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How a Lack of Touch is Destroying Men

By Mark Greene on Saturday January 28th, 2017

Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives

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.

Men have a lack of platonic touch in their livesMen need gentle platonic touch in their lives just as much as women do.

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 experience touch isolationMen crave touch but are cut off from it and experience touch isolation.

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 hand shake 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.

Physical contact that is not sexualHow often do men experience physical contact without it being sexual?

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 transforms touch for menFatherhood has the potential to transform the way men think about touch.

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 rough housing 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.

Lack of physical contact from a young ageMen often experience a lack of gentle touch from others from a young age.

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 touchThe sexualising of touch means that physical contact can be uncomfortable for men.

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.

Gentle touch is not manlyThe message is that gentle touch is not part of being a man in our society.

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.

Platonic relationship modelingThere needs to be more modeling for men of a range of platonic relationships.

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.

Animals help to alleviate loneliness for old peopleOlder people are brought therapy animals to alleviate the lack of touch in their lives.

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.

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 fear around touch leads to isolationThe fear that surrounds physical connection results in men becoming isolated.

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 ground breaking 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 though touch. And are just as damaging in that realm.

Men are unable to express their vulnerabilityMen are limited in their attempts to express their vulnerability.

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 a 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 possibleThe awakening of touch is possible for men who let go of their fear and reach out.

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 Green’s Facebook Page Remaking Manhood for article updates and more!

Listen to Mark Greene on the UPLIFT Podcast: Mark Greene: Solving the Masculinity Crisis.

Words By Mark Greene

Originally posted on , Good Men Project

 

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Prudence Page
Guest
Prudence Page

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… Read more »

Brian Edwards
Guest
Brian Edwards

Sex has ruined alot of people’s connections. Love has nothing to do with sex. What a sad time for humanity were in. Love will set us free!

K. Alan Ball
Guest
K. Alan Ball

mostly in the USA…..US Americans are being hit on every front from food, water, air, education, media, religion and politics: everything has become toxic.

Margarita
Guest
Margarita

So true! I am old and my husband has not touched or even hugged me or held my hand. For years!
Great article.

Man Unplugged
Guest

Hi Prudence, a couple in Adelaide (Australia) have conducted a program for women for over 25 years. At the end, the women are blindfolded under the guise that someone is to feed them various delicacies, in a sensual way, and they have to work out what the food is. What the women don’t know is that specific men, some their husbands or partners, have been secretly invited and briefed that they’re to feed the woman in front of them, and not make any sound or indication that they’re men. So the blindfolded women think they’re being fed strawberries, chocolate, grapes… Read more »

Rob
Guest
Rob

It is sad. Unless this kind of exercise is done, repeatedly, with everyone, however, what kind of hope for change do you have?

Lil Nephew
Guest

Wolves in sheep’s clothing have ruined it for all the genuine lambs out there.

InkedUpMarketing
Guest
InkedUpMarketing

Or perhaps the assumption of wolves in sheeps clothing… not that they aren’t out there but it seems everyone is so afraid of “what if” that ppl are too afraid to live their lives to full potential… we live under a cloud of fear-mongering…

viheleha
Guest
viheleha

I guess it must be hard for men to balance not having a lot of platonic touching + not being allowed to be emotionally vulnerable with people, and I really feel for that.

Grey Keetan
Guest
Grey Keetan

Ditto!

Trishann Ryan
Guest
Trishann Ryan

Well said.

Rob
Guest
Rob

There isn’t much of a cure for this, save one: within the family. Fathers, certainly, can be affectionate with their children and do their best to raise them with a good blend of steadfastness, respect, adaptability and discipline. I’ve seen this work with some families and have seen friendliness and respect between the fathers and their male children last well into adulthood. However, in general, both men and women are increasingly self conscious about anything physical outside of family or lover relationships. Given the current atmosphere of suspicion and scrutiny, which is likely to increase and then level out, men… Read more »

Brian Edwards
Guest
Brian Edwards

Excellent article!

Man Unplugged
Guest

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.

