Why Men Need Platonic Touch
The Importance of Touch

In preparing to write about the lack of gentle touch in men’s lives, I right away thought, “I feel confident I can do platonic touch, but I don’t necessarily trust other men to do it. Some guy will do something creepy. They always do.” Quickly on the heels of that thought, I wondered, “Wait a minute, why do I distrust men in particular?” The little voice in my head didn’t say, “I don’t necessarily trust people to not be creepy”, it said, “I don’t trust men”.

In American culture, we believe that men can never be entirely trusted in the realm of the physical. We collectively suspect that, given the opportunity, men will revert to the sexual at a moment’s notice. That men don’t know how to physically connect otherwise. That men can’t control themselves. That men are dogs.

There is no corresponding narrative about women.

Touch Isolation

Accordingly, it has become every man’s job to prove they can be trusted, in each and every interaction, day by day and case by case. In part, because so many men have behaved poorly. And so, we prove our trustworthiness by foregoing physical touch completely in any context in which even the slightest doubt about our intentions might arise. Which, sadly, is pretty much every context we encounter.

We crave touch. We are cut off from it. The result is touch isolation.

And where does this leave men? Physically and emotionally isolated. Cut off from the deeply human physical contact that is proven to reduce stress, encourage self-esteem and create community. Instead, we walk in the vast crowds of our cities alone in a desert of disconnection. Starving for physical connection.

We crave touch. We are cut off from it. The result is touch isolation.

Men need gentle platonic touch in their lives just as much as women do. Photo by Thống Bụi.

The Comfort of Contact

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a handshake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal, but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. And if you are a man, imagine five minutes of contact with another man. How quickly does that idea raise the ugly specter of homophobia? And why?

While women are much freer to engage in physical contact with each other, men remain suspect when they touch others. There is only one space in our culture where long-term platonic physical contact is condoned for men, and that is between fathers and their very young children.

The Transformative Effect of Fatherhood

I found this kind of physical connection when my son was born. 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.

Fatherhood has the potential to transform the way men think about touch. Photo by Joice Kelly

A Lack of Physical Connection

As a young child and as a teenager, contact between myself and others simply didn’t happen unless it came in the form of roughhousing or unwelcome bullying. My mother backed off from contact with me very early on, in part, I think, due to her upbringing. I can only guess that in her parent’s house physical touch was something for toddlers, but not for children past a certain age. Add to that, the fact that my father was absent due to my parent’s divorce and years of work overseas, and it meant I grew up without being held or touched.

This left me with huge insecurities about human contact. I was well into my twenties before I could put my arm around a girl I was dating without first getting drunk. To this day, I remain uncertain about where and how to approach contact with people, even those I consider close friends. It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just that it remains awkward, odd. As if we all feel like we’re doing something slightly…off?

Contact with male friends is always brief; a handshake, or a pat on the back. Hugs with men or women are a ballet of the awkward, a comedic choreography in which we turn our groins this way or that. Shoulders in, butts out, seeking to broadcast to anyone within line of sight that we are most certainly not having a sexual moment. We’re working so hard to be seen as sexually neutral that we take no joy in these moments of physical connection.

Men often experience a lack of gentle touch from others from a young age. Photo by Tadeusz Lakota

The Sexualising of Touch

Not only do we men distrust others in this muddled realm of physical touch, but years of shaming and judgement have left us distrusting ourselves. Did I enjoy that too much? Am I having taboo thoughts? This distrust leaves us uncertain about touching another human being unless we have established very clear rules of engagement. Often we give up and simply reduce those rules to being in a relationship. We allow ourselves long-lasting comforting touch with our girlfriends or boyfriends. The vast universe of platonic human touch is suddenly reduced to the exclusive domain of one person and is blended into the sexual. That’s a lot of need to put on one person, however loving and generous they might be.

Which leads to the question, how do we teach our sons to understand how touch works? How to parse out the sexual from the platonic? Is the pleasure of human contact inherently sexual to some degree? I doubt it’s a question the average Italian man would ever ask himself. But here in America, generations of puritanical sexual shaming have made it a central question. By putting the fear of the sexual first in all our interactions, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, avoiding all contact rather than risk even the hint of unwanted sexual touch.

