Last month, I had the great privilege of delivering the baccalaureate address for the class of 2022 at Amherst College. This was such an honor and I am incredibly grateful to Harrison Blum and the whole office of Religious and Spiritual Life for their support in making this happen.
“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
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.