Men And Touch


Author Nick Theophilou

You can shake hands but that's about as far as it goes. Melbourne writer Nick Theophilou looks at why most Australian men find touching other men an uncomfortable experience.
Touch. It sounds like it feels. We tend to avoid it. Men can find physical closeness difficult. Soft handshakes are suspect; they’re vague, unassertive. Masculinity and sexual orientation can be questioned.

In a workshop, men were asked to touch hands, first clinically, then in a compassionate manner. Touch a man’s hand clinically? No worries. Compassionately? Most were frightened. "I’m anxious, I only touch women like this," one said.

Much the same occurs when men stand in a circle with arms around each other's shoulders. Some step back slightly, look at the floor, or mutter with nervous laughter about ‘male bonding.’

Jeff Barlow, a somatic psychotherapist, has counselled men for over 20 years."Anglo-Saxons avoid touch," he said. "It’s a sign of homosexuality. During workshops, men have become close, walked outside and been affectionate. It was normal touch; hugging, holding hands, looking tenderly into each other’s eyes. Next day, the neighbours phoned, complaining about offensive behaviour."

Other cultures find touch easier. Men walk arm-in-arm in Mediterranean countries, the French kiss on the cheek, Greeks hug, Eskimos rub noses and Indian men hold hands. Nobody bats an eyelid. It’s as if in Australia we are only comfortable with these as TV images.

"A healthy adult requires large amounts of tactile stimulation in the early years of life," writes Ashley Montague in Touching. But what happens between males? "Our experiences determine what’s normal," Barlow said. If there’s little touch, it becomes devalued or criticised. Pleasurable sensations towardanother male can bring up fear."

Tony plays in a Latin band. One night, he recoiled when Julio, another band member touched his shoulder. Neither said a word. Later, during an argument, Julio brought it up. He was hurt. "I was happy to be with you," he said. Tony replied, "It’s not part of my culture," and refused to discuss it further.

The handshake is introduced early, becoming the accepted form of touch between men. "It’s changing," he said, "but men tend not to be socialised towards being more sensitive, vulnerable and loving. Often fathers want to be more affectionate but the son, through peer pressure, avoids it."

The human organism responds to pleasure. "Frequently it is connected with sexuality," said Barlow. "It’s not necessarily having an erection. There can be stirrings in the belly, thighs, genitals, chest, feelings of affection and vulnerability. For many men, these are frightening with women let alone with men."

Men tend to respond well to sexual touch. "But often it’s a release," said Barlow, "something done to someone; performing for results rather than sharing deep experiences."

Suzie St George, a somatic therapist goes further, "Men tend to acknowledge hard touch, it’s understood. With soft touch, they become vulnerable. Sometimes they feel sexual. Often it’s an attempt to control, to dominate." She questions their sex drive, "When creativity is blocked, libido rises as does the neurotic need for sex. Creative outlets may need to be re-examined."

Women tend to be more accustomed to, and discriminate better between, different types of touch. "In conversation they frequently touch," said Barlow. "In massage they seem more able to experience it as sexual, supportive, caring, safe, dangerous or relieving."

If bodily contact is sexualised, it can become uncomfortable, suspect, adding to the fear and confusion many men experience. Les teaches piano. School principals warn against touching students. Instructions are verbal. "They often put hands on wrong keys," he said. "Placing my hands on their’s would be easier." He is clearly angry. "As a decent citizen, I wouldn’t abuse them sexually," he said. "Yes, some men do, but most don’t!"

It can affect home life. Worried what people might think, many fathers hold off from the children. Colin, said, "I’m apprehensive when bathing them." Confusion reigns. "What does this or that type of handling mean? Is it sexual? But I love them! Do they sense my fears? Is this affecting them and our relationship?"

Paul seems more confident. Once, while bathing his baby daughter, the media hype (about men sexually abusing children) came to mind. "Damn it," he said,"I’m not putting the fear of God into me with my own family. I love her, I’d never hurt her. She’s my daughter. I’ll bath her!"

Barlow sees mens’ rage and what’s behind it. "Usually it’s deprivation (of things intimate and nurturing) and feeling forced to conform to ‘masculine ways of being." he said. "Deep grief normally follows. Softness and vulnerability lie beneath."

Physical affection between boys is usually a punch on the arm. Like older men, they only hug after proving their manliness. Normally it is hard and vigorous. For security, limits are defined: "It doesn’t mean anything else. We like each other, that’s all. You understand that don’t you?!"

Joanna Hafey is a Phys Ed. teacher and Shiatsu therapist. Boys trust her. Despite being renowned for roughness, she gets them giving one another back rubs! The male teacher shakes his head and walks away. He can’t understand it.

Mens’ rationality, the holding back of emotions is supported. Public figures openly expressing feelings can provoke hostility and ridicule. Yet research (as surveyed in books like Emotional Intelligence) shows that emotions influence rationality. "The human organism is structured in this manner," said Barlow.

Many men harden themselves, treating their bodies like robots. Take Jake, a footballer until he was king hit. With the neck injuries sustained he needs a walking stick and speech is permanently slurred. In the cold light of day, why prove one’s manliness by participating in a sport knowing debilitating injuries may occur?

Mens’ attitudes to work and health follow similar lines. According to Barlow "people avoid feelings by ‘splitting off’ from experiences. Unexpressed anger, sadness, love and affection are stored in the body, building up tension. With this comes a lack of sensitivity and a contraction against life affirming (ie, feeling) experiences." Mens’ physical prowess, the challenge to athleticism exacerbates the problem. "So they can become what the culture demands."

History repeats itself. Touch is sexual if that’s your only interpretation. Men can change, "by becoming more self reflective," said Barlow, "to think about what they do and why." Thoughts combined with feelings. "And be more comfortable with different ways of ‘being’ with people.’ In relation to touch? Again, "reflect on how they touch (and are touched), and become more discriminating."

Support is crucial. "Through psychotherapy" (other modalities and/or a supportive partner) "men can confront their fears and anxieties," said Barlow,"and let go of patterns previously regarded as normal.’ The culture; family, peer groups, the media and work, "doesn’t support mens’ vulnerabilities," he continued. "Change is not possible under these circumstances."

To touch is to be intimate. Humans have a longing for vulnerability and deep, loving warm emotional connection with each other. It’s hard wired into us. For men and women, touch has meaning – it tells the truth.

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