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.