Growing up, I was the touchy-feely one in my family, which was odd because I was the only boy in a house of women. You might expect that women would be more physical with their love. But nope, it was me. To make matters worse, I am very warm to the touch. With veins that sit close to the skin, I radiate heat. This makes it unpleasant to sit next to me on a couch in the summer. Just ask my sister or mother.
One of the things I remember hearing often from them in those sun-cooked months between May and September, “Do you have to sit so close to me?”
Or my other favorite, “Would you please move away, you’re touching me again.”
When you hear that often enough, you get the idea that touch isn’t appreciated, that it can be gross and unwanted, and that certainly, it’s not as valuable a tool of connection as say, your voice. Like, I could always get my mother to laugh, but I rarely got to sit next to her in August. For obvious reasons, I didn’t grow up touching a lot of people. That’s just how it was.
My mother hails from good German, Scottish, French, Irish stock, with some Swedish blood thrown in for flavor (if you’re willing to call it that). None of those are what anyone would call touchy-feely cultures. They’re not as quick to hug as their southern neighbors. Like, you expect a Spaniard, an Italian, or an Albanian to embrace you. It’s no great surprise when a Greek pulls you in for some fraternal love. The fact my family was not very big on touching was never weird for me because touching isn’t a popular pastime in America. Much like our cultural benefactors, the northern Europeans, we’re not big huggers here in the Land of the Brave. Nope. We’re back-slappers, fist-bumpers and high-fivers. We like our social touching to be emphatic, brief, and function like punctuation. In effect, it should say: yes! And that’s about it. Whereas, a hug says far too much for most Americans to feel comfortable with that much expression of intimate body language.
Thanks to the Puritans, our cowboy ideals, and our lawsuit-happy culture, it’s no surprise men don’t touch much in the States. Of course, let’s not kid ourselves, there’s another reason why we don’t like to openly embrace. For most straight American men, it seems kinda gay to hug a dude. Like, it’s sexually questionable to leave your lingering hand on a friend’s shoulder, or to wrap an arm around your homie’s waist. For reasons that don’t make sense, we seem to worry that your hand on your buddy’s back might lead to anal sex. I know, it’s silly, when you draw it out. But there it is. We don’t touch to ensure straight men don’t fuck each other. I guess. Meanwhile, in France and Italy, countries known for the romantic exploits of their men, you see straight men holding hands as they walk in public. Not so much in England. And thus, thanks to the greater British influence on American culture, we don’t hold hands in public either. And you know what? Men in America are kinda fucked-up emotionally because we don’t feel comfortable touching other men. (I don’t mean uninvited contact, only what would be considered welcome touches of support or intimacy in other cultures.) We live isolated in our bodies. American men are one man deserted islands when it comes to matters of male intimacy.
Western cultures are based on the Westphalian notion of a nation. Borders and boundaries are how we understand what makes a country. The state is defined by where it ends and what space it occupies. We use this same sort of sense of identity-from-borders for our sense of who we are individually. Like tiny nations of humanity we declare: This is my personal space. This is my body. This is my comfort zone for public interaction. Don’t assume you can enter my space. And then, like one-man and one-woman superpowers we live locked in a perpetual personal arms race. We ensure others never violate our space. Unfortunately, due to rape culture and historic narratives of gender domination, this sort of protected border is necessary. Yet, between men, and specifically between straight American men, when the idea of sex is off the table, there exists an opportunity for fraternal touch to ease the tensions of our militarized personal borders. In a sense, if straight American men felt more comfortable touching, it might be better for everyone else, too.
Leaving behind our very western notion of space and control, and even boundaries, when you travel in non-Western cultures you quickly find public space is considered negotiable. It’s not readily assumed there is such a valuable thing as personal space, at least, not in any way familiar to someone from Topeka. In most non-Western cultures you can expect that, when you’re on a bus, a man or a woman might push their sweaty shoulder against yours and then fall asleep on you. This is considered normal. People sleep, it’s a bus. What’s your deal? In elevators, subways, and sidewalks bodies often crush together into a mass of humanity. Yes, sure, this also occurs in Manhattan, but it is to be avoided there, not just assumed as part of the charm of being alive. For the Western traveler, any and all personal space-busting touches can be off-putting. It can feel invasive and rude. Let’s be real honest, it can feel gross. However, if you go by the numbers, it’s the more common way to exist on Earth. To be fair, since matters aren’t always made best by majorities, the smoother way to say is: it’s just another way to live. The question remains to be answered, though. Is it a better way to live?
