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Our Starved for Touch Culture

When did the Friendzone become such a terrible place to live?

In the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings, the unpleasant underbelly of the pickup artist community (PUA), involuntary celibates (incels), and other unhealthy refuges for lonely men have drawn scrutiny and condemnation. They describe themselves as exiles; in the case of the Isla Vista shooter, he decided to destroy the world he couldn’t enter, instead of building something new outside it.

Their sense of exclusion is exacerbated by the stories we tell about sex as a prize you can earn [1] and the tendency of the media to shame sexual inexperience (The Daily Mail referred to the shooter as “The Virgin Killer,” [2] implicitly agreeing that his sexual exploits, or lack thereof, defined him). It is also exacerbated by the stories we don’t tell about friendship and platonic love.

The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling. Pickup artists teach their pupils (not inaccurately) that taking someone’s hand, touching a shoulder, or even moving into one-on-one conversations are indications of interest, and a signal to keep escalating, in the hopes of transitioning to a hookup.

If affection is merely foreplay, then a person who isn’t having luck approaching people romantically is also cut off from most normal human comforts. That kind of isolation is tremendously harmful.

In the 1960s, Harry Harlow conducted a famous series of experiments in which he gave infant monkeys a choice between mother-substitutes made of cloth or wire [3]. Even when it was only the wire “mother” that fed the monkeys, they came to it only to eat, and clung to the cloth mothers that gave sustenance of a different sort. The monkeys who were only given wire mothers were more skittish and would cling to their cloth diapers as the only source of soft contact in their cage.

Some men and women feel that they’ve wound up in a wire monkey world. In an essay for The Good Men project (“The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer” [4]), Mark Greene talked about how isolated he was from others, until he had a child to take care of:

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through long lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a hand shake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think, holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. … I found this kind of physical connection when my son was born. As a stay at home dad, I spent years with my son. Day after day, he sat in the crook of my arm, his little arm across my shoulder, his hand on the back of my neck. As he surveyed the world from on high, I came to know a level of contentment and calm that had heretofore been missing in my life.

The isolation may be more pronounced for men, since physical contact between two women is less likely to be stigmatized or even remarked upon. In my own experience, however, usually the only time I make physical contact with another person is when I shake the priest’s hand on my way out of Mass. When I went on a cultural exchange trip to China, I was surprised and jealous when our group leader warned us that friends commonly hold hands in China, and we shouldn’t assume a host was flirting with us if they did so.

In America, that kind of physical affection would be unusual between pairs of friends, especially if both were male. But, if friends are off limits, where else are people to turn for physical reassurance?

The shooter, and most Americans his age, don’t live among large, extended families. They are not giving piggy-back rides to small cousins or kissing grandparents hello or being called over for cheek pinches from meddlesome aunts. Luckily, comfort isn’t only available from families and romantic partners; some communities and pastimes retain norms of physical contact and encouragement. Sports are one place where platonic touch can still flourish (in fact, NBA teams with a lot of physical touch between teammates tend to do better at cooperating [5]), but those communities aren’t open to or even desired by everyone.

After a tragedy, we tend to dwell on how we could have stopped the shooter: did he do anything to merit institutionalization, should he have been eligible to buy guns, etc. Those questions are appropriate, but constraining a potential shooter is only a partial victory. We should also look for alternatives to free him from a prison of despair, envy, and fear, even if he’s the only victim of his own unhappiness.

No one has a humanitarian duty to hug isolated men like the Isla Vista shooter any more than anyone was obliged to provide him with sex. However, it’s worth asking if there is something we can do to make non-sexual affection more common generally. At the personal level, that might just mean offering friends hugs more often, and at a societal level, telling and repeating better stories about friendship.

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#1 Comment By JPS On May 29, 2014 @ 7:55 am

Friendzone is just a concept cuz a) most women guys are interested in aren’t for purely platonic reasons and b) sometimes women lead men on/send mixed signals (blurred lines!! Remember that one?) Or men get that impression even if it’s not fair.

Not sure how much the other stuff you mentioned has to do with it honestly. Term is maybe abused but compared to other, weirder concepts in PUAville it’s pretty regular, and seems to be used to describe more how guys screwed something up, as opposed to being used against women.

