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#57 - Why Are We So Afraid Of Intimate Touch?

By KC Johnson

Held. Hugged. Healed. It's the life-giving need for emotional health!


Men Do Not Touch, It’s Not Manly!

What is the reason societies enforce one of the strongest taboos of all -- touching?  Showing deep-felt touch has been one of the greatest challenges for males in nearly all cultures.  I'm not talking about bro hugs or pats on the back.  I'm referring to full hugs showing deep concern for the other person's well-being.  That scares the hell out of many adult males and even makes the liberated males feel uncomfortable.  To most men it is a sign of weakness, of being vulnerable.  But the fear goes much deeper than we realize.  Grayson Perry writes in his book, The Descent of Man :  


“Examining masculinity can seem like a luxury problem, a pastime for a wealthy, well-educated, peaceful society, but I would argue the opposite:  the poorer, the more undeveloped, the more uneducated a society is, the more masculinity needs realigning with the modern world, because masculinity is probably holding back that society.  All over the globe, crimes are committed, wars are started, women are being held back, and economies are disastrously distorted by men, because of their outdated version of masculinity…..Beneath the (masculinity) sticker, men are naked and vulnerable -- human even.”


This rejection of hugging and touch between males is adhered to by much of our American society, except for pockets of situations such as in sports, with sexually diverse groups, and especially close male friends in greetings.  Where did this masculine dominance first develop.  Again from Grayson Perry:


“Male dominance, and its ensuing culture, was born in an ancient age when physical strength could trump any amount of wisdom, sensitivity and intelligence. The evolutionary result of men being bigger and stronger still finds expression, even in our age of computers, automated factories and robot warfare. I think we are entering an age when, for the good of the planet, we might have to work against the results of hundreds of millennia of evolution.”


Overcoming these entrenched ideas about masculinity has been evolving for centuries, but men are very reluctant to relinquish their sense of dominance, their right to make decisions for the group, their right to be the protectors of the established order.  Attitudes are changing slowly, especially recently, as younger males are more open to showing affection between males and disdain for archaic behaviors towards women, sexual minorities, the weaker members of society, and especially disdain for the emotionally damaged leaders who are trying to maintain their perceived dominance.


We are now seeing more willingness by mainly younger males to express their affection for other males.  But even close friends or athletes will often hesitate to hug in public outside of celebrations often feeling self-conscious and vulnerable about the displayed affection towards another male.  John DeVore in his article “Can’t We All Just Hug Each Other?” in Fatherly Magazine writes:

“We all have a desire or need to reach to others for connection and care," says Daniel Cook, LMHC, Executive Clinical Director of Embodied Mind Mental Health. "I would even say we are biologically wired for it, we are pack animals, after all."


Modern masculinity is slowly normalizing male affection, but according to Cook, society still "shames emotional vulnerability and platonic intimacy between men." Men, he continues, are not generally taught how to connect to other men, which is why their romantic partners often bear the full brunt of their emotional needs. That can strain relationships, and in some cases, push men toward self-destructive habits in an effort to self-soothe. A hug isn't a cure for loneliness and anxiety, but it helps.”

 

Hugging hesitancy is an indication of just how dysfunctional our awareness about child nurturing needs have become and how rigid our artificially constraining gender roles have become.  And for what purpose could this taboo be enforced?  Who’s needs are being met by males resisting hugging, especially the male-to-male hugging?  There must be some need being met by males, some deep inner need, that must be at the core of this form of personal touch.


This article is going to explore some of the possible reasons behind resistant hugging between males, but it is also about all women and men.  This is not an exclusive issue for males in the United States, but males in this country are some of the least accepting of this form of intimacy in the world.  These are the results of a 2020 YouGov poll:  When is the last time you hugged someone who you do not live with? 


All adults

Less than a week ago                               21%

1-2 weeks ago                                                8%

3-4 weeks ago                                                6%

1-2 months ago                                             7%

3-4 months ago                                            8%

More than 4 months ago                         31%

Don’t know                                                      9%

N/A – I do not hug people                       9%

 

I want to present some ideas about the source of this resistance and offer some ways to lessen the sense of fear many males feel about hugging and showing affection for another male.

