physical touch in photos dating back to the earliest days of photography.

The McKays note in their article the following observation:

But at the turn of the 20th century, … Thinking of men as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” became common. And this new category of identity was at the same time pathologized — decried by psychiatrists as a mental illness, by ministers as a perversion, and by politicians as something to be legislated against. As this new conception of homosexuality as a stigmatized and onerous identifier took root in American culture, men began to be much more careful to not send messages to other men, and to women, that they were gay. And this is the reason why, it is theorized, men have become less comfortable with showing affection towards each other over the last century.

Spend some time looking at these remarkable images.  You’ll get a visceral sense of what has been lost to men.

These days, put ten people in the room when two men touch a moment too long, and someone will make a mean joke, express distaste, or even pick a fight. And its just as likely to be a woman as to be a man who enforces the homophobic/touch averse stigma. The enforcement of touch prohibition between men can be as subtle as a raised eyebrow or as punitive as a fist fight and you never know where it will come from or how quickly it will escalate.

And yet, we know that touch between men or women is proven to be a source of comfort, connection and self-esteem. But while women are allowed much more public contact, men are not. Because how we allow men to perform masculinity is actually very restrictive. Charlie Glickman writes quite eloquently about this in his article, Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box. Read it. It’s a real eye opener.

As much as gay men have faced the brunt of homophobic violence, straight men have been banished to a desert of physical isolation by these same homophobic fanatics who police lesbians and gays in our society.

Male touch isolation is one of many powerful reasons why I support gay marriage initiatives. The sooner being gay is completely normalized, the sooner homophobic prohibitions against touch will be taken off straight men. As much as gay men have faced the brunt of homophobic violence, straight men have been banished to a desert of physical isolation by these same homophobic fanatics who police lesbians and gays in our society. The result has been a generation of American men who do not hug each other, do not hold hands and can not sit close together without the homophobic litmus test kicking in.

The lack of touch in men’s lives results in a higher likelihood of depression, alcoholism, mental and physical illness. Put simply, touch isolation is making men’s lives less healthy and more lonely.


Recently, when visiting my 87 year-old father for a few days, I made a point to touch him more. To make contact. To express my affection, not just by flying a thousand miles for a visit but to touch the man once I got there. It may seem simple, but choosing to do so is not always a simple thing. It can raise a lifetime of internal voices, many of which speak of loss and missed opportunities. But I hugged him. I put my arm around him as we shared a cigar and cocktails. I touched him whenever I walked past his chair. Each evening, we would watch a movie. As part of that nightly ritual, I would sit in the floor, take off his shoes and socks and rub his bare feet for while. It is something I will remember when he is gone. Something I did right. Something that said to him, I love you. Spoken on the same deep touch levels by which he connected with me when I was a toddler sitting next to him, his strong arm around me as I watched the late show fifty years ago. 

Its too late in my life for the isolating impact of these stigmas to be fully undone, but there is real hope for my son.

This touch thing is so crucial. I kiss and hug my son constantly. He sits with me and on me. I make a point of connecting with him physically whenever I greet him. The physical connection I have with him has been transformative in my life teaching me about my value as a human being and a father.

We need to empower men to touch. We need to fix our sexually repressed/obsessed American culture and put an end to distorted and hateful parts of our culture that allow homophobic people to police all men everywhere down to the very tips of our fingertips.

It’s too late in my life for the impact of these stigmas to be fully undone, but I have great hope for my son. When we collectively normalize gay life and relationships, my son, whatever his sexual orientation turns out to be, will be free to express platonic affection for others, be they men or women, in any way he sees fit. The rabid homophobes who have preached hate in America for far too long will finally be silenced, and men will be free to reach out and touch each other without fear of being labeled as somehow less of a man.

It’s a dream for a better America I can already see coming true.

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  Follow Mark Greene on Twitter:  Read more by Mark Greene:  How America’s Culture of Shame is a Killer for Boys   — 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 Art of Manliness Follow Mark Greene on Twitter: 

Get a powerful collection of Mark Greene’s articles, in his book, REMAKING MANHOOD–Available now in print and on Kindle Reader for Windows, Macs, Android, iPhones and iPads

Remaking Manhood is a collection of Mark Greene’s most widely shared articles on American culture, relationships, family and parenting. It is a timely and balanced look at the issues at the heart of the modern masculinity movement. Mark’s articles on masculinity and manhood have received over 100,000 FB shares and 10 million page views. Get Remaking Manhood IN PRINT or on the free Kindle Reader app for any Mac, Windows or Android device here. 




Rowe-quote2016Read more by Mark Greene:

The Ugly and Violent Death of Gender Conformity

When “Check Your Male Privilege” Becomes a Bludgeon

Why Are Death Rates Rising for Middle Aged White Americans?

When Men Keep Demanding Sex From Their Partners Over and Over

How the Man Box Can Kill Our Sons Now or Decades from Now

Why Traditional Manhood is Killing Us

9 Things Men Are Not

Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?

How America’s Culture of Shame is a Killer for Boys

The Culture of Shame: Men, Love, and Emotional Self-Amputation

The Man Box: Why Men Police and Punish Others

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

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

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 Dark Side of Women’s Requests of Progressive Men

Escape from the Man Box Premium Member

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About Mark Greene

Executive Editor Mark Greene’s articles for the Good Men Project have received over 250,000 Facebook shares and ten million page views.

Greene writes and speaks on culture, society, family and fatherhood. His work is a timely and balanced look at the life affirming changes emerging from the modern masculinity movement.

Greene writes and speaks on men’s issues for the Good Men Project, the Shriver Report, the New York Times, Salon, the BBC and the Huffington Post.


  1. It’s great that you’re writing about this. Maybe it’s just me, but I see younger guys doing much better with this, and the dads now who are my friends are much more affectionate with their children (sons and daughters) than anything I ever saw growing up. I have a sadness for what we are missing, but am encouraged by what I see coming the generations behind us.
    As a generation of men who were rarely touched outside of the realm of romanticism (i.e., eros) I hope what I am seeing is a healthy manifestation of the pendulum swinging the other way.
    For me, it both comedic and awesome to see how my friends do wade off into the shallow end of the pool of male affection. We hug…occasionally…if we haven’t seen each other in a while or we’ve been drinking. Regardless of the reason, it’s progress and that’s good.

  2. In American culture there’s this strange marriage between historical puritanism and progressive sexualization, both of which have flaws. Stating that legalizing gay marriage will offer both straight and gay American men the freedom and liberty to physically touch again without it being seen as sexual has a hole in the theoretical expectation since pre-legalization of gay marriage didn’t hold the same for women since American society holds up differing expectations per gender. To associate men’s healthy need for non-sexual physical touch with legalizing gay marriage is to puritanically link (with a progressive motive) male touch with sex, which brings us full circle to the beginning of this dilemma. In the USA, male-to-male touch that is categorized as painful is considered straight, while that which is seen as pleasurable is seen as gay. The answer must be found in something else, a third way, since conservative puritanism and liberal sexualization isn’t doing the job.

  3. Days and weeks? Try years and years. I frequently think about ‘going gay’ nowadays just to get contact that lasts for more than two whole seconds. Where else is guy gonna get touched besides a sexual hookup scenario, that’s so gay

  4. To the commenter who said that “straight” men don’t want to be touched (they have wives and girlfriends for that), it’s clear that their not wanting to be touched is learned and cultural, not innate. This is obvious because there are many other cultures where touch between “straight” men is the norm, not the exception. When I was in India and Nepal it was very common to see grown and very macho looking guys walking down the street holding hands. At checkers games in the public square the men and boys would be leaning on each others shoulders. The guidebooks regularly point out for American tourists that this does not mean they are “gay” (or pedophiles). The same is true in many parts of the Middle East. .Similarly, in Europe (maybe Britain is the exception – where a lot of our hangups come from) men are much less touch averse, even kissing and hugging each other in public. By the way, I put “straight” and “gay” in quotes because this is another area where our puritanical culture has attempted to put everybody into neat, exclusive bipolar boxes, a form of emotional regimentation that also promotes mental illness. Let’s hope attitudes change. I appreciate this article’s attempt to do so.

  5. I think you were right to point out that American men have lost platonic touch, but I don’t know why. This doesn’t seem to be the case in many other cultures. What can we do to bring back touch, which is something everybody needs?

    • I believe that this problem is more down to prejudices against “sensitive” men than against homosexuals. Sensitivity in men, especially affection, is seen as unmanly and a sign of gender, and therefore sexual, deviance. In the UK, this become a particularly big issue during the Victorian era when people were afraid of men losing their “manlihood”. The association with homophobia became strong in the late 19th century when we had the Oscar Wilde trials, which showed that being a male homosexual could get you into severe trouble and made people afraid to do anything with male friends that might imply homosexuality. But fundamentally, it was the “sensitivity in men = sexual deviance” idea that created the belief that affection implied homosexuality.

      My opinion is reinforced by the modern-day paranoia over child-molesters. Stigmas against male touch/affection have relaxed in the UK since the 1950s, with the stark exception of men’s friendships with children, where they have increased due to the fear of paedophilia. There is often a double standard where affection is more accepted between “family” members (people related to within a few generations) than “non-family” members, for dubious reasons relating to the incest taboo. It was no different with male-male friendships and homophobia in the 1950s.

      Personally, I have no problem with being perceived as “gay” or “feminine”, but it is more serious allegations, such as “emotional cheating” on people’s partners, sexual harassment and paedophilia, that deter me from non-sexual touch with people other than close family. I am, of course, speaking from a UK perspective but I sense that in the USA it is very similar.

      • Mark Greene says:

        Hi Ian,
        You are right in noting that there is a clear prohibition in American culture against “feminine” traits in men. It is central to what is called the “Man Box”, is list of rules by which American men are expected to perform masculinity. The Man Box condemns those traits that are are viewed as the opposite of tough, stoic or dominant. It is these very traits, framed as “emotional” or “feminine”, which come quite naturally to boys and men until our culture trains it out of us. What is most tragic is that research shows that the capacity for emotional expression and connection is central to our well being and our longevity. Yet, even as men have a huge depth of emotion, they are expected to hide it as part of proving they are real men.

        And homophobia is central to how we frame men who fail to hide these “feminine” traits.

        The term applied to boys and men who are assaulted because they failed to hide their emotional selves is almost always faggot. Whether they have engaged in a same sex relationship or not.

        For more on the research behind what I’m saying go here:

  6. ‘Touch isolation’ has nothing to do with homophobia. There are homophobic countries where heterosexual men openly show affection.

    • Mark Greene says:

      “Homophobic social stigmas, the long-standing challenges of rampant sexual abuse, and a society steeped in a generations old puritanical mistrust of physical pleasure have created an isolating trap in which American men can go for days or weeks at a time without touching another human being. ”

      American men. As in America. As in, the big giant country that is located in North America.

  7. This touched a cord. My father is from the middle east and served in the military for quite awhile. He can’t really conceive of homosexuality and it doesn’t enter into his concerns and he can’t conceive of a real friendship with a woman. As a man, he lives in a world of men and their concerns. I grew up with him kissing and hugging me and his close friends without any second thought (didn’t make high school any easier). I’m over my discomfort with this but it’s rare for me to feel so comfortable showing affection to an American male, easier with friends from eastern Europe or the middle east. I’m very affectionate with my son but I wonder how he’ll make sense of this.

  8. No Man in Particular says:

    P.S. Does the book have to be called the “Naughty Hand”? That sounds too much like a very judgmental book about masturbation…. 🙂

  9. No Man in Particular says:

    As you point out, this is a curious cultural variant of homophobia, found most prominently in some societies but not others. It’s because of the larger culture combined with homophobia in particular. Not all homophobic societies are paranoid about men touching.

    There are even extremely homophobic societies where male friends touch each other all the time without ANY worry about being thought gay. (In parts of the Middle East, for example.) In some cases, homophobia is so extreme that many men think it’s just inconceivable, so there’s not as much paranoia about being thought of as gay, because they simply can’t imagine it. For example, what I saw in China was that male friends held hands and touched more often than Americans did precisely because a lot of people in China simply don’t think that Chinese people can be gay. (Only those corrupted by foreign contact, of course. Homosexuality is officially only something that’s a foreign import, not indigenous.)

    It’s almost like there’s a particular range of homophobia where men are the most uncomfortable with male touch. More homophobic and they don’t worry about it, less homophobic and they don’t worry about it. In the U.S.? Stuck in the middle place.

  10. Mark! Thanks so much for this article. I am in the middle of a book project titled: Men & Yoga From Shiva to Swenson: Stories & Status and in addition to telling the stories of those men who learned yoga directly from a father, uncle or grandfather, I address a lot of what’s lost in yoga becoming a woman’s sport. In a section on Naked Yoga I refer to this work which I hope you’re familiar with and if not you will be if you can find it:
    “At Ease: Navy Men of World War II,” Evan Bachner. This book is also of men touching men and feeling comfortable touching each other in affectionate ways during the war and the author tells how most of these pics were removed from the archives after the war ended… Best, David

  11. This article is on target with what I teach as a certified facilitator of a communication, boundary setting, nurturing, non-sexual workshop called Cuddle Party So many men need this type of touch in order to thrive and have healthy relationships with children and adults of either gender. The challenge sometimes is that even in this safe setting, many men ask about ‘gender balance’ which could translate to “I’m not comfortable touching other men even in a platonic and friendly manner and I want a woman as a buffer between us if I need to get close to another man.” I tell them that since the touch shared at a Cuddle Party is non-sexual, ” a cuddly body is a cuddly body.” Sometimes they melt and stretch their comfort zones and sometimes they don’t. Either way, their minds expand with the possibility that touch between themselves and their fathers, sons, brothers and male friends is acceptable.

