Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men

“When I was a little boy, there was a point at which my dad stopped kissing me and holding me.  He was very clear that I couldn’t do that anymore…it was time for me to be a man.  I was 9.” – Story from an anonymous man

Hands of the poor

How many men can tell this story?  I was reminded of recently hearing this from a colleague when reading Mark Greene’s article in The Good Men Project “The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer. We are hurting our boys and men.  More than any blunt force, or assault, or simple neglect…we are actively and systematically damaging our boys, men and male identified people.  We surround them with images of “manliness” that celebrate force and control and demonizes compliance and emotion. Above all, we are hurting them in one of the most basic ways possible; and we are doing it without laying a hand on them. Literally.

When I read about trauma in men, I realize that I am reading about something that is sometimes as hard to pin down as gender itself.  It may look simple on the surface, but like gender, trauma may have fairly easy to see external signifiers, while at the same time it also has very complex, personal and individual internalizations.  In some of the work happening around healthcare and public policy, people are looking at trauma as a major factor in contributing to the outcomes, or rather the poor outcomes for boys and men of color.  The language is turning to “trauma informed care” (See: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care) and “school based health centers” specializing in addressing trauma in a way that will at once allow young victims to get what they need (care and education) in a context that factors in those cultural elements that have most held them back.  This isn’t just about people of color however.  In the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study done in 2012 on Tarpon Springs, FL, the predominantly white population in this small Gulf Coast community benefited to learn about the links to adult challenges (diabetes, heart disease) that can have their origins in childhood trauma (ACEs Too High Blog.)  Trauma is real for everyone who experiences it and it has deep impact on their lives regardless of both race and gender.

However, there is one kind of trauma that men in America experience we should be exploring much more deeply.  It has no official name at this point and it is not as simple as pointing to a direct victimization or something that is clearly outside of our traditionally based realm of moral constructs.  It is imbedded in the other traumas that get primary attention.  This trauma is a sustained, cultural damage that we endorse as a society and therefore will need much greater effort to combat.  Starvation by touch or what I would call culturally imposed skin hunger.  By forbidding touch, particularly touch between males, men in our culture experience life in a world devoid of unconditional human contact.  They are in essence ‘starving’ for physical contact and most of them don’t even realize it.  In an earlier blog post (Conversations About Masculinity – part 1), I described how American men are taught to experience touch as an exchange and how this “commodification of touch” doesn’t allow most men to experience touch outside of the experience of sex, gender stereotypes and power dynamics.  The most extreme result is sometimes a complete absence of touch experienced in the male life.  There are numerous studies that point to what happens when infants are denied touch…how they fail to thrive and develop (here is a great article from Pediatrics & Child Health.)  But this need does not actually change through life, hence the popularity of massage therapy and other ways in which adults experience human contact for a price.  When we  are regularly denied the most common and essential life sustaining elements of existence (food, water, light) we experience trauma.  Studying anatomy and physiology, one learns a great deal about how the body can’t actually distinguish between types of stress; how in fact, on an emotional level, the body experiences a punch in the face the same way it experiences the loss of a job (outside of the possible broken bones and blood vessels.)  If the body then cannot make the distinction between these kinds of broad differences, then why would it be able to distinguish between the more subtle trauma experienced surviving sexual assault and when it is denied loving human contact?

Where Does the Trauma Show

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a very impressive section on their website that explores trauma and stress in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) On this landing page they list any number of signs of PTSD and we are familiar with most of them in the context of those who have experienced war (sleep disturbances, anxiety, extreme behavior, etc.) But looking at the list of emotional disturbances, presents a very surprising parallel:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

When we see the way in which men in America react to physical intimacy that is not connected to sex (this even goes for same gender loving men), many of these same reactions are present.  How many times do we see an angry reaction from a man who feels another man has gotten too physically close? How often to we see men avoid physical contact?  How easy is it to see men as being cold or numb to affection.  The comparison between how men react to being culturally denied touch and other types of trauma is easy and disturbing.

Some of the most obvious evidence of  trauma resulting from the demonization of touch in America is in the way men do express themselves physically.  The extremes to which some men will go so that they are not in physical contact with another man can be comical if not sad; whether it be a crowded subway or a party game.  If an embrace or a handshake with another man lasts “too long” the defense systems are deployed and the contact is broken, often accompanied by a verbal posturing to assert one’s non touch defined maleness (“I’m no homo”, etc.)  But paralleling the actions that are sometimes seen in those who suffer abuse, the reaction can be significantly beyond the perceived affront.  One could draw this kind of parallel between many different types of trauma (the child of the alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic/ the boy who is chronically denied platonic touch and becomes a rapist, etc.) Of course this is not science (yet) but it may be an indicator of one way that we can look at how the lack of touch for men, manifests as a trauma reaction in every day life.

Another indicator is language.  Men are taught to avoid language that points toward affectionate contact with one another. Men do not use words such as: caress, stroke, hold, embrace either with each other or in reference to each other.  These are words (if they are used at all) that are reserved for intimate sexual settings only.  This points to the most damaging indicator of gendered skin hunger creating a trauma response in American men: sexuality.  It is easy to look at abuse and rape as ways in which men are disconnected from authentic sexual relationships, but it is more difficult when we start to actually explore what men are seeking in their sexual relationships whether they be gay or straight.  Even just the vast preoccupation of our culture with sex contrasted with the body shaming that we engage in speaks volumes about a complete disconnect with how men are experiencing their physicality.

Regardless of scientific evidence, there is no denying that the touch languages expressed by most men in America do not come from healthy places of self-esteem or security in one’s masculinity.  Some may claim that as ‘animals’ men are compelled to prove themselves and display their dominance over one another and those around them, hence the reluctance to interact physically without challenging the other male(s).  But then what of the other ability of male animals to groom one another and sleep with and enjoy each other’s bodies as expressions of comfort and safety and belonging?

How we can fix it

If we can look at the effects of culturally imposed skin hunger as a real trauma then we must look at real trauma solutions to help men recover from it.  Creating safe spaces for men to explore touch with one another; redefining verbal and physical language; establishing a new set of criteria for acceptable physical expressions that are not based in narrow, 19th century stereotypes or 21st century media-types.  Men are exploring options through support groups and online conversations.  But still, the cultural standard is the “strong man” image; the stoic, independent and unflappable warrior.

As a black man in America, I am also aware that men of color are among the most guilty of perpetuating culturally imposed skin hunger.  The problem for men of color however is that changing this environment is dependent upon dismantling a concept of success built upon restrictive, heteronormative social mores.  This goes deeper and involves exploring the whole dynamic of masculinity as a survival mechanism in post colonial cultural structures.  I am convinced that the changes that have to happen with all men will need to occur both in the world surrounding us and inside of our hearts.  Through some of the work around trauma in general, getting stories out in the public without shaming men, exposing the human vulnerability of men may allow for a different external dialogue.  But getting into the hearts of men will be a much greater challenge.  This will have to come from nurturing better environments within families and communities and by letting go of fear based cultural norms.  In a world where people are actually starving for dietary nourishment, why would we let others go hungry for human contact when the solution doesn’t require either an act of Congress or a budget.  The only real cost involved in feeding American men what they most need is an open heart.

Websites on Trauma

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/common-reactions-after-trauma.asp

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers/what-is-cts/12-core-concepts

Articles on Touch (from Mark Greene at Good Men Project)

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201010/why-have-we-lost-the-need-physical-touch

Touch Me in the Morning

In Your Hands For Moodle

I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:

Touch Me…PLEASE! – Elephant Journal

In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS.  The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.

This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch.  You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified.  We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex.  The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex.  The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.

Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary?  Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch.  There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem.  It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power.  Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek.  They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves.  I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move.  Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.

Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church.  However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church.  If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing.  I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith.  By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win.  Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.”  We don’t deserve that as human beings.  Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open.  Shine a light on it and leave the  abusers nowhere to hide.

Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have  anticipated.  We’ll see where it goes.  At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me.  Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.

Peace.

20130916_075406Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments.  Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way.  I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories.  I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.

Body

adam_2In the Fall of 2003 I was asked to be a model for P90X.  It is now the world’s best selling workout DVD.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s a link at the bottom of this page.  At that time, I was in the midst of a grand personal experiment.  I had come to Los Angeles at the end of a national tour determined to be “LA Adam.”  When I started the experiment, I wasn’t actually sure what that meant.  But I knew one thing for sure, it involved having what I called the “LA Body.”  This was a body that would always be camera ready, shaved, sculpted and looking 10 – 15 years younger than it actually was.  Prior to the LA body, I had lived with people commenting on my body as a dancer, for its shape and definition and flexibility; sometimes, welcome, sometimes not.  The most disturbing and regular comment on my body was “you black guys, never have to work out” or “you all look like that” or “dark skin always makes someone look better” or some variation on that theme.  I will happily admit that my parents gave me some good clay to work with, but it was up to me as to what I did with that clay. The idea that my body simply appeared the way it did is naive to say the least.  I started exercising when I was about ten or eleven.  I secretly did hours of ballet exercises in my basement throughout high school.  My freshman year of college, I spent more time in a dance studio than I did in class and then throughout the rest of college, the gym was my refuge from feeling like an outsider.  This past year is the longest I’ve gone in 30 years without a gym membership or regular access to an exercise facility of some kind…only because I spend so much time blogging…but I still, run, do pushups and situps and ride my bike to work.  Yeah, my body just happens because I’m black!

