Sometimes it’s not until their children are born that they rediscover gentle platonic touch; the holding and caring contact that is free from the drumbeat of sex, sex, sex that pervades our culture even as we simultaneously condemn it.
Is it any wonder that sexual relationships in our culture are so loaded with anger and fear?
Boys are dumped on a desert island of physical isolation, and the only way they can find any comfort is to enter the blended space of sexual contact to get the connection they need.
Which makes sexual relations a vastly more high stakes experience than it already should be.
We encourage aggressive physical contact as an appropriate mode of contact for boys and turn a blind eye to bullying even as we then expect them to work out some gentler mode of sexual contact in their romantic lives.
If men could diffuse their need for physical connection across a much wider set of platonic relationships, it would do wonders for our sense of connection in the world.
As it is, we can’t even manage a proper hug because we can’t model what was never modeled for us.
We have seniors in retirement homes who are visited by dogs they can hold and pet. This does wonder for their health and emotional state of mind.
It is due to the power of contact between living creatures. Why are good hearted people driving around town, taking dogs to old folks homes? Because no one is touching these elderly people.
They should have grandchildren in their laps every day, or a warm human hand to hold, not Pomeranians who come once a week.
And yet, we put a dog in their laps instead of giving them human touch, because we remain a culture that holds human contact highly suspect. We know the value of touch, even as we do everything we can to shield ourselves from it.
We, American men, have a tragic laundry list of reasons why we are not comfortable with touch.
1. We fear being labeled as sexually inappropriate by women.
2. We live in a virulently homophobic culture so all contact between men is suspect.
3. We don’t want to risk any hint of being sexual toward children.
4. We don’t want to risk our status as macho or authoritative by being physically gentle.
5. We don’t ever want to deal with rejection when we reach out. (And in our touch averse culture that is the most likely outcome.)
But at the root of all these flawed rationalizations is the fact that most American men are never taught to do gentle non-sexual touch.
We are not typically taught that we can touch and be touched as a platonic expression of joyful human contact.
Accordingly, the very inappropriate over-sexualized touch our society fears runs rampant, reinforcing our culture’s self-fulfilling prophecy against men and touch.
And what if the lack of platonic touch is causing some men to be far too aggressive toward women, who, as the exclusive gatekeepers for gentle touch are carrying a burden they could never hope to fully manage?
Women, who arguably are both victims of and, in partnership with men, enforcers of the prohibition against platonic touch in American culture?
The impact of our collective touch phobia is felt across our society by every single man, woman, and child.
Brenae Brown, in her ground breaking TED Talk titled The power of vulnerability talks at length about the limitations men face when attempting to express vulnerability in our culture.
She notes the degree to which men are boxed in by our culture’s expectations about what a man is or is not allowed to do.
I would suggest that the limitations placed on men extend to their physical expression through touch. And are just as damaging in that realm.
But here’s the good news.
There are many reasons why full-time stay at home dads are proving to be such a trans formative force in American culture.
One powerful reason is the awakening of touch. As full-time dads, we are presented with the absolute necessity to hold our own wonderful children. We are learning about touch in the most powerful and life affirming way.
In ways that previous generations of men simply were not immersed in. Once you have held your sleeping child night after night or walked for years with their hand in yours, you are a changed person.
You gain a fluency and confidence in touch that you will never loose. It is a gift to us men from our children that literally has the capacity to transform American culture.
Accordingly, now, when I am with a friend I do reach out. I do make contact. And I do so with confidence and joy. And I have my own clear path forward.
The patterns in my life may be somewhat set but I intend to do everything I can to remain in contact with my son in hopes that he will have a different view of touch in his life.
I hug him and kiss him. We hold hands or I put my arm around him when we watch TV or walk on the street. I will not back off from him because someone somewhere might take issue with our physical connection.
I will not back off because somehow there is an unspoken rule that I must cut him loose in the world to fend for himself. I hope we can hold hands even when he is a man. I hope we continue to hold hands till the day I die.
Ultimately, we will unlearn our fear of touch in the context of our personal lives and in our day to day interactions.
Learning how to express platonic love and affection through touch is a vast and remarkable change that has to be lived. But it is so important that we do it. Because it is central to having a rich full life.
Touch is life.
This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.
This article is available in Mark Greene’s book Remaking Manhood.
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