Conversations About Masculinity

Handshake-Bush-awkward-300x221Lately, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about what it means to be male.  Is it about biology or culture?  Is it about attitude or action? And on top of all that, as a minister in formation, I have to ask, what does faith say about this all?  Some of these conversations have been through my work with state policy advocacy around boys and men of color; other conversations have been with friends around the growing number of states that are allowing same sex marriage; still, other conversations have been in relation to the rights and needs of trans men and women and others who will benefit from ENDA and California’s bill AB 1266 (read: everyone.)  The feminist movement made it okay for us to question gender, sexual preference and orientation and frankly, the conversations about men really need to be including a lot more women…but that is another post!  Opening this door on the question of “male” has only led to more questions; basically it has led to the discovery of more doors.  Some lead to closets; some lead to corridors; some lead to basements with skeletons and some lead into the bright sunshine outdoors.

This post will be the first in a series where I will pose some of these questions in the hopes that some of my readers and colleagues will begin to formulate answers or possible directions in which we might go to achieve some kind of balance or maybe just a language that allows a conversation to begin.

Question #1 – What are we afraid of? (“Don’t touch me, dude!”)

I have long puzzled to myself, what are men afraid of…really?  This isn’t just as simple as the assumption that some gay men have where every straight guy is a gay man waiting to come out.  In fact, I would go as far to say that this sentiment is as damaging to the cause of realigning masculinity as straight men assuming that the only thing gay men want from them is sex.  In a paper last year, I presented how sexual expression between males is not inherently erotic.  Using the Biblical story of Jonathan and David in the second book of Samuel as my foundation, I make the case that sensual physicality is potentially part of every male relationship.  The physicality experienced by men can be intimate, but it is not automatically erotic.  In our culture today, however, we have been influenced by both misguided science (creation of the terms hetero/homo sexual was an anomaly of 19th century western science and its obsession with labeling things) and male dominance run rampant.

Unconditional Touch

Men in our culture are not taught to receive touch.  That is, men are not taught in our culture to receive touch without there being an exchange.  We are not taught about what I call ‘unconditional touch.’  Our current culture of male physicality reinforces the idea that “if someone is touching me…I must either do something or I have the obligation/right to do something in return.”  How often do we see men presented in comedy sketches where they get ‘a little too close’ and are defensively uncomfortable and have to reestablish their stereotyped masculine positions?  To us this is comedy, but really it is a tragedy.  In this transactional presentation of touch, the man assumes that every one who touches him, is doing so as part of an exchange: either sexual or positional (for dominance.) Example: a woman touching him = sexual communication (invitation/ expectation); a man touching him = challenge to dominance (sexual advance/ acknowledgement of boundaries/ threat.)  This is admittedly a simplification of some of what goes on, but we see this play out all the time in children and adults and it is repeatedly reinforced in our media.

I have seen this in my work as a massage therapist.  Most frequently, straight western men will want a female therapist.  Even though the massage relationship is professional, the underlying expectation presented in this situation is that touch = sex = opposite sex.  This also points to the reason that most straight western women want a female therapist.  They do not want to be presented with the transactional touch relationship of dealing with a male.  This same perversion of touch exists with same gender loving individuals.  The overwhelming majority of my male clients have been gay men.  Not necessarily because they expect a sexual exchange, but because their only context and their safest context for understanding touch has been in a sexual setting.

If men were allowed to experience touch without transactional obligations there might be more room for growth.  Both giving and receiving touch in this setting (without a transactional element) offers men the opportunity to express more authentic emotions, create deeper bonds and develop more genuine and loving relationships with themselves and their world around them.  When we look at two little boys playing together, they are physical.  They wrestle, they touch they cuddle and we consider this kind of interaction normal and endearing.  But at a certain point, rather than allowing the boy to grow with the sense that he can give and receive loving touch from a peer without obligation, we step in with adult expectations of gender norms and cultural restrictions and tell him that touch is only part of a specific set of rituals and can only be used as part of the exchange for sex.  There are many people who consider circumcision of boys to be a crime.  Despite my personal feelings about physical circumcision, I believe that much worse is the cultural circumcision that cuts boys off from the total experience of touch and physical interaction as a full and unconditional experience to be shared between loving people regardless of gender or gender expression.  This numbness is what disconnects men from themselves and from women and is quite possibly the foundation for our current crisis of objectification and rape.

(Coming Next: Question # 2 – Who do we want to be?)

4 thoughts on “Conversations About Masculinity

  1. I appreciate the concept of cultural circumcision (it’s new to me) and the cutting off or separating men from the experience of touch as intimate, but not necessarily sexual. I am reminded of my own frustration at not being able to be physically affectionate with my male Muslim (observant) friends & colleagues — no hugs, for sure, and even no handshake. Whereas I have adapted and make the gesture of touching my heart to convey what I would otherwise with a hug or a touch of the shoulder, I struggle with this way to embody culturally competent communication. I raise it here because I do not have to curtail myself when it comes to the same impulse with my Muslim women friends and colleagues. It seems that widely (universally?) that cross gender touch is inherently sexual and cultural and religious norms tell us what to do with that understanding. For the observant Muslims (and some Jews) I have met, this means no touch. For my secular or liberal religious friends it’s to acknowledge the sexual spark (usually just to oneself or perhaps to one’s partner, not necessarily to the person who touched) and move through it. But still, it is understood as there, isn’t it? And I guess your blog raises the question: is it really there? Is it possible for it not to be there for men?

    • This is an awesome point. And I also hope that my Muslim friends and other religiously motivated friends aren’t offended by my position on this. I just feel that the subtext of sex has been taken to such an extreme that it is denying authentic relationships. Thank you for the religious context reminder! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men | spirituwellness

  3. Pingback: Conversations About Masculinity: Starving Men — The Good Men Project

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