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:
- All touch is sexually suspect
- 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.
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.
- We fear being labeled as sexually inappropriate by women.
- We live in a virulently homophobic culture so all contact between men is suspect.
- We don’t want to risk any hint of being sexual toward children.
- We don’t want to risk our status as macho or authoritative by being physically gentle.
- 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.
What Next? Talk with others. Take action.
We are proud of our SOCIAL INTEREST GROUPS—WEEKLY PHONE CALLS to discuss and help solve some of the most difficult challenges the world has today. Calls are for Members Only (although you can join the first call for free). Not yet a member of The Good Men Project? Join now!
Join The Good Men Project Community
The $50 Platinum Level is an ALL-ACCESS PASS—join as many groups and classes as you want for the entire year. The $20 Gold Level gives you access to any ONE Social Interest Group and ONE Class–and other benefits listed below the form. Or…for $5, join as a Bronze Member and support our mission.
“Here’s the thing about The Good Men Project. We are trying to create big, sweeping, societal changes—–overturn stereotypes, eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, be a positive force for good for things like education reform and the environment. And we’re also giving individuals the tools they need to make individual change—-with their own relationships, with the way they parent, with their ability to be more conscious, more mindful, and more insightful. For some people, that could get overwhelming. But for those of us here at The Good Men Project, it is not overwhelming. It is simply something we do—–every day. We do it with teamwork, with compassion, with an understanding of systems and how they work, and with shared insights from a diversity of viewpoints.” —– Lisa Hickey, Publisher of The Good Men Project and CEO of Good Men Media Inc.
Register New Account
Please note: If you are already a writer/contributor at The Good Men Project, log in here before registering. (Request new password if needed).
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
For those who are interested, here are a few sources on the issues Mark Greene raises 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 iStock
RETWEET the brutal facts of Male Emotional Suppression.
30 seconds on the suppression of men’s emotional literacy – Just the brutal facts. @GoodMenProject #parenting pic.twitter.com/RCMzq4RuKt
— Mark Greene (@RemakingManhood) September 17, 2016
For startling new evidence linking boys’ friendships, homophobia and the resulting drop in life expectancy among men, read: Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys? –
Follow Mark Greene on Twitter:
Get a powerful collection of Mark Greene’s articles, in his book, REMAKING MANHOOD
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 250,000 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.
Read more by Mark Greene:
A Manifesto: Relational Intelligence For Our Children
The Ugly and Violent Death of Gender Conformity
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
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…
This was a really great article depicting the silent struggle many men are facing today either knowingly or unknowingly. Unfortunately, many men are not getting their needs met and are hiding behind any number of crutches to fill the void. There is a continuum of coping mechanisms at play and those who fail to cope can find themselves in debilitating depression and/or ultimately choosing suicide. Drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, gambling, and counterfeit surrogate families like gangs promise belonging and fulfillment but fail to deliver in the long run. Like the author previously stated, the majority of men seek social touch… Read more »
Great article. Here’s my struggle. My so and I are battling to save our marriage and part of the issue is he feels that he can’t share a friendly hug with a female friend without me feeling there’s more to the hug than meets the eye. That’s partly true because of past infidelity that had never been truly addressed and healed. It’s a vicious cycle. I also think he’s afraid of me because I am a victim of a vicious assault and suffer from serious PTSD as a result so it’s hard for me to allow touching sometimes. So here… Read more »
I totally agree with the premise and thesis of this author. I am middle aged and single and to be honest the loneliness really is killing me.If you think American culture is cold and discourages close male frIendships then try living in the UK!!-people here are much colder,much less friendly and to a very large extent Brits”don’t do friendship”-especially so amongst males.I have only one friend who visits me,another who makes coffee meet up times then repeatedly cancels.I have been going to the same gym.for 5 years but haven’t been invited for a drink or anything in all that time-even… Read more »
I offer nurturing touch in West Michigan and Southern California. It’s a gift to be able to offer platonic touch and compassionate listening.
I touch myself. Does that count?
Haha. Well Rick, I’m certainly touched that you chose to share that.
I was being sarcastic.
Most men typically are. Especially when it comes to social or emotional connection.
Eh, I haven’t touched anyone in ~15 years and I’ve long since made peace with the fact that I’ll most likely go the rest of my life without; you can get used to anything
Excellent article!! There is a corresponding narrative for women, and it is that all (straight, I suppose) women are desperate to get and keep a man. It’s a different narrative, to be sure, but just as destructive.
Thanks for the thoughts, Liz. When I talk about a corresponding narrative, I mean there are no narratives that paint female touch as inevitably sexualized or in some other way unworthy of trust. In the more general sense, yes, there are hundreds of narratives about women like the one you have named and they most certainly do a great deal of damage. How our culture characterizes men and women is disastrous. A long list of self fulfilling prophesies regarding what we are and what we will do, told to us over and over from when we are too small and… Read more »
This is something that in my experience, the third wave feminist crowd is making even worse. Then comes the “enthusiastic consent” crowd, with the “you must have enthusiastic consent for every physical interaction” idea, which is all well and good in that yes people have control of their own bodies but it’s starting to twist into a way to control others, especially men. Now women have yet another way to demean men – “you don’t have my consent.” which often says “You aren’t worthy of a hug or any physical contract, and I control when, where, and how you will… Read more »
Your statement ” I doubt its a question the average Italian man would ever ask himself. ” really touched me. I am an Italian woman, living in Canada, and our extended family touch, always…touch the head as you pass by, kisses and big hugs always…linking arms, mussing hair..more kisses..and never a thought of sexual. When I moved to the US, I had to tone it down, because non-Italians didn’t understand, and took my affectionate touches as flirtations. I would often say, I am a touchy-feely kind of person, don’t misinterpret my actions, but many men I dated did. I changed,… Read more »
Thanks for your comments, Victoria. They provide a remarkable window into a way of connecting so different from what we subject ourselves to here in the US. The collective impact is felt even by people who would otherwise touch and connect much more naturally. Women suffer the effects of our culture of physical isolation as much as men.
This hit way too close to home
Hey Mark or Luke, are you still present on this website? I noticed that you have references to the MKP but I don’t think they are in operation anymore? Congratulations on the book, it obviously did well.
Mankind Project? Our organization is alive and well!
” I doubt its a question the average Italian man would ever ask himself.” It is why so much that I read here, so much angst over one’s masculinity leaves me dumbfounded, and perhaps why I’ve escaped so much of this “boxing”. This is a non-issue with me, but I came from a large Italian family where one had to start saying good-by a half hour before they could leave as they had to “make the rounds”, hug every cousin and uncle, kiss every aunt (the grandfathers got the most love). The men of that family where anything but the… Read more »
Correct that. Almost 98K and counting.
This is so true. Thanks for writing the article. Wonderful read. And kudos. You seem to be an awesome stay at home dad. I kinda understand the sentiment. I used to love a very good female friend of mine platonically. She was like very younger to me. So it felt like I was taking care of a little sister or a daughter. I still remember it to be the best time of my life. And nothing could replace that beautiful touch. Eventually though, after many months, I realized that her expectations of touch were starting to drift towards sexual. It… Read more »
This article describes my life so completely, I wonder if you’ve been secretly filming me for that last 47 years. Touch, in any way and with anyone other than my gf/wife has been off limits. I couldn’t walk in to a bar for a drink without everyone looking at me with the assumption, “Oh, he’s here to pick up.” I couldn’t go to a club to dance. Heaven forbid that I didn’t look cool while dancing with my date. Do you know how hard it is to dance with a drink in your hand? Because drinking is the only way… Read more »
You’re most certainly not the only one, Dennis.
i remember the night i had the worst panic attack of my life and ended up at the ER twice getting drugs to calm down after I’d puked (cause I’d thought I’d finally be strong and come off the others ones). The mental health worker was a young woman who called me a cab home. I remember wanting a hug so badly from this cold, irritated lady after pretty much thinking i was going to die of dread minutes before. I mean you’d think it’d be OK in that context but no, its easier to drug people so you don’t… Read more »
When I was teaching Gr5-8 orchestra (for 27 years) I did a “Country Dance Night” twice yearly, with student fiddle music and student dancing. The boys danced with boys very often, especially if they were under that magic 7th grade year. The adults didn’t quite know how to deal with that. Nobody ever really complained, but it was easy to see that it was a little awkward for the adults. I just made nothing of it, and appreciated that it was happening. I totally concur with this article. As a male K-8 teacher I quickly got the word that any… Read more »
For as much human contact/touch I get, I may as well be on Mars. So terrified am I of being falsely accused or overtly needy or sexual, (not to mention being an unmarried male in my 40s) that an early grave is a very welcome thought. I have come to have a seething anger against this unloving PC world so completely distracted by screens and greed that it feels at times that my heart will burst and I just won’t wake up in the morning.
“But here in America, generations of Puritanical sexual shaming have made it a central question.” It’s not Puritanical, at least, no, not directly. It’s Victorian. It was during that era that corn flake cereal was invented to curb sexual libido, and table legs were covered to avoid sexual thoughts. Many scholars and researchers have noted that our mores are still based on that era (including also the Edwardian period). Ironically, however, platonic touch between men was NOT seen as sexual during that time, and that included men sleeping in the same bed. This was especially noted observing the time of… Read more »
YES, YES AND MORE OF MY FUCKING YES. This deprivation is what I have been suffering through my mid-to-late adolescece and my entire young adulthood so far (I am 25) and I have seen very tangibly how my emotional state has been deteriorating in the absence of this touch you write of. You don’t know how gratifying it is for me to see this issue finally addressed, especially so succinctly! I hope all of my friends and community here in Wollongong, Australia read it and finally understand me. I would love to see a cultural shift that starts growing good… Read more »
Great to hear from you Zeke. I went through the same kind of stuff. Millions of us have.
Hi Zeke and all, I found this article particularly interesting to me, so much so that I sent it to all of my male friends. I not only suffered from a lack of touch growing up; had absolutely no attention from my parents. I was free, from about the age of 5-6 to do what I wanted. My mother, stay at home type in 1940’s and 50″s, could have cared less if I was even around. I came and went as I pleased, spent nights at friends homes and ate at their tables and my mother never even asked where… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
Thanks for your thoughts, LuLu.
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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!