 

Humans Are The Outlier 

My sense is this discomfort originates in our early and mid-childhoods when premature weaning from intimate parental contact between adult and child, especially male children, begins being enforced through cultural pressures.  It's even more traumatic when the mother also withholds intimate touching and nurturing techniques.  This is where our dysfunctional and socially-deficient interpersonal relationships begin development.  This is exactly where we need to focus our attention if we expect to ever start the healing process for our country and its citizens.  The article by Robert Winston and Rebecca Chicot titled “The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children” in the London Journal of Primary Care (Abingdon) states:


“Human babies are born very dependent on their parents. They undergo huge brain development, growth and neuron pruning in the first two years of life. The brain development of infants (as well as their social, emotional and cognitive development) depends on a loving bond or attachment relationship with a primary caregiver, usually a parent. There is increasing evidence from the fields of development psychology, neurobiology and animal epigenetic studies that neglect, parental inconsistency and a lack of love can lead to long-term mental health problems as well as to reduced overall potential and happiness.”


Look at pack and pride mammal behaviors towards their young.  Wolves, lions, lemurs, meerkats, primates, dolphins, orcas, elephants, koalas, moose, and many other mammal species nurture their young all the way into adulthood before weaning is completed.  This healthy nurturing includes frequent touching as a way to establish a bond and a sense of belonging to the group into adulthood.


This period allows the young to become well developed emotionally and find their place in the family and community.  They become acculturated to the standards of immediate family, but they also discover who they are and where they fit in with other members.  This is a critically important process, one that human young are deprived of learning by pre-mature weaning.  As a result a deprived young person often enters adulthood untethered to concerns for others.  And with our society’s skewed sense of male entitlement, that become a toxic environment for abuse of power.


Many researchers and skeptics will say, 'yeah, but they aren't humans and besides, how do you know they are well-adjusted?'  Good question.  These mammals don't show significant tendencies to be sociopathic or destructive towards their clan.  And each successive generation of off-spring continue to fully nurture their young as taught to them by their parents.  Healthy nurturing is learned!  It requires the parents to invest time in showing the young how to behave and how to fit into the community.  And it requires our society to invest in allowing parents the time to do more in depth nurturing with their children.

 

Pre-maturely Weaning Our Children Results In A Dysfunctional Society.

Weaning is generally considered changing an infant’s diet to more traditional foods.  But I contend that weaning is a much longer process of preparing a child to interact with the adult world of emotions, challenges, and self-sufficiency.  Early weaning, which most parents tend to do, is a much more abrupt process that removes the safety-net of emotional supports.  It negatively alters the brain structure and forces the ill-prepared child to negotiate a world that is emotionally unsafe while providing the child insufficient tools and the time to allow the child to adjust. 


A Cerebral Cortex Journal Article Frequency of Maternal Touch Predicts Resting Activity and Connectivity of the Developing Social Brain has researched the neural changes associated with healthy nurturing and has extensive findings supporting these effects:


“The existence of developmental stages points to innate factors governing social development. Yet, environmental factors are also relevant. Parenting behaviors and, more specifically, the tactile care parents provide for their children have been highlighted in the literature. Research conducted primarily on infants points to a positive relationship between physical contact and general developmental markers such as body weight, motor control, or emotional management (Weiss 2005; Field et al. 2010). Additionally, some studies imply a positive relationship between physical contact and social development more specifically. For example, it was shown that touch promotes responsiveness to and engagement with a caregiver (Watt 1990; Peláez-Nogueras et al. 1996; Feldman et al. 2002; Jean et al. 2014) and that it furthers the formation of social attachments. Mothers who engaged in more frequent affectionate touch were more likely to have securely attached children than mothers who engaged in little affectionate touch (Ainsworth 1979; Egeland and Farber 1984; Grossmann et al. 1985; Anisfeld et al. 1990; Weiss et al. 2000). . . .


Apart from establishing CT (C-tactile (CT) afferent) compatible effects in childhood, our study suggests that CT stimulation may help shape the developing “social brain.” The association between the frequency of maternal touch and resting activity also overlapped with areas previously implicated in theory of mind and in representing others' mental states (Mars et al. 2012). Moreover, the previous research has found that activity in STS and TPJ (temporo-parietial junction) during a mentalizing task and during rest is positively associated (Hyatt et al. 2015). Linking this evidence with the present results, one may speculate that children with more touch more readily engage the mentalizing component of the “social brain” and that, perhaps, their interest in others' mental states is greater than that of children with less touch.


