men clasping hands together

My Relationships/Teen Relationships

Fist Bumps and Bro Hugs

As a former student at an all-male high school, and now a teacher at that same school, I generally witness and experience male affection and intimacy through fist bumps and bro hugs. While not inherently bad things, I have begun to wonder, “Is this the depth of our ability to physically express our care for one another?” and if so, “What are we so afraid of?”.

The idea of male intimacy might make us uncomfortable, to be honest, it made me feel uncomfortable for a long time. It feels foreign, “weird,” and many times it is simply something we don’t talk about or consider. Much of the time, this feeling is due to the association of physical touch and affection with sexuality. There is a fear that if I express myself physically, through any sort of affection towards someone of the same sex then I must be gay. This damaging and false assumption is a result of homophobia and the over-sexualization of touch.

All of this is further reinforced through the way the relationship between physicality and power, especially in the context and history of masculinity. Physicality has historically been one of the most pervasive and effective ways that groups have exerted power over one another, from slavery, to our current epidemic of pornography, and even within our own Church through the sex abuse crisis. The violent and painful history of physicality has convinced us that touch and intimacy can only be an expression of possession, of domination.

In his book Compassion, Father Henri Nouwen writes “Compassion is neither our central concern nor our primary stance in life. What we really desire is to make it in life, to get ahead, to be first, to be different.” Our culture is marked by competition. In a culture marked by competition, fear is the default setting, leaving us to exist in a constant state of fight or flight. This way of being, prevents us from authentic and from entering into a meaningful relationship with one another, specifically to form bonds of true brotherhood.

The Christ of Tenderness

Jesus provides us a model for positive male affection at the Passover in John’s gospel after Jesus identifies and explains to the disciples that one of his dearests, closest friends will betray him:

“The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, ‘Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.’ So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, ‘Lord, who is it?'” (John 13:22-25). In a moment of true fear, stress, and tension, Jesus was there to physically support and comfort his best friend. All of this amidst his own anticipation of death and imminent abandonment by his closest friends. Jesus chose to allow to invite the disciples into this, and in turn supported them in their own fear and insecurity.

Ultimately, Jesus chose compassion instead of competition, tenderness instead of domination, gentility instead of forcefulness. It is in our shared brokenