It’s taken a couple of centuries, but the forces of civilization have finally whipped the American male into shape. We’re in touch with our feelings and those of others, and homophobia is in decline (only about 10 percent of us identify as gay, but 90 percent of us dress as if we are). Yet there’s one thing that can rattle every bit of ease and acceptance right out of us: the touch of our fellow man.
There are very few circumstances in which we let other men enter the no-contact zone. Even under the most professional conditions, a male hand on our male flesh—from the cold clutch of a physician cupping our nuts to the sweaty embrace of a personal trainer urging us to “Push!”—sends that flesh crawling. And while women feel free to kiss hello, paint one another’s nails, and engage in the occasional drunken make-out, many guys can’t bring themselves within arm’s length of another guy to save their life—even if that would literally be the result.
We might be afraid of impotence and death from cancer of the balls or ass, but that’s nothing compared to our fear of some dude getting his fingers on the former or up the latter. “Some men are like, ‘Hey, that’s a one-way tunnel!’” says Art Chandler, a doctor in Kingston, New York, who’s been handling men’s most sensitive sensitivities for 10 years. But, he adds, the sicker a man is, the more he may crave a physician’s touch: “Behind closed doors, all barriers disappear. With some men who are very ill, I’ll sit on the examination table and put my arm around them.”
Most guys, of course, don’t associate the exam room with warm, fatherly hugs. “I felt like a farm animal with a very lonely farmer,” recalls Michael Parmelee, a 33-year-old New Jersey contractor who was once treated for a narrowed urethra. “He put a clip on my dick like you put on a bag of potato chips. When he checked my prostate, all of a sudden his finger was up my ass. I had no idea it was coming. I wailed like a 13-year-old virgin.”
It would be one thing if manhandling rights were conveniently restricted to doctors, but life is full of unbearable male intimacy. I haven’t had skin-on-skin contact with my older brother Matthew since we stopped beating the piss out of each other 15 years ago. Yet he paws men for a living as a physical therapist. The awkwardness of the sessions is compounded by the fact that his male patients already feel diminished when they come in. “Something about needing to get professional help to resolve a physical problem makes guys feel less adequate,” he says.
Anyone can feel vulnerable when he’s injured or weakened, but a lot of us grit our teeth at the touch of a man even when we’re at our strongest. “It’s a homophobic reaction to the possibility that male-to-male contact signifies a homosexual event,” says University of Iowa professor Sam V. Cochran, who edits the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity. Cochran notes, interestingly, that the phobia isn’t just a straight thing: “Gay men get exposed to the same gender messages that straight men do growing up—that it’s not okay to touch men.”