Four men have wordlessly wept in my arms. One of them crescendo-ed into almost sobbing.
I have kissed their heads, run my fingers through their hair, rubbed their necks, and stroked their backs with their faces buried in my neck and curled up in my embrace.
It was the same scene each time. Lying in bed together, I lifted one arm to signal an opening, an invitation, and wrapped my arms around them when they settled into me. The tighter I held them, the more I ran my hands up and down their backs, the few men who allowed themselves to be held and rocked at all seemed to let a dam break in the dark. I hummed a little bit to some, tried to murmur soothing words to all of them. I didn’t know if I was supposed to match their silence or not.
None of them spoke a word. None of them seemed to be reacting to anything specific or urgent. And not one of them ever spoke of it after we got out of bed.
It made me wonder how much weight they were carrying, how much sadness, anger, regret, or pain they’d bottled up over the years, shoved it deep down inside never knowing if they would ever be able to feel it, to release it.
Men need to be held. They need to be soothed and comforted. They need to feel safe and loved. They need the space to be vulnerable but affirmed. Because they’re human beings socialized to not feel, to shut down, and to override an entire circuitry of complex and valid emotions.
This is not to say that women don’t need to be held too. And it is certainly not to say that, as a whole, we are getting enough affection and intimacy in loving and trusting relationships.
It is to say that too many people are suffering — when they don’t have to suffer alone.
Not only are women not getting enough affirming affection, even though it’s socially acceptable to want it, neither are men — and they feel they are not supposed to ask for it because they’re not even supposed to need it at all. They are supposed to be too tough to indulge “childlike” or effeminate intimacy. They can dole out the occasional bear hug because “women like to cuddle” but “real” men don’t need affection. Some even feel like they can’t accept it when it’s offered generously and privately.
Not every man I’ve held has cried. Two of them softly told me how sweet I was to them. One of them hadn’t touched another human being in four years.
They seemed comfortable complimenting me. It’s socially acceptable for a woman to be sweet and dote on a man — because women are supposed to be sweet and dote on men. One of them went so far as to say, I’ve noticed how sweet you are to me, you’re very sweet. But neither of them could admit, I like it when you’re sweet to me, it feels good. Because sweet is weak. They could appraise my feminine sweetness but they couldn’t admit they wanted it, let alone needed it.
This destructive double standard dehumanizes half the population. It deprives three billion people of one of the most powerful things we humans can share with each other. We’re evolving as a culture to the point where “girl dads” can have painted nails because their daughters wanted to play dress-up with them but that only allows men to respond to “feminine” requests — we’re still failing to liberate men to make their own requests for intimacy. Our culture still doesn’t broadly encourage or even accept anything from men but strong and silent.
People are capable of deep pain and enormous love. That is part of our shared, and genderless, humanity. We should be able to love and comfort each other without fear, without half the population shamed into thinking they have to choose between their core identity and meeting their beautifully human needs.