The sexualising of touch means that physical contact can be uncomfortable for men. Photo by Isaac Ordaz

Giving up Human Contact

Many parents step back from physical contact with boys when their sons approach puberty. The contact these boys seek is often deemed confusing or even sexually suspect. And, most unbelievable of all, all opportunity for potential physical touch is abruptly handed over to young girls, who are suddenly expected to act as gatekeepers to touch, and who are no more prepared to take on this responsibility than boys are to hand it over.

And so boys are cast adrift with two unspoken lessons:

  1. All touch is sexually suspect
  2. Find a girlfriend or give up human contact

A particularly damning message to boys who are gay.

American culture leaves boys few options. While aggression on the basketball court or bullying in the locker room often results in sporadic moments of human contact, gentleness likely does not. And young men, whose need for touch is channeled into physically rough interactions with other boys or fumbling sexual contact with girls, lose conscious awareness of the gentle, platonic contact of their own childhoods. 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.

The message is that gentle touch is not part of being a man in our society. Photo by Anthony Tori

Craving Real Connection

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.

This 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.

There needs to be more modeling for men of a range of platonic relationships. Photo by Thiago Barletta

The Value of Touch

We have seniors in retirement homes who are visited by dogs they can hold and pet. This helps to improve 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.

We know the value of touch, even as we do everything we can to shield ourselves from it.

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.

Fear of Judgement

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.
Older people are brought therapy animals to alleviate the lack of touch in their lives. Photo by Ramiro Pianarosa

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. Meanwhile, this inability to comfortably connect via touch has left men emotionally isolated, contributing to rampant rates of alcoholism, depression, and abuse.

The Prohibition against Platonic 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 are arguably 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.

Brené Brown, in her groundbreaking 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.

The Awakening of Touch

But here’s the good news.

There are many reasons why full-time stay at home dads are proving to be such a transformative 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 fluency and confidence in touch that you will never lose. It is a gift to us men from our children that literally has the capacity to transform American culture.

The awakening of touch is possible for men who let go of their fear and reach out. Photo by Anna Vander Stel

How to Reach Out

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 until 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 and full life.

Touch is life.

Like Mark Greene’s Facebook Page Remaking Manhood for article updates and more!

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4skin4life
4skin4life
4 years ago

infant circumcision starts the discomfort with touch. Trust and bonds are damaged. It needs to end.

YeahNope
YeahNope
4 years ago

The biggest problem I see concerning men is that the ideological sociopolitical movements generating demands that men be allowed to express themselves without shame, are quite frequently the very same groups doing most of the shaming.

Nothing will cause men to retreat and/or lash out in confusion faster than to tell them it’s okay to open up, to be vulnerable, to express their needs, then when they do inform them that they are part of a privileged demographic, and therefore their needs are irrelevant. I have lost count of the times I have seen a group advocating for men to engage in activity X, and then demonize men because they did not engage in activity X in accordance with that group’s ideology.

If we as a society want to help men, we need to address those groups that are most egregiously guilty of this, and then address society in general, because this has become integral to western cultures. It’s almost universal at this point that the moment men speak up or reach out they will be told that group X matters more, or that they is doing it wrong, or even that they are bad people because they spoke up or reached out at the wrong time or to the wrong people.

If we continue to tell men that they matter, but show them that they do not, then men will continue to retreat, to the detriment of society as a whole.

topoignaz
topoignaz
4 years ago

Really interesting, though I don’t agree with this: “Is the pleasure of human contact inherently sexual to some degree? I doubt it’s a question the average Italian man would ever ask himself”. Yes, we didn’t have puritanism and some quick hugs are allowed in friendship, as greetings. But long-lasting touch with anyone, men or women, is not considered sexually neutral, as much here as in the USA, and would bring along the same suspects and distrust.

chuck sirron
chuck sirron
4 years ago

(It is sad that) this is profound.
(It is a sign that this culture is broken and should be abandoned and) this needs to be read by all.

Zach Webb
Zach Webb
4 years ago

This is a feeling I’ve known, all too well, for far too long.

And sure, homophobia plays a role- but why? That only makes sense if male touch is presumed to be sexual in nature.