  12. Sports is only mentioned in one sentences, I think. And that in the context of rough, aggressive behaviour. But this is a key field (pun intended) for men to connect with other men.

    Also, it seems not wishing to legislate marriage for gay couples (we already have civil partnerships here in the UK and I’m glad we do) means that you’re a homophobe. And this article is putting an awful lot of the blame on ‘homophobes’ for all the mix-ups of men in general. Which, I believe, includes sexuality.

    Mr Thomas, UK.

  13. I think the people going either ‘i’m not gay but…’ or ‘Ugh! Homosexuality! Cooties! Sin! Evil!’ are not only in the large mansplaining, they’re also proving the article right. If the reflex reaction wasn’t there people would be like ??? and not bringing all this fairy story stuff up too.

    No, it wasn’t the ‘gay apologists’ that changed this, you did (you being the straight male hierarchy). In fact the Church and societies reaction created all these groups, LGBTQ. Sure the behaviours were there, and some acts like sodomy in some places were sanctioned, but by and large the modern 20th century idea of gay DID NOT EXIST. And then the LGBTQ gets blamed for ‘inventing’ a group we had foisted on us because of our same-sex desire? The labels and divisions did not exist before – but late Victorians reacting to Oscar Wilde and co. decided to do many yellow-press outrages about a so-called perversion that hadn’t really bothered many people for thousands of years, despite being in the bible.

    Amazing these people then have the gall to blame us for our own oppression, the labels that were foisted on us. Thanks for that! /sarcasm (hence why homosexual is not mine, I am not homosexual. It’s not my word, not my definition. I have chosen queer, thankyouverymuch)! You – well your great great grandfathers or so – made your own worst enemy (not that the LGBTQ are, in fact, just people) by treating a section of society differently. Invented enemies probably for political control or a panic over ‘birth rate’, it was ever thus (ask the Jews, Muslims, Africans, etc).

  14. Kenneth Carroll says:

    The issue is not male touching, males of all ages have their own codes for physical contact, that changes based on age and social setting. I work with teenage boys, they confirm (like other animals species) their closeness by the frequency and type of physical contact with other males. I spend a lot of time telling them “cut the horse play” (yeah I’m old) as they wrestle, punch, dap (ritual handshake), lean on, hug (usually after a score or some other big achievement). My argument through my observation is they have as much physical contact as the females, just different. I’m a child of the 70s and when I greet friends, comrades, we do the “brug” (combination dap/hug which black men invented and now everybody has embraced-pun intended). I think this site is so important because I do think we need to change some paradigms about what is manly and what isn’t, but It think the idea of male physical isolation is just wrong. I don’t see that from a broad social perspective. Men of color have an exaggerated sense of macho, especially black men who have had to fight historically for their manhood emerging from slavery and jim crow where every man was a boy, but my male friends (even the homophobic ones) tend to be very physical, but perhaps not in the way you would consider intimate. So my recommendation would be to check out more literature/science on the subject and not get caught up in the idea so much that one mistakes difference for absence.

  15. Thank you for this very insightful article that goes to the very core of what ails society, the rampant materialism that is really a cry of pain, the response to the social and emotional isolation of the modern male. If I might post here a couple of verses from a long poem of mine that touches on this, “Obit for a Murdered Love”,
    . . . . .
    Wrath told leads me past anger into sadness
    To muse upon the random ways of madness.
    How blind belief in this dead end of lust
    Has robbed all men of love that might have been.
    Instead up rise hard walls of fear and disgust
    And young and old esteem the tender touch unclean.

    John Quincy naked swam in the Potomac
    And friend his head could rest on his friend’s stomach.
    I yearn for days like these, freedom innate,
    And innocent pristine simplicity.
    From boyhood I have sought to find that natural state
    And glimpsed in youth a world without duplicity. . . . .

  16. I remember back when I was in Iraq all the local Iraqi men were very hands on with one another, and us. We’d often see two men walking down the street either holding hands or walking arm and arm. Neither of them would be gay, it was just a friendly platonic, comfortable, touch. Honestly, it did seem weird to us. Something I could never see myself or any of my army buddies doing, but it was interesting to see how comfortable their culture was with male to male contact. One time I was even part of a team that helped save a little girl’s life and afterward the father gave us all kisses on the cheek. In a moment like that we didn’t think about being kissed by a man, we were all just overcome with emotion. But yes, it’s definitely a culture thing. I couldn’t never see myself casually holding hands with one of my guy friends, or even one of my female friends, but when we saved that man’s little girl, I suppose running around and kissing everyone, male and female, is the only real response.

  17. I agree that a gentle friendly/comradely touch between men is an important part of health intimate relationships and bonding and thus contributes to much.
    However I find the idea absolutely preposterous and pretentious that “The sooner being gay is deemed completely normal, the sooner homophobic prohibitions against male touch will be taken off straight men as well.”
    I will be honest, I don’t think homosexuality is good. Cast the stones at me, please. However I think that getting (male) society to regard a “platonic” touch acceptable has nothing to do with advocating gay rights.
    It is quite possible to have friends hug or touch each other in a non-sexual way without having any acceptance of homosexuality. I don’t have a great deal of historic knowledge on the issue but I know that for example in the Bible men are warned against sexual immorality (including homosexuality) but also encouraged to “salute each other with a holy kiss”.
    It is homosexuality however that makes man-man relationships sexual, leaving less place for platonic touch.

    • … and bisexuality as well.
      But actually no, homosexuality doesn’t necessarily makes a man-man (or woman-woman) relatioship sexual. Homo/Bi people can be friends without anything sexual between them. The same goes for straight men and women.
      And I don’t understand why someone who doesn’t see homosexuality as a good thing would automatically be against gay rights. You may not agree with it but still see their side and wish they had their own freedom to live, marry, be respected, etc.

  18. Victory or Death says:

    Oh i forgot, the reason we men don’t touch each other like women do (hugging, kissing, sleeping on each other, holding hands) is because women do it, and men will do the opposite of what women do because men do not want to be thought of as women. The only men who wouldn’t fit into this rule would be gays and feminized men.

  19. Why the convenient exclusion of professional and collegiate athletes in deep same-sex embraces after a championship loss or win? They’re crying on each others’ shoulders and hugging for minutes at a time on a national stage. No one cries homosexual acts in that context. One could argue that there’s no more homophobic an environment than American men’s professional sports and you will probably see more male on male affection in that context than you’ll see anywhere else on TV.

    And kissing and touching a son? Absolutely if he is your own or the son of someone very close to you. Do that same thing to a stranger’s kid and you’ll probably have to explain yourself to the cops and child services. Not because they fear you’re gay but that they have a legitimate fear you might be a sexual predator.

    If these two issues had been addressed I might be inclined to go along with this article’s assertion but as of now it just seems like an agenda in need of facts.

  20. The parallel with paedophilia and men being physically affectionate with children is worth drawing here. As perception of paedophilia and its ‘possibility’ rises (and of the paedophile as a ‘species’), everyone starts to become wary of men being tactile with children. Men themselves will start to draw back too, lest they be misinterpreted.

    And, let’s make no bones about it, the people who have been at the forefront of sexualizing affection and touch between men aren’t the homophobes but the gay apologists. In order to normalize homosexuality, they have consistently read closeted sexuality into displays of affection between men both historically and in the present day. This will naturally lead all men (homophobe or not) to step back from close physical contact, lest it be misinterpreted.

    I am reminded of Tolkien’s observations in a private letter that those who supposed that Frodo and Sam were gay were the product of a culture that had forgotten the meaning of friendship. Similar things could be said about those who read sexual relations or sexuality into friendships such as that between the biblical characters of David and Jonathan (or Naomi and Ruth) or historical characters such as Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed. The sort of profound platonic friendships (or ‘romantic friendships’) between men that used to be possible is no longer possible in an age where people homoeroticize all such relations. Such intense friendships are all routinely claimed to be gay relationships, which apparently now have a monopoly on intimate bonds between men.

    • I don’t agree with your analysis Alastair – it sounds too much like a “just so” story, even though my love for Stephen Jay Gould is minimal at best.

      Couple of things:

      You’re liberally mixing-up phobias with the mechanisms of social sanctions, and how each relates to human behavior. Strong sanctions can indeed mimic the outcome of removing an irrational phobia, but that similar outcome is not evidence that removal of the phobia is an invalid ideal. The ideal to strive for should be persuasion rather than coercion. Clarity that is a result of sanctions is neither a panacea nor an end goal.

      Secondly, you’re ignoring the largest contributor to both the phobia and sanction against homosexuality – that being Judeo-Christian irrationality.

      That in circumstances where strong sanctions exist alongside a behavior that is seen as positive (i.e. more pervasive male touch) the strategy should not be to declare sanctions good and dismiss irrational phobia as not relevant to desired outcome, but rather to question why sanctions are required in the first place, root out the diseased phobia, and work towards relaxing sanctions and increasing willful human choice.

      As an analogy – a police state with a voter turnout of 100% in elections is not desirable model of a society.

  21. danielmirante says:

    Something about the article doesn’t quite add up for me. For one, fear of gayness does not put women off being more tactile with each other. Is this because women are less homophobic or just more likely to be confident in the platonic nature of the experience?

    I do not get touchy feely on women or female friends, not because I am hetrophobic but because they know I am straight and therefore its easy for signals to be misinterpreted. Vice-versa -contexturally appropriate touch from men who I know are straight are easier for me to take as I know where their preferences lie.

    It may be that where you find men being pretty tactile with each other (some islamic countries, India) its because there is more confidence in the non-sexual nature of the contact.

    • I think the social perceptions of female homosexuality and male sexuality are fundamentally different, at least in the US. There’s sort of a tacit half-acceptance of female homosexuality. Lesbian porn is extremely popular, and, as something of a knock-on effect, lesbianism in the context of “hot girls” is also casually joked about/accepted/whatever — just go to any random college bar on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll see what I mean. This is overwhelmingly not the case when it comes to male homosexuality. The public attitude is changing, to be sure, but there’s nothing benignly jokey about gay men. It’s either “male homosexuality is okay” or “ew ew ew get it away from me”, without the in-between that seems to exist for females.

      Women are also seen as being more “emotional” and “in touch with their feelings”, which lends itself to more close physical contact just being part of natural comforting and bonding with others. Couple that with a generalized public perception of lesbianism being “kinda okay, sometimes, if they’re hot”, and any possible accusation of “is she/are they lesbian?” is either not such a big deal or easily dismissed, neither of which I think are as true for males and male homosexuality.

      As for misinterpretations between straight people with opposite-sex individuals, I think there’s just a general hypersexualization of all interactions, period. I think it’s a combination of aftereffects of dating becoming less structured and sexuality being openly explored from a younger age, but regardless of the cause, the public perception of it definitely manifests differently between sexes and sexual orientation.

      • Because 1. Guys are “taught” to watch more porn, most porn is made for men, they are taught to be more open sexually (while being castrated sensually) and will also speak out loud (a lot of times to the point of disrespect) about it. They learn they have to be loud and sometimes even rude or intrusive about anything sexually desirable for them 2. Girls also think men-on-men is hot (see the “fanservice” culture bands/groups) but won’t say it out loud out of fear of being judged or better: respect for the people involved. They are also taught to be timid about their sexuallity, so even when they say something it’s usually in a “lighter” way.
        Yes, and women are also considered less sexual, so when you take the penis out of the context society can perceive it like a frigid cenario. When it’s two men, it can sometimes be perceived as an overly-sexualized cenario. Sexual morality plays a big role here.

  22. Inane Rambler says:

    Wish I could have taken credit for this but if I hadn’t seen what I’m posting, I wouldn’t have seen this lulzworthy post.: South Koreans are super touchy *and* homophobic, Japan is frigid and relatively lgbt-friendly,
    Nah let’s blame the heteronormative patriarchy

  23. I really don’t agree with the claim that homophobia is the driving force. The places where I have witnessed the most platonic affection and touch between men have been settings where any expression of homosexuality would be reacted to very strongly. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that in many contexts the practice of such non-sexual touch depends upon resistance to homosexual relations.

    Spending time in Myanmar, for instance, I saw a lot of platonic touch between guys, to a degree that really surprised me. However, in Myanmar you can be imprisoned for over a decade (or even for life) for same sex sexual activity. Similar things could be said about locker room contexts, where comfort about physical contact often rests in large part upon a communal resistance to homosexuality and the assurance of everyone’s heterosexuality.

    Similar things could be said about pictures from the past. As in cultures elsewhere in the world, such as Asia and the Middle East, these pictures come from a time when homosexual relations were unthinkable for most people. In such a context you can have a lot of physical affection between guys without it being sexualized. Check the figures: the countries and contexts where same sex sexual relations are most resisted are those which are most open to platonic touch between men.

    The acceptability of close physical affection between men in most of these contexts rests upon the taboo against homosexuality. Such taboos make it possible to have certain sorts of close relationships without them being misinterpreted. So, for instance, if the taboo against incest came under attack or was very widely attacked against, people would be a lot less easy about close physical contact with family members, lest the character of those relations be misinterpreted.

    Problems arise when same sex sexual relations suddenly become widely ‘thinkable’ and are perceived to be widespread. When this occurs, men start to keep their distance from each other, lest their actions be misinterpreted. And this is quite understandable: I don’t think that most of us want platonic gestures to be mistaken for sexually charged ones.

    Overturning homophobia won’t change anything. The cultures that are most open to such platonic touch are almost invariably those in which same sex sexual relations are the least thinkable. One of the most common reactions to this—that it is closet homosexuality and they should get over it—just illustrates how sexualized our understanding of touch has become as a result of the widespread practice and growing tolerance of same sex sexual relations. A line that is very sharply defined in other cultures has become blurred in ours.

