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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Andy
Andy
3 years ago

Great article! As for me I have give up on men friendships. Too much crap! It take all that I have not to hate my gender and ethnicity for all of the damage done to women and minority’s. I will spend my remaining days on the earth keeping others at a distance both men and women save my partner and a couple of Buddhist monk friends.

matt
matt
3 years ago

Im always down to hug. I hug other men sometimes, but mostly its women who are more open to hugging. I dont really get why men have to be all macho and stupid about this. The idea that you have to actually teach this to anyone is absolutely ridiculous to me! Just hug, who cares!

Jessica
Jessica
3 years ago

Thank you so much for writing this!???

Robbie
Robbie
3 years ago

Excellent article Mark! 100% agree with you. This, and what males are taught to think about what it is to be male, is why so many of us become suppressed. We grow up with subconscious beliefs which are incredibly limiting. Suppression leads to all kinds of ridiculous behaviours in men (and women), and so sexual outlet is one of the few things we feel we have left. I know that it’s not the truth about us, but in societies that practice this simply create the suppressed masculine. What I do know is what I can do for myself: question my own subconscious beliefs and release or replace them. Really, the goal here is to get back to being our true selves, society be damned. That is how we change things. Individuals much be courageous enough to be the change we want to see. Old school, there’s the door. We have much to offer, and it is us, and our children etc who must bring it and change our societies as individuals end ever-growing collectives. The mass consciousness can be changed, but from within. As a snake must shed its skin, this is the way we must approach it. Please note that I also understand female conditioning and know many want to be who they really are too, so let’s do this together and create a greater, more loving, and understanding world. Through these valuable efforts, we’ll find the idea of ‘toleration’ and things like the #MeToo movement diminishing. We are all psychology in motion. Much love, Robbie

Manster
Manster
3 years ago

Interesting topic, and one that I do agree with. It seems like today men FEAR the act of touching, and there are many factors at play, the primary one that I feel that many men think it is “less than manly”, “feminine” or “gay” to touch, and heaven forbid there are some men that fear even being seen to be touched or touching another man. To me this is sad, because when you are comfortable ion your own skin, to be touched or to be touching will not bother you or affect your psyche, and you will certainly not care what others think. P.S. I myself have NEVER cared for the “fist-bump” that has replaced the handshake among many men…to me that is yet another avoidance to touch.. it is simply a friendly gesture…

Constance G Konold
Constance G Konold
3 years ago

Thank you for this wonderful article that captures, exactly, my own thoughts, feelings and experience. As an American woman brought up in a kissy-face family, innocent touch between the sexes had never been a problem. However, as an adult Peace Corps volunteer in Africa I had to learn that even eye contact was an invitation to sex. Back in Europe, with several serious long-term male partners over the years – American, French and German – I learned that non-sexual touching was possible only with my German partner; touch was always interpreted by my American and French partners as invitation to sex, which eventually wound up depriving both of us of the pleasures of non-sexual cuddling. As a single retiree, I rely on the wonderful hugs from my daughter, a few girlfriends and, of course, my male gay friends.

Gloria caceres
Gloria caceres
3 years ago

I really enjoyed reading this article .
I found it very interesting .
I had a friend who was intimated by human touch..
This article describe him quite well.
I had a strong feeling that it had to do with not being loved enough as a child.

Kat
Kat
3 years ago

This is not just a men’s problem but with women too at least with me and I’m a woman but I probably have more masculine energy than the average woman.

Sarah
Sarah
3 years ago

God I was just discussing this the other day, I live on my own but feel lucky as a woman as I still have so much connection physically platonically, I have 4 neighbours who are men who are older & live alone and make a point to hug them as I’m really aware of the isolation. One of them has had a heart attack, and I believe proper hugs really help people, it really makes me sad to think how men over a certain age are viewed if they reach out for affection, hopefully more awareness will be put to this well done for such a great article

Matt
Matt
3 years ago

I really get this. But the awkwardness and physical avoidance even extends to sharing or liking this article in case someone groups me into some class of weirdo’s who want to touch people inappropriately. I’ll probably stick to greeting a man with a handshake and then waving at the woman next to him. Maybe throw in a high five for her so she doesn’t think I’m entirely socially awkward, or being strangely formal. Which is in turn awkward. Cue missed high five and face palm.. But hey, at least I don’t look like a predator, right?

J Carroll
J Carroll
3 years ago

Reach out in Jesus name, with hands of Loving care, to those how are in need, and caught in lifes dispair.

Trishann Ryan
Trishann Ryan
3 years ago

We had boys, three of them, they are men now. We are ‘huggers’, who always meet and part with a big hug. It is our way of connecting in a tangible way that let’s them know how grateful we are to be together, how very loved they are. I have often given complete strangers a big hug when meeting them for the first time and have felt them uncomfortably pull back, which i think is a little sad, but it is not culturally acceptable (as you point out). I have personally had to temper my enthusiasm and remind myself that not everyone is as comfortable with spontaneous human contact for whatever reasons, germaphobes, autistic tendencies, ‘conditioning’ as described in your article…i make it a rule now to ask simply “May i give you a hug?” and if they prefer not to, then i say, “it’s very nice meeting you” and extend my hand in friendship instead. Most people are surprisingly receptive to a big hug which means a lot to me. We are all connected, and hugs or platonic gentle touch are important ways to communicate trust and understanding of that reality. My motto is “This world needs a group hug” ~peace <3

meman
meman
3 years ago

Huh, now that you mention it the last time i touched a person (not counting handshakes) was 8 years ago. Honestly havent noticed it up until now.