And I think that’s the problem. We assume male touch is aggressive or sexual… and unless that’s specifically what you want from a man, either of those taints his touch… makes it possessive, presumptive, oppressive… turns it into an assault of one kind or another.

The isolation becomes self-abuse as a sign of respect.
At least… that’s what it’s always been for me.

J. Ruby
J. Ruby
4 years ago

This is a cause I could get behind, especially for men who are single and in need of positive, affirmative, non-sexual touch, like myself. I’m open to this, but what about the other 8,000 men in my lonely North Dakota town, who are most likely not interested in seeking out the companionship of early twenty-something men, and would prefer the intimacy of family? Also, as a new teacher, where do I draw the line between those people who have or are family members of students in the school system? Am I encouraged to remain touchless for security? Do I abandon my convictions to pursue a same-sex relationship (which might not happen for the same reasons other bachelors do not marry), or adopt an unharmonious heterosexual marriage (also, not certain, and length of commitment pending on pressure), and, thus, abandon this cause all together? I have been thinking about this article the last few days, and I think I want to push forward as a bachelor, as I think on the necessity for platonic touch, not just for gay men, but also for common straight dudes too. Why should we always push for relationships for all people? There doesn’t have to be “someone for everyone”. I certainly think that I will most likely not have a someone. And honestly, I would rather commit to several special, platonic relationships with dear friends in this place, than have to commit to one. Dear author, I accept your challenge.

Jason Hodes
Jason Hodes
4 years ago

“Cut off from the deeply human physical contact that is proven to reduce stress, encourage self esteem and create community.” Evidence for this proof? Sure would be useful to have a citation.

Jeffery Anderson
Jeffery Anderson
4 years ago

At one point the article mentions homophobia within men’s friendship groups as a reason men are “deprived of touch”, but then later it claims women are “the exclusive gatekeepers of platonic touch”. That’s contradictory. Before men even begin to think about violating social norms and touching women in ways that make them feel threatened and uncomfortable, they need to learn to touch each other without feeling “gay”.

Timothy Fry
Timothy Fry
4 years ago

Interesting article!

I don’t know about the narrative described as being promoted in our culture about men (that many or most people hold the perspective that men cannot be trusted because men turn everything sexual). That hasn’t been my experience, it doesn’t sound right to me, and it certainly doesn’t resonate with me. Also, I’m absolutely certain ‎that the women I know struggle at least as much with intrasexual physical touch as most of the men I know. Not five minutes before reading this article my wife and I were talking about how she’s working to get over feeling her own discomfort when other women hug her or touch her. This is a story echoed by most women I know.

I struggle trusting men, but for me this has nothing to do with anything sexual. It has to do with what I judge as most men being fake or unintentional caricatures of‎ what they perceive men “should be like”. I look at the “culture” adopted by most contemporary western men I know and I find nothing rewarding or appealing in any of it. The vigor with which most of my fellow men throw themselves into this culture belies what I judge as a sort of profound desperation behind which, I’m guessing, is a desire for acceptance. For instance:

* What, to me, is an enigmatic desire in other men to know all about sportsball, watch it, obsess over it, etc.,
* A desire to do “manly”, visceral things,‎ seemingly to prove manliness,
* Grab-assing‎ and other posturing through ostentatiousness,
* Other forms behaviour I judge as compensating for insecurities or compensating for a fear of authentic self-expression (driving a big ol’ smoky/loud truck or street racer with annoying muffler, booming bass stereo, driving aggressively, ‎etc.).

Seeing these things makes me feel sad for these men. I judge them as lost, hurt, and in need of support in being themselves. :'(

The men who I trust most typically don’t even know the rules to most sporting games (clearly there are exceptions), but would rather talk for hours about deeper issues: fears about business and finance, questions surrounding death and what’s valuable in life. We also discuss other, more superficial matters: whether or not Thomas Hobbes neglected to properly establish his premises prior to setting forth his argument in Leviathan, or whether Oscar Wilde was a genius or a pervert. In my estimation, “men” value wrestling with profound issues and deep questions over engaging in meaningless distractions or building elaborate façades of “manliness”: this is what truly being a man means to me. On the other hand, what this culture values as “manly”, and what I see reflected as “manliness” by many of the men I know, is just a sort of sad window dressing; a hiding behind what’s safe.

