Under some circumstances, of course, we’ll grant an exception. We don’t turn to one another at the bar and mutter “Homo” when we see professional athletes patting their teammates’ asses on TV, and we’ll jump into one another’s arms when our favorite team makes the play-offs. “Sports, in a sense, is very immature,” explains Sheenah Hankin, a psychotherapist in New York, who says many of her clients suffer male-touch anxiety. “Derek Jeter rubs A-Rod on the head—it’s okay in very circumscribed situations where it isn’t considered sexual or feminine.”
The rest of the time, our programming commands us to guard our boundaries with powerful physiques. But to get that ideally massive musculature you might have to rub up against the ideally massive musculature of a personal trainer. “Guys have a lot of shame about their bodies,” says Baron Baptiste, a yoga instructor who spent four years on the Philadelphia Eagles training staff and recalls that many players were initially resistant to being bent into the poses. “And if you’re a macho guy, if you think there’s a sexual component to the touching, you’re going to feel weird.” Or you could just get over it. Despite your trainer’s personalized pep talks, to him you’re just another faceless lump of clay he has to pound into shape.
If advanced workouts make you feel vulnerable, you can always cover your flabby abs with a well-tailored suit. Just brace yourself for the guy holding a tape measure to your inner thighs. Michael Boris, a New York tailor, insists that in fashion, mano a mano is the only way to go: “I think men want my advice. They feel I know how a jacket or a pair of pants is supposed to fit, because I’m a man.” It’s a good, manly theory. We’re men. We should wear man clothes made by men, train with men, and let men poke and paddle whatever man parts need investigating to stay at the peak of masculine fitness. All this we should do with manly pride. But even a secure guy’s jaw may get a bit tight when he signs up for a massage and finds himself alone in an overheated room with another dude.
“A lot of men are apprehensive and say, ‘I want a woman,’” says Equinox masseur Christian Van Daele, who reassures his more skittish male clients with technical talk of delts and lats. This is a sports massage, let’s be clear. More exotic rubdowns can easily go astray: Anthony Bourdain, the chef and author, reports that a masseur at a bathhouse in Uzbekistan recently went “way over the line. I am perfectly aware that there’s a time-honored tradition of being massaged by another guy. But being pinioned facedown and bent into positions that felt, frankly, unnatural by a sweaty guy in bathing trunks was just embarrassing.”
When an anxious guy embarks on what he considers the unthinkable two-man journey of a massage, his very maleness makes it hard for him to even communicate his needs. “Some men will not acknowledge pain, especially in front of another man,” Van Daele says. “But my intention is to help them feel good. That’s the key to opening a person up and teaching them new patterns that are healthier.”