#2 Comment By Dimitri Cavalli On May 29, 2014 @ 9:11 am

Who knew that there is a Pick Up Artist “community”?

Is every Internet message board or Web site devoted to a common interest or cause a “community”?

It seems to me that the word “community” is being overused.

#3 Comment By FatHappySouthernBoy On May 29, 2014 @ 9:22 am

RE: Non-sexual touching being off limits for men.

When I was young I had a friend with a pick-up truck. This was long before crew and king cabs were common so if more than three people were in the truck somebody was sitting in the back.

One fine summer day we decided to round up some girls and go skinny dipping in some nearby sink holes. There five guys and three girls, two of the boys were dating two of the girls and the rest were single. I sat in the cab between the driver and the third single guy and everyone else sat in the back.

During a quiet moment later in the day one of the guys who had sat in the back told me that one of the girls (I didn’t know them all) had asked if I was gay because I had my arms around the shoulders of the other two guys in the truck.

I didn’t have my arms around them, I had them on the back of the seat to make room for us all to sit comfortably. One was a football player and the other played baseball. In that tiny little Chevy S10 there just wasn’t room for us all to sit with our arms by our sides.

But that’s all it took for them to think I was gay. The perception that I had my arms around the shoulders of the other guys.

#4 Comment By Jones On May 29, 2014 @ 10:07 am

This is just such a great piece. I think you’ve hit on some of the major reasons why platonic touch has declined, as well. The hegemony of sex and also the demise of (almost) all absolute restrictions on sexual behavior mean we all are read, with every one of our actions, as signaling something sexually, as informing others about our sexual choices and intentions. Also, the demise of extended families and the rise of massive suburban houses where people are not in close contact probably also affects it.

You noted that people in other countries are more affectionate than Americans. When I was in Pakistan with my extended family, I spent a lot of time hanging out with a cousin of about my age. We were both young, in our teens. He would do things like put his arm around me. One day when we were laying about on a bed, he put his head on my stomach while he was talking to me. I became really uncomfortable, and confused.

The idea that he was coming on to me in some way was ludicrous. This was my cousin, more or less in plain sight, surrounded by our entire family. Still, I was so ensconced in American mores that the thought crossed my mind and made me uncomfortable. I did a lot of thinking after realizing that this kind of physical interaction was totally normal and unproblematic for guy friends there. They can do that, because they don’t have to constantly prove that they’re not homosexuals.

I think it’s also worth taking a look at this:

#5 Comment By Borachio On May 29, 2014 @ 10:28 am

The “friend zone” refers not to friendship but to exploitation.

A man in the friend zone is expected to cater to his female “friend’s” every whim while asking for nothing in return, whether sexual or non-sexual.

From a narcissistic feminist standpoint, it’s absolutely ideal. For men, not so much.

#6 Comment By O.L. Johnson On May 29, 2014 @ 10:56 am

Harry Harlow was a monster.

#7 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On May 29, 2014 @ 11:14 am

Dancing. That is a close, rather intimate, but carefully controlled and non-sexual kind of touch. Speaking for me, it was dancing that got me out of my own uptightness about touching.

#8 Comment By Mark On May 29, 2014 @ 11:51 am

I never thought I’d see an intellectual analysis of the friendzone on TAC.

#9 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 29, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

Women can touch men all they want. And it will be seen either as mere friendliness or as desired flirting or foreplay by the man. If a man touches a woman, without explicit “permission” or as part of an ongoing relationship, he might well be accused of harassment and possibly even assault.

Homophobia does play a role also. Women can touch either other, without it seen as being necessarily sexual. But, other than very close relatives, or in certain, strictly defined situations (ie funerals) men are not “supposed” to hug, hold hands, etc.

#10 Comment By Joshua Holmes On May 29, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

A man in the friend zone is expected to cater to his female “friend’s” every whim while asking for nothing in return, whether sexual or non-sexual.

Here’s an article that speaks to just that exact problem: [8]. The gist is that men friend zone themselves by acting like a friend instead of a potential lover. The man creates a deal – I serve you, you service me – without informing the woman what he wants and expects.

Not surprisingly, the woman treats him as a friend: he’s acting like one. The man becomes upset as the woman never holds up her end of the deal, and the woman is shocked that her “friend” was really just looking to score. But note: there never was a deal, because the man never offered one.

