Why don’t men friends touch? I’m not, of course, talking about intimacy between male lovers, but the kind of physical expressions of affection between male friends that was once common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to Richard Godbeer’s eye-opening book, The Overflowing of Friendship, it was not unusual for platonic male friends to write tender letters to each other and to hold hands, cuddle, and even sleep in the same bed. Instead of such behavior “causing talk,” it was accepted by their wives (or girlfriends), families, and the wider community as a healthy, even necessary, aspect of their bond. Intimacy was understood to be beneficial to men’s well-being, and it was common for men to share both emotional and physical closeness. “Early Americans,” writes Godbeer, “exalted love between men as a personal, public, and spiritual good.”
But that aspect of male intimacy has all but disappeared from our culture. Godbeer calls his book “in part an elegy for a world of love, and even the possibility of love, that we have sadly lost – let us hope not forever.” These days, it’s rare to find straight male buddies who do anything more physical with each other than a “bro” hug. And even though, as a gay man, I feel that society gives me a free pass to be more “emotional,” more “physically demonstrative,” I am hesitant to be physically expressive with my closest male friends, especially the ones who are not gay.
Apparently, we live in a culture where it’s okay to have a best buddy, as long as we refrain from almost any physical contact with him. As one friend says, “Everyone craves physical touch but sometimes they’re unwilling to act on the need.” Why did something that was so natural and prevalent between friends centuries ago become virtually nonexistent today? Has all physical contact become sexualized? When did touch between male friends become taboo?
Sex between men wasn’t codified as a distinct medical concept until 1869, when the word “homosexuality” was coined. Before that, labels really didn’t exist the same way they do now. Today, in our more “evolved” age, each sexuality is boxed in its own separate silo. But in the 1700s and 1800s, the lack of formal labels in some ways made it easier for men to be physically close without having their sexuality immediately branded.
To be sure, there were men who engaged in physical intimacy that was sexual. In his book, Godbeer discusses the intense relationship between Alexander Hamilton and his close friend John Laurens. In a footnote, he quotes author William Benemann, saying “while there is ‘no irrefutable proof that Laurens and Hamilton were lovers,’ there is ‘sufficient circumstantial evidence to render indefensible any unqualified pronouncement that they were not.’” Still, from what we can gather, a majority of the male friends who wrote each other letters of affection and held each other in long embraces appeared to be platonic friends.
Then, due to a perfect storm of scientific investigation, expanded legislation, and the scandalous Oscar Wilde trial in 1895, when the flamboyant genius was found guilty of homosexual conduct (“gross indecency”), the age of innocence of chaste intimacy between men began to fade away. Men suddenly became self-consciously aware of how their own loving friendships might be mistakenly perceived by others. At this same time, the death of this kind of platonic touch was hastened by the medical community’s designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder (according to some historians, this was, ironically, a “progressive shift” that was initially intended to protect gay men from criminal prosecution).
When I look at early-twentieth-century photographs of male friends in loving embraces or positions that would raise eyebrows today (a man sitting on another’s lap, or a man with his legs casually draped over his friend’s knees) I feel a twinge of sorrow for what we’ve lost. (Check out Brett and Kate McKay’s article “Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection” on the Art of Manliness website.) If I can share my deepest thoughts and feelings with my best male friend, why should physical contact be off-limits?
To be sure, I bear some responsibility for not rebelling against this new status quo. The fact is, when I was growing up, it was rare to get a hug from my dad (at 92, he’s become much more mellow and hugs freely now). But the combination of being taught to refrain from physical contact – as well as the worry of being misconstrued if I attempt it with a friend – makes me feel awkward about initiating it.
Is this how other men feel as well? Are we too afraid of going outside our own comfort zone to risk having the kind of friendships we long to have? Friendships that allow us to express ourselves without fear of being judged – by our friends, our community, and yes, ourselves?
We are not so different from our male brothers of another century, but our times are. If we live by labels, then we die by them, too. And something has died. The way we interact has certain (sometimes self-imposed) boundaries that didn’t exist before. But can we break free of them? Is there a chance we can defy this modern taboo of male touch and feel at ease expressing our friendship both physically as well as emotionally?
I’d like to think we haven’t lost forever the essential, open-hearted ability to connect with our male friends with a long hug (and not the kind that involves a slap on the back), or a caring hand on the shoulder or knee, or even spooning as we rest and talk. (I was heartened by a study in the U.K. that found that 93.5% of heterosexual male college athletes spooned when they shared a bed with a teammate.)
However, for most men in the U.S., it seems that such physicality will instantly be “read” as an attempt at foreplay. This often inhibits even the spark of a conversation about the subject from taking place. In order for contact to occur, do we have to state upfront that it is about love and not lust? Even if promises are made, will there be a constant wondering if a line will somehow be crossed, whether intentionally or not? Do we allow ourselves to risk, to trust, or have we drifted so far from seeing male friendship in physical terms that we will allow that aspect to become extinct?
My hope is that we in the U.S. will become relaxed enough with physical contact to make it part of our comfort zone with our male friends. After all, isn’t true intimacy the ability to be on the same page, to respect boundaries, and know that our friends will do the same? Can we bring back an age of innocence when it comes to consensual touch?
When I think of all the embraces that are not happening because of shame, and all the tender letters that aren’t being written just because a man thinks it’s not “manly” to express his feelings to a male friend, I get sad. And mad. If things are ever going to change, we have to be the ones to change them. It’s scary, but you know what? It’s time.