To further explore the present resting-state effects, we conducted an RSFC analysis using peak coordinates in the right pSTS (posterior superior temporal sulcus) activity as the seed. In both children with high and low maternal touch, this revealed connectivity with areas along the bilateral superior and middle temporal cortex, the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus, right supplementary motor cortex, and left insula. In children with high maternal touch, we additionally observed connectivity with right insula, left putamen, left caudate, and dorsal mPFC (medial pre-frontal cortex)/ACC (anterior cingulate cortex). Moreover, a group comparison indicated that connectivity within the latter region was significantly greater in high- compared with low-touch children.”


Even though humans maintain control over their young into adulthood, the difference between humans and so many mammals is the presence of nurturing touch.  Many humans begin weaning their young too early in the child’s life as a way of preparing the young for a challenging world not of their making.  


As a consequence, our western culture has codified restrictions against touching, primarily towards children, but in different ways towards males and females.  From strong taboos for men genuinely touching men to females protecting themselves from unwanted physical contact, to children being isolated from touch and contact by adults, we have created an artificial and emotionally repressed society further isolating ourselves from each other.


A new report from Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Dana Charles McCoy sheds a harsh light on the inadequate care children around the world are suffering during those formative years, finding that nearly three in four preschool aged children in low- and middle-income countries lack access to the most basic nurturing care


"Utilizing data collected between 2005 and 2019 on more than 425,000 children living in 104 low- and middle-income countries, the report analyzed access to adequate care based on the Nurturing Care Framework put forth by the WHO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, which looks at children’s access to supports in five areas: responsive caregiving, early learning, safety and security, nutrition, and health. 

McCoy's study, co-authored with University of Nebraska Medical Center's Marcus Waldman, who earned a doctorate at HGSE, and current HGSE doctoral students Jonathan Seiden and Jorge Cuartas, appears in the latest issue of Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. Some of its major findings include: 

  • An estimated 181.9 million preschool-age children living in low- and middle-income countries did not receive minimally adequate nurturing care prior to the pandemic. 

  • Children from upper middle-income countries are nine times more likely than their peers from low-income countries to receive minimally adequate care.

Access to nutrition was high, with 86.2% of children showing healthy weight, but all other areas were significantly lower, with just 29.3% of children participating in early childhood care and education services and 29.7% receiving adequate stimulation from fathers and non-maternal caregivers, for example.” 


One of the consequences of poor nurturing is how it becomes generational and gains greater adoption in following cycles of offspring.  A young adult generally uses the same parenting techniques they received from their parents, at least in part.  It occurred to me that if even 10% of parents used poor nurturing techniques and the society does nothing to counterbalance the effects, within 7.5 generations a society would overcome those parents using appropriate nurturing methods.  New parents generally follow their parent's nurturing techniques for their own young children when no new methods are taught or when they experienced difficult childhoods.  


Fortunately, society does not evolve in such rapid ways, but we do seem to be experiencing an increasing pattern of isolation between our citizens that began developing in early childhood.  Now it may also be true that those parents who are providing the fulsome nurturing their children need are slowly becoming the evolving paradigm.  But it is happening too slowly and the current state of our societal emotional health is needlessly producing more fractured and unhappy lives than we can help heal as quickly as is needed.  The needless pain from poor nurturing is a crisis for each person feeling incomplete.


“Overall, roughly as many U.S. parents say they are raising their children similarly to how they were raised (43%) as say they are trying to take a different approach (44%). About one-in-ten parents (12%) say they’re neither trying to raise their children similarly to nor differently from how they were raised.”


Our world societies are now experiencing the consequences of poorly nurtured children, especially male children, as country after country becomes more repressive and caring for the well-being of their citizens becomes a fading dream.  I realize that I am making a leap in assumptions, but of the 210 countries assessed by Freedom House, 40% were considered free, 28% partly free, and 32% were considered not free.


Emotionally damaged males are conniving their way into power and destroying the social fabric of emotionally healthy governing systems.  The damages to their emotional health due to poor nurturing weighs heavily on our world’s capacity for survivability.  Their fear-based minds lean towards conservative, protective, and controlling behaviors as they struggle with creating a sense of safety by controlling their social environment.

Probably most if not all of these conservative-minded leaders in business and government had childhoods that withheld touching, experienced premature weaning, and had incomplete emotional supports prior to adulthood.  A Roger Jones article The Family Dynamics We Grew Up with Shape How We Work in the Harvard Business Review writes:

 

 “Research has shown that our early family experiences often re-emerge in our adult life interactions with others, including those in the business world. Families, after all, are our first “enterprise,” and our parents and siblings are our first “management team.” Early family life affects how leaders respond to pressure and react when team members compete for their attention. It influences whether they have close or distant relationships with the people who report to them, communicate directly or indirectly, micromanage or empower, encourage debates or shut them down.”


