I’m sorry in advance that this is long, but I feel like it’s complicated.
I’m writing to you because you’re a man and you primarily advise men, and I know there’s all kinds of cultural baggage around men’s sexuality and treating it as predatory, and I don’t want to hurt my male friends with my issues. I love them, and I’m worried I already have hurt them because they’ve stopped trying to hug me at get-togethers. They’re not oblivious or insensitive–if they were, we wouldn’t be friends–and they haven’t said anything, just given me space.
I’m a woman in my late 30s and asexual (not sex-repulsed, but also not interested in it at all, solo or partnered). I don’t think I’m aromantic–I get something that I think resembles a crush very frequently. Almost any time I vibe with a new person and it seems like they also like interacting with me, I get a happy, high-energy, glowy feeling, and they are beautiful to me. I don’t know if that’s actually romantic attraction–what I want is friendship–but it is a pretty intense, euphoric feeling. It sounds to me like what people talk about when they say they have a crush, just without a physical desire component? It doesn’t seem gendered, so I assume I’m panromantic.
Here’s the problem: I have a lot of male friends, and I don’t trust being touched by them.
The thing is, I like friendly touch! Or at least I used to, at least from people I know and like. I loved being hugged. When my anxiety is spinning up, a friend putting their hand on my shoulder or arm usually winds it back down. Physical contact with someone I trust tells some primitive part of my brain that everything’s going to be okay in a way that no medication or meditation or any of the usual recommended remedies for anxiety ever has.
But with my male friends, increasingly it’s both that “things are going to be okay” feeling and also a “things are not okay” nervousness and dread, which is confusing.
I think I know where it came from, but I don’t know how to get over it.
I waited until pretty late to start proactively dating. Friends set me up on a lot of dates, and I’d enjoy meeting the guy and getting to know him, but in terms of the looming romantic/sexual nature of the date, I always felt sort of disoriented and like I was being squeezed into a mold that I didn’t understand. I’d let him touch me, kiss me goodnight, put a hand on my knee, that sort of thing, because I felt like I was supposed to, but once that started happening, I’d just want to get out of there and I’d turn him down for future dates. (Yes, I’m aware that it wasn’t fair to them to suddenly get quiet and then stonewall them.)
My first actual relationship was with a guy who had a very high libido. At first, I was able to keep up with him because it was all new and interesting. (Just to get it out of the way, since it always seems to come up: yes, I have had very pleasurable sex. I just don’t feel any drive to have it again, and for me, it was actually a distraction/disconnection from emotional intimacy. I feel like my partners go away mentally as soon as things start getting more intense. But my lack of interest in sex isn’t because I just have never had the right kind.)
The relationship went south in what was probably a predictable way for someone who was very sexual, and saw his sexuality as a core part of who he was, who was in a relationship with someone who didn’t know at the time she was asexual. Once the newness wore off, once we’d worked our way through a lot of different ways of having sex, I lost interest. It hadn’t been desire for me (I hadn’t wanted to date him in the first place, but he was a close friend and he wore me down until I decided to give it a try). It had just been curiosity.
I loved him, and I wanted him to be happy, so I kept trying, and for a few years it still worked. I was able to tell what got him off, and I kept exploring with him, and it made me happy that he seemed to be enjoying it. But I just got really tired over time. We could never cuddle for long, or even just sit together when we were alone, without him starting to grope me. I just wanted to have his arm around me, or to rest my head on his shoulder, but he turned any contact into initiating sex. I tried to talk to him about it, but he started accusing me of making him “addicted” to me, of not being a giving partner. Things went downhill from there, and eventually he stopped listening when I told him no. And once he started refusing to stop when I told him to, the relationship ended pretty quickly.
I don’t blame him for any of it except refusing to listen when I started saying no. It was a sex drive mismatch, and I didn’t realize I was asexual.
After it ended, I was single for a few years, and then I dated a woman. She was much better about respecting when I said no (and I was better about being very explicit about it), but I could sort of feel that it made her a little sad when we were cuddling and she wanted to get more sexual and I didn’t. She was the one who talked to me about asexuality and helped me figure it out. It didn’t last long (only about half a year), because she wanted a more sexually active relationship, but she was very kind about it.
I’ve had a few male (former) friends express interest and get handsy when we were hanging out, and shut them down pretty hard.