Black men and women have been objectified since day one in America.  Being paraded, proded and peddled as livestock meant we had to have strong bones and teeth, good backs and healthy genitals for breeding.  Stories of auction block antics surrounding the treatment of slaves would disgust most of you so I will let you explore that on your own (see links below.)  But it is that same history that expects us to be good athletes and day laborers and not necessarily bookish and un-athletic.  It is the same history that is behind racial profiling and is history that sits behind the assumptions about Trayvon Martin’s physical ability to inflict harm on George Zimmerman. Black women who are called “Brown Sugar”, black men who are called “Mandingo”…these and the dumb jock mentality are gross assumptions and the worst kind of stereotypes because the black community has frequently adopted them as well.  Blacks have played into a self objectification that makes us out to be nothing more than collection of wildly exaggerated body parts.

It has been a very dicey business for me personally to separate just what is the perverse racially motivated fascination with black bodies in America and what is the perverse fascination with sexuality in America in general.  Living at those crossroads is at times unbearable.  How do you know if someone is going out with you because they like you or because they want to sleep with the ‘P90X Ab Guy’ or because they are expecting nothing short of a sexual freak when they get in your pants?  Or how do you know if that same fascination isn’t just part of the whole “body=sex” equation here in the US?

Simply, you don’t.

I’d love to see us change the dialogue about how we not only talk about black bodies, but how we talk about ALL bodies.  Objectification, racialization, gendering…these are all aggressions we throw at each other, sometimes all too casually.  This fall I will be teaching a course at the Starr King School for the Ministry, In Your Hands: The Language, Ethics and Spirituality of Touch.  My hope is that in this class I can lay the groundwork for changing the game.  When I think of racially motivated violence, both physical and verbal, it is very clear to me that people are only capable of doing these things if they have never been intimate (in the platonic sense) with someone who looks different than they do.  I also believe that faith community leaders have a unique power to introduce a new language of touch.  The crimes of the Catholic church in abusing this power, show just how much power really exists in the ability to influence how someone sees their body.  Repulsively, this power was used by certain members of the Catholic church to horrific ends.  If we only punish them, no matter how severely, they have still won.  We must make a concerted effort to not only make sure those crimes don’t happen again, but to establish a new way to communicate through touch.  The answer is not to eliminate touch…that is inhuman.  The answer is in exploring the deeper meaning of touch as it relates to our physical identity, sense of physical well being and creating a language of liberated body justice where we can not only touch one another, but we can enjoy what that means, without fear or threat.  Imagine a room full of gang members (of any race), or people who hate one another, or total strangers, who are put in a room and simply asked to hold hands…no words.  The potential is tremendous, if we do the tough work…exploring our fears about touch, bodies and physical intimacies.  Faith communities have been vilified in terms of how they view the body and how they use the body.  If faith communities and spiritual people can lead the way to reclaim touch and body awareness, we literally can change the world.

P90X

Starr King School for the Ministry Course Descriptions (mine is at the bottom)

Slave Auction History 1

Slave Auction History 2

Slave Auction History 3

Slave Auction History 4

Colonial Fool: Part IV – The REAL war on Religion

Sam Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors’ Network, stated that he was “stunned at [the decisions on DOMA and Prop 8] today to take a 360-degree turn away from the biblical definition of marriage.…we must continue to work to keep marriages and families intact, the way God intended them, and pray for a continued revival of the values upon which this country was founded,” said Rohrer.1

When I was 15 years old I created a 2 and a half foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe.  It was quite an engineering feat: there she was in all of her youthful voluptuousness striding forward supported on nothing more than two strappy sandal, stiletto high heels.  I determined that once dried and kilned, she would balance perfectly.  Her curves, her expression her pose evoked a totally different era for womanhood…both good and bad.  Tragically, she exploded in the kiln due to unseen air pockets throughout.  That’s what I think of as I watch Paula Deen’s demise and it is also what I think of when I watch some of the conservative Christian reaction to the demise of DOMA and Prop 8.

