Brian C. Rideout won’t lose anything more to fear.
I recently wrote a piece on surviving sexual violence, and how it affected me over the years. One of the topics I touched on, an after-effect of my experience was a fear of being touched by Men that I carried with me for years afterwards. A couple of brave readers came forward and spoke out about how they also felt that same fear after dealing with similar traumas. I wanted to talk about the fear of male touch and the horrible effects it has had on my life in greater detail.
I would rather not describe the whole story again, you are welcome to read about it in my previous article: “I Don’t Care What you Call It”. The short version is that over a period of four months three boys at my school used their lunch hours repeatedly to hold me down, beat me, fondled my chest, forcibly kissed me, fondled my genitals, and forced me to masturbate them. During other times they would make sexually charged comments to me and lewd gestures.
The after-effects of this bullying and violence were many, and took years of very careful self-exploration, therapy, and healing to overcome. The cost to me as a person was huge.
For years after the event any time a Man tried to touch me, I would begin to panic. My skin would crawl, my breath would shorten, and my back would start to clench up. It felt like I had hundreds of little snakes going crazy between my skin and my muscles all over me. My mind would instantly shut down. all I was able to think of coherently was ways I could make this person stop touching me. In some cases I didn’t even need to be touched: some men could set me off just by being too close. I could feel the energy field around their body like a hot, slithering wind across my skin.
Even for hours after the touch I would feel the place of contact tingling and burning, like a phantom of the hand or arm that wasn’t mine. I’d often get the shakes.
I have a photograph in my parent’s home of myself in the middle of one of those attacks. It was taken in Disney World. A man in a huge plush Eeyore suit is standing next to me with one arm over mine. I have a smile on my face but if you look close at the picture you can seem both my hands are balled into white-knuckled fists, and my eyes are bright with fear. The phony smile for the camera is just a little too wide, and the eyebrows just a little too high. One of my more perceptive friends used to make fun of me for that photograph. He could tell something about the guy in the suit had me on edge by looking at it. Every time he saw it, he would hum the tune to an Ugly Kid Joe song about a psychopathic killer getting loose in Disneyland. He made me feel horrible every time he did, because I was trying so hard to hide it.
And that was the first thing this fear cost me: my genuineness.
I spent a lot of time trying to hide my fear of being touched by Men. Around my male friends I always stood a little farther back from the others, always was the one watching on the sidelines if there were games afoot. I never gave fully to my friends, because I was always afraid they would touch me.
The second thing it cost me was support.
Because I was afraid of my friends touching me, I kept my feelings to myself. I kept aloof and refused to talk very much about what was on my mind with my male friends. Contrary to common belief, men are actually very touchy when they communicate about feelings. Most people don’t consider them to be, because they compare male touches of expression to female touches of expression, but when you are terrified of being touched, you notice every little habit. And just like women, if you aren’t willing to participate in the rituals of expression and touch when talking about your feelings, Men unconsciously feel hurt and back away.
Because of this, feelings just became off the table for my male friends, except in the most subtle ways or the big gestures. I could show a friend I loved him by inviting him to stay at my place when his parents were fighting, give him my coat when he had nothing to wear, or listen to him tell horror stories about his parents beating him, and tell him I had his back no matter what … but that is not something you can do every day, and not something you need every day. But you can hurt every day, and you ca need to be heard every day.
The worst part is that I am a touching person by nature. Before I was assaulted I hugged and patted and touched everyone. I teased and tickled and played with touch. I kissed people of both genders out of affection.
The third thing that this fear cost me was connection to my own nature.
I was a person who expressed himself best by physical contact before I was assaulted. Now, every time I wanted to reach out and touch someone I was immediately assaulted with that same creeping-crawling sensation. It made me hate my own touchy-feely nature. It ate away at my sense of being a whole person.
At the same time, many of my female friends had similar pain and issues to mine: some were clear that they never wanted to be touched. With others, I was afraid of reaching out to touch them because I didn’t want my actions misread. I didn’t want to be the bully or the beast who gave out unwanted touches.
The fourth thing it cost me is my fitness.
When I was very young, I was active. I loved climbing and volleyball, tumbling and lacrosse, and especially swimming. But as a grew into my teens athletics became structured into sports with boys’ and girls’ teams. It meant group showers and changing, and spending a lot of time around boys I didn’t know. I refused to join any sport because I didn’t want to take the risk of touch. When guys did see me shoot hoops or run on my own, there was often pressure to play that I didn’t want. I became a couch potato and the little weight I put on as a depressive child at 12 became life-threatening obesity by 20.
The fifth thing it cost me was my gentility.
I discovered in dealing with bullies that the one way I wasn’t afraid of being touched was when I was hitting. Be it a genuine fight, a war game, a boxing match, or a mosh pit, I could feel a sense of power and contact in violence. I took up Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido because I felt safer by learning the martial arts. After a while, fists or padded weapons became the only way I related to a lot of my friends. That meant attracting mostly angry, aggressive friends.
The sixth thing it cost me was my tolerance.
I sometimes described myself as a “homophobe” because it was easy shorthand, even if it was an ugly way of describing myself. The fact of the matter is, I never had anything against gay Men. Half of my social circle was gay men at any given time. I never thought anything less of them as human beings for their sexual preference. I often admired them for being brave enough to be “out”, and when someone mistreated them for it, I was often one of the first to jump to their protection.
But the idea of gay sex used to horrify me. Whenever their sexuality became a central topic to the conversation, I found myself imagining what it would like to touch and be touched by a man in a romantic manner, to have him touch my lips or my privates, and immediately the snakes would be there. I would begin to panic about the touches I was imagining, and needed to get away from it and them and do anything to numb my mind.
