Touch and Masculinities

One of the interesting scholarly discussions in the world of critical men’s studies centres around men’s bodies. Men and women’s bodies are not just anatomical and fleshly, they are a whole host of things, carrying a broad range of meanings. A common concern of the gendered body is that of sexuality and how the body is used in its expression of our sexual selves, our body projects to be attractive to chosen mates, our power over – or subjugation of – the body in sexual acts that fulfil, sustain, bond or destroy us. Bordo and Connell and many (many!) others have explored the meaning of the male body in terms of its social and cultural functions in sex with women or other men.

What is less explored territory (and I’m certainly not suggesting that it hasn’t been explored at all) is men’s bodies and non-sexual bodily expression. Here I’m referring to men’s physicality being used for intimacy in its truest sense (in psych terminology), the close bond between two people, rather than its common usage where the word ‘intimacy’ automatically signals sex. What about when men use and experience their bodies in a nurturing and sustaining way to show care, express kinship or protection, or communicate their most profound liking or love and appreciation in their important relationships with others. In other words, what about men’s need for, and demonstration of, touch.

Touch is a fundamental human need. Our lives begin with it – being constantly surrounded by another human’s body when we are in the womb and the constant contact we have in others’ arms as infants. Touch helps us to thrive, it sustains us and helps us become aware of our ‘okayness’, it comforts us and provides reassurance that we are not alone. This touch is deemed ‘safe’: there is no agenda behind it, there is perceived to be no risk, and it is free of sexual undercurrents or overtures. Usually, all genders get to experience it. We do not stroke our boy baby’s head differently to our girl baby’s head.

As we grow older, however, there are some alleged ‘truths’ in psychology and sociology about men, touch, and their bodies. Boys are hugged less, kissed less, in general, touched less. They are encouraged to separate from mothers and fathers to show independence. Suddenly a need for a cuddle, hug or kiss might be labelled as ‘clingy’ in a young male child and much less so in a young female. Indeed, boys begin to (seemingly) want less touch because they want to look ‘tough’. It’s important to note that the argument would be that safe touch is not necessarily wanted less by the boy, merely that he and his loved ones socialise him into believing that this should be less required.

As we grow older and experience a new longing for a different kind of touch, our sexual selves awakening during puberty, both our internal experiences and the social world we are inducted into reconfigure almost all touch as ‘sexual’ in nature. A need to experience closeness (intimacy) and physical contact in a non-sexual way does not evaporate, vanishing in to the thin air never to be experienced again, but much of this need for any physicality is directed at our objects of sexual desire and fulfilled through these relationships.

Non-sexual touch is soon foregrounded again. We overcome our pubescent awkwardness with parents and siblings and re-learn safe expressions of affection and bonding, through hugs and kisses. Often sexual touch leads to one of the greatest opportunities for non-sexual close-contact and nurturance, as a man’s sexual relationship may lead to offspring. Growing into being a dad means reconnecting with one’s self-expression and physicality from childhood, where the child thrives on physical, as well as psychological, affirmation and closeness.

Touch returns with an untold force as there is a powerful need to show sons or daughters that they are wanted, needed, beloved and worthy. At the best of its expression, it is pure and powerful, with (again) no hidden agenda or subversive edge. Having a man in one’s life who is mature, caring, and secure enough in themselves to show their family members that they love them is overwhelmingly good, it shows male and female children that non-sexual affection is normal, and something that belongs to both men and women – i.e. that being caring and affectionate and warm is not ‘being female’ – it is being human and it nurtures all of us…

And then, two years ago, David Beckham kisses his daughter, Harper, on the lips and the twisted, dysfunctional, and downright delusional pours forth, like a dam inundating the rational self all over social media. In 2018 Mr. Beckham and his daughter were snapped kissing one another on the lips at (hold on to your girdles) a public event! Not in a private family setting. Not behind closed doors. They did this again (after much fanfare was made of them sharing a high-five, too).  The commentary in the media and on social media was bizarre to me for reasons I’ll share in a moment. It was about how gross it was to see a male parent touching his young child in this way.