Mark Greene
Guest
Mark Greene

Thank you. Wow. Its that committment to not “back off.” That’s the fierce committment our kids need and want from us.

Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix
Guest
Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix

Mark did you ask me if I had any kids of my own? The answer is no. And to make sure: I was not talking about physical contact between father and son. Sorry for being not totally clear on that score…

Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix
Guest
Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix

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… Read more »

sara_ahoy
Guest
sara_ahoy

If vulnerability or fear makes you aroused, then the first time you hug a friend might make you aroused, yes. But if you get used to it, it will no longer cause sexual excitement, and become a normal part of everyday life. It’s worth overcoming the first hurdle.

Mark Greene
Guest
Mark Greene

Hi Robert, I’m curious to ask, do you have children of your own?

Man Unplugged
Guest

Hi Robert, being a parent puts one on notice in regard to touch and teaches how to discern between truly platonic touch (which kids absolutely need) and sensual touch (which relationships need). After recently leaving a 21yr relationship where in the latter years, any form of physical contact was ‘off the menu’ and I felt starved. I found nurture from deep, relaxing massage from a professional person where I knew the boundaries. I also visited a tantric teacher for a session on tantric touch, where one’s awareness moves between being the ‘toucher’ to being the ‘touchee’, and learning how to… Read more »

Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix
Guest
Robert van Lieshout-Hendrix

Hello dear man unplugged, I am sorry to have been the source of this confusion, I should have added I was talking about physical touch between adult men and the consequence of it, not of a man touching a child! I have been visiting tantric teachers for many session and I still do. The emotions emurging lead to new ones and their was clearly a developement in this. More than 2 years have seriously changed my life after being able to let go of what I thought I needed. In fact my body and inner self showed me the way!… Read more »

Man Unplugged
Guest

HI Robert, thank you for your very clear response! Yes, it takes courage to unravel the patterning of our past, which as you say, despite the pain it can cause as we let go, is worth every step. I go under the name of Man Unplugged because that’s the name of the book I published, about the inner world of men. It is a combination of my own journey, coupled with the supporting work of various men who’ve trodden the path before me, such as Robert Bly, Steven Biddulph, Carl Jung, Robert A Johnson .. without which I would not… Read more »

Roi
Guest
Roi

I understand Robert’s point to be that we shouldn’t be afraid that touch may very well be accompanied by some degree of sexual feeling. That doesn’t mean we need to follow through or proceed along that line. It just means to be accepting, natural, and not fearful. It’s a call for honesty while maintaining whatever boundaries are appropriate for the situation. I agree with you, Robert.

pranic Roger
Guest
pranic Roger

Robert, platonic physical touch between adult men is not inappropriate, sexual arousal is a possible consequence of this activity however when this happens it is more a sign that your sexual release is not happening frequently enough, either through self-gratification or with a sexual partner. As a massage therapist I have physical touch with adult men and women and am not aroused sexually. The focus of the mind directs the physical response. Intent will often direct the outcome. I’m not making reference here to spontaneous arousal which sometimes accompanies initial touch without there being any conscious sexual intent. This physical… Read more »

msm
Guest
msm

Thank you for bringing this issue forward.

iamnotbubba
Guest
iamnotbubba

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… Read more »

Mark Greene
Guest
Mark Greene

Thanks for this, iamnotbubba. Its a confirmation of how good life can be.

Alexander Rey
Guest
Alexander Rey

Thanks for adding your opinion. Its so lovely to know they are fathers like that. Touch is love exactly < Thanks

Kanga 13
Guest
Kanga 13

There is a simple solution: square dancing and contra dancing. These traditional dance forms are inclusive, inter-generational and incproporate a great deal of touch. http://www.wheresthedance.com will provide information on where to find a place that practices these dance forms, which are a huge amount of fun, and create happiness: https://youtu.be/NI9NHlqpXPg

sara_ahoy
Guest
sara_ahoy

Or just hugging each other.

Maryanne Slater
Guest
Maryanne Slater

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.

Lady Poet Lawyerette
Guest
Lady Poet Lawyerette

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.

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