A couple of weeks back, an article about an all-male cuddling group in Philadelphia hit my feed. It didn’t take long for the negative feedback. Words like “faggot” and “orgy” flew. The men in the cuddling group were weak, pathetic, and womanly. The prescriptions for curing them included taking them hunting, going on an outing to Hooter’s, and removing soy from their diets. This abomination was the fault of an overly feminized culture that has created the bogeyman of “toxic masculinity.” Why can’t men just be men? I heard anger, criticism, and confusion coming from men—and women—who weighed in.
The idea of men being tender and nurturing with other men clearly touches a nerve (pun intended). Why is this so threatening?
Our current culture isn’t offering men much in the way of comfort in this stressful and complicated era. Suicide attempts for teenagers have doubled in the past decade, and 76% of suicides are men. Amongst the homeless, 51% are single men (individuals make up 67% of the homeless population). Men are twice as likely to struggle with addiction than women, and 9% of men suffer from depression. Seeking help for mental/emotional issues is stigmatized (if a guy has insurance/can afford it).
Men have traditionally felt worthy by fulfilling the roles of protecting and providing for their families, but much of the job losses from automation and outsourcing are in professions staffed by men. This has added to the stress and uncertainty of men, and their role in the world.
It’s a lot to struggle through. And while men have turned to their wives for tenderness and nurturing in the past, that option is also disappearing. Nearly half of Americans are single, the average age of marriage for men is 29, and we are having fewer children. In a recent survey, 28% of men between 18-30 said they hadn’t had sex in the past year. “Manning up” and stoically dealing with challenges causes many men to suffer in silence and isolation.
Sharing touch in a social setting is a simple and practical option for support, and yet many men would never consider doing it. This elegant solution to isolation is written off because it questions what it means to be a man. Men showing an emotion other than anger (especially in the presence of other men) is a revolutionary act.
Touch is regularly shared in groups between primates. Originally scientists thought social grooming was done to remove parasites, but they found that they also do it to foster cooperation. Primatologist Frans de Wahl’s research reveals that one of the primary duties of the alpha male in a chimpanzee tribe is to provide comfort to the other members of his group, especially the males who lose their bids for power. Maybe they know something we don’t.
Over the past 100 years, we have begun to equate touch solely with sex, but it wasn’t always that way. For much of human history, we needed to have other humans close to us to survive. Cavemen slept in big piles for warmth and safety. Soldiers in the trenches huddled up to each other to survive harsh winter nights, and travelers shared beds in inns. Before the advent of electricity, families would sleep in a single bed to keep from freezing to death. There was nothing sexual about this close physical proximity; it was simply a fact of life, albeit a smelly, itchy fact.
Judgments around homosexuality have also appeared in the past 100 years. This doesn’t mean that homosexuality is a new thing, but attitudes about it are. If touch equates with sex, men touching other men means that the men in question are gay. Yet in many cultures around the world, straight men will walk arm in arm with other men, or hold hands. It is done openly, and without shame, whereas sexual encounters (regardless of orientation) take place in private.
Some guys might share a bro hug at the beginning or the end of a visit, but it’s not the same as sleeping in a bed wrapped around another person, or touching and holding a baby. Getting a massage can be wonderful, but for many, it’s a luxury expense they can’t afford. There are men out there who only get touched by their hairdresser or their doctor.
If men can only get their touch needs met through sex, and men have fewer opportunities for sex, many men are left without options for getting touch. Social touch also circumvents this dilemma because sex is primarily an activity that takes place between two people. When touch is shared intentionally in a group of people, the interpersonal dynamics change.
But there is one compelling reason for men to share touch with each other in a social setting: it feels good.
Whatever the conscious mind thinks, whatever the story is about what is or isn’t appropriate to do with other men, the body knows the feeling of being touched and held. It’s how each and every human comes into the world. In our parents’ arms is where we learn to feel safe and cared for. Our bodies remember that feeling.
We have a lot of mental chatter around touch: who, when, how, and why it’s okay, or not okay. When I take people through touch exercises, and they listen to their bodies, they find that being touched is wonderful. It doesn’t matter what gender is touching them; what matters is being touched in an intentional, kind, and tender way. It doesn’t need to be much: full-on cuddling is great, but having someone put their hands on another person’s shoulders can suffice.
The most social exercise I ask them to do involves four people. One person lies on the floor and asks three people to touch them. It can be simple: “hold my feet,’’ or more complicated: “tap your fingers lightly up and down my arms.” Each person gets two minutes in the center. As people take their turn, they sigh with delight, and ask when they can do it again. They laugh and smile, and say they feel blissful, peaceful, calm, happy, and relaxed. Their breathing deepens, and the wrinkles on their faces become less pronounced. They describe the touch as feeling luxurious, or decadent. Most of all, they look relieved: relieved to be connected, relieved to be touched, relieved to be included.
Nurturing human touch is connection made physical. It lets the receiver know that they matter, they belong, and that they are valued. Their pain does not have to be experienced alone, and they can give and receive support.
Currently, we’re having conversations about who, when and why we touch other people. We’ve been discussing unwanted touch, and how men and women alike suffer from it, especially when there are power imbalances. These conversations are necessary: unwanted touch is nothing new. Unfortunately, we are making all touch suspect, and many men say they don’t understand the shifting rules about when it’s okay, and not okay, to touch women. Learning to give and receive wanted touch in a group setting is a great place to discover what such a world might look like. Social touch can be shared in mixed-gender groups as well, and provides opportunities to practice consent.
We’re about to go into a very crucial part of humanity’s history, and if we want to survive we will have to figure out ways to turn toward each other, instead of away. Every man for himself isn’t going to cut it. Consensual touch is good for our bodies and souls. It may be our path away from the chaos of a rapidly changing world. It’s a trimtab for many of our current dilemmas.
Nurturing human touch shared in a social setting makes sense, but the best part is that if a man decides it’s not for him, he doesn’t have to do it. If it’s not consensual, it won’t feel good. Full stop. Each of us has to navigate for ourselves what it is that touch means, and who we do and don’t want touching us. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine, but do your fellow men a favor: please don’t shame them for wanting and needing touch, and for getting those needs met in a non-traditional fashion.
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