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A couple of years ago I went to confession to Fr. B, an older priest with a slight New York accent, a pronounced shuffle, and a curmudgeonly demeanor. I explained — I hate the sins that take explaining — that I had put myself in a not-very-good situation. I was at the apartment of a friend, a man my age who also has SSA and who also has no intention of living as a gay man, though he’s not Christian. We were watching some stupid movie, I think it was Shoot ‘Em Up,1 and pretty soon, somehow, I was lying in his arms.

Oops. That was as far as it went, thank God, but this is what is definitely called an Occasion of Sin and Putting Yourself In It. I explained2 that we weren’t doing anything sexual, but were just helping each other to meet each other’s (legitimate!) needs for healthy physical contact.

Fr. B says: “Hm. Legitimate needs. Healthy physical contact. Maybe next time you want to try a firm handshake.”

I got the point, and in one sense he was dead on, but in another he was completely off the mark. Everyone — I don’t just mean men with SSA — needs physical contact, and sometimes a handshake doesn’t cut it. This is something it took me a long time to learn. When I was first working out what it meant to live with SSA, I used to take a completely hands-off approach: don’t look at other guys, don’t think about them, and above all don’t touch them.

But I was starving. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that my desire to touch, and be touched by, other men, wasn’t actually wrong. It was disordered insofar as it was sexual, but swearing off all physical contact is a quick route to a breakdown. A few more years of that mindset and I would’ve ended up at some truck stop off I-89 every other weekend.

Once I stopped thinking about physical contact as inherently sexual, and started understanding what a universal human need it is — does anybody think a five-year-old is creepy for hanging onto his dad? — a lot of the charge went out, in a good way. I started getting more comfortable with hugs, grips to the shoulder, casual and friendly touch. With my closer friends, I can go further: Sal is even more comfortable with this stuff than I am, and doesn’t think anything is strange about a thirty-second hug, especially if we haven’t seen each other for a long time.

Like everything else, it takes time to learn. There’s always the danger of making too much of a big deal about it, and of course the danger of fooling yourself, of not knowing where to draw the line. But we all need to be touched, no matter how old we are. To paraphrase Mark Twain: I could live for two months on a good hug.

Hey, I just remembered, even though a particular brother-in-law of mine might make endless fun of me for mentioning it: Art of Manliness has a great post about male friendship.

1 This in no way constitutes a recommendation of said film.
2 Pronounced “rationalized.”

20 thoughts on “Learning How to Touch

  1. BH

    Great blog, “Steve!” A friend sent me the link today, and I’m loving it. Stay strong and know that I, and I’m sure many others, are praying for you!

    Reply
  2. Miss Maro

    It’s so true that everyone needs physical affection every so often. I’m glad you found a way to get some. I know just what you mean by feeling starved because I’ve felt that way too.

    Reply
  3. sonja

    Sounds like Jay is projecting and possibly can’t handle this issue himself.

    It also sounds distinctly to me like an example of “His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” You are so right that we all have this profound need, and due to the wounds and faults of my husband, I don’t get a lot of it myself unless I seek it out, which feels needy and pathetic (weak). What I am learning about it is that if I go to God with this need when I am writhing around in desperation for it, internally, and really give my need to Him, He meets it for me (strength), in very creative, wholesome, and satisfying ways.

    Your awareness and approach is healthy. Grace.

    Reply
  4. Peter

    I’ve done some backtracking in your blog and for a lot of your posts I find myself saying, “that’s exactly what I’ve thought, if only I had the eloquence (or the guts) to say it.” This one is no exception. It is truly comforting to be able to hug a good friend without the worry that it will be taken by you or him (or her) as something sexual. And I definitely know how physical contact, when you’re starving for it, can easily become an occasion of sin.

    Sonja, you are in my prayers. May God bless us both with strength in our times of weakness.

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      Peter, I agree fully! I discovered the blog two days ago, and am working through all the posts, and with pretty much everyone, I find myself thinking that it could have been me writing!

      Reply
  5. Claudia

    YUP totally identify. Single female, celibate for religious obedience reasons and YEAH totally miss human touch. so when i can offer hugs I do, not totally unselfishly. Because otherwise i find myself around a certain person and looking for more than just a touch. :-\ Bless me Father, for I have sinned …

    Reply
  6. Boatman B.

