This article was also posted on the Good Men Project.
You might have read articles about about how boys and men -- at least in the US if not in the western world -- are deprived of touch because of the scripts that narrowly define masculinity, manhood, what a man does and what a man wants (Here’s three: here, here, and here).
I, too, have experienced some version of it, and this is my story.
I grew up in Canada, a progressive country, in a progressive family. I went to schools that taught morals alongside catechism (students could pick either), personal development, and the social side of sex education (not just the biology). My parents never said to me “Be a man!”, never shamed me for crying (both of them cried in front of us), and never taught me and my sister the scripts of masculinity or femininity. If anything, they taught us what it looks like to be a family and making things work by doing the best we can and getting help when we couldn’t.
But when it came to touch, I mostly remember it coming from my mom. Sure, I got the occasional hug from my dad, but for the most part, all/most of our engagements were verbal. Perhaps it was just a Lewis family thing, I’m not sure. I didn’t miss it specifically. It just became more and more scarce from both of them as I grew up.
Later on when I became a teenager and hormones started raging in my body, it (my body) would often feel possessed, like it was no longer mine. I would more and more regularly get overcome by thoughts of sex, get aroused and turned on by girls in my classes (and more specifically by body parts that seemed to mysteriously call for my attention) despite any attempts to “not think about it”. I was also a nerd, loving all things science, which didn’t exactly make me the coolest and most attractive person, and because my parents mostly just left me to my own devices, and despite the personal development and sex education classes at school, there was really very little teaching and experience around sex and affection in my teenage years.
And yet, the non-stop hormonal calling for sex continued.
This made any sort of touch in my late teens and twenties problematic. On the one hand, I knew that touch was something that felt good and was not sexual. On the other hand, there was zero choice around whether or not my body would get aroused by it. I still remember writing in my journal “I wish I could turn it off…” When touch happened, something primal would automatically spring into action, connecting the two -- touch and sex -- every. single. time.
During those years, from one girlfriend to another, I managed to keep my sexuality contained and focused. I learned to engage well and focus my attention on what we both wanted. In a way, I learned about consent before I ever heard about consent. The idea that my partners and I should play on a level playing field -- in terms of feelings, pace, desires, and boundaries -- just seemed to make sense. Regardless, sensuality and sexuality became intimately linked, really only leaving sexuality as a global mode of engagement with partners.
Fast forward to my thirties taking my first contact improv dancing class, trying MDMA for the first time, a rush of sensations came back to my body, not only reconnecting me to a whole world of sensations, but also to something much deeper yet more tamed which revealed itself through arousal. It was something primal. I called it my inner animal. And this is the point where I began the journey back to my body and animal as two different *things*, one primal, the other biological -- a machine and animal of flesh and bone to begin to care for as I began to move away from youth into a newer more mature part of my life.
Then came my thirties, my son, parenting and oxytocin.
Oxytocin is something mothers are familiar with. It’s what allows them to bond with their child. It happens naturally with their baby as soon as they begin to breastfeed. And along with touch/oxytocin, an activity called “face time” when holding babies is something that has more recently been showing up in studies as supporting the creation of a secure attachment style in babies. But for a father -- who spends most of his adult life experiencing physical touch as sex (or a precursor to it) -- the experience of physical touch with a baby or child can be both strange and unsettling. At least it was for me. Sure my inner animal was now tame compared to what it was in my twenties, but even then experiencing this amount of touch -- and the intense *needs* from the being that came with it -- was not something I was used to. It awakened parts of me I didn’t want to be awake in the presence of my child. But over time, and especially as my son began to grow up and become more of a little person, and as my attachment and love for him grew, I began to experience something completely new:
Sitting with my son and having him close to me felt good.
Not a sort of “good” that I had ever experienced. Rather, it was the sort of good that having a warm loving manifestation of your flesh and blood against your own flesh and blood feels. A “good” full of goodness and sweetness. A good that says “I trust you and I love you”. A good that makes you feel at peace rather than excited.
The goodness that comes from oxytocin and love.
Early on in his life, my son had distinguished “liking” from “loving”. To him, saying “I really like you Dada” meant -- I asked him -- that he likes the way his body feels next to mine. In a way, it was the sort of somatic or primal love that was not altogether different than how pets love us, or how partners feel safe with us when they cuddle with us. But somehow, even after having been years with my wife and many girlfriends before that, that was something that felt completely new to me, something that was still missing from my experience until my son came into the world to transform my view of it.
In a way, becoming a father had led me to rediscover the goodness and peacefulness of platonic sensual touch.
And it was -- and still is -- good and loving. And authentic.
Platonic touch is a really good way to explore consent.
We mammals can immediately know what feels good in our body and practice letting others know what we want, how we want it, and when we are done. This -- consent through platonic touch -- is something we’ve been teaching our son since he was able to say “yes” and “no”. Early on, we made it clear to everyone around him that he was not to be tickled, picked up, hugged, kissed, or touched unless he was ready, willing, able, and informed -- the classic definition of consent in many circles. If he said yes, awesome. If he said no, awesome. No shame, no blame, no discussion. We understoff early on that if we respected his feelings, pace, desires, and boundaries, he would be more likely to respect us in the same way. And hopefully women and men and anyone in the future. And it was hard for us each time he said no. In fact, I wonder sometimes if he says no just to test us without even thinking about it.
This is a big deal and a huge way to teach kids about consent: respect theirs, show them how it’s done. Then require the same of them. Then, of course, demonstrate with all the people in your life, whether your child is with you or not. And when consent is not respected, have conversation, apologize, repair/make it up to them, and move on.
Then when hormones come for him one day -- as they will and as they did with me -- we know our son will already have somew sense of how to engage consensually with his own body and with those he eventually engages sexually with.
And beyond that, he will know what feels good just for goodness sake, not just for some orgasm’s sake or for his inner animal’s desire or reproduction’s sake.
Beyond ourselves: a world where consent matters.
Today, our world is full of industries that are all about creating good sensations in the body: food, chocolate, spa, massage, hot tub, flying, exercise, yoga, hiking, sex, and so much more. Isn’t it time we teach our kids how to properly know how to use their body and senses -- and especially touch, in a way that works for everyone they are engaged with? Or even alone? To know how to go along with what feels right to self and to others, without compromise?
But first, we need to know what feels good in our own body, so we can relate when it comes to what feels right to other people’s bodies. And we need to know the difference between platonic touch and sexual touch.
As men, this is especially important as so many have lost touch -- or have never learned this difference. Because society has forgotten to socialize us to know. Because society has given boys and men very little to work, learn, and understand with. And we need to face the judgments we have about what it’s like to both give and receive gentle loving non-sexual touch.
As women, this is especially important because they are socialized to care for and please others, thus forgetting what’s most important: their feelings, their pace, their desires, their bounmdaries. In other words, what feels right in their body and in their heart.
Our children will learn from us, and then they will learn from each other based on what they have learned from us. If they don’t learn anything, they will lack the practice to know what to do later, and all they will have to follow is their hormones. We need to demystify what being in touch with the body means, and it begins early on with not only babies touching their mother “skin-to-skin” but their fathers as well. And from there, the need for touch never stops. Because it’s a need and because it’s unhealthy for anyone to lack it.
Let’s give our children the gift of embodiment, the gift of platonic touch, and the gift of engaging consensually with others so that this need for touch can be met in the most healthy and positive way possible.