If you’re hurt about being friend-zoned, I feel for you. I’ve been there. But I did it to myself, and you’re doing it to yourself. Learn how to offer yourself as a lover; don’t be a fake friend.

#11 Comment By Franklin Evans On May 29, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

Ms. Libresco: However, it’s worth asking if there is something we can do to make non-sexual affection more common generally.

That’s a fair question, honestly and sincerely expressed… and it’s exactly the wrong question.

I noticed at a very early age a significant difference in displays of affection. I’m the son of immigrants from eastern Europe, and grew up amongst first- and second-generation children of immigrants from Europe. It was, for us, as natural as breathing to accept physical touch and contact at face value. It was, for those children whose cultural matrix as for generations American, a foreign as the accents with which my parents spoke.

I assert that we are discussing a cultural barrier, and while sex and sexuality — the changes and shifts in our societal view of them — has a correlative connection, I reject a causative connection.

I have a personal story similar to Essayist-Lawyer’s to tell. I discovered social dancing as a lonely college freshman surrounded by strangers. It was international folk dancing, with few couple dances in the repertoire. I quickly observed two things: generally, there were more women than men in attendance, and men (including me) did a sort of pre-dance dance trying to position themselves to hold hands with a woman (often a certain woman) in the circle; for the segregated dances (a common thing especially in eastern Europe), men (except me) were very uncomfortable holding hands with men or even with hands on shoulders.

I was (knees stopped me) an active dancer and instructor for over 25 years. My anecdotal conclusion is that people from cultures for whom touch is natural and mundane are capable of “transmitting” that atttribute to people not of that cultural conditioning, but it takes weeks or months (based on a weekly folk dance gathering) to accomplish.

I add that story to express that the cultural barrier is very difficult to overcome, but not impossibly so. It takes a consistent (and gentle) effort over a long period of time.

#12 Comment By Autolukos On May 29, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

Team sports really are a great place for this kind of connection, in my experience. It is a shame that, in many settings, they are structured to drive people who aren’t above-average (or better) athletes away.

#13 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 29, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

Joshua Holmes:

You are totally correct, men DO “Friendzone” themselves. They don’t reveal their attraction. They act like “friends.” And, yeah, they do cater to their female “friend’s” whims.

Naturally, at least in some cases, the female “friend” does tend to take the male friend for granted, to take advantage of him, and so on (perhaps without even meaning to). When someone pretty much does whatever you want, let’s you call the shots, can’t wait to do you favors, re arranges all his stuff so as to spend time with you, etc, etc. Well, it would take a saint to NOT abuse that.

Some women, of course, are smart enough to see what is happening, and, if they are responsible, and fair, draw boundaries, and spell things out, clearly and repeatedly. Some women, on the other hand, take advantage on purpose. Younger women, teen girls and such, perhaps don’t get it, and take advantage without really understanding.

But, at bottom, the man is at fault. Don’t be a puppy dog. Act like a man. Stand up for yourself. Even a “friend” is not a doormat or a servant.

And, to be fair, the PUA/MRA “community” does, consistently, point all of this out. They advise men to make their intentions plain. Not to never be friends with women, but, when you meet a new woman, make it clear if you have amorous intentions.

#14 Comment By Christopher Renner On May 29, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

Thanks for writing this piece. The one place where I’ve personally been in which platonic physical affection was widely accepted was the US military, especially during my deployments.
Anecdotally that seems to have been the case going back at least to WWII and possibly longer. Two caveats: first, there weren’t any women in the units in question, and second, DADT was still the law at the time.

#15 Comment By MC On May 29, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

I think the evidence that this guy was sexually frustrated because he didn’t get enough non-sexual contact, or because non-sexual contact is societally undervalued, is pretty much non-existent. He was sexually frustrated because he hadn’t kissed a girl by age 22. That’s only natural. His response was unusual, but not the frustration.

#16 Comment By Lord Karth On May 29, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

Mr. Dreher writes: “However, it’s worth asking if there is something we can do to make non-sexual affection more common generally. At the personal level, that might just mean offering friends hugs more often, and at a societal level, telling and repeating better stories about friendship.”