When you see a pack of drunken businessmen stumbling home together, arm in arm, singing a school song, and can tell from their body language that they’ve been touching each other, supporting each other physically like that since they were boys, do they benefit from that level of fraternal male intimacy? Well, even Western science would say yes.
Touch is obviously critical to mammalian life. There’s the love chemical, oxytocin, that’s released as a bonding element between lovers; it equally bonds mother and child. There’s also the evidence that if an otherwise healthy baby is born but not touched, if it is not held by human hands, it will die. Simple as that. We don’t exactly know why. There’s also proof that touch acts as a pain-reliever. No matter what road you walk we reach the same conclusion: we don’t fully understand how touch works. We can describe its power, even though we can’t explain its mechanism.
Essentially, we are big bags of water and bones with a spider web of nerves providing the spark of life. Gifted with electric digits, we’re designed to touch. But men in America, we lose out on this aspect of our nature because of the long shadow of cowboys, the judgment of the Puritans, our fears of lawyers, and homophobia. What ridiculous rationales. Would you blind yourself for those same reasons?
I had a Jewish-Italian roommate who taught me to touch. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? We met in college in San Francisco. Later, when we both moved to Los Angeles, we got a place together. When you live with someone you see it all. You see them arrive home beaming after the sort of one-night stand you’ll hear them talk about ten years later. You also see them vomiting in the cat’s litter box and passed out on the bathroom floor. And you see them cry. Which is another thing men in America really don’t like to do. (We ought to work on that as well.) My roommate was raised by his Italian mother and she taught him that it was good and important to cry. And to touch. Obviously, this was the exact opposite message I got growing up.
When my roommate came running home one night, after he was jumped and mugged by gang members a few blocks from our house, he pushed through the door in a panic. His eyes were unfocused and terrified. His ribs were heaving with short breaths and the tightness of fear. I didn’t know what to do. I stood up from the couch. He told me in stuttered half-sentences what had just happened to him. When he was finally free of the momentum of his adrenalin, he sorta stopped, and burst into tears. So, I did what I assumed most mothers would do. I hugged him. I did it because I didn’t know what to do. It just seemed natural. He clearly needed to be held. He needed to know that he was safe.
Standing in our living room, we embraced and he sobbed into my shoulder. I held him so long I could feel his tears wet through the fabric, regather, and then run down my back. (Which felt gross as fuck, if I’m being real.) But he needed to know that he was okay. As a writer, I knew that in that moment, my words didn’t have that power. Only through touch, only by holding him could I let him know that he was safe.
That was not the only time I hugged my roommate over those years we lived together. I hugged him in celebration as well. I hugged him when I was cast in my first movie. I hugged him when he bought himself a car. And, for sure, I hugged him when I was the one hurt and scared by the sudden shocks and horrors that happen in life. In the span of a few short years, he taught me how to love a man who was my friend, who was my roommate, someone with whom I was sharing my life at a very personal level. He taught me how to be intimate with a man. We never spoke about the lessons I learned. He didn’t tell me, hey, man, that was a really good hug. Yo, for real, you’re getting better at being supportive. Nope. We’re still American men through-and-through. That communication passed between us, conveyed in body language. As with any language, you can become more fluent with practice.
It should be said that obviously all the touching I’ve spoken of, all that I’ve advocated is intended to be consensual. I speak only of men touching men. Gay or straight. None of this applies to how any man should touch women. (That’s a much longer essay.) Now, as far as consensual touch among male friends, you must not presume you can touch someone else. You can’t yo! bum rush their show. At this point, my friends know I’m gonna touch them. But we’ve also worked out how, what they feel is appropriate, and I never push past their limits. Like, I might brace a man I’d call my brother, stand abreast of him, and wrap my arm around his back, like the cross-board of a wooden fence. Let him know whatever happened is bullshit and he’ll be okay. Friends say it helps. When it’s a dude I’m just meeting for the first time, if for some reason it feels appropriate to touch him, I’ll tell him, bro, I’m gonna touch you right now. That way when I put my hand to his shoulder, or pull him in for a hug, he’s comfortable and we both benefit from the bonding feelings that come from our most basic level of being alive — our first sense — touch.
My family didn’t like to touch. My roommate taught me the bonds of support we can articulate with something as simple as a hug. I don’t recommend you start caressing bodies, but do think of touching others as more than sexual foreplay. It can be a subtle language of love between men, between friends, one that we ought to feel comfortable with and use to communicate. As Otis Redding once sang, occasionally, we all need to try a little tenderness.
About the author:
Zaron Burnett III is a freelance writer and journalist. He lives in Los Angeles and enjoys surfing, ’60s soul music, thinking about the future, and long walks with no particular destination. Twitter: @Zaron3
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