dimitrius
dimitrius
3 years ago

i’m sorry i’m just now finding and reading this. this is such a problem that we as men need to address this is a necessary revolution

C m
C m
3 years ago

Women deal with this as well

Stormberry
Stormberry
3 years ago

So, so true. Observing my sons I could see that the pressure from general society was forcing them more and more to limit even contact with me, even some friends were telling me don’t you think at 12 years old he should not have cuddles sitting on the sofa when watching tv! I also noticed how eventually lack of physical contact was transferred into having sexual relationships much too quickly.
more people need to read the article! Especially NOW! I feel even more worried about my sons now when every action, every word can be turned against them. When shall we realise that we are all people and do not need to perpetuate battle of sexes.

LA man
LA man
3 years ago

What an utterly vital and sentient missive. I read tens of articles full of drivel every day which makes your article all the more refreshing.

Alejandro
Alejandro
3 years ago

We are bombarded with sexualized messaging 24/7 because sex sells, but then we are simultaneously shamed by church, (republican) state and various other agencies and cultures within our society. Damned (literally) if you do, damned if you don’t. Our society is sick, sick in so many ways. In part because many so called Christians no longer know what the word CHRIST means in the word CHRISTian. Sick because we can afford to give corporations and the 1% tax cuts but we can’t fund schools or tuition or health care for all. What we’re missing is love, true love, not sexualized love, but just love. And cognitive dissonance is one of its chief obstacles. Cognitive dissonance needs to be overcome in order for love to reign more absolutely and freely.

Boston
Boston
3 years ago

I remember living for a time in the Middle East and noticed men walking very closely, arm in arm. Not holding hands, but arms. Talking very close and walking down the street. Not sexual. My friend,Jeff, and I started to do the same. Seemed very natural and made sense. I liked it and felt connected to my buddy.

Piyush Gangwani
Piyush Gangwani
4 years ago

i can say my whole life’ struggle is here nicely written,with girls,womens,and my friends, yes i fear the touch and it feels guilt inside,and have bad relationships.

Ryan Cekander
Ryan Cekander
4 years ago

Yes, this needs to be addressed. Thanks Mark Greene! In pondering the deeper roots, why and how this unfortunate arrangement came about, a few thoughts come to mind. The connectedness, or lack there-of of community in the modern western world, particularly U.S., seems to tell this story of the need to be independent as a household. Of course buy everything and pay your taxes, make sure your relationships with commerce and government are good and strong, and make sure you work your tail off to keep these relationships healthy, lest you be a failure as an individual and citizen. And this all comes at the cost of sacrificing the relationships with your neighbor, etc. There simply isn’t enough time. If we spend what little free time we have, going “out of our way” to emotionally and physically intertwine with our neighbors, it just seems a little contrived. However, if our lives were arranged to naturally spend more time in community and find ourselves sharing in more activities where physical touch were more convenient and happenstance, I imagine there would be a much different scenario playing out.

Malcolm Rae
Malcolm Rae
4 years ago

There’s lots of hugging and touching in hockey (especially in goal celebrations). I can say from own experience that playing this sport has helped me socially. https://youtu.be/0E6TOEK61Is

tarek hattar
tarek hattar
4 years ago

in the netherlands its the same kind of culture,and since age 3 or 4 no more touch from my parents,i wasnt even comfortableanymore hugging my mom,i had a big need for animals as u could caress them and allready very young very interested in girl,fur sure for the same reason,at 20 i tarted living in italy,it was such a big difference for me because there ,especially in the south its still normal that people touch each other often,also men,and men7woman,think that was an important reason of going to live there,my own country felt so coooold,am convinced its very important,and yes all u told was the same,they’re very homofobic allready when small,though it slowly starts changing.sadly i still dont feel comfortable hugging my mom,even while i love hugging others

Scott
Scott
4 years ago

Hi Mark. Thank you so much for writing this article. It falls closely into a discussion I am involved with among a number of male friends of mine. We are discussing the changing role of men in society and how there seems to be s growing disconnect between men and society.

As a father of 4 boys, I can remember poignantly, with one son in particular who at 14 wanted to hug and be close to me, that I would push him away and tell him that he was becoming a grown man and that men didn’t do this. I’m not sure if this was out of some homophobic fear or what, but I have always regretted that. He is now a grown man with a beautiful daughter whom he cherishes and is planning to stay at home with. I have shared this article with him and shared my regrets for pushing him away especially now that he lives at a distance and contact is periodic at best.

Akash
Akash
4 years ago

THIS ARTICLE IS THE BEST THING I HAVE SEEN IN A LONG TIME. Thanks a lot for writing it up and expressing it in such a beautiful yet a simple manner. I could not agree more. The ideas of love, sex, physical touch have become so messed up in our mind and in our society, that it’s really unsettling and sad. Physical touch is really very much underrated. This post helped me to identify certain answers to certain questions which i had been wondering since a long time now but couldn’t really find a proper answer. This did it. Thanks a lot for writing this up, for having the courage to do so in this stereotyped macho-man world. 🙂

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