Some of the criticisms of the Beckhams did even try to hide their latent taboo-sex basis: it was expressed explicitly that this was a problem because Beckham is male, interacting with a female child. Ergo, if Victoria had been snapped doing the same, no-one would have had cause to take note (well maybe a little billing and cooing at how cute and close the Beckham girls were). Some of the outcry centred on the location of the kiss. The problem was that it was on the lips – not on a cheek or a forehead.

Now, let’s be clear, many people came out in support of David Beckham’s spontaneous, warm and child-centred fathering (i.e. parenting that does not withhold affection nor make the child feel as if they are not to be acknowledged in public). He was by no means universally demonised. He had many supporters.

What shocked me was the depth of feeling people displayed using the invisibility cloak of social media. This was not just disapproval – it was unfettered disgust. The behaviour was described as ‘unnatural’ or ‘creepy’. And this is how I know how far down the rabbit hole we’ve slid. For someone to suggest any parent of any gender showing safe love and affection to their child (frankly, of any age) is wrong in some way is bad enough. To suggest it is wrong using sexualised arguments is deeply concerning.

Has our hysteria about paedophilia (perceived or actual) and our own hypersexual society, where any use of our bodies is configured as sexual or pseudo-sexual, taken such a hold in the psyche of individuals that they cannot possibly see a difference between types of physical contact? Are we to believe that all touch must have a sexual motivation? Well, then, men are doomed. They’re already routinely typecast as being creatures of unrelenting sexual appetites, at the mercy of their irrepressible sexual urges. So even when they curb these insatiable lusts (sarcasm intended) and step up to be caring, contactful, loving parents to their little ones, there are now rules on how they can express their affection (!?). The kisses in question were pecks on the lips – not disturbing, carnally loaded affairs.

So, here’s my experience. I kiss my dad on the lips. I always have (apart from a fleeting time when all and any contact was awkward and odd during the turbulently confusing time of puberty, when I didn’t want anyone in my family near to be honest). I also kiss him on the cheek. I do this at home or when we are out in public. It is not a studied statement, it is a reflex whenever we are meeting or leaving one another, or sharing a moment of affection and closeness. I hug him and I cuddle him. I kiss my mum and my brother, too. I will always be his little boy even when he is 80+ and I am 60. When I need comfort or the haven of safe and trusted warmth and closeness, I know I can go to my family.

When the outpouring about the Beckham’s affection was so resolutely negative I was utterly confused. I didn’t see a creep behaving unnaturally with a young female. I just saw an innocuous picture of something I had been brought up thinking happened every day – where fathers parented their daughters and sons, and that this included safe expressions of non-sexual touch that bonded their relationship and showed the child how much they cared for one another. My dad told me many years ago that it was a conscious decision when he met the love of his life and they decided to have children. He was going to be the opposite of his own parents, who were cold, distant and seemingly incapable of comfort. He was going to raise his children, of whatever gender, safe in the knowledge that they were loved and, that most important and underused of words: cherished.

This has recurred, with dads and sons reacting to a viral picture of a grown lad and his dad sprawling around each other, close as can be. Women and men commented on how this was no way for men to behave once the boy was an adult, that it seemed ‘gay’ even. To be clear, these two men were resting companionably upon one another in a loose cuddle. There was a ‘backlash’ I was proud of: with people taking their own photos showing full-body hugs and cuddles with their own dads. It was heartening. We need our dads to be modelling safe touch and affection, we need them to be showing that they cherish the people in their lives. After all, these debates about toxic masculinity are raging; surely well-grounded, secure, mature men who know how to express their feelings (be they positive or negative) are part of the ‘antidote’ to the supposed toxicity.

I’ll be giving my dad a kiss ’til the day he dies, and I don’t care who sees. He’s my dad and I love him, and life’s too short for us to miss showing one another that.