    Steve:

    What do you now for a sense of physical intimacy? My checkered past of acting-out on SSA is recent enough that I haven’t really encountered the “thirst” for it as you Claudia describe — but I can definitely see myself getting there.

    What’s your current strategy for this?

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      Hm. I wish I had a better one. My general principle is to make sure I see friends regularly, and to enjoy the contact I get in that way. Even that can be a trick for me, since I am sort of reclusive by nature.

      Reply
  7. Dcn Scott

    I blog at Καθολικός διάκονος. I am glad to have found your blog. You’re on my “Blogs I Like” list. It’d be great to touch bases with you sometime.

    Blessings,
    Deacon Scott

    Reply
  8. John D. Shea

    I may be way out there on this, but I wonder if the prevalence of SSAs in our modern culture is partly caused (or at least made worse) by a poor understanding of healthy physical contact. I have met so few men who have a healthy sense of non-sexual physical affection, I can count them on a hand and a half (and two of them are my brothers). Perhaps many a SSA has originated with a young man starved for non-sexual physical intimacy? Just speculation on my part, mind you. I often wonder if this also applies to many of the young women I know who can’t seem to tell men no. Were they starved for healthy, non-sexual male physical touch as a child? Did their father/brother never hug them, plant a big kiss on their cheek or bounce them on his knee? I have no idea, but it does seem possible.

    As always, well said Steve. Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  9. Dylan

    I just stumbled on your blog today, and I’m on hour 1.5 of reading now. First of all, thank you so very much for the courage to share! I can relate to most of what you have written as though I were reading my own story. I’ve never known anyone with the courage to speak so candidly on the issue, particularly integrated with faith, and it gives me tremendous hope for my own future (my past religious endeavors have left me heartbroken and unable to “measure up”), but I will be taking RCIA classes this fall and look forward to joining the Faith and continuing my journey as best I can. I wish you the absolute best! And apologies for a random, perhaps off-topic comment :)

    Reply
  10. albert

    Thank you so much steve for the manner in which you present these facts, “serious” people like me need loads and loads of this.

    Reply
  11. Rebecca

    My good male friend and I always touched eachother in small ways: mostly handshakes, fist-punshing, squeezing the other’s hand, sometimes a poke on the arm. But when I triwed to hug him, he curled up his body away from me and started muttering for several minutes about how “First people start by hugging eachother, next thing, they’re all over eachother…”
    It strikes me as a little biut funny now.

    Reply
  12. Rebecca

    I’ve substituted in preschools. Every preschool has a nap period, during which soft music is playing. In just about every preschool, it’s normal to lie next to a kid and sooth him to sleep by slowly rubbing his head or body. A cool profession.

    Reply
  13. SieNoel

    I have been talking with a few friends who have had SSA issues who are all in ministry and we’re in pretty strong agreement that the combination of our over-sexualized culture with the absence healthy non-sexual physical affection (or, moreso, the presence of everyone taking any physical affection as having sexual connotations) is such an entry way. Legitimate need, but culture tells you it is illegitimate and so it plants the seeds in one’s head that they must be homosexual since they are desiring legitimate affection from a friend/loved one of the same sex. I also know people who have abandoned religion and dove headfirst into homosexuality, and in hearing their stories, that is often how it began. It makes me terribly upset. Culturally, we’d call John and Jesus homosexual if we were looking through the window watching John rest his head on the shoulder/chest of Jesus. It was completely pure. I honestly believe that having regular, healthy, nonsexual affection from people you love and trust is a key to curing anxiety, depression, insomnia – all those comorbid ailments that are so prevalent. It’s proven that oxytocin – a neurotransmitter – is released in women when there is extended physical touch such as a couple holding hands – an act that is not intrinsically sexual. Yes, that’s a couple study. It is also released during a hug exceeding 15 seconds. It’s known as the “trust drug” and it’s shown to lower cortisol and blood pressure in women. Theres a similar reaction with a different neuorotransmitter in men. It’s so vitally important. I’m going to go ahead and step off this soapbox now, for everyone’s sake. Thanks for your honesty in this blog, Steve.
    -SieNoel

    Reply

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