The one thing all children need more than anything else to develop a secure sense of self and the ability to care for others is to be appropriately held all the way into adulthood, to be given recognition and emotional support as they explore their worlds and form their unique perspectives, and to be encouraged to help others who may be in need of emotional and tangible supports.  It is the bonding process that a young person needs to go through to help them develop their humanness, to feel accepted and acceptable as part of their community.  A fully nurtured child develops a healthy, completely developed brain that is able to interact with other people with kindness, compassion, and love.


One of the reasons many people have a drive to find significant others may be their inner sensing of a need to fill a void from insufficient nurturing.  Of course, there are many other reasons for having a significant other in their life, like the desire for companionship, or the drive for species survival, or the desire to pass on their loving abilities to their young.  Incomplete nurturing affects our entire life by shaping our choices, our beliefs in ourselves, and in others.  But the greatest need any one of us has is the need to feel loved, to give love, and that need develops most directly during childhood.

 

What Do We Need To Do To Turn These Trends Around?

We cannot expect to correct our inequities in society nor our growing dysfunctional leaders' behaviors, let alone our personal sensing of our incompleteness, without correcting how we nurture children.  Perhaps our society's survivability depends on us solving this most fundamental challenge that we face.  Without meeting this challenge, we will continue engaging in wars, denying our collapsing environmental livability needs, and continue allowing the most emotionally debilitated among us to run our governments, businesses, and families.  


“Children need the security that comes from knowing they are wanted, accepted and loved by their family. Parents, especially fathers, need to feel both comfortable and willing to hug their children. Showing affection every day is the best way to let your children know that you love them. (Taken from NFI's 10 Ways to Be a Better Dad):


--Hug them, every day if possible. NFI President Roland Warren grew up without his dad and felt like he didn't really know how to show affections to his kids because it hadn't been modeled for him by his dad. When their son was young, his wife encouraged him to hug him even though it might feel a little different . . . your kids need to physically feel that they are loved by their dad, even if it feels a little strange to you at first. If possible, make sure you hug your children every day.


--Say "I love you," every day.. . . . you can say "I love you" every day. If you don't live with your kids, call or text them every day to tell them you love them. And, of course, if you live with your kids, make sure you say this too. It's not enough to demonstrate that you love them by your actions—you have to say it too.


--Be creative in how you show affection. Affection can be shown by more than hugs and “I love you.” Write your child a note telling him or her what you appreciate most about his or her personality or character. Let your kids gently wrestle with you on the floor. Take your child out to for a special date every month. These things can’t replace hugs and “I love you,” but they can reinforce what you express physically and verbally.


--Remember that kids never stop needing affection.It may become more difficult or awkward to show affection to your kids as they get older, especially in the teen or young adult years. But they still need you to demonstrate that you love them, perhaps even more as they enter more challenging stages of life. Don't be bashful about hugging your teen or young adult or saying "I love you." Even fully grown adults who have their own children need their father's love!


--Know why affection is important. For some children, physical touch is their primary love language. For these kids, daily hugs are especially important. But for every child, physical affection tells them that they are valued and accepted for who they are, that their dad will keep them safe, that their dad is proud of them and approves of them, and that they are loved no matter what.”


Such simple ideas as these not only save the lives of children, but these are ways we insure our society will survive our crisis of emotional isolation.  It’s up to parents to start this process, but it is also up to the mental health and psychological organizations to promote healthy nurturing.  These professionals, across the board, have to stop wandering in the darkness being perplexed about the causes of our social emotional instability and start actively providing the education and research our parents/caregivers most desperately need.


Fortunately, there are a few organizations that understand the need for quality nurturing that includes touch.  One example is Cedars Kids in Omaha, Nebraska who has the right approach to supporting young people as described in their article Hold Me Close - Physical Touch and Brain Development:


“Nurturing physical touch promotes development of young children’s physiological systems involved in regulating emotions and stress responses. Physical touch such as holding and rocking are the most effective ways to calm and soothe a distressed baby; repeated experiences of being soothed when distressed attunes the stress-response system and prepares children’s ability to self-regulate and to identify how to calm their strong feelings, like when they are upset.  


