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.