Sunday, January 27

The Paradox of Touch

My little sister brought friends home after Church today, and watching them made me wonder. As we all talked she, her roommate, and two boys they knew sat on our sectional, switching positions, playing with each others' hair, tickling, holding hands, sprawling, fighting over pillows, cuddling...

I just watched. It wasn't an awkward "watching them make out on the couch" type of thing... just noticing what happened as time went on and we talked. There wasn't a girl (or guy) for me anyway.

I guess I haven't really had the opportunity to watch many teenage boys & girls interact. I don't think my sister or her roommate has a crush on the boys, but physicality was there anyway. One guy's leg was stretched across the couch, or my sister had her head laid back against his chest... Everyone was always touching.

And that's completely foreign to me.

I have an inner repulsion that would have to be calmed before I could join a couch of girls engaged in cuddling. And, according to what little I know about unwritten societal rules, it would pretty much never be okay for me to sprawl on a couch full of guys, or to lean my head on another guy's chest. Even putting my arm above a guy on the back of a chair or couch seems like it's pushing the envelope. Intertwining fingers to hold hands doesn't seem like it would work.

I don't feel like almost anything they did would be acceptable between guys. Between girls? Yeah. But between guys... no.


I feel like modern society has sexualized touch to the point that the only contact men have with each other is a handshake or high-five. It's like doing anything else would be inciting homosexual feelings... or something absurd along those lines. Shaking hands with people at Church doesn't really fill my needs for touch. Why is guy-girl touch affirmative, girl-girl touch is accepted, but guy-guy touch is often interpreted as potentially sexual?

I feel like this - the societal construct that dictates that men don't touch one other - makes homosexuality a hundred times harder to deal with. If non-sexual touch between guys existed, then there would be an out. I need physicality, and then I could find healthy, spiritually safe, non-sexual ways to meet it. As it is, though, currently, putting my arm on the pew at Church next to another guy seems to be in the same category as making out with him: totally inappropriate.

I wonder how it happened. Who made it happen? What cultural artifacts made such a dramatic change possible? It's only been maybe a few years, a few decades, that touch has been hyper-sexualized in its nature by American society. That the phrase, "I love you, man" included the caveat "no homo." That the ideal man became distant, insensitive, and completely self-sufficient - especially from other men. It feels like it's as much a geographic artifact as it is chronological. In Italy they still give bacci - kisses - when saying hello or goodbye to friends, strangers, and colleagues.

So men who realize that they need affirmation from other men (guys like me), find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Try to find close friendship, emotional intimacy, or physicality with hetero guys, and hit a wall. Society has trained men well to avoid unnecessary contact, and since hetero guys can meet whatever needs for intimacy they have by following societal rules, they're happy to oblige. So where to turn?

Hence the draw of spending time with other guys with SSA. They get it. They understand. They know what it's like to sit in a crowd and feel alone - to need someone to give me a hug and feel how awkward it is to even ask for one, let alone get rejected. They know what it's like to have to dull my feelings when they flare beyond my control... and they know what it means when I say that feelings don't dull selectively. They're willing to talk, to listen, to look into my eyes and be there.

But those same situations are dangerous. It's like alcoholics being forced to drink in a bar because it's the only place that sells clean water. That's when same-sex attraction turns from a trial to a temptation... and mutual attraction turns innocent sitting on the couch into something beyond the boundaries that God has set.

I just wish that there was some way to change our society. To allow men to meet the needs they have, safely and within the context of normalcy. To align the boundaries of touch and physicality with the actual boundaries God has set.

But I have no idea how that will ever change.


  1. I recently watched professional MMA sports on TV (Mixed Martial Arts). These men had each other intertwined physically on the floor like pretzels, in a gazillion different awkward and intimate poses and positions. Heterosexual alpha-men primarily get their need for same-sex "affection" or same-sex touch/affirmation through competitive sports. In Football, there is rear-end slapping; in basketball, bodies are constantly rubbing against and banging against each other, and after a major win in ANY competitive sport, there is usually a giant group hug where men are falling all over each another. Men touch and get touched all the time in the heat of sport--tackling, being tackled, fiercely, in American football. It can get pretty intimate—sometimes extremely intimate, as in wrestling—it's just that the physical contact happens in an aggressive, competitive context (that's just how heterosexual men are). Most of these men turn out securely heterosexual probably because they get their needs for touch and affirmation by the same sex out of their system through sports and rough and tumble activity as children and adolescents.

    It is my understanding that most same-sex attracted men were uncomfortable with rough and tumble play, but probably not because they didn't need touch, but perhaps because they were more sensitive indoorsy kinds of guys, afraid of getting hurt, or felt intimidated by other boys. This doesn't eliminate their need and desire for affirmation and nonsexual touch. It only makes the tension between the desire for it and the fear of it more pointed, which is what perhaps leads to the involuntary eroticizing of those needs/desires at puberty? I'm curious, how athletic were you as a child (pre-puberty) and post-puberty? Did you participate in team or contact sports? Enjoy them? Feel intimidated by them?

    It's always been interesting to me that Joseph Smith loved wrestling. This is a niche sport nowadays, but in most indigenous cultures, some kind of wrestling is practiced among boys and adolescents, perhaps even as a rite of passage into manhood. Smith probably got deep satisfaction out of wrestling; it probably helped him feel grounded and confident in his masculinity, and connected with other men. You have a point about western culture's change, though: when you look at group portraits of men in the 19th century vs. today, it's not uncommon for them to be posed and touching one another affectionately/casually in ways which would be considered effeminite or inappropriate between straight men today.