    While homophobia will tend to result in a desire to avoid touch with other men in a culture where the unthinkableness of homosexuality has been broken down, it is not the case that those who aren’t homophobic will practice a lot of male physical affection. Rather, because such touch has become sexualized, it won’t be engaged in so much, even though it won’t be vehemently resisted. Where the culture resists same sex sexual relations for people and makes them unthinkable, that is where we will always see the most touch between men.

    Unless we find some way in which we can reestablish the clear line between platonic and sexual touch which the thinkable-ness of same sex sexual relations has broken down, men will just have to live with much less touch in the future, or with a form of touch that is always blurring lines and is never clearly platonic. In short, the article has things almost exactly backwards on this point: it is not homophobia that has led to the loss of touch between men, but rather the fact that same sex relations have become thinkable.

    • This is a clever conjecture, but I think this is and apples-and-oranges argument. This article is about touch involving men in modern western cultures, not ones that have state-imposed 12th century belief systems.

      • Points to note:

        1. The pictures and cultures pointed to as examples of cultures open to lots of platonic touch are almost without exception ones in which homosexuality is strongly rejected.

        2. This doesn’t require anything state-imposed. Opposition to homosexuality isn’t something that some state or religion invented out of thin air. Rather, it is a fairly widespread trait within populations, arguably more widespread than homosexuality itself. By completely rejecting sexualized interactions between persons of the same sex, it makes platonic ones much easier. In this sense, it serves a similar purpose to the taboo against incest, a taboo that enables a lot of affectionate but non-sexualized touch within families.

        3. In the desire to underwrite progressive prejudices, few people reflect seriously upon the reasons why resistance to homosexuality might develop in the first place and why it might be present in so many societies. The possibility that it might have developed for a positive social purpose (but with cruel side-effects for a small minority) is not an idea that can safely be explored. Reality just isn’t that progressive on gender and sexuality. It isn’t straightforwardly the case that homosexuality must serve some evolutionary purpose, while homophobia is nothing more than a backward mentality. Until we understand the dynamics of such things, there is little chance that we will be able to think of effective ways to change our situations.

        4. There are examples of modern contexts in which we can see a lot more platonic physical contact between men than is the norm in our society. Sport and ‘bro culture’, for instance, all have typically been aggressively heterosexual and tend to self-police. As everyone’s heterosexuality is demonstrated and homosexuality is more taboo, a lot more physical touch is possible.

        • danielmirante says:

          This part ‘Why do we frame all contact by men as being intentionally sexual?’ asks a good question and hints more at the issue than the focus on homosexuality, which if anything spagetti wires the issue by increasing the likelihood of male tactile experience being sexual.

          That fact is that men are shamed by the media as sexually predatory, ‘objectifying’, male gaze, sleazy, creepy, slimy etc. Whilst this is the case, male touch will be considered default sexual and this problem will remain.

  24. Great article but I can’t stop staring at the word “dessert” when it is obvious the author means “desert.” It is hurting my brain!

  25. For me I see a clear juxtaposition between the two types of networks I have with my male friends.

    Among the friends I have made through playing sport (and this spans three different countries), predominately rugby, I find that touching is not only condoned it is celebrated. ‘Man love’ as we call it is an institution of rugby – some would even call it homo-erotic – the amount of ‘ass slapping’ and hugging that goes on is incredible (and usually it gets more outrageous when alcohol is involved). People that do not partake in this are often ostracized and ridiculed… it is seen as an important part of being macho, as contradictory and paradoxical as that may sound. Maybe it is the communal nature of sport; the team bond that is created through striving for a common goal together (i.e. to win), I am not sure what it is but I do know that ‘touching’ is a key element of this bond.

    However, I contrast this with my circle of friends I have made through academia. I would never dream of greeting a colleague of mine with a slap on the ass. The etiquette is definitely different when I socialize with them, and these are friends of mine that are as close to me as the friends I play sport with. I guess there is different expectations of how to behave in different contexts; certain types of behaviour are normalised by the people who make up the network.

    Therefore, in the rugby context it seems normal to touch because the vast majority of people in that network partake in it and reinforce it as an etiquette, whereas in my academic context the majority of people adhere to different rules which forbid touching. So for me it is not homophobia that is dictating whether I engage in platonic male touching but rather perceived etiquette of different contexts.

    • Brilliant comment, thank you so much. I’ve never been part of team sports so I did not fully realize that – but certainly I have academic friends and the same experience there that you had. And I have other friends where touching is much more normal.

      I also agree that it has very little to do with homophobia; even as a non-homophobic it’s nice to engage in contact with other guys in non-sexual ways. The point is, it’s platonic.

