Two Warnings on Touching

Joe Biden's propensity for touching is in the news -- much of it completely at odds with contemporary standards. I don't want to run down the movement to protect women and girls from predatory behavior. I do want to repost two relevant older posts that call into question some of the assumptions we as a society seem to be operating under, and then raise two warnings about things we should try to avoid.

First post: Pulling Pigtails, which questions whether or not the assumption of male power is baked into the governing analysis. "Couldn't it be that there is a corresponding female power, one that gives them license to touch others without permission in ways that men are simply forbidden to do? Or are we obligated to cash this out as five-out-of-six expressions of male oppression of women, even though four-out-of-six appear to be choices made by a woman?"

Second post: Ah, the Patriarchy, which points out that extant law perfectly adheres to the self-described "feminist" statement of principles. That being true, how seriously should we take the assumption that our society isn't already feminist, at least in this regard?

Now, the two warnings.

First, as regards male to male touching, American society has long been entirely too restrictive of anything that might be misinterpreted as homoerotic. This was true to the extent that, when I was a boy, it was essentially inappropriate for any man to touch another except to shake hands in a firm fashion -- the mutual firmness displaying a strength that would to some degree serve as a warning-off, a display of power. Only extraordinary occasions allowed exceptions. You might slap another man's shoulders when he fathered a child or got married. I don't recall my father hugging me until I left home at 18, and he expected not to see me again for a very long time.

In fact, touch is human and healthy. I discovered that I enjoyed the experience when I started jujitsu, which by nature involves grappling. It's not a sexual experience, but it is the experience of touching others you like -- the mutual experience of pursuing the art builds a bond, and the touch is an affirmation of it. Grappling, fighting, learning to feel the other through the sword in the bind and play, those things require and reward physical contact. As an adult I've gravitated toward modes of manhood -- biker, horseman, strongman -- that are sufficiently confident to dispense with fears about touch.

So the first warning is: don't extend to heterosexuality the kind of fear of touch that arose out of American fears of homosexuality. There are fit and proper boundaries, I agree. If it becomes the case that we are afraid to touch each other, though, we lose something human and important.

Second, as much as I sometimes miss certain aspects of youth, it's already very hard to navigate that period of life without new impositions forbidding expressions of tenderness. Run a search on "Young people aren't having sex" and you'll see that the trendlines suggest it hasn't gotten easier since our day. Let's take some care not to set up standards of appropriateness (especially in law, but also in behavior codes at institutions like colleges where the young gather) that make it harder for them to navigate what are already anxious waters.

It should be possible to avoid those problems without derailing the good that is to be had from the current moment. I raise them only as considerations, not as roadblocks.


douglas said...

I wonder though if the real driving force behind not touching between men was fear of being labelled homosexual. Certainly some men are simply less 'touchy' than others (I would probably be one, especially in my youth- having children has softened that quite a bit), and certainly certain societies are more taciturn and stoic than others, and that may be reflected in men's behaviors towards other men (or even women). I also agree that engaging in physical contact with other men is something I enjoy as I play hockey (no checking, but plenty of shoving and bumping), and that it's a natural expression of our physicality. I think that also might be further evidence that men touching or not isn't so directly tied to homosexual expression.

Grim said...

Well, for whatever it is worth, I feel no sexual attraction to men at all. They could be logs, for all that's worth. But I like fighting, I enjoy wrestling, and I like the physicality of greeting brother bikers or strongmen with a hug.

Perhaps I should care what others think about that, but I just don't. I like that we don't have to care. It seems right to us, and who is going to tell men like us what we ought to like?

Christopher B said...

Let's take some care not to set up standards of appropriateness (especially in law, but also in behavior codes at institutions like colleges where the young gather) that make it harder for them to navigate what are already anxious waters.

The biggest problem I see here is, though the issues are interrelated, we keep blurring the lines among contact that makes people uncomfortable, awkward requests for a date, unsatisfactory sexual experiences, and full-on assault.

I read a comment on Biden's behavior that I think sums up what makes it revolting to most, and it has little to do with any erotic component : he was 'marking territory'.

Grim said...

I think the most uncomfortable photos are the ones involving children, in which I hope there really was no erotic content. I don't know if I'd call that 'marking territory,' but I think it looks very bad.

I'm not arguing against drawing better lines. I'm just trying to raise some concerns about collateral damage that we should do our best to avoid.

douglas said...

I think part of the problem with Biden is that he's so self-centered that he can't even see the discomfort he inflicts on people.

"But I like fighting, I enjoy wrestling, and I like the physicality of greeting brother bikers or strongmen with a hug."

Indeed, as do I, but it wasn't always (and sometimes still isn't) something that comes easily to me, partly because I'm the son of a Chinese woman who probably never got hugged by her Father, and a German-American father who just wasn't that touchy (but wasn't averse either). There's all these factors- cultural, personal, for me also of self-confidence (which obviously Biden has in excess), and it's like it's more about whether or not you need permission to act or if you feel comfortable acting on your own impulse, permission or not. For example, when I was courting, kissing a girl was a big step, and not one I took easily. More often than not I had to get verbal permission first in some form (or at least offer verbal warning and not see it rejected). I'm slow to make assumptions about others feelings. Those who I am comfortable with, I'm very comfortable with, and in arenas where permission is explicit (contact in sport for instance) I have no trouble at all.