    One other form of touch between men that you may try to notice, and can participate in, is the shoulder squeeze. I remember my grade school principle (back when pedophilia wasn't something to be paranoid about) stopped behind me and my peers a time or two as I was eating in the cafeteria and squeezed my shoulders and I remember the special feeling it gave me. I must have been really touch deprived, or how else would I remember this 3 or 4 decades later! [Over word limit, continued in next comment post…]

  2. [Continued from previous comment post…] In church, this occasionally happens between Priesthood men or adolescent boys—usually the confident athletic ones. Observe it. Maybe squeeze someone's shoulder. The first time I tried it on someone, I felt a little awkward, but now it feels quite natural. And it makes me feel assertive, manly, yet affectionate at the same time. Of course, it needs to happen in the right moment, and maybe that's where you struggle as an autistic man, with the social cues as to when it's the right time, moment or context for a shoulder squeeze. A good time is to walk up (almost sneak up) behind someone you know (who isn't a superior to you) as he's talking to someone in the hall at church, grab and squeeze his shoulder (your fingers on the *back* of his shoulder, thumb at the front--otherwise, you might end up doing a Spock squeeze, which is not what you want to happen!), then just watch as he turns to greet you and says, "Hey, how's it going?" Don't be afraid of giving a good, firm squeeze. If it's someone you have an affectionate rapport with (and he's not touchaphobic), he probably won't even be phased.

    I find great male-affection satisfaction in the shoulder squeeze, maybe because it's a symbol of affection that seems to belong to the fraternity (i.e., brotherhood) of men only--that is, I almost have never seen women squeeze one another's shoulders or men squeeze women's, or vice versa, it almost seems to be exclusively a man’s way of showing affection toward another man; maybe our shoulders are less delicate than a woman's so it feels natural and pleasant receiving and giving that strong shoulder squeeze to each other as men. So, enjoy the chance to give one if you can! And hopefully, there will be some reciprocation at some point.

    Make sure you make yourself seem like a person who wouldn't mind being touched. I have a friend who has OCD and, after not seeing him for a long time, and trying to give him a hug as we greet, he tries to evade it and it just feels awkward, becomes an embarrassingly clumsy gesture. There's nothing wrong with a good, tight bear hug between two men that may be brief and to the point, but expresses genuine affection and shows that you care for the person. Don't avoid receiving or giving hugs! And being genuinely affectionate with those hugs, not fearful or freakish about them! Yeah, a lot of guys are still freakish about a real hug with a bud, but not all of them are.

    I'm still curious about your competitive sports experience growing up and comfort level with rough and tumble among other boys, if you care to elaborate.

    1. Speaking specifically to the comment "that most same-sex attracted men were uncomfortable with rough and tumble play", this is not my experience for myself or for my many SSA friends. Most of us like playing sports, like wrestling, competing in events, among other things. I know of a group of 10+ SSA guys that got a team together for the Tough Mudder in our area this year. While it is not uncommon for there to be some slightly more "girly" likes, the male likes are not any less present. I think about the straight guys I am regularly around and there are many that would be more likely to be singled out as gay than me.

  3. I think you would find this touch is very accepted in other cultures. My family lived in the Philippines and my teenage boys found it very akward when their friends walked around with the arms on their shoulders, hugged them often and just in general were very physical. The girls were equally physical with one another. I knew we were friends when my young womens president, whom I served with, took my hand, placed her arm around my shoulders and entwined my arm as we crossed the street. It is socially acceptable and homosexuality is never questioned. It took some getting used too but by the end of our stay I looked forward too it, as did my boys.

  4. I think that touching between men is always socially defined. In Saudi Arabia, men kiss and hold hands in a non-sexual way all the time. In Spain and Italy, (heterosexual) men avoid kissing one another, even though it would be appropriate for women to do so in the same situation (although hugging between non-family members is far less common than it is here). I feel like the heterosexual men you deal with never thing about it as "touch," but rather just a way of showing affinity. In other words, you may end up doing the same thing as they do, but you will always feel differently about it.

  5. anomymous88...I'm so glad you brought this subject. ever since I came out of the closet, I've become very touched deprived. before I would show the same types of affection to other men that you mentioned above. shoulder grabbing, hugs, pats on the back. and there would be no sexual nor romantic intention behind it. and it did relieve something that I can't quite explain. but now, I can't do that anymore because Of stereo types or because of my fear of guys thinking I'm hitting on them because they all know I'm gay. granted they also know I'm remaining celibate and true to my religion, but it's still not the same anymore especially in the mormon church. My only hope now is that maybe I'll find a girl who can fulfill those needs physically and emotionally.

  6. It is definitely accepted in other cultures, as Heather says. In Belgium, straight men touching each other is not exactly the norm, and men *in general* don't kiss as a hello or goodbye (as opposed to women, or women and men), but some men do. A number of those are gay, but others just like it and they don't care about how they're perceived. In any case, I've seen many men kiss a guy-friend hello or goodbye, or give them a hug just because, or put their arm around a friend's shoulder. And people don't think twice about it. I even know straight guys who have kissed a friend on the lips just for laughs while going out. So it sounds like you picked one of the worser places/cultures to be a man who likes to touch men in ... But as Trev says: be the change. :)

  7. Do you have any close male friends (or maybe relatives) you could talk to about this? I know that my husband and one of his close friends (they've been best friends since middle school) have no problem hugging each other, and I've also seen him hug other guys--cousins, former roommates, etc--on occasion. I think it really just depends on the guy.

    Either that, or try making friends with some Polynesian guys...from what I've seen, they usually have no qualms about touch.

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