Poor Paula.  She doesn’t understand why people get upset when she uses the word ‘nigger’ when she is angry or threatened or why having it as a part of her personal vocabulary is seen as…uh, questionable.  But then this shouldn’t be surprising coming from a woman who was fully willing to recreate a “Gone With the Wind” era South, complete with black slave help, for someone’s wedding2.

But remember, Paula Deen has always been this way; we’re just finding out about it.  We still lapped up every dollop of butter she served and bought every book and laughed with her when she was brained by a ham.  So what’s so different now.  Well, now we know.

So what do Paula Deen and Conservative Christians against Marriage Equality have in common?  A lot more than meets the swollen ham eye.  Although statements like Sam Roher’s and pretty much anything Michelle Bachmann has ever said, are just plain offensive, they point to a deeper more restrictive concept of religion than the one they are touting as being solely for married heterosexual couples and couples in waiting (aka their offspring) in much the same way that Paula Deen’s claim that ‘nigger’ is a fun expression is a sign of a deeper set of flaws.  These limited religious factions have decided that there is only one God, and only one interpretation of God not to mention deciding for everyone that there IS a God.  Last time I checked, most Atheists didn’t quite run that way, Hindus are creeped out by that kind of limitation in the concept of existence, Pagans question “just one?”,and well, us Unitarian Universalists don’t accept anything that hasn’t been decided by committee.

Before MB makes a statement like:

Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted….For thousands of years of recorded human history, no society has defended the legal standard of marriage as anything other than between man and woman. Only since 2000 have we seen a redefinition of this foundational unit of society in various nations.3

She might want to consult a Rabbi:

RebJeff on “What does the Bible say about marriage”

If you didn’t navigate away and look at Reb Jeff’s article on marriage (from 2012 but effective nonetheless) he basically says that the Bible just doesn’t lay it out that clearly.  He also brings up American law that only in the last 100 years gave married women ANY rights at all to their own property…largely because they were property themselves.

And Lord knows Michelle might be pretty confused by some of the “ins and outs” of Kosher sex…particularly where it says that the woman may not withhold sex or it is grounds for divorce.4

If the conservative Christians are not willing to accept even the twisted and conflicting language of their own Bible, do we really believe that they are going to take the time to truly accept Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, Zoroastrians, Shinto or any tribal religions?  The framework that Roher, Bachmann et al are using is to declare Protestant Christianity the official national religion of the United States.  I will not argue that Protestant Christianity is what the dominant population who founded this country practiced.  But that same dominant population also practiced and perpetuated slavery, genocide, dowry rituals, marital rape, incest (first cousin marriage is still legal in 20 US states5) blood letting,  and more recently pre-frontal lobotomies, thalidomide, ‘hygenic’ circumcision, silicone breast implants and anti-miscegenation.  Not a great track record.

In the world of Bachmann, church is on Sunday, sex is in missionary position (appropriately named), marriage equals babies, people are either white or something else and God is God.  The terrifying part is that there are an awful lot of people in America who think this same way on some level, just like Paula Deen ignorantly accepts ‘nigger’ as a form of endearment (and she is definitely no rapper.)  The repulsion to same sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg here.  This is a group of people that does not want to see beyond their limited view and gay marriage is the current whipping boy.  After 9/11 Muslims got their wrath (and still carry it.)  Next year, there will be a new ‘other’ for them to be afraid of.  Prior to 1967, it was interracial marriage and before that integration in general and throughout our history any kind of immigrants.  These are all assaults on diversity and our rights to seek independent truth.

I return to my ill fated Marilyn statue, beautiful in some ways though she was, she could never have survived…and that is a good thing; let her rest in peace with all the conflict of talent, honest womanhood and male objectification and victimization she has come to represent.  Similarly, we need to see the limited thinkers who invoke the US founding fathers to foist their beliefs on the rest of us just for what they are: perilously constructed statues of dead icons, waiting to self destruct in the kiln of modern justice.

Footnotes

1. Christians Stunned Disappointed in DOMA Prop 8 Decisions
2. Paula Deen uses the n-word: 8 Shocking Details from her Deposition
3. Michelle Bachmann Rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 Attack our Constitution
4.Kosher Sex
5.Wikipedia – Cousin Marriage