I tried once more, in terms of an actual relationship, with a guy. I was upfront that I was ace or maybe demi but was willing to have sex sometimes. He said he was cool with that, and he never got pushy about it, but he would start exploring when we were cuddling unless I was very explicit that it was not happening that night, and then he was disappointed. I initiated a couple times a week so he would know it was okay and wouldn’t feel like he was pressuring me, and I tried not to ever make him feel like I felt obligated. I wanted an emotional partnership and sex was something I did to maintain it, and he said that it made him feel like he was pressuring me even though I told him he wasn’t, so I guess I didn’t do a good enough job of conveying that just because sex isn’t something I’m interested in on my own, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Anyway, that relationship also didn’t last for long.
I think maybe I’m fine not having a partner (I gave it three good tries!), but I very much crave platonic physical affection with people I’m close to. But I tense up when male friends (the straight or straight-ish ones, anyway–I don’t react to my one Very Gay male friend like this, but he’s also pretty physically reserved) hug me, I can’t relax when I’m sitting next to them unless there’s significant distance between us, and I jump if they touch my shoulder or arm.
At the same time, I *want* a hug from them, I want to just sit close to them and hang out, I want to knock my foot against theirs when I’m teasing them about something, like I do with my female friends. I don’t have trouble being emotionally vulnerable with them, talking to them about personal stuff, getting a little teary when they talk to me about stuff that’s hard for them, trusting them that way. But if they touch me, I react like they’re not the same people I’ve known and trusted for years. (And I feel really guilty that I react that way to a friend who came out as nonbinary because it seems like that means that I haven’t accepted them as non-binary and still see them as male?) It seems to be getting worse, not better, even though no one’s gotten handsy with me in a while, and none of the men I’m still friends with have ever done it.
I recently have been becoming closer friends with a guy I’ve been through work hell with (true blue, brilliant, kind, and about to become a dad and so luminous about that) and we were at our first in-person meeting after almost 3 years of working remotely together and he was like, “I’m a hugger–is a hug okay or do you prefer a different way to say it’s amazing to finally meet you in person?” And I told him I wasn’t a hugger and we smiled at each other and fist-bumped and inside I was crying _but I *am* a hugger_.
My therapist is really great about other issues that I need her for, but I don’t think she understands asexuality very well. She seems convinced that I’m just repressed or prudish about being a “sexual being” or something, and we’ve agreed to focus on other issues.
So here, at long last, is my question: I don’t know how to get back to being comfortable with friendly touch with men, but I feel like I need to try. Do I try to explain to them what’s going on? Can I talk to them about this without making them feel like I think they’re all potentially handsy? Can I ask them for a hug and let them know that I might tense up but I still want the hug and it’s not anything they’re doing wrong? I don’t want them to feel like I’m using them as some sort of unpaid touch therapists, and this isn’t really on them to fix.
It’s so easy to talk to them about anxiety and ADHD and existential dread about the state of the world and other stuff that’s kind of sensitive (theirs or mine), but I have no idea how to talk to them about this. I have no idea how, if I were a man, I would want a female friend to talk to me about this. Or if I would at all. It’s not something we have in common, like anxiety or political dread or whatever.
-Trying To Be Less Touchy About Touch
Gonna be honest, TTBLTAT,I disagree with your assesment of your first partner. I mean, this part right here sounds like more red flags than a Beijing military parade:
“I hadn’t wanted to date him in the first place, but he was a close friend and he wore me down until I decided to give it a try”
Then I got to this part of your letter:
“He could never cuddle for long, or even just sit together when we were alone, without him starting to grope me. I just wanted to have his arm around me, or to rest my head on his shoulder, but he turned any contact into initiating sex.”
“I tried to talk to him about it, but he started accusing me of making him “addicted” to me, of not being a giving partner”
…and I’m not at all surprised that you’re averse to being touched by guys who are attracted to women. That’s a long and uncomfortable series of lessons from someone saying that your comfort and consent are ultimately less important than his boner.
Small goddamn wonder you tense up or freeze when guys touch you.
I can completely understand how difficult it can be for someone like you, who wants and needs platonic contact with her friends, but for whom it can be a minefield of triggers and automatic reactions.
The tricky thing is: how do you navigate that minefield and get to a place where you can actually not just let yourself be touched, but get to a place where you might be able to enjoy that touch too?
