Intelligent and humane article from Mark Greene via http://www.goodmenproject.com.
In the writer’s view, this is a cultural issue going beyond touch between men, and issues around sexual identity or homophobia – huge as these are. As Mark acknowledges, our acquired cultural fear of touch, and our baggage around it, impacts relationships between adults and children, has a vast effect on relating between men and women, and effectively robs and impoverishes all of us of much-needed nurture and resource.
As he comments:-
‘…it’s just as likely to be a woman as to be a man who enforces the homophobic/touch averse stigma. The enforcement of touch prohibition between men can be as subtle as a raised eyebrow or as punitive as a fist fight and you never know where it will come from or how quickly it will escalate.
And yet, we know that touch between men or women is proven to be a source of comfort, connection and self-esteem. But while women are allowed much more public contact, men are not. Because how we allow men to perform masculinity is actually very restrictive.’
The writer agrees with that – although women also experience culturally coercive limits to their public contact, as demonstrated by recent social media accounts of a response to a woman kissing her same sex partner goodbye on a railway platform.
Not only do we pass the message that what Mark calls ‘gentle platonic touch’ is for small children, women and ‘cry babies’, we also:-
‘….frame all contact by men as being intentionally sexual until proven otherwise.’
That is an extraordinarily toxic message.
We suffer from a socially embedded failure to make meaningful cultural distinctions around physical connection – for example between touch and sexuality, or nakedness and sexuality, or masculine touch and sexuality. We thereby sexualize the entire spectrum of physical expression between human beings.
Throughout our culture, we bombard boys and men with toxic perceptions of sexuality and masculinity, and discourage/isolate them from the nurturing aspects of contact and intimacy, and non-sexual touch. Depending on the social context, these toxic perceptions carry messages of implicit or explicit approval – rooted in sexually-based definitions of a ‘proper’ ‘man’ or ‘masculinity’ – and/or an implicit or explicit sexual shaming – which may have a homophobic context, or conceptualize man as the exploiter, the predator, the weak or malevolent untrustworthy slave of powerful impulses. Sides of the same reductive, diminishing coin, and profoundly unhelpful to everyone.
Inevitably men introject these perceptions of themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, and inevitably some act them out – for which they are vigorously shamed and blamed, within the same culture that has taught them this is the way to be.
The culturally reinforced belief that ‘…all contact by men …[is] intentionally sexual until proven otherwise’ closes down possibilities for connection, and opens up – sometimes disastrously, always harmfully – possibilities for misunderstanding, and crossed communications, pathologizing masculinity and male touch both outside and inside a sexual context.
The writer does a fair amount of ‘conscious contact’ work (exploring the healing and connecting power of touch, from a place of empowerment, loving empathic connection, and authenticity). In mixed groups, she consistently hears women who feel unable to work with men, and men who are fearful of working with either other men or with women – because of these cultural resonances and the residues of the traumatic, unhelpful experiences they generate. And this is in people who have made the choice to attend a conscious contact session – avowedly about touch – who might stand at our cultural learning edge, and be more open to alternative ways of seeing and being. It is moving and lovely where people choose to move beyond this fear in sessions, and begin to explore allowing the assumptions to fall away – and that can be hugely challenging, and is not always possible.
Touch isolation harms all of us. It tends to be culturally policed and enforced in the name of ‘safety’. In reality, our current lack of access to non-sexual touch perpetuates and increases disconnection within/between people, and the sexualization of our culture – all of which makes us less safe, as any glance at the news demonstrates. Ironically, the masculine ‘monster under (or in) the bed’ is created, birthed and fed by precisely our culture of hysteria about physical being, expression and connection, and our obsessive focus on sexualized ways of seeing/relating. It is, of course, critically important that each one of us has, and is able to exercise, our ‘no’ to unwanted physical contact. However, it is also of vital importance to our well-being as human beings, in relationship and in community, that each one of us has, and is able to exercise, our ‘yes’.
We need to find ways to escape from the cultural perceptual trap of narrowing the vast, powerful and holistically enhancing spectrum of human touch to fears of an ugly and exploitative invasion. We all hold the responsibility for that.
We will post Mark’s other article on these themes shortly: ‘The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer’
Here’s the McKays’ lovely photo history of male affection: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/07/29/bosom-buddies-a-photo-history-of-male-affection/
Here’s Charlie Glickman’s article ‘Escape the ‘Act like a Man’ Box’: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/megasahd-escape-the-act-like-a-man-box
And here’s Mark’s book:-
There are other helpful links in Mark’s article, and set out below it.
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter