The other day I was watching a movie from the 70s’ and was struck by the opening scene – a young boy walked through a crowded newsroom full of adult men. The men patted the boy’s head, gave him candy, and warmly touched him as he walked by. That would never happen today.
During dinner with some male friends, I asked them about it. They all agreed and said they are terrified of touching a boy. One said he once went so far as to quickly back out of a restroom when he saw a young boy in there alone one time at a restaurant. All avoid contact with unrelated kids, and are careful to only play with children they know when in a room with other attentive adults.
When did our culture go from casual, platonic male contact to no touchy touchy – ever?
Mark Greene at The Good Men Project highlighted the issue recently in his essay, Another Casualty of Homophobia: Platonic Male Affection. “American men, in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives”, Green states, something he calls touch isolation. He explains how it started:
American society has sexualized any and all touch. Male friendships are much less affectionate than female friendships. Baby boys are cuddled and soothed, but by the time they grow out of toddlerhood they are increasingly isolated from all touch. Their only recourse to physical bonding is through girls and the highly charged and sexualized dating scene, which Greene states could underlie the epidemic of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy, rape, and drug and alcohol abuse.
If a man shows affection to another male or perhaps in a moment of drunkenness, plants a fat kiss on his buddy, he’s automatically presumed to be gay. Society draws sharp lines between heterosexual and homosexual. Once you display what others perceive as a homosexual act, you’re permanently homosexual. There’s no going back. So boys and men fiercely regulate themselves and others by quickly labeling and distancing themselves from anything that could possibly be construed as “gay”.
It wasn’t always this way. Male friendships were historically celebrated– think Achilles and Patroclus – and physical affection was openly displayed. Old photos of male buds show them casually throwing an arm around the other, or holding a sobbing soldier buddy after a firefight.
Other cultures around the world still have platonic male touch, such as those in the Middle East. I remember watching as U.S. military personnel stood for pictures with their Iraqi counterparts, who grabbed their hands in friendship. The U.S. personnel flinched and were clearly uncomfortable, but to their credit, held onto the Iraqis’ hands for ‘hearts and minds’.
Men walk arm-in-arm in Mediterranean countries, the French kiss on the cheek, Greeks hug, Eskimos rub noses and Indian men hold hands.
In very recent years, American men seem to be slowly warming back up to close male friendship and platonic touch – perhaps as homosexuality becomes more broadly socially accepted. Witness the rise of “bromance” – the joking term applied to close male friends that both mocks yet sets “acceptable” parameters on their relationship.
James Franco and Seth Rogen take their bromance to whole new levels…..(laughing)