In the 80s I would walk down the streets with black male friends holding hands while we chatted. It was an essential part of real male friendship and no-one would really give it a second glance. Many men would give no thought at all to draping their arms around one another as they walked and talked. These public displays of affection were not aberrations and the idea that somehow this compromised the heterosexuality of either party would not even enter the equation.
I felt a cultural shudder at first at this level of non-sexual intimacy that was totally outside my white experience. I got over it and learned to enjoy these moments of male bonding. Shaking hands would take minutes instead of seconds, parting would be a whole ritual of back slapping, extended hugs and high fives.
These men had an everyday ease with each other, a platonic familiarity and intimacy that I envied. There was no corresponding physical closeness with my white male friends. Intimacy there was limited to the hurly burly of competitive and combative sports, rugby, football and the drunken camaraderie of the sports club bars. To loosen a few teeth, sprain a few joints and share a collective hangover afterwards seemed the norm.
Displays of male friendship seem to have gone through some serious transformations in the last few years. Hold hands today in public and you may risk a homophobic attack or at least the glares and aggressive body language of disapproving men. Why the hostile change so much in one generation?
It’s a shame that a fear of being called gay has polluted our ability as men to demonstrate physical affection and emotional companionship with each other. It’s pretty easy to go from this fear of physical demonstrations with other men to a generalised fear of being misinterpreted by women and children too.
It has become our overwhelming responsibility to leave no shadow of doubt in anyone’s mind that we can be trusted by foregoing any physical contact with anyone. Our world view has become so narrowed down by fear — we dread being labelled as sexual predators by our women, we fear being labelled as gay by a virulently homophobic society, we don’t want to risk being labelled as inappropriate in our contact with children.
We are boxed in by a culture of belief that says all men can never totally be trusted in the realm of the physical, that we will all immediately seek the sexual in any situation, that we can’t control ourselves and that our intentions are always to gain a sexual advantage. There is no comparative story for women.
The only area where men find some space for platonic touch seems to be with our very young children. Male bonding with new-borns is high on the agenda in every programme that tries to encourage more lasting involvement of men with their offspring. It’s been found that this is not only good for our children but for men too. Our levels of stress go down, our self-esteem goes up and we generally interact better with those around us and in our communities when we enjoy a close physical bond with our children.
This is a healing power in fatherhood that we need to build on. Once we relearn the healing power of touch, in hugging and kissing our children, holding their hands on the way to school, cradling them at night as we put them to bed so we can gain the confidence to bring this newfound knowledge of the power of touch into our other relationships.
The gift of touch from our children to us as fathers is a powerful one. It can transform our lives and enrich our societies. We need to take this gift and lose our phobia about our need to touch and enjoy easy and platonic physical contact with those around us.
Daniel Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Centre and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, says “in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health”.
I would contend that the “man” in “human” is really important and must not be forgotten. In our desire as men to be politically correct and sexually neutral in our public lives have we lost sight of the most important aspect of human development and culture — physical touch?
It has been said that female friendships can be pictured as two women facing one another, while male friendships can be symbolised as two men standing side by side, looking outwards. So here’s to having a buddy, a brother to take on the world with. We can bond, connect, and help each other become better men.