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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blonde
blonde
1 year ago

Excellent article! Thanks for sharing

Anton Kucinski
Anton Kucinski
1 year ago

Enjoyed the article and agree with pretty much all of it. I especially applaud your laundry list. However, this all begs the question (not within the scope of your article) of what a man is supposed to DO about it. The first problem as I see it is that the environments in which men frequently operate are not acknowledged. First I would re-word the laundry list. For example, I’d re-write #4 to be. “If I am physically gentle at work I place my status as authoritative at risk” For many men I know this is not open to debate. It is no more subjective than the freezing point of water. This applies across the board. If a man says “If I do ‘A’ at work, ‘B’ will occur.” Invariably someone who knows exactly nothing about said work environment interrupts and says, “No, it won’t”. This shuts down any possibility of productive discussion.

To be fair, I must point out that when gender is not a factor in the topic, I see women get shut down like this just as frequently as men.

My point is that for a man to make any meaningful changes, he needs to have tools to deal appropriately with both a toxic/hostile environment and with individuals who deny the reality of said environment.

Again, I agree with almost all your points and acknowledge that the points I’ve raised are beyond the scope of your article.

Loving soul
Loving soul
1 year ago

This great article gave me a lot to think and a lot of hope. My whole life I reflected about how images of masculinity affect my life and relationships and how stupidly we set boundaries for our own happiness.

However as a gay man I feel like I am in an especially delicate position in all this. Most of my best friends are straight men. I love my friends deeply. And often I felt the impulse to express those feelings through physical affection. I would often like to be close to them on a physical level and enjoy their presence. This feels completely natural to me and not sexual at all. But I sense that this is a difficult issue for some of them. And for me too. I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m terrified by the thought of damaging those wonderful long lasting friendships by doing or saying something that makes the other feel uncomfortable.
We can express our friendship through so many wonderful means, talk about the most private and intimate things, but we cannot hold each other in our arms for a while or hold another man’s hand as a gesture of trust and appreciation.

Funny thing is, similar to Mark’s story, apart from my husband the only male in my life who does exactly that is my little nephew of 6 years. He doesn’t care about convention and perception of others. When he feels like snuggling he just grabs me, holds me for a while and then goes off to play again. Life can be so easy, can’t it?

I wish that we all liberate ourselves from all those stupid self damaging conventions and boundaries and find a way to just be, to just love, no matter if gay, straight, bi, man or woman. We need to reconnect with our humanity.

David Steckbauer
David Steckbauer
1 year ago

Wow I could write so much on this topic.

Such a beautifully written and NECESSARY article. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
The power of shame in our collective cultures is violently strong. It prevents the most natural expressions of our bodies and feeling which make us human animals. I would argue that the majority of people walk around this world with a subtle and almost unconscious sense of lack without pinpointing what it is. Something so subtle, yet so intimate and meaningful is missing from their and our lives. We can see countless fellow species groom each other as part of a daily ritual, yet days can pass without many of us having any meaningful interaction with another human being.
While hanging out with a group of friends recently, I(male)asked two of my male friends who say they feel lonely at times if they would ever hold my hand walking in to town, in a completely platonic way. They couldn’t do it. They were too embarrassed to be seen showing any close contact with another male body. Two hands coming together carries so much shameful weight, even at the cost of something which physically and emotional induces the exact healing we need.
That said, the more we talk about it, the more aware we all become. It all starts there.
Emotional intelligence and intimacy will heal us all.

Edwin
Edwin
1 year ago

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

Anita E Kohli | anitaelise
Anita E Kohli | anitaelise
1 year ago

A thoughtful, beautifully written post. You address one thing that could have a HUGE impact on society, reduce aggression, and make it a safer place.

Neil
Neil
2 years ago

People don’t NEED human touch, I’m sure it’s nice but it isn’t required & going without doesn’t make one go insane. I know because I have old fashioned parents who literally never embraced their children & I’ve spent the vast majority of my early adult life single & the entirety of my late adult life single. Sure I may not be the happiest person in the world but I’m sure as hell more content with life than many of the so called ‘normal’ people I know of who’ve had numerous relationships & are clearly miserable & depressed.

gay therapy
gay therapy
2 years ago

I do not even know how I ended up here, but I believed this publish was great.
I do not recognise who you’re however definitely you’re going to a
famous blogger should you aren’t already. Cheers!

Lily
Lily
2 years ago

Take dance classes, that’s the answer 🙂 There are lots of dances and men are underrepresented in most kinds.

Cynthia Grace Walker
Cynthia Grace Walker
2 years ago

After reading this, I am so grateful that the business I have become a part of means everyone gets a hug when they show up for a business briefing or an outside event that members are attending. This is through the whole company from the Atlantic to the Pacific and across the borders into Canada.

Aslan
Aslan
2 years ago

I gave up being touched years ago and although the yearning for human contact can be powerful, avoiding the potential loss from connecting with preditory people is worth it.

Christopher Brown
Christopher Brown
2 years ago

i find the opinion expressed is very father-centric.

Tammy
Tammy
2 years ago

Beautiful article and words. I began to study massage because I felt this need to give others the nurturing gift of touch. I was however originally not going to massage men because of my perception of them similar to those in this article. The universe put me in a class with 4 men and no women to teach me that men also if not more so need nurturing physical touch. I realise and am grateful for my change in perception. The world is changing one perception at a time.

Edward Curry
Edward Curry
3 years ago

Brilliant! I’m not American but this is a problem which I suspect affects the whole Anglophone world. I’m convinced it contributes to crimes like murder, rape, child abuse and war. So serious? You bet! I would never normally comment but you hit a raw nerve in someone who’s activities has involved trying to coach teenagers through some of the most confusing and distressing years of their lives, all because of the sense of grief and isolation this creates. So many boys, especially those deserted by their fathers show ample signs of emotional starvation once you have learned to read the signs, which makes them vulnerable to abuse and is a absolute minefield across which to deliver aid without misinterpretation. A serious personal risk many men are not willing to take.
I’m also a dad and know where you’re coming from. My son was born disabled and had to face many operations. While the surgeons worked to fix his body I had the task of keeping his mind unharmed. There was a lot of touch and sometimes bed sharing. Today he seems pretty well balanced and a great councillor at need for other young people in difficulties. I dread to think where he would have been without access to physical affection 24/7.
More recently in Europe Ive noted a different kind of reality although we have big problems right now. German boys seem far more relaxed about greeting each other with affection in public and I think you can tell the difference it makes. They also seem to have less gender issues or even generational issues. I’ve been learning and I think there’s some sign of it spreading even at home. When you’ve had a little known teenage boy who is in depression from emotional bullying, shaking in your arms from sheer relief and gratitude and know exactly how that feels yourself, there is no doubt left in your mind of the value of your essay here and the urgent need of voices like yours being heard.
Weirdly the timing is significant for me and I found it quite by accident.Time you wrote the book.

Beverly A. Bernhagen
Beverly A. Bernhagen
3 years ago

I see this more so in my being a woman and girl than most male peers. I see men hug,g hi five, in the Midwest moreover women esp. Since there is a lack of extra curricular activities here. Girls dislike another more than ever before. Each time I’ve asked someone female I’ve met if they’d want to go jog, or anything it is a straight forward, no. Especially women now. Men and women in the past might have been more willing to participate in eachothers lives. They had to.

Beverly A. Bernhagen
Beverly A. Bernhagen
3 years ago

I am woman, I touched a woman on the shoulder to ask her a question as she shunned me from doing so with expressions of anger. The woman and I worked together for 5 months with other crew members on the farm. Meant no harm to her. I am married with four children. Similar experiences from other girls in my youth. I am a nurses assistant since I turned 17 years old. This is our societies. Fears of connection.

