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.“
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.“
But it’s hard to learn new patterns when your brain’s shrieking “Cooties!“ If we accepted healthy touching, would we suddenly realize that “normal“ male-to-male contact was actually really creepy? Perhaps we’d put an end to street brawling, locker-room ass-taping, and the L.A. Man Hug. We don’t have to love every weirdly intimate male moment we find ourselves in, but acting as if it’s grounds for sexual harassment every time a guy brushes against us is a kind of sissiness. And isn’t that what we’ve all been so thoroughly programmed to disdain?