Why men are hurting from a lack of platonic touch. Tobias was a single, male pastor in his forties. He once reflected that, ‘as an older single male, I feel like the most untouched species on earth. There is no one to offer me safe touch, and no one that I can offer safe touch to.’
In our culture, women have many ways to offer platonic touch—it’s perfectly okay to hug, caress an arm, give a shoulder massage. This type of touch is not available to our men.
Mark Greene, editor of The Good Men Project, writes honestly about how he trusts himself to be able to touch other men platonically, but ‘I don’t necessarily trust other men to do it’. Because of poor behaviour from some men, ‘we believe that men can never be entirely trusted in the realm of the physical’.
We have sexualised all male touch to the point where it no longer feels safe. When there are rare moments of physical contact—like a hug or arm around a shoulder—men have learned to distrust themselves: did I enjoy that too much? ‘If you are a man, imagine five minutes of contact with another man. How quickly does that idea raise the ugly spectre of homophobia? And why?’ challenges Greene.
Every man needs to prove himself trustworthy—and this is often done by foregoing platonic touch altogether.
The result is what Greene calls ‘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,’ he says. Research shows that this isolation can lead to depression and physical ill health.
What we need is to re-capture non-sexual touch. We need to learn how to have physical contact with other men beyond the sports field—it’s okay to share a meaningful hug with another man. It’s okay to feel nurtured by this contact.
As a culture, we need to teach our boys and men to practice gentle, nurturing contact. We need to keep hugging and holding our boys when they become teenagers—not hand them over to girls with the message, ‘get a girlfriend or lose human contact altogether’.
Greene says his identity as a man was transformed when he became a dad and learned day-in-day-out the power of nurturing touch. As his son gets older, Greene is determined to continue modelling this connection: ‘I hope we can hold hands even when he is a man. I hope we continue to hold hands until the day I die,’ he says.
Ultimately, we re-teach ourselves the importance of physical touch through our personal relationships. We can disperse our need (and it is a need) for touch over a wide variety of friendships. It may feel awkward, but reach out and give a hug (not a side hug, a real, proper hug). And if you know a single male—make sure you give him a hug and welcome him into safe, physical connection.