Yesterday I was in the mall with some friends. As we cruised the walkway, all the girls suddenly linked arms and began skipping. To make fun of them, Casey and I (the only two dudes) also linked arms and began skipping. That’s how we discovered the sad truth: Casey never learned how to skip.
Everyone laughed, mainly at Casey not knowing how to skip, but also at the fact that two heterosexual guys would link arms to walk around the mall. This observation continued a line of thought spurred a few weeks ago by a brilliant article by Mark Greene.
Why is it that men are afraid of physical contact?
Most women seem to have little problem touching each other in gentle, platonic ways, and the general public has no problem with it. It’s not abnormal to see two girls linking arms or holding hands in public. But with men, it’s another story. Greene points out that a rise in homophobia in response to the cultural shifts has done as much damage to heterosexual men as to homosexual men. We have become afraid of touch from other men, largely for fear of being seen as gay or unmasculine.
As a single man in his mid-20’s, touch is not a common occurrence in my life. I can specifically remember a handful of meaningful moments in my life where another man went out of his way to show physical affection. A few years ago, I was visiting home and saw my old youth pastor, a big, burly mountain man with a big beard and a hulking frame. I went to him with my hand out, which he promptly ignored and spread his wings for a suffocating bear hug.
A few months ago, my current pastor did the same thing, likely unaware how momentous a hug it was for lonely ol’ me. I went home and tweeted:
Next time you see a single person, give them a big hug because it's likely been a while since they've had human contact outside a handshake.— Ethan Renoe (@EthanRenoe) November 29, 2016
As a young man who has struggled with pornography for half my life, it’s easy to whittle away time daydreaming about being touched and held, but to really touch another human is far, far different from the imagined sensations.
We are starving for touch.
When I was in college, we regularly had fight nights on my floor, where two men wrestled to the death. Or at least to submission. Whichever came first. I still have a scar on my elbow from one of these nights, and I remember who gave it to me. There’s a good chance I would have no recollection of this man had we not went flesh-to-flesh in attempt to prove our merit. Anyone who has ever wrestled before will tell you how close you feel to your opponent during and after a wrestling match. The prolonged skin-on-skin contact, where your sweat and his blend together can be—in a platonic, heterosexual way—a very intimate experience.
It’s odd that one of the only times it’s not ‘weird’ for two men to touch like that is when they are battling each other.
This dilemma seems to be an exclusively Western (maybe even American) issue. When I was in India, it took a few days to become accustomed to the groups of young men who would walk down the streets with their arms around each other to express their friendship. Many Eastern cultures see no problem with male platonic touch, and one has to wonder how the dynamics of those friendships are different as a result.
Even the Bible shows a physical nearness between male friends. In John 13:23, Jesus is eating the Last Supper with His disciples and John has his head on Jesus’ chest. Does Jesus cry, ‘Ew, gross! Get offa me!’? No. He accepts the gentle demonstration of friendship.
One of the closest friendships in the Bible is between Jonathan and David. They made a covenant of friendship, and the Bible tells us in 1 Samuel 20 that “Jonathan loved David as himself.” At the end of the chapter, “they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.”
Now, these are not two slobbering milquetoasts; these are two men who had already fought in wars and demonstrated their boss-ness. David is even called ‘a man after God’s own heart,’ so clearly his friendship with Jonathan is a good thing.
Compare this to our culture. Beside the fact that they wept together (which is for another blog post on men and emotions) they embraced and kissed! I doubt they were making out, but the expression of a kiss on the cheek is a common expression of closeness in a myriad of cultures.
But many of us were raised far differently.
I have seen many men and boys in my life whose fathers never touched them or hugged them, instilling into their minds that male-to-male physical contact is a bad thing. Because their father’s father probably didn’t touch their father, and on and on up the family tree. In addition to homophobia, Mark Greene points out that men also fear being seen as sex offenders and child molesters, and that the slightest sign of physical affection will label them as a pervert. All touch is either sexual or aggressive.
I have struggled with this as a youth pastor as well. It’s hard in our culture to walk the fine line of showing healthy contact without wandering beyond the border into creeper territory.
So how do we fix this problem of a generation of men who are starved for genuine physical contact? Greene concludes that when he became a father, much of his time spent with his son was very healing for him.
“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 previously 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.”
But what about those of us who are still years away from becoming fathers? How do we come to find a healthy experience of physical touch, and live it out in authentic community, raising up a new generation that isn’t afraid of over-sexualized physical touch?
I have some thoughts, but they are far from comprehensive.
I think it begins with becoming comfortable with ourselves and bodies and seeing them as good things. Too many of us withhold healthy physical touch out of fear of being gross or out of shame, rather than trying to embrace healthy touch (which is really miles from creepy, perverted touch).
Pray that God will lead you into security about yourself and teach you what healthy touch looks like, so you can love others as best you can.
Spend time with little kids. They are too young to have inherited our shame and sense of social awkwardness, so they just crawl all over you and constantly demand to be picked up.
It’s a hard thing to discuss because of all the stigmas that physical touch has inherited in the past several decades, but this overlooked topic is worth exploring and amending.
I hope that we as men can work toward being masculine men who genuinely and appropriately express our affection for those in the various spheres of our lives. And that the men in your life can work toward the same thing, seeing physical touch as a form of healing and deepening intimacy, rather than sexual, aggressive, or gross.
Such a great article, I love that you’re open with your past and are willing to share. Loved the points you made in this article!
As a recovering homosexual (I prefer the term SSA, as gay denotes a lifestyle I haven’t lived in many years), I still starve for this affection. I am not John Wayne and will never be. It doesn’t mean I want to have sex with a guy either. I am beyond that. But almost all other guys are afraid of touch, like they will be thought of as gay if they do. I will never know the touch of a woman, but I still have needs, and they aren’t fulfilled. Why does sex have to be involved with everything?
You will never “recover” from homosexuality. First, it’s not a disease. Second, gay is not a lifestyle, it is a characteristic, one which you will live with every day for the rest of your life. Third there is nothing you can do that will ever change your strong sense of deriving gratification, stimulation and relief from male sexuality. This is not something to morn, deny or conceal! You are wired this way, and it is not a bad thing! Secondly, homosexual men need* extra affection from other men because they require both* sexual and* platonic contact in order to be fulfilled and genuinely happy. Yet here we are with a culture that is so terrified* of homosexuality that we have stigmatized platonic affection between men which the main dilemma that this article illuminates in the first place!
-Man writes article about how society is wrong stigmatize male affection.
-Man responds saying that he is going out own* of his way to starve himself* of male affection because being gay, is unacceptable?
You know, maybe if you and other Christians just accepted* that homosexuality is a component of society then we wouldn’t be so hung up on how not to look feminine when we are trying to build friendships!
Many are gay and even more are somewhat gay. Embrace it! The majority of all of us still need platonic affection. But so long as we have folks like you perpetuating this idea that homosexuality is so bad it is worthy of attempting to purge (which will never work) we will continue to live in an environment of fear where straight men and closeted men are so frightened of looking queer that they starve themselves of the contact that bring their lives meaning and belonging.
I lived that life for a long time, and it was a ling hell. So many bad things happened, it is hard to pinpoint what was the worst: the sexual assault, being offered money for sex, fear of AIDS, my boyfriend being addicted to drugs – but hey maybe I’m supposed to like living like that.
What is SSA, Silent Suffering and Alone? You seem to have some regressive and harmful ideas about what a “gay lifestyle” is. The only thing gay about a lifestyle is which sex you love! I strongly suggest you see a therapist, and not one with a homophobic or religious background.
I don’t need a therapist’s psychobabble that I pay to tell me what is wrong with me. I know what is wrong with me. it had nothing to do with sex or attaction, but the death of someone I loved due to suicide, and my failure to grieve for him because I thought to do so would make me gay. I did live the gay life, and it was a misery and living hell. But hey, maybe I’m supposed to like sexual assault and being offered money for sex. Maybe I’m supposed to like the fear of catching AIDS and seeing so many of my friends commit suicide or die due to disease. Maybe I’m supposed to like watching so many people I care about addicted to substances and go to jail because they commited crimes to support their habits. This world is insane now and I guess I am the crazy one for getting off the ride.
You can marry ONE woman. A lot easier than becoming “heterosexual” .
what a nice article Ethan! … Yes, we need the physical touch and connection!
Loved this article. I grew up in a house where there was violence. However it was only directed at me from my father. It was isolating. But to this day, I hug my guy friends in public, in private, where ever. I have a very strong sense of self and I’m very confident in my sexuality so it doesn’t bother me what it looks like to other people when I hug. It has had a good impact on some friends that aren’t used to it. I could not agree more that we need to hug more to feel that connection with our friends and family.
Great topic! As a father of 4 (2 boys 2 girls) appropriate physical touch is necessary. It provides a sense of security, protection and love in the minds of my kids. The stigma in our culture that physical touch between guys has certainly caused detrimental affects to real masculinity.
Thank you SO much for sharing. This is a topic that means a lot to me as I’ve embraced vulnerability and allowed others to literally touch me, and it’s brought much healing to my life.
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Great article Ethan.
Being gay isn’t wrong though, holding and succumbing to the hatred that is homophobia is. Homophobia has spread so much that it has been integrated into our society. Hypermasculinity is also still very prevalent and harmful to men. People are focusing on the religious aspects rather than the spiritual; they are taking the words Jesus spoke and using them for their own gain.
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Thanks Ethan for your thoughts. Over the years I too have pondered the cultural differences regarding male touch. I don’t know if you’ve thought about it but I’ve wondered how much impact WWI & WWII (& the great depression) had on American men and this area of our culture. I can not imagine being yanked away from your family, friends, and home land to witness the atrocities of war. The world wars conscripted a huge percentage of the American male population. In the wake of more recent American military involvement there has been more awareness of the emotional & mental impacts of war. But, back in the day…
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Touching other women is a thing other women do easily, even strangers can do it to me, it the right way, but men never do, apart from a hand shake or more rarely a brug. My husband likes being cuddled, in fact he loves it! If I don’t touch him for hours he will come find me for a touch. He loves little kisses and strokes. I think men pulled the short straw in this area!
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Love this article. Our country could be such a different place if we all were a little less uptight and physical contact were incorporated into our daily lives.
In working with refugees in Italy I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is completely normal for men to hold hands(not fingers laced-more like holding each other’s fingers) while talking. This from guys coming from Western Africa. Don’t know if it’s the same all over the continent but they were much more physically affectionate in a platonic way.
PS. Life as a House demonstrates remarkably the « starved for touch » concept. I remind my close friends often in order to not find myself so starved. Thanks for a great article and thoughtfulness about masculinity
Oh my goodness, YES! As a woman with physical touch as a VERY strong #2 love language, I crave that affection in each and every relationship I have from me and my parents, to my girl friends (the best ones will snuggle with me!), and to my romantic relationships. It sure makes temptation greater when it comes to romance, but I’d really love to study and dive right into touch that doesn’t lead to sex. It’s so challenging not being a virgin and having gone through those waters, though I’ve grown much through them but ultimately still regret giving that precious piece of myself away years ago, but it’s something that can be so simple, beautiful, and still erotic – without a word even being said!
Anyway, I’m rambling. Women LONG for it, too. I’d hate for men to feel alone in that. Please know there’s women out there that have prayed endlessly for that in a future spouse. 🙏