Dale Marshall
Dale Marshall
3 years ago

The ones who miss the feeling of touch are the ones that are diagnosed with a terminal illness or suffer from some form of affliction. You have no idea what it’s like to crave the touch of another human, a hug, just to hold another person’s hand. The feeling of isolation is almost too much to bear.

jeff coleman
jeff coleman
3 years ago

Sad but true Men are perceived as weak for hugging or touching another man unless deemed as some sports celebration.

Hawley Griffin
Hawley Griffin
3 years ago

Learning as a child that you are an annoying burden and that your needs and feelings don’t matter because your mother learned the same thing from her parents, sets out a life path that the securely attached can’t imagine or relate to. I think that path is probably easier for those of us who never had love or affection as compared to those who may have had it and lost it. I learned from my earliest experience not to expect it. Kids learn like puppies. What behavior is rewarded by her? What behavior is punished? I learned early on that my life worked best by being as independent and as invisible as possible. But somewhere deep in my amygdala is likely the long dormant desire for connection. I’ve become aware that I actually like going to the dentist every 6 months. Is that because a woman is actually paying attention to me for the 10 minutes or so that it takes to clean my teeth? 61 Avoidant Schizoid. Never married, never dated.

Safiar
Safiar
3 years ago

This iz a beautiful article

Nicholas D.
Nicholas D.
3 years ago

As counterintuitive and outrageous as this may seem, I believe that fist-fighting actually is done to meet the need for platonic touch. This notion first occurred to me when watching a UFC match. These two men (who happened to be close friends outside the octagon, actually), spent rounds brutally abusing each other, inflicting pain and damage. Right after the fight, the two fighters, bruised, bloody, sweaty, and exhausted, engaged in a full-bodied, platonically-loving embrace. In that moment, they didn’t care how badly their bodies hurt from taking the punches, kicks, and contortions; the satisfaction of bodily touch superseded all that. Keep in mind that this is fighting in a controlled environment; if they were legitimately enemies of war, the goal would be incapacitation and/or death. But I’m not talking about that. My son and I like to slap-fight. We knock the crap out of each other, smiling and giggling the entire time.

Anonymous millennial
Anonymous millennial
3 years ago

I finally feel like I’m not crazy. All I’ve wanted was touch.

A single millennial, highly educated, lived in Asia for several years. I have been stuck navigating dating hell and the impersonality of swipe culture and dating apps, and dealt with navigating the aftereffects of many rotten men. Women in America seem utterly hostile to men for various well deserved reasons (#metoo is real, look at POTUS- he doesn’t understand the meaning of consentual boundries), but it leaves men like me struggling to connect platonically. In the hell of navigating modern dating as a self prescribed nerd, as well as the opposite image you have of a nerd as a biker, I find my personality well grounded- but unable to connect. After a total of 2 relationships in 19 years, and long periods of isolation due to my work, I feel like the only way to get touch without judgement is finding a straight relationship with a woman. I actually found this article googling “is it possible to die from lack of human touch?”, thinking I might have something in common with multi year solitary confinement prisoners, and detrimental physiological effects. I am becoming an alcoholic (despite having a recovering alcoholic father) drinking a liter of whiskey a week and chainsmoking just to feel something, because I spend so little time in contact with people. I really don’t even need sex that much- I just want to go to bed holding someone, but there is no way to do that as a straight man in America unless I force myself into a relationship. Thank you for writing this- why I love dogs, and animals to pet, why some women intentionaly seek out gay men as friends (male touch with no sexual complications, platonic), why I feel better when my own mom and dad, both long divorced, hug me- everything makes sense now. I think I will look at getting a sidecar for my motorcycle, and adopt a dog from a shelter to join me. To any other man that wonders- yes, lack of touch can lead to serious mental and eventual physical pain, at least it took me years to figure that out, but I finally realized my grief is directly coming from this.

K. Alan Ball
K. Alan Ball
3 years ago

This is a very well thought out, well-written article. Worth the time to read. Sadly, most men will never read this article, and most men will never come to realize how the lack of touch has impacted them. The USA is one of the worst, in terms of physical touch among men. I’m so grateful I live in China where touching is joyously second nature.

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