Touch isolation is creating an epidemic of sexual scarcity thinking among American men.
In American culture, we simply don’t trust male touch. We believe that men always have a sexual agenda. We believe that, given the opportunity, men will collapse into 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 the sexuality of women.
This distrust of male touch applies not only in mens’ daily interactions with women, but also with other men and even with children. A stranger at the park is first and foremost a potential predator. A man who touches a woman at work, wedding ring on his finger or not, is seeking sex. A man who puts his arm around another man for longer than a few moments triggers homophobic suspicions. No matter what the context, we sexualize male touch. We do it automatically.
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.
This peculiarly American distrust of male touch results in what I call touch isolation. The lack of gentle platonic touch in men and boy’s lives and the resulting impact of this on their emotional, social, and physical well being is huge.
In an article in Psychology Today Ray B. Williams writes about the central role of touch in living happier, healthier lives:
Dacher Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. Keltner cites the work of neuroscientist Edmund Ross, who found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Keltner contends that studies show that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response.
Yet, if we don’t trust men and touch where does that leave us as a culture? And where do men go for touch and connection?
The source of our collective American distrust of male touch is rooted in how we raise our own sons. In an ironic twist, we think too much gentle platonic touch will ruin our boys; will make them too needy; will make them weak. Accordingly, comforting touch is withdrawn from American boys at an early age. While toddlers are held and comforted, boys as young as five and six are encouraged to “shake it off” and “man up” when they are hurt. Young boys find that their options for gentle platonic touch simply fade away. Boys who cry when injured are stigmatized as crybabies; expected to suppress their more fragile emotions.
By the time they are approaching puberty, most boys have learned to touch only in aggressive ways through roughhousing or team sports. Boys who might seek gentler longer forms of platonic touch are immediately at risk of a homophobic backlash. Accordingly, when they do seek gentle touch in their lives, it is expected to take place in the exclusive and highly sexualized context of dating. This puts massive amounts of pressure on young girls; young girls who are unlikely to be able to shoulder the emotional burden this represents. Meanwhile, boys who are gay face the double whammy of isolation and internalized homophobia.
The lifelong lack of platonic touch in boys lives ultimately results in the loss for them of the clear distinction between platonic touch and sexual touch. Young men starving for touch seek it in the sexual realm, either in a constant cycle of hook up sex, or sometimes, exclusively from a single partner. This makes frequency of sex a challenging issue for couples. Men key on sex in an attempt to bridge our way back to the gentle comforting touch of our distant childhoods, the pure first experience of touch in our lives that can never quite be recaptured or recalled. Sex takes on the role of fulfilling both sexual and platonic touch needs.
The result? Men background all other positives in our relationships, judging every interaction against the sexual pleasure metric. And it is here where the true cost of cutting boys off from platonic touch plays out. Having no other conduit to physical comfort but sexualized touch can lead to an obsessive focus on just that. For many men, sex becomes validation, plain and simple. Sexual frequency becomes everything; the metric for defining a good life.
In long term relationships this can be a challenging burden.
“Are we going there? Will I get there? Can we have sex, yet?” Many American men are trapped in an epidemic of sexual scarcity thinking. The moment we have sex, we are on to advocating for the next opportunity.
But many of us are also terribly prone to approaching sex mechanically, staring inward at our own flaring confusion instead of looking outward into the mysterious miracle of our partners. And in that moment, sex becomes another exercise in internalizing our experiences instead of surrendering to emotional interdependence, which we have never learned to engage. In relationship after relationship, romance withers. Sex falls off. But even as these relationships falter, we men remain willing to go to the well of cold mechanical sex, long after our lovers have lost their passion for it, because like everything else in our emotional landscapes, we have confused the mechanics of contact with truly connecting emotionally.
Sex speaks to the wounded little boy and his endless appetite for me, me, me. And drowned out by our relentless emphasis on sex, every other gesture of caring in all the other parts of our relationships are not marked; are not valued. Instead, the only marker of a happy relationship for us is frequency of sex. Which, because we avoid emotional intimacy, is fueled by the cartoon daydreams of porn instead of the deeper resonance of love.
It ain’t a pretty picture. And men and women share in what has been created.
Because when men and women raise boys and then, at some point, cut them off from comforting touch and connection, we sever their connection to the security they need to develop emotionally. This is what is behind the attachment parenting movement. This is why consistent physical contact; hugs and touch are so central to the healthy development of children. And this is why we have to make space for physical and emotional connection with our boys in the same way we do with our daughters because the fallout of failing to do so can be catastrophic.
But there is good news. Change is happening. There is a huge cultural shift taking place.
Ten or twenty years into adulthood, men are learning gentle platonic touch and they’re learning it from their own children. This is why this generation of full-time stay at home dads, and more fully engaged working dads are proving to be such a transformative force in American culture. As dads, we are presented with the absolute necessity to hold our own wonderful children. We are learning about loving platonic touch in the most powerful and life affirming way; in ways that previous generations of men simply were not immersed in. Once you have held your sleeping child night after night or walked for years with their hand in yours, you are a changed person. You gain a fluency and confidence in touch that you will never loose. It is a gift to us men from our children that literally has the capacity to transform American culture.