Masculinity, Vulnerability, and Touch

(Art:  Naomi  via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

(Art: Naomi via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the power of touch and how it is often mediated by culture and identity. It's a complex topic for a short blog post, so below are just some initial thoughts and links for further reading and exploration.

To start, the benefits of healthy touch (even a simple hug!) have been spelled out through studies with both infants and adults.

The right kind [of touch] can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, stimulate the hippocampus (an area of the brain that is central to memory), and drive the release of a host of hormones and neuropeptides that have been linked to positive and uplifting emotions. The physical effects of touch are far-reaching.

Some people might not need scientific data to understand the effect compassionate touch can have on their physical and emotional well-being. That gentle hand on your shoulder comforting you or the energetic hug from someone you haven’t seen in a long time. Or conversely, the pain of not being able to embrace a loved one who is living far away or kept from you by borders or walls.

Keeping in mind there are many personal reasons why someone may not seek out nor welcome touch, there are also societal norms that shape behavior and discourage touch. Specifically, cultural homophobia and toxic forms of masculinity often make touching (especially among masculine folks) seem taboo.

Author and activist Reina Gossett writes on the history of homophobic “no touch” ordinances in the U.S. and how the afterlife of those laws still "create forcefields between us, isolating us from the touch we need.”

Mark Greene points out that:

(Art:  Naomi  via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0)

(Art: Naomi via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0)

American culture leaves boys few options. While aggression on the basketball court or bullying in the locker room often results in sporadic moments of human contact, gentleness likely does not…

 And where does this leave men? Physically and emotionally isolated. Cut off from the deeply human physical contact that is proven to reduce stress, encourage self esteem and create community. Instead, we walk in the vast crowds of our cities alone in a desert of disconnection. Starving for physical connection.

We crave touch. We are cut off from it. The result is touch isolation.

These cultural norms reverberate in the field of massage therapy, where the American Massage Therapy Association estimates that less than 20 percent of massage therapists in the U.S. are male-identified. One program director cites homophobia as one possible reason and more broadly that "the cultural impact of touch in this country makes it even more challenging for men to consider the profession." (Cultural homophobia may also be a motivating factor for male clients who refuse to work with a male massage therapist).

Although not exempt from cultural norms as a field, massage therapy can be a powerful antidote. Touch isolation or “touch hunger” has been shown to impact the area of the brain called the vagus nerve, which plays a critical role in our health. "When you massage these people, their depression levels go down and their vagal activity goes up," points out a doctor at the Touch Research Institute.

Even though the importance of healthy touch can be proven, our culture continues to mediate who can and should access it. Many are taught in U.S. culture that to be masculine one must avoid vulnerability. By policing touch, a large swath of our community is cut off from the potential to connect and heal with others. Who suffers when we monitor ourselves and each other? When did we forget that vulnerability (like touch) is part of the human condition?

I hope this conversation continues and that massage therapists can contribute to a paradigm shift around healthy touch.

Further Reading

Wellness Planning Worksheet

The Body Keeps the Score