Well, let’s talk about that. But to do so, I’m going to veer off into a couple of tangents. I promise, this will make sense when we’re done.
I know a lot of women who feel similarly about casual touch and who have had similar experiences with friends and partners. And while there were definitely some shitheads in the mix, many times, a lot of the guys were well-meaning, but fucking up in similar ways. And unfortunately for everyone involved (besides the shitheads), there’s a pretty significant systemic issue with how men are raised and socialized that creates some massive blindspots for them.
I’ve been doing this job for a while and I’ve worked with a lot of guys who have difficulties regarding sex in their relationships. A lot of times what they actually have is a communication issue that’s combined with issues with physical but non-sexual intimacy.
I don’t think it’s much of a surprise to anyone, especially long-time readers of this column, that men in general are touch starved. This is a classic case of “toxic masculinity ruins the party again“; guys are socialized to believe that physical and emotional intimacy are tantamount to sexual intimacy, and that physical contact and physical affection – including hugs, cuddling, holding hands or plain ol’ leaning against each other – are inherently sexual in nature.
This is very much something that’s taught to men and it starts almost as soon as we turn double-digits. Before then, we’re very affectionate and physical with… well, everyone really, including our guy friends. But once puberty looms, then the message of “that’s gay” and “don’t touch guys, don’t be affectionate with guys, that’s just for chicks” gets beaten into us until we hit a point where we actually forget there was a time when we weren’t afraid that hugging our guy friends had to come with the Bro Pound Or Else It’s Sus.
Small wonder, then, that men have really horrifying cases of skin hunger, when basic human contact can trigger a cascade of endorphins in us. So even in guys who aren’t entitled dickbags who think that they’re allowed or obligated to assert their sexual desires, physical contact with our romantic partners can feel like it’s a prelude to more intimate contact rather than just old-fashioned cuddling because it feels good. We’re so unused to casual touch that the idea of cuddling for cuddles’ sake with someone is not normal to us. So that touch makes us feel incredible, that incredible feeling feels like something we were taught to see as sexual and our partners don’t necessarily see it the same way.
Right off the bat, we’re stuck in a situation that’s almost custom designed to create conflict.
But on top of that, we’re also pointedly not taught how to communicate our wants, our needs or our feelings. We get lessons after lessons – overt and covert – that tell us that talking about what we want (or need), especially when it comes to sex and sexual intimacy is to be avoided at all costs.
So not only do we have the idea of talking, about our needs openly and honestly ground out of us, the ways we’re taught to communicate conflict with how women are taught to communicate. Women are taught to be in touch with their emotions and to be comfortable with them. Men are taught that emotions are a weakness and talking about our feelings is “girly”, sad and weak. Small wonder that we often lack the vocabulary and nuance to understand each other.
And when you mix that together with a constant messaging that to be a man is to be sexual, that we’re encouraged to prioritize our desires over everything else and being taught that women aren’t as sexual as men… well what you end up with is a toxic stew that makes things suck for everyone.
I mean, let’s take the guy who said he felt like he was pressuring you even when you were interested in being sexual. It’s certainly possible that you didn’t explain things well, but I suspect that it was more about him not understanding you and not having the tools to actually separate “I want platonic cuddles please”, “I’m not interested in sex” and “I’m ok with being sexual if you want”, and I suspect that he had a (very common) deep-seated unease with using his words in the moment to check in with you.
(Well, he could also have been a dick too, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. These aren’t mutually exclusive.)
Women, on the other hand, don’t get those same lessons. Women don’t get the idea of platonic physical affection ground out of them, they’re socialized to be more communicative, more in touch with their emotions and needs and to put other people’s comfort and desires over their own.
This is why it’s not surprising that you didn’t have these issues when you were dating a woman. Yeah, she may have felt a bit sad that you weren’t as interested in having sex as she was, but you were able to communicate your feelings, while she was able to understand and accept them. The difference between how she behaved versus the guys you dated behaved is palpable.
All of which is a long way of saying: I’m entirely unsurprised that you tense up and flinch when being touched by men – even when you want to be touched or to touch them – who might be sexually attracted to you.
But how do you break this association, and how do you do it without making your friends feel like you’re accusing them of being gropers-in-waiting? Well, that leads me to my next tangent.
Don’t worry, this is short, and I promise it’s relevant. Especially in context of intimacy and communication.