      Maybe the issue with society is that touching is always considered sexual. I have two sons and I cuddle them all the time. But I remember when their friend came over, I wasn’t sure – it’s another kid, the same age, just as innocent and cute, well maybe a little less cute because not mine, but cute nonetheless – can I just cuddle those kids too? Or would that be considered creepy? I wasn’t sure and so didn’t cuddle the other kids just as much. I guess it’s much more acceptable for women to cuddle any child that comes along.

  26. Stephen Pritchard says:

    “Male touch isolation is the single most powerful reason why I support gay marriage initiatives” – while I find it a shame that the single most powerful reason isn’t down to the injustice gay men and women face, at least you support it I guess.

  27. JJ Vincent says:

    One of the trickiest things to navigate, as a gay man, is touch, because the default to most – and yes, I am choosing that word – guys is “gay guy touches me = he is hitting on me/he wants me/eeewww”.

    I’m so surprised when younger straight guys initiate physical contact beyond the thump-on-the-back-hug to the point that I’m actually awkward with it. I’m having to learn how to accept/reciprocate it because most of the guys I’m around now ARE younger than me and perfectly fine with casual, friendly personal contact, even hugs, regardless of who initiates it.

    • That’s very interesting. As a straight man in my 20s with a disproportionate number of gay male friends and colleagues (I’m a classical musician…) I have never really thought to deal differently with gay men in terms of friendly affection than I do with straight men. The relationship is the same–platonic friendship. I care about them, and so if I pat them on the back or rest my hand on their shoulder while talking to them, or hug them hello or goodbye, I guess I never really think about the different connotations. When they initiate or reciprocate it, I never really have the “ewwwwww he’s hitting on me” thought process, and I certainly hope that gay (or straight) men who don’t know me well enough to know my orientation don’t think that either! Now that I think about it, my gay friends reciprocate and initiate affection less enthusiastically than my straight friends! That’s food for thought. It’s sociologically interesting, but also sad that this is even a concern. I think love is what makes the world go round, and there ought not be anxiety around showing or spreading it–platonically or otherwise.

      • I was recently talking to an older guy at a Cafe; very casual, he seemed nice we were talking for a while. I told him I like cities that have a large gay population because they’re more tolerant, not just of gays but in general. He asked me if I wasn’t uncomfortable with that as a straight guy. As I said “no, whatever, people are people, I really don’t care what sexual orientation you are” I realized that he was gay; somehow my gaydar had been off; He was so happy – made his day. I think he’s just had to deal with a lot of prejudice living in a conservative part of Australia most of his life.

        I’m not sure men touching has anything to do with acceptance of gay people though. It’s non-sexual so why should it be bunched up with issues of sexuality? It’s mostly a thing about culture, I think. In many countries in the middle east, homosexuality is considered a terrible sin punishable by death; yet, men holding hands in the street is a common sight – it’s perfectly normal! Two different issues, IMO.

        • No as a gay guy it is wrapped up in that even as non-sexual. Thing is you’re extremely concious of what signals you send out to people, and that they might misconstrue yours. I love physical contact, but I rarely hug people unless I know them and am a little reticent – partly cos my personal space is a little introverted, sacrosanct I’m really wary of going into someone else’s. That said I love places and people who are extrovert, physically or otherwise. It puts me at ease, I know where I stand. Whereas second-guessing is a dangerous art…

  28. Michael Rowe says:

    Brave, brilliant, honest, true piece. Beautifully and clearly stated.

  29. Glad you’re keeping on this theme, but I really don’t buy that gay marriage becoming widespread will have much of an effect on it. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of gay people who buy into these stereotypes too. It reminds me a bit of campness. To some that sets their “gaydar” off, though there are plenty of straight men who engage in that behaviour too.

    What is needed is desexualisation of touch. The key word in your initial article was “platonic”. This is not desexualisation – this is trying to making something still seen as sexual acceptable.

    • Michael Rowe says:

      It’ll have an enormous effect. The reason gay marriage is still so “controversial” in places like the United States is that it’s perceived as “normalizing” something “abnormal.” The sooner LGBT people are seen as “normal” in our culture, the less suspicion will follow straight men around like a shadow every time they touch each other.

      • Erm…..that’s the same assertion as the article.

        It still will not desexualise it. It will just make touch acceptable between men, but it will not remove the notion of it being sexual.

        Men are frightened of even looking at a woman, never mind touching her. They are scarcely going to be keen on touching men if they think it will also be seen as sexual.

      • Oh, god, I hope I’m never considered normal. The whole concept of normalcy has terrified me since infancy. The notion of certain behaviours being approved and others disapproved has always seemed the height of arrogance to me. When I meet people who say they are normal, I presume high levels of repression and self-policing.


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