(sometimes withershins, widershins or widderschynnes) means to take a course opposite that of the sun, going counterclock-wise, lefthandwise, or to circle an object, by always keeping it on the left. It also means "in a direction opposite to the usual," which is how I choose to take it in using it as the title of this blog. We're all in the same world finding our own way.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Every Time We Touch

I have a confession to make:

I am terrified of physical intimacy with other men. But at the same time, I crave it. When I want to feel physically comforted, my first instinct/desire is to want it from the men in my life (even though I'm much more likely to be readily supported and listened to by the women who love me).

I'm slowly realizing that growing up queer in a homophobic, hetero-patriarchal world kind of fucked me up more than I like to admit and as a result I have underlying insecurities around any kind of physical intimacy with men who I am not romantically or sexually involved with.

Participating in a Free Hugs
and (Hershey's) Kisses event
in undergrad
And you may be thinking to yourself, Danny, you're queer. You've been with the same partner for four years in a stable, healthy relationship, you offer hugs and are super touchy and gentle and vulnerable with people all the time.

To which I must say, you're right, I am physically and emotionally intimate with people all the time.

Actually being intimate and being afraid of intimacy are not mutually exclusive.

I would argue that my fear (though maybe deep-seated anxiety is a better phrasing) is not innate, but rather a manifestation of a culturally ingrained stigma born out of societal homophobia. It's learned. Before you read on, I encourage you to check out this article by Mark Greene on the Goodmenproject about what he calls touch isolation and how homophobia creates a culture wherein men aren't allowed to touch each other.

My willingness to be intimate with other men is also learned: by exposing myself to an inclusive, diverse arts community, by being actively queer, basically I have expanded my comfort zone by existing at and interacting with the margins of society where the strict boundaries of "normal" behavior are blurred.

If I'm insecure or anxious, it is because society has taught me that I should only be allowed that physical intimacy, that closeness, in certain kinds of relationships. The underlying fear can best be encapsulated by the question: will this be conceived as sexual contact? It's the internalized conflict between a hypersexualized gay culture (all contact between two men is or will become sexual) and certain aspects of homophobic cultural conditioning (contact between two men should never be sexual) with the reality that not all touch is inherently sexualized and even if it is, that's not always a bad thing.

 Even within my own personal experience this isn't universally true. After all, I'm a notorious cuddler with close friends. Pet me. Hug me. Trade massages. Brush my head with your elbow. Touch is very important to my life.

My head being brushed with an elbow.
I've been actively unlearning this social conditioning for years now, but sometimes it still catches me off guard. It's compounded by the specific ways in which as a queer man I have to unravel and separate the various forms of attraction, desire, lust, like, and love that I can feel for any given man at any given time, and usually there's more than one happening at the same time. This isn't always an easy task.

So is a hug just a hug or is it a hug?

It depends. Sometimes it's both.

What I'm trying to unpack here is that I don't think physical intimacy is something to be afraid of. We can touch, hug, cuddle, kiss, whatever and it doesn't have to be a Thing. It can just be the base comfort of sharing space and company. I want that for myself. I want that for you.  Otherwise we are depriving ourselves for nothing.

And to the men in my life that I can be vulnerable with, where the hugs last just long enough to make the occasional person watching uncomfortable, who will hold my hand while we sit in silence, those shoulders to lean on even when I don't need support, know I appreciate you. You're helping me overcome a lifetime of deprivation.

As a endnote to this post, I would like to address the role of consent in these interactions. All too frequently we talk about consent in terms of sex, but part of recognizing and honoring the body autonomy of the people we interact with is by establishing boundaries and communicating. Some people aren't okay with touch. So ask. Can I hug you? Want to cuddle?

Offer alternatives. Hand-hug instead of full body hug. Sit next to each other instead of on each other.

Meet people where they're at. Men especially in our culture can take some time to warm up to the idea of body contact that isn't explicitly sexual or aggressively nonsexual (sports/roughhousing), but give them the option. Create space and opportunities to be close, but with the option to opt out if it's too much.

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