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Why don’t men touch? I’m not, of course, talking about intimacy between male lovers, but the kind of physical expressions of affection between male friends once common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to Richard Godbeer’s eye-opening book, The Overflowing of Friendship, it was not unusual for platonic male friends to write tender letters to each other and to hold hands, cuddle, and even sleep in the same bed. Instead of such behavior “causing talk,” it was accepted by their wives (or girlfriends), families, and the wider community as a healthy, even necessary, aspect of their bond.
Intimacy was understood to benefit a man’s well-being. It was common for men to share both emotional and physical closeness. “Early Americans,” writes Godbeer, “exalted love between men as a personal, public, and spiritual good.”
That aspect of male intimacy has all but disappeared from our culture. Godbeer calls his book “in part an elegy for a world of love, and even the possibility of love, that we have sadly lost – let us hope not forever.”
Today, it’s rare to find straight male buddies who do anything more physical with each other than a “bro” hug.
As a gay man, I feel society gives me a pass to be more “emotional” and “physically demonstrative.” Still, I am hesitant to be physically expressive with my closest male friends, especially the ones who are not gay.
Apparently, we live in a culture where it’s okay to have a best buddy, as long as we refrain from almost any physical contact with him. As one friend says, “Everyone craves physical touch, but sometimes they’re unwilling to act on the need.”
Why did something so natural and prevalent between friends centuries ago become virtually nonexistent today? Has all physical contact become sexualized? When did touch between male friends become taboo?
Sex between men wasn’t codified as a distinct medical concept until 1869, when the word “homosexuality” was coined. Before that, labels really didn’t exist the same way they do now. Today, in our more “evolved” age, each sexuality is boxed in its own silo. But in the 1700s and 1800s, the lack of formal labels in some ways made it easier for men to be physically close without having their sexuality immediately branded.
To be sure, some men engaged in physical intimacy that was sexual. In his book, Godbeer discusses the intense relationship between Alexander Hamilton and his close friend John Laurens. In a footnote, he quotes author William Benemann, saying “while there is ‘no irrefutable proof that Laurens and Hamilton were lovers,’ there is ‘sufficient circumstantial evidence to render indefensible any unqualified pronouncement that they were not.’” Still, from what we can gather, the majority of the male friends who wrote each other letters of affection and held each other in long embraces appeared to be platonic friends.
Then, in a perfect storm of scientific investigation, expanded legislation, and the scandalous Oscar Wilde trial in 1895–when the flamboyant genius was found guilty of homosexual conduct (“gross indecency”)–the age of innocence of chaste intimacy between men began to fade away.
Men suddenly became self-consciously aware of how their own loving friendships might be mistakenly perceived by others. At the same time, the death of this kind of platonic touch was hastened by the medical community’s designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder. According to some historians, this was, ironically, a “progressive shift” initially intended to protect gay men from criminal prosecution.
When I look at early-twentieth-century photographs of male friends in loving embraces or positions that would raise eyebrows today–a man sitting on another’s lap, or a man with his legs casually draped over his friend’s knees–I feel a twinge of sorrow for what we’ve lost. (Check out Brett and Kate McKay’s article Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection on the Art of Manliness website.)
If I can share my deepest thoughts and feelings with my best male friend, why should physical contact be off-limits?
To be sure, I bear some responsibility for not rebelling against this new status quo. Growing up, it was rare to get a hug from my dad. (At 92, he’s become much more mellow and hugs freely now.) But the combination of being taught to refrain from physical contact, and the worry of being misconstrued if I attempt it with a friend, makes me feel awkward to initiate it.
Is this how other men feel as well?
Are we too afraid of going outside our own comfort zones to risk having the kinds of friendships we long to have? Friendships that allow us to express ourselves without fear of judgment–by our friends, our community, and yes, ourselves?
We are not so different from our brothers of another century. But our times are. If we live by labels, then we die by them, too. And something has died. Our interactions have certain (sometimes self-imposed) boundaries that didn’t exist before. Can we break free of them?
Is there a chance we can defy this modern taboo of male touch and feel at ease expressing our friendship both physically as well as emotionally?
I’d like to think we haven’t lost forever the essential, openhearted ability to connect with our male friends with a long hug (not the kind that involves a slap on the back), or a caring hand on the shoulder or knee, or even spooning as we rest and talk. (I was heartened by a study in the U.K. that found 93.5% of heterosexual male college athletes spooned when they shared a bed with a teammate.)
For most American men, it seems such physicality will instantly be read as an attempt at foreplay. This often inhibits even the spark of a conversation on the subject. For contact to occur, do we have to state upfront that it is about love and not lust? Even if promises are made, will there be constant wondering if a line will somehow be crossed, whether intentionally or not?
Do we allow ourselves to risk, to trust, or have we drifted so far from seeing male friendship in physical terms that we will allow that aspect to become extinct?
My hope is that we in the U.S. will become relaxed enough with physical contact to make it part of our comfort zone with our male friends. Isn’t true intimacy the ability to be on the same page, to respect boundaries, and know that our friends will do the same? Can we bring back an age of innocence when it comes to consensual touch?
When I think of the embraces that don’t happen because of shame, and the tender letters that don’t get written just because a man thinks it’s not “manly” to express his feelings to a male friend, I get sad. And mad. If things are ever going to change, we have to be the ones to change them. It’s scary, but you know what? It’s time.
This was previously published on Huffington Post and is republished here with permission.
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