There was a fascinating range of responses from men AND women to my prior article on the need for men to rediscover the language of touch.
The stories that came in from men about their experience of healthy non-sexual touch were intriguing. An older gentleman shared that in his college days men and women gave each other back rubs, a habit that had purely therapeutic value, no sexual overtones. My contemporaries described their new strategies for declaring their desire to offer a hug and seeking permission to do so. And on the other end of the age spectrum, my twenty-something sons just rolled their eyes, as if there was no need for this discussion. For them non-sexual touch has been a norm, a default position made familiar by a generation that sleeps in comfy, mixed-gender piles in dorms or apartments.
This outpouring of responses reaffirms that reframing how we use the language of touch is on everyone’s minds, one way or another. The issue is complex, as there seems to be little agreement about what change in our conventions should look like. I’m not really sure this is going to play out. It feels as if we may now be in a situation where we may need a flexible set of rules that could be summed up as, “different strokes for different folks”, a scattershot of responses tailored to individual situations. Whatever happens, I suspect that men are going to have to learn how to “use their words”, as we used to say to our boys when they were growing up (and they did).
I’m optimistic that men can get there for an odd, counterintuitive reason: the surprising number of heterosexual guys who wrote to share their stories of touch with other men. It appears that we are very much aware that there is shared language among us that exists beneath the surface of things. These stories offer a ray of hope regarding our ability to make a shift.
The physical exchanges that men described to me were transactional, shoulder-to-shoulder moments while we are engaged in some activity. However mundane these moments may be, the connections men feel during these encounters are very real, and we value them. That so many guys were eager to tell these stories speaks volumes.
It makes me consider my own experience being schooled in the “bro code,” the private language we use when a base level of respect and trust exists. It’s a common, shared dialect that enables us to strip off our armor and open up our personal space, physically and emotionally, in ways that you might not think. In each other’s company, as men with men who have our back, we feel safe. (That means, of course, that we should be able to exhibit the same behavior with our female friends, I would think).
The ever-changing squad of males that I have traveled with through life has enabled me to speak the language that exists among my set of friends: a firm handshake, the enthusiastic grip of an elbow or a shoulder that affirms connection, a hug or shoulder rub now and then. This is the latest dialect of the language of touch that has been common among us since our days playing sports: the slaps on the back, butt, chest, and shoulder that telegraph mutual respect and trust. Looking back I now see that these day-to-day interactions demystified and confirmed the value of physical contact, and provided a much-needed antidote to the shame that we were taught about our bodies as young men.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered that the languages of touch that men use differ by nations and cultures. These differences offer another argument that men can develop a new set of behaviors with women, given the variety of ways in which we express affection with each other. A response to my first article from a macho documentary filmmaker confirms this point. He spoke of men in remote areas of the third world holding hands while walking down a dirt road or through a village. When he handed out money or gifts at the end of a shoot, guys who had grown close often through harrowing circumstances would shake his hand and not let go for 20-30 seconds. He said that it was “very cool”.
My own personal experience is also illuminating. Celebrating my fiftieth birthday in Milan with family and friends, I was the startled recipient of a European futbol salute, when our maître d’ brought dessert to the table. We had hit it off instantly, and over the course of dinner, he became a long lost brother. After he placed a surprise birthday cake with giant firework candles in front of me, he bent over, gave me a classic Italian “sweater hug”, then slid his left hand across my chest, down my torso to my lap, where he saluted the robust, fun-loving guy in his golden years that I had become. Though taken aback at first, there was no discomfort in the exchange between us, even though we were strangers. I left that evening feeling validated, a hale and hearty dude ready to tackle his next decade of life challenges.
So as I reflect on our current conversation regarding men’s experience of touch isolation and the power of consent in our interactions with women, I’m realizing that men do have the ability to make this shift. It’s not that we are inexperienced in the nuance of touch. We are comfortable expressing ourselves in a variety of ways with men we know well. It must therefore be possible for us to devise a new “language”, a revised set of rules or conventions for our interactions with women.
We need to figure this out.