That idea led me to walk out of rooms and cut off conversations in ways that were abrupt and hurtful more than a few times. I made it so clear I was uncomfortable with the topic, that some of my otherwise closest friends weren’t comfortable talking about their sexuality around me.
The seventh thing it cost me is love.
Nick was funny and goody and geeky like me. Like me he had been hurt a few times. I cared about him like I cared about all of my friends: deeply but distantly. He was also very, very troubled: an abusive dad, an emotionally unavailable mom, bullying, a speech impediment, and being severely underweight. He tried suicide a couple of times while I knew him. I would spend a good portion of every day listening to him as he talked about his problems, and say what I could to make him feel better.
Nick was also gay. And that never really bothered me, even when he did talk about his sexuality, because he was sensitive to my hang-ups. At least it didn’t until he told me that he was in love with me. Then suddenly my whole body was full of snakes, and my mind panicked. I had to excuse myself from our conversation and ask him to leave while I processed. I know he was hurt.
He tried again a few days later. This time he also touched me in a suggestive manner and told me I was sexy. I freaked out and I pushed him away from me before running off. Somehow we both managed to pass it off as a joke later, but our friendship was hurt beyond repair. We just drifted apart after that.
I wish now I could have been more open and tolerant. I never could have loved him in the way he needed, but in a very dark and troubled life, I could have accepted his love and given him something kind and compassionate back. Nick successfully committed suicide long before I was at the point where I was mature enough – and unafraid enough that I could have done that for him.
The eighth thing it cost me was respect for Men.
It is easy to hold in contempt something that you are afraid of. With only a few male friends, a gut full of fear and self-loathing, it was easy to learn to hate Men. I spent a lot of time drinking in some of the ugliest notions of extreme feminism like Valerie Solanas’ “S.C.U.M. Manifesto”. In the darkest times of my life, I hated myself for being a Man. There’s nothing you can do with a hate like that except feel useless, and let it fester and turn into depression and health problems.
That self-hatred made it impossible for me to feel like I could have a loving relationship with a woman; I told myself that men are beasts, and don’t deserve a woman’s love. Especially not myself. Nor did we deserve sex. In fat I was so ashamed of my sex that I couldn’t touch myself for the longest time, even when I was getting desperate.
The ninth thing it cost me was my skin.
And this is probably the worst thing of all. I became enured to any pleasurable touch. I didn’t pay attention to my skin at all except when the snakes were there. There was fear that was in the way, between me and my skin. I never noticed the warmth of the sun or the breeze, or the feel of a book in my fingers. I might have well been wearing a HazMat suit for all the attention I paid to touch.
Ignoring my skin made me feel very separate from the world around me. I didn’t feel like I was a part of the life all around me at all. This in turn killed a lot of the kindness and compassion I might have been able to feel from that connection. I stopped caring about people who weren’t close to me, and became very bitter and negative.
I wish I could say I understood what the magic spell was to heal this sort of fear. I think time was a major factor in my own recovery. By the time I was nineteen I had the distance from the event: I’d moved across the country, lived in a different culture, gone through a lot of major life events.
Some of it was exposure to the thing I feared. I had to help more than one sick friend move around after drinking too much. I had a roommate with no body modesty for awhile.
I also underwent initiation into a mystical society. The power of psychodrama is incredible. Being reborn in ceremony, whether religious, cultural, social or occult has incredible capacity to change the way the mind works.
But mostly, it was a sense of incredible loss. One day I found myself picking up pieces of a chattered drinking glass. When they were all put away, my hands were covered in cuts and bloody pinpricks, but I had barely felt it when I was collecting up the shards. I noticed how much they hurt, and felt both horrified and cheated that I hadn’t even noticed. It got me counting all of the things I lost to the trauma of sexual violence and the fear that came out of it. I didn’t want to miss out on anything else, not as I was just starting to become a sexual person. I made a decision to conquer my fears.
Sex itself was a great healer to me, when I let myself truly enjoy all of its many and incredible sensations. There is a hidden language to sex that shows up in our kinks and fantasies. If you can play them out with a loving partner, you can often talk out your feelings without ever saying a word. You can reconnect to your body as a thing of worth and beauty.
It took me a long time to regain everything the fear that got between me and my skin had taken from me:
Nick ended his own life that year, and so whatever might have been if I had been more loving toward him as a friend died with him.
My skin came back first, because I made a promise to myself to connect to it. Today I make it a point to connect with it and remind myself how lucky I am to have it. I take my time and just touch objects sometimes to feel what they feel like.
Tolerance came quickly as well, because If I refused to be afraid, then the few fleeting images and imaginings in my head couldn’t fill me full of snakes again. I could talk openly with gay friends, old an new, about their experiences and feelings. With some, I have talked a lot about the bullies and what they did to me—how it affected me. I find it helps me make a connection
Something of my old touchy-feely nature has come back. With my loved ones, I can touch without reservation, and do so to show my love all the time. I find now, on the other side of all that fear and pain, that some of that contact-loving boy will remain dead forever. I can communicate with men without roughness now. Time spent with small children has helped me re-learn gentility.
Respecting Men is something that was harder to learn. I filled my head with a lot of hate and anger. In our culture being hateful and angry towards Men is almost an invisible problem. Nobody notices it when it comes forward, and few people seem to think it is a problem that needs support to resolve. It is only in the past two years that I’ve learned to genuinely respect and care about men again. Having seen what fear and anger towards Manhood can do to a young man, it is something I have become passionate about, and have made a business of. Mostly I want to share the things I have learned, good and bad, on my road to recovery.
Learning to be genuine and getting support is an ongoing process. In helping others learn to do it, I am helping myself. I am still working on making the male friends I need to practice being a genuine and open friend. I am proud to say that I have a few friends I can hug without reservation, and whom I feel safe talking about my feelings to; touches and all.
Because I refuse to lose anything more to fear.