Aside from the “fear of gayness” matter, for men there is also the issue of fear of being perceived as a potential sexual abuser.

Professionally, I have learned to never touch a child, even when that child tries to touch my hand or hug me first (small children can be very affectionate, and it can be a useful “diagnostic” to observe how physically affectionate a young child is in the presence of other people), without getting direct and express permission from the parent, who had damn well better be standing right there watching (at my insistence).

I’ve drawn suspicious looks from people when I’m hugging my own son after a soccer game, surrounded by his teammates and their parents. Even a pat on the head or shoulder will draw “the look”. And said son is 13, tall and very clearly articulate.

If I hold the hand of my 9-year-old, autistic son in a store parking lot ? More looks. My pre-teen nieces ? Forget it.

In this area of our society, an adult man is just about presumed to be an abuser until proven otherwise. I realize that sexual abuse is a traumatic thing (25 years’ involvement in such cases does teach one that), but when one has to exercise “prior restraint” with one’s own family out of fear of accusation, there’s something seriously wrong.

What this paranoia about sexual abuse is teaching today’s young males makes me shudder.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#17 Comment By EarlyBird On May 29, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

I feel very fortunate that my father, born in ’32, was the opposite of his contemporaries in terms of giving affection to me, his son. He has always hugged and kissed me and unabashedly told me he loves me, and I’m very fortunate for that. He even still messes up my hair as if I was a kid.

As a result, I’m much more comfortable expressing similar emotions to my male loved ones. I feel very blessed by that.

#18 Comment By Lord Karth On May 29, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

Please accept my apologies; my earlier post should have started with “Ms. Libresco says”.

This is what happens when I miss that second cup of coffee in the afternoon.

Again, my apologies to the writer.

Your (abashed) servant,

Lord Karth

#19 Comment By Dan Berger On May 29, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

The observation about athletes being more comfortable was spot on. I observed a square dance class recently that had about half-again as many men as women in it. The men were mostly college football or baseball players; while there was some jockeying for a female partner, the men had an enthusiastic good time learning with male partners, including the waltz steps.

#20 Comment By Agnikan On May 29, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

I prefer Aristotelian touch.

#21 Comment By Escher On May 29, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

American culture does watch male-male interactions through “gay” glasses, which is not the case for much of the world. I wonder if it is peculiar to “Anglo” culture, as British people seem to have similar behavior patterns.

#22 Comment By Charlieford On May 30, 2014 @ 9:01 am

As a response to mass shootings, “that might just mean offering friends hugs more often,” is easily more politically palatable than any of the other offerings on the table.

Now, if only we can extend that solution to the international realm.

“Oh, yoo-hoo? Vladimir . . . ?”

#23 Comment By JohnE_o On May 30, 2014 @ 9:41 am


I can understand taking precautions in a professional setting, but why on earth would you care what random strangers in a parking lot or at a soccer game think?

Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that…

#24 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 30, 2014 @ 11:50 am

John e o:

“…but why on earth would you care what random strangers in a parking lot or at a soccer game think…”

Because a practice has been developed and encouraged of people “reporting” what “appears” to them to be “inappropriate” child/adult interactions. Some campaign posters say things like “It just doesn’t FEEL right,” with a picture of a man holding a girl’s hand, and suggesting (more like demanding, really) that the viewer call Child Services in such cases, based on nothing more than a “feeling.” Another phrase is “If you even suspect child abuse…” blah, blah, blah, call Child Services.

A “random stranger” at a soccer game or parking lot could quite easily ascertain the identity of Lord Karth, and report him to Child Services. Because of nothing more than “feelings” or “suspicions.”

And that is a disaster for an innocent man (or course, it is as well for a guilty man, but he deserves it). No matter if there is no real basis for the charge, one is put in the position of being suspect of the worst. And if one is not married, middle aged, etc, ie “fits the profile,” one might be engaged in a battle for one’s freedom and life, really.

#25 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 30, 2014 @ 11:52 am

“Honi soit qui mal y pense”

Shame on he who thinks evil.

Would that were the case. Again, those who “think evil” are encouraged, as part of their civic duty, and as a responsibility to children, to act on their evil thoughts.