Children who have this ability to calm their strong feelings are better able to understand that other people have feelings and thoughts, which can lead to them having more positive relationships, such (as) playing with friends.  In this way, nurturing physical touch supports children’s prosocial development (being able to be kind, caring, and helpful). For example, one study found that children whose mothers more often hugged them when they were upset were more concerned and caring about others (Narvaez et al. 2019). (Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Cheng, A., Gleason, T.R., Woodbury, R., Kurth, A., & Lefever, J.B. (2019). The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development. Reflexão e Crítica 32:16)  Also, children whose mothers were observed providing more positive touch when they were 18 months old were more likely to demonstrate prosocial behavior at 24 and 30 months old, suggesting that nurturing touch helps children develop important relationship skills.  


So why would these positive nurturing touches support the development of children’s brains and social behaviors? One reason is that these types of touches actually wire the brain for social success. A recent study found maternal touch during play was associated with greater connectivity among regions of the brain associated with social behavior among 5-year-olds. These findings suggest that gentle, nurturing touch, which is sensed by nerve endings beneath the skin, stimulate areas of the brain associated with social and emotional development – the “social brain” - and strengthens those neural connections. Though these studies were with moms, dad also provide these benefits with positive and nurturing touches.“ 


We need to learn to love every moment without judgment and fear, but we have to first change our attitudes towards touching, nurturing, and supporting our children.  It is very difficult to view our deep sense of self as healthy while holding fears about our worthiness and lovability.  By extension then, it is very difficult to make societal decisions about creating a healthy environment when so many people are walking around with significant emotional holes within themselves.


The solution to our dysfunctional emotional inner dynamics is actually quite simple to adopt.  As a teenager I wanted to be President of the United States so that I could require all parents to have a copy of how to raise children, how to nurture them appropriately, and how to eliminate childhood trauma.  Even at 15 y/o the solutions seemed like no-brainer ideas.  My attitude was “parents, just read the damn book and stop depriving children of the most important ingredient children need…unconditional nurturing love.”


As simplistic as my thinking was back then, the solutions remain quite simple to implement.  Professional healing organizations need to en masse present a commitment to emotional healing starting at the earliest stages of a child’s life.  That committed message also needs to continue through the teenage years and into adulthood.  And it needs to continue throughout adulthood.  We are a society of emotionally distant people who respond to our earliest fears by hiding our vulnerabilities.  Consistent messaging by respected organizations can go a long way towards exposing of our vulnerabilities and turning them into strengths of character.


Even today, I wonder whether we have moved beyond my 15 y/o experiences as I see so many lost young people feeling unable to connect with people in an emotionally significant way.  Our reliance on tech gadgets to hide behind are just convenient ways to dodge making the emotional connections.  Some see it as the other way around, that these gadgets are causing this isolation.  My sense is that young people have already been emotionally scarred and are using tools to feel safer and have some sort of connection to others.  But these gadgets actually continues their poor nurturing-caused isolation.


As I’ve grown older and wiser I now understand how challenging it is to change our inner thoughts and behaviors, let alone changing centuries of gender standards and expectations.  Letting go of learned fears has been my greatest challenge, and I still have a ways to go.  At least I can honestly say that I love and appreciate every moment and every challenge that comes my way.  My mantra is ‘love every moment without fear, without judgment, without conditions.’  Getting to this point for me has been one step of many yet to take.


But we have to start some place.  The message has to get out there to give people an opportunity to heal themselves and their children.  It’s the only path to discovering true happiness and love for each other.  We have to empower our parents/caregivers to learn new approaches to child raising.  That is absolutely ground zero in our attempts to heal ourselves and our world. - kc

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About US

KC Business Card Design.png

This blog has been a work of love developed over the past ten years and finally brought to life through the dedicated tech help by Soren, who was originally my physical therapist and now is a time-limited partner who managers two other martial arts training centers. Being an old gay guy I struggle to function well in the blog-a-sphere so this presentation will be a bit rough at first. Feel free to lend your ideas.

 

Since my teen years I have believed that through appropriate touch we can heal ourselves. But the journey to better understand my own dynamics and gain enough awareness to be able to write about our complex humanness only coalesced after I had an opportunity to be in prison. There I had time to do deep self-examinations about why I was who I am and how I could translate that into helping others make discoveries for themselves. I do not claim to be a professional therapist or counselor.

 

But I do believe there are others in this world who might benefit from these ideas presented in this blog platform. Having grown to the point of releasing nearly all of my fears and can now truly say that I love every moment and feel in partnership with my soul, I feel that others may benefit from my travels. Being non-judgmental I welcome your insights, whatever they may be, and I will strive to help everyone find greater peace in their lives. HOSHOWLOVE.com and Hoshow, LLC.

 

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