As a man, I fully honor my sexuality, but I also don’t want to cuddle in another man’s arms. It’s not that I judge it as taboo or unacceptable, and I certainly don’t judge others for getting what they need in this way: there’s just nothing in it for me. I have children and a wonderful wife, and I value the physical touch in our relationships, but that’s not what I need from the men in my life.

Also, the physical touch I value with my family is no compromise meant to replace physical touch I’m missing in my relationships with the men around me, nor does not having that touch by a man “raise the stakes” in my other relationships: if I had neither a wife nor children, I’m confident that no man could replace that form of non-sexual intimacy for me. I feel joy when I see a man I love, and I enjoy a warm embrace for that reason (I have never considered where my genitals were in relationship to those of the man I’m hugging), but that’s a fundamentally different relationship from the one I have with my family: for that reason the physical touch is necessarily different, and having it different is what it looks like for me to get what I need.

So, in summary, I think the article missed the mark in getting to the root of the problem (a lack of physical touch and fear of perceptions around sexuality vs. a lack of authenticity), at least from my perspective, given my experiences.

Anyway, thanks again for posting it! I enjoy considering these things, even when I disagree. 🙂

normankelley
normankelley
4 years ago

I think there is something quite ahistorical about this article. I remember seeing pre- and post-Civil War photos of men in close proximity to one another–on sports teams, comradely embraces, slouching into each other–touching one another. There’s even talk about Abraham Lincoln sharing a bed with a friend in a non-sexual relationship and how that friend (his name escapes me) helped Lincoln deal with depression re a lost loved one. I would argues this the lack of touch a recent development, post-WWI. The article doesn’t make any attempt to put this issue re contact into any historical context.

Lady Poet Lawyerette
Lady Poet Lawyerette
4 years ago

love the dancing idea! Dancing has been so important to every generation. My grandma and her brothers danced at a dance hall on Woodward in Detroit starting in 1922– that’s where she met my British Grandpa, who called the dances. My parents danced at Wayne State University in the 50s. My in-laws were square dancers. My husband (a stay at home dad) and I took lessons at a Fred Astaire— so fun– they have a similar trade off of partners during a “dance party” that typically is on Friday night.

Maryanne Slater
Maryanne Slater
4 years ago

You know, that’s a pretty darned good idea. I do English country dancing which is quite similar (but usually slower, thank goodness) and there are even some dances where the men have to hold a high-five while doing a few steps.

Reagan Jackson
Reagan Jackson
4 years ago

Thank you for writing this! Really great read. I work with young women, but whenever I’m around young men, they seem to be searching for more answers than I can provide about what it means to be a man in this day in age. Your article brings up a necessary conversation and points to some solutions on how we can begin to help young men find their footing.

Ruby Ryder
Ruby Ryder
4 years ago

Thank you for writing this! So needed and so well written, wow. I’d never considered that young girls become the gatekeepers of touch for boy entering into puberty. Very good point.

I was left wanting more solutions to touch isolation for men than having a child. Other commenters have suggested dancing, and group awareness/touch encounters. I would also suggest massage and cuddle parties. As people recognize the power and value of touch, it has given rise to facilitated cuddle gatherings as well as individual cuddle sessions.

As a ‘Cuddlist’ in training, I can’t begin to thank you enough for sharing this with such clarity and eloquence.

stephen matlock
stephen matlock
4 years ago

This was really darn good.

I saw “Moonlight” last year (it’s phenomenal–go see it), and the thing that got me in this movie was how much the lack of touch led to so much pain. Almost nothing in that movie matches my life–and yet that lack of touch is what touched me the most (no pun intended, I think).

We’re taught as men, for some reason, that we need to be untouched to be manly. Maybe.

Maybe being manly is really being in touch with our own needs, untroubled by that need, and able to be touched and to touch.

sara_ahoy
sara_ahoy
4 years ago

Or just hugging each other.

