Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Reclaiming the Power of Male Touch

In an article first published last year by the online forum Medium, author Mark Greene contends that homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting both queer and straight men.

As much as gay men have faced the brunt of homophobic violence, straight men have been banished to a desert of physical isolation by these same homophobic fanatics who police lesbians and gays in our society. The result has been a generation of American men who do not hug each other, do not hold hands and can not sit close together without the homophobic litmus test kicking in.

The lack of touch in men’s lives results in a higher likelihood of depression, alcoholism, mental and physical illness. Put simply, touch isolation is making men’s lives less healthy and more lonely. . . . The sooner being gay is completely normalized, the sooner homophobic prohibitions against touch will be taken off straight men.

. . . We need to empower men to touch. We need to fix our sexually repressed/obsessed American culture and put an end to distorted and hateful parts of our culture that allow homophobic people to police all men everywhere down to the very tips of our fingertips.

One way to reclaim the power of touch for men – straight men, in particular – is to remember that the prohibition against male touch hasn't always been the norm. As the vintage photographs I share in this post show, in years past the comfortable display of mutual affection and intimacy between men was not uncommon. Greene is aware of this and highlights in his piece the article "Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection," which Brett and Kate McKay wrote in 2012 for the website, The Art of Manliness.

Following is an excerpt from the McKays' article. It's accompanied by vintage images that I've collected over the years showing men captured in moments of intimacy. Enjoy!

The poses, facial expressions, and body language of the men [in these vintage images] will strike the modern viewer as very gay indeed. But it is crucial to understand that you cannot view these photographs through the prism of our modern culture and current conception of homosexuality. The term “homosexuality” was in fact not coined until 1869, and before that time, the strict dichotomy between “gay” and “straight” did not yet exist. Attraction to, and sexual activity with other men was thought of as something you did, not something you were. It was a behavior – accepted by some cultures and considered sinful by others.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the idea of homosexuality shifted from a practice to a lifestyle and an identity. You did not have temptations towards a certain sin, you were a homosexual person. Thinking of men as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” became common. And this new category of identity was at the same time pathologized – decried by psychiatrists as a mental illness, by ministers as a perversion, and by politicians as something to be legislated against. As this new conception of homosexuality as a stigmatized and onerous identifier took root in American culture, men began to be much more careful to not send messages to other men, and to women, that they were gay. And this is the reason why, it is theorized, men have become less comfortable with showing affection towards each other over the last century. At the same time, it also may explain why in countries with a more conservative, religious culture, such as in Africa or the Middle East, where men do engage in homosexual acts, but still consider homosexuality the “crime that cannot be spoken,” it remains common for men to be affectionate with one another and comfortable with things like holding hands as they walk.

Whether the men were gay in the way our current culture understands that idea, or in the way that they themselves understood it, is unknowable. What we do know is that the men would not have thought their poses and body language had anything at all to do with that question. What you see in the photographs was common, not rare; the photos are not about sexuality, but intimacy. [Note: Actually, I think it's fairer (i.e., less absolutist and more open to the complexity of life) to say that in many instances the photos are more about intimacy than sexuality. I offer this as a way of not ruling out completely the possibility that some of these images are about both intimacy and sexuality. In other words, homosexual intimacy.]

These photos showcase an evolution in the way men relate to one another – and the way in which certain forms and expressions of male intimacy have disappeared [for straight men] over the last century.

– Brett and Kate McKay
Excerpted from ""Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection"
The Art of Manliness
July 29, 2012

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Manly Love
Beloved and Antlered
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
Edward Sellner on the Archetype of the Double and Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
Rockin' with Maxwell
What a Man! – Connor Beaton

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