Why Don’t Straight Men Touch Each Other?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Nov. 21 2013 2:23 PM

Another Casualty of Homophobia: Platonic Male Affection

When did male affection become taboo?

Photo credit: TheArtofManliness.com

On a trip to southern Spain a few years ago, my partner and I were invited to a friend’s home for Shabbat dinner. As we were seated at the table, our host, a maternal and physically affectionate gay man, continually petted us as he brought fragrant Sephardic food to the table. This is common among gay men and thus did not surprise me. But to this day I remember how my body froze when the other guest—a quiet but warm straight man—rose from his seat, picked up a kippah, gently placed it on my head, and patted the back of my neck. His platonic touch was totally nonchalant for him, and yet it electrified me—not because I found it erotic, but because, at that moment, I realized how rare that kind of fraternal male touch had been in my life. Straight men weren’t supposed to express affection this way.

Of course, Mediterranean cultures like Spain and Italy possess a higher degree of male homosocial comfort—it is not at all strange there to see two men walking with their arms around one another, sleeping on each other’s shoulder, holding hands, or even sharing a quick friendly kiss. But as Mark Greene recently observed over at The Good Men Project, trying that kind of thing in the U.S. could get you a black eye:

In America in particular, if a young man attempts gentle platonic contact with another young man, he faces a very real risk of homophobic backlash either by that person or by those who witness the contact. This is, in part, because we frame all contact by men as being intentionally sexual until proven otherwise. Couple this with the homophobia that runs rampant in our culture, and you get a recipe for increased touch isolation that damages the lives of the vast majority of men.

Greene, a straight man, justifies his support of gay marriage and general gay acceptance in part for this reason—as long as any kind of male affection automatically reads as sexual (and, given widespread cultural homophobia, threatening), men of all orientations are suffering and becoming emotionally stunted by a lack of homosocial intimacy. As he eloquently puts it:

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.

If you’ve never considered this painful lack in men’s lives, take a few minutes to read Greene’s piece, and think about what life might be like if men could do away with this taboo (he has a beautiful anecdote about rubbing his elderly father’s feet, for example). Also, take a moment to look at one of his sources, Bosom Buddies: A Photo History of Male Affection, which demonstrates that our current self-policing wasn’t always the norm. Indeed, though many of the couples in those pictures look gay to us now—a direct demonstration of our modern skewed perceptions of male intimacy—most of them were probably just good friends.   

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Use Facebook to Reconnect With Old Friends, Share Photos, and Serve People With Legal Papers

  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?