#26 Comment By Lord Karth On May 30, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

JohnE_o writes: “I can understand taking precautions in a professional setting, but why on earth would you care what random strangers in a parking lot or at a soccer game think?

Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that…”

Because those strangers can read the license plate of the car you get in, pick up the phone and call the police and/or Child Protective Services to report potential “inappropriate conduct”. Said police and CPS are “mandated reporters”, which means that once a phone call is made, the target will be visited by investigators and/or the police.

I have represented over a dozen men (all white, middle class and older than 30) who have had this exact thing happen to them. Once an accusation like this is made, it is just about impossible to get rid of, even if the investigation completely exonerates the target. I’ve seen it come up for some of these men years after the fact, in situations like employment interviews and other sorts of situations involving background checks. Anything involving the least whiff of such an insinuation is deadly.

If the investigation goes anywhere at all–even if it comes to a halt after the first round of interviews—the lives of the targets can be ruined. And Christ help the target if some caseworker decides on a wrong interpretation of events. People have spend decades in jail after being wrongfully convicted of these sorts of offenses.

The search term to use as your starting point is “McMartin preschool.”

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#27 Comment By HeartRight On May 30, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

Escher says:
May 29, 2014 at 11:14 pm

American culture does watch male-male interactions through “gay” glasses, which is not the case for much of the world. I wonder if it is peculiar to “Anglo” culture, as British people seem to have similar behavior patterns.

Invented right here in merry old Englande.
And don’t touch your kids if it can’t be helped either!

#28 Comment By cka2nd On May 30, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

JohnE_o says: “Karth, I can understand taking precautions in a professional setting, but why on earth would you care what random strangers in a parking lot or at a soccer game think?”

Because “If you see something, say something” has permeated our culture. And we’re not too far from the days when your neighbors noticed you weren’t in church on Sunday, or noticed you going into the pool hall, and informed your parents about it.

#29 Comment By bones On May 30, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

Oftentimes – maybe all the time – the ‘friend-zone’ situation occurs when there’s a one-way attraction going on. These guys almost always have an extremely warped view of courtship, wherein gifts and politeness are all that’s required for a romantic relationship to start.

However it doesn’t sound like the ‘friend-zone’ had much to do with the killer at all. His personality seems to have been so remarkably unpleasant that friendship – of the healthy variety or not – was never even considered. For him it was extreme popularity/sexual conquest or bust (something he himself said was picked up by watching his father divorce and then quickly remarry).

#30 Comment By Greg On May 31, 2014 @ 2:26 am

When I (a male) entered the workforce long ago, a mentor told me that the only safe way to TOUCH a female co-worker was lightly on her elbow. Anyplace else was potential for a sexual harrasment suit – which he had been through. I now think fist-bumps (where you go 80% of the way, and the other person either ignores it or completes it) are also acceptable.

#31 Comment By Al On June 1, 2014 @ 2:12 am

@JohnE_o: I hope you’ll excuse me for answering in Lord Karth’s stead, but one cares what random strangers in a parking lot think because those strangers have mobile devices with which to document the event, caption/narrate it with their own misinformed opinion, & disseminate it to the world, in the process getting an educator like Karth blackballed from his profession (& potentially even investigated by the police) simply due to that stranger’s assumption of impropriety.

#32 Comment By OmegaPaladin On June 2, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

Male affection has been made universally sexual after a certain age. This is not based on any reasonable view of men and women. Of course men like to have sex, but only the most ignorant and insane theorist would argue that is the ONLY desire men have (men clearly enjoy competitive games, and there is almost never a sexual component to them), but it seems like that is the presumption. Men generally love their mothers and children, and that love is not sexual, but it is generally affectionate.

I support severe and extreme punishment of child molesters, and I am a mandated reporter due to my position. However, I am also aware that the most extreme crimes require the most compelling proof. Any investigation of such a crime should be kept confidential, and handled with discretion.

#33 Comment By bill burke On June 6, 2014 @ 9:47 am

“…it’s worth asking if there is something we can do to make non-sexual affection more common generally. “

It’s also worth asking if every human desire is worth honoring.

Or at least why this natural desire for “touching” can’t simply be replaced by most or all of its “needers” by any of a myriad of other, autonomously chosen desires that promote happiness and are more readily available.