Recently on Twitter, there was much Discourse about BDSM and safe words. I’m not going to get into all the various twists and turns and suppositions and bad-faith assumptions that resulted, but it did lead to an interesting discussion or two about the use of safe words outside of sexual situations. Several Twitter users talked about how they would establish safe words with friends, partners, even therapists to say “no, stop now” and how much more secure and relaxed they could feel, knowing that they had a ripcord to pull when things got to be too much and if they pulled it, everything would come to a halt.
Hell, that’s even come up in Ted Lasso, of all things; saying “Oklahoma” meant the other person had to say the unvarnished truth, instead of softening things or being evasive or trying to spare the other’s feelings.
Now, I bring this up because you’re so used to guys not listening or understanding how you’re feeling. It’s hard as hell to unlearn that response when you’re so used to people not seeming to notice or care that you’re uncomfortable with being touched – even when touch is precisely what you want.
It’s understandable that you’re worried that giving someone a reassuring hug or a supportive arm squeeze might be misread, especially if you tense up or pull back. It’s also understandable that you don’t want your guy friends to feel like you’re using them for free exposure therapy.
But what if you had a way for them to know that you’re cool with it continuing, even if you’re dealing with that flinch response you’re trying to unlearn? Say, if you had a safe word that you could deploy when you wanted or needed that contact to stop?
If you knew that if you said your safe word, your friends would pull back and check in with you about how you feel, that you might feel more empowered to be more touchy the way that you want to be. You might even feel more empowered to date again, should you feel the urge. Knowing that you had a way to hit the brakes and call a halt to proceedings can be a pretty powerful feeling, especially when you’re used to your discomfort being ignored and your lack of interest being used against you.
I think this might go a long way towards helping you feel like you could both ask and give the sort of touch you miss and need, without making things awkward.
So my suggestion is this: lay this all out to the guy friends you would like to be able to hug or touch. In fact, I’d say you could even show them the letter you wrote me to help explain the whys, wherefores and hows that all this came about. I think this would help them understand that it’s not that you think they, specifically are handsy creeps, it’s that you’ve had bad experiences that mean certain things trigger this fright/freeze response in you.
Then establish that you want to be able to be more comfortable with touch and that you don’t want them to think you’re afraid of them, which is why you’re going to have this safe word that says “hey, please stop now thanks” when you need them to take their hands back. If you say “Cloudmaker” (or whatever), then you need them to let go or stop what they’re doing. However, if you hug them or they put their hand on your shoulder and they feel you tense but you don’t say the word, then they can rest assured that you’re cool with it, even as you try to power through that reaction.
(Obviously, this means that you need to be comfortable with saying your safe word when it’s needed…)
Another possibility – one that you could use in conjunction with a “this means stop” safeword is a check-in phrase that your guy friends could use. If they aren’t sure if you’re ok with a casual foot-touch or hip check, they could say… let’s just use “Trout” for an example… to double check with how you’re feeling, just in case. Then you’re able to either give them the ok, or give the “pump the brakes” sign.I suspect your friends would be cool with this. Hell, your co-worker expressly asked if you were a hugger, which is cool of him and models some good behavior for others. Knowing that there’s a quick and easy way to check in with you and an unambiguous “stop please” sign would likely be helpful to them and reassure them that they’re not hitting one of your triggers when they’re just trying to be friendly and affectionate.
And honestly? I think having a plan to establish these safe words might help you feel like you could talk with them as well. I mean, your guy friends sound like they’re a pretty good bunch. It sounds to me like they’d want you to feel like you could talk to them about the things you’re dealing with. Just because this is (mostly) outside of their lived experience doesn’t mean they can’t empathize. They might not know precisely what to say (besides “…shit that’s awful, I’m sorry”, anyway) but friends want to help friends. Knowing that there’s a quick way of checking if everything’s cool makes it a lot easier, especially around sensitive or tricky subjects.
So, as weird as it may feel (at first) to talk about safe-words in non-sexual contexts, having some procedures in place can make it easier for you and your guy (and non-binary) friends to bridge this particular gap. Some clear and unambiguous communication, even if it seems a bit unorthodox, goes a long way to helping make sure that everyone’s understood. And that makes it even easier to develop and maintain those friendships in the way you want.
Write back and let us know how it’s going.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished on Medium.
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