Rochelle
Rochelle
4 years ago

This article is a refection of what I have seen my whole life with men. Having raised 3 boys, They hug each other all the time. If not that, there is always the little smack on the face just to get a wrestling match going. I think the stigma of society stating men should be tough, not have feelings carries over as to not let outsiders believe you have feelings. Amazing article.

Benjamin
Benjamin
4 years ago

Thank you for writing this. It’s almost as though you could feel what I feel. Very well put

mesieu
mesieu
4 years ago

Thanks!
This is such a needed discussion.
I believe that men are more likely to become violent simply because they suffer more while having less opportunity to say so and get help.
This is not to take away the light that’s being shed on the many issues women face, quite the opposite; whatever is a problem for us is also a problem for them, and vice-versa. We all live together after all, don’t we…

iamnotbubba
iamnotbubba
4 years ago

This is a brilliant article. Thank you so much for having the courage to write it. After my father died when I was 11 years old. I went into such a deep isolation of human contact that really didn’t end until I met my wife when I was 26 years old. Even now as a 45 yo man, I feel anxiety if I go more than a day without non-sexual human touch. Touch is so much more important than I could possibly describe. For me, it calms my fearful and anxious soul.

I too am a stay-at-home father, sometimes I wonder if I touch my children too much. Sometimes, its a pat on the head, a stroke of the hair, or simply holding hands while watching tv. Its never inappropriate. While waiting in line at the pharmacist the other day, I put my hands on my sons shoulders and began to massage his neck. Under his breath, I heard him say. “I love you too daddy.” Touch is love.

msm
msm
4 years ago

Thank you for bringing this issue forward.

Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix
Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix
4 years ago

This article is very confusing. Talking about physical contact between a father and son, about adult men and men and women. Any contact between human beings could involve sexual arrousement. We men can avoid them or go for it and just deal with being sexually arroused, a perfectly natural reaction of the body as well as the mind. To me it seem to prove that American men are without a doubt scared about their own natural inclanations. Trying to have platonic physical contact is a contradiction in itself. Hugging or touching a man or any human being for that matter means you are being vulnerable and there is no saying what feeling might come up as a result. We either accept to be vulnerable beings and start seeing this as being part of a whole human being. Platonic physical contact means you are avoiding experiencing emotions which in itself is proving the existinging prejudice of society right! I would rather be adventurous and start exploring my whole being. We might learn something about ourselves. There is a whole world to be gained behind these scary sexual and emotional stuff which we will never find hugging or touching our male friends with our butts stuck way out. That is not a real hug, it is deceiving yourself and the other man saying he can only feel half of our touch…and that we don’t for the life trust him….

Man Unplugged
Man Unplugged
4 years ago

Very well written Mark and I completely agree that my approach to ‘touch’ has profoundly changed since becoming a father to two sons. My youngest is 8yo and so we still have the physical contact you mention, and your writing has put me on notice to not back off from my 14yo son, even though he may find it a bit awkward. Thanks for a very insightful view.

Brian Edwards
Brian Edwards
4 years ago

Excellent article!

Prudence Page
Prudence Page
4 years ago

This is such an important discussion. As a preschool teacher I was dismayed by adult efforts to make boys “tough” while they were still little more than babies. A cuddly nap time animal was replaced by a hard plastic action figure when a boy was 20 months old, because his parents were afraid that he was too soft. This fear came from the fact that he loved putting lotion on his cheeks. The stories go on and on. I have often wondered (like the author it seems) to what degree adolescent and adult males were motivated to have sex simply because it was the only way they could have physical contact with another human being.

As a kindergarten teacher, I noticed that when a little girl was lonely or upset she would sidle up against me, lean into my hip, put her arms around my waist, while boys who were upset would frequently end up throwing punches. It was difficult for them to find solace.

There was a lovely man who ran an after school program at one of the schools I worked at. He played with the boys physically – rolling them over his shoulders etc. The boys loved him and couldn’t get enough of it, they were always crawling all over him. Many of these boys didn’t have fathers at home, so it was even more important for them to have that contact. But parents starting getting nervous -so strange – who was this man and why was he playing with their boys that way? The after school teacher was told he couldn’t touch the boys. I think that human beings can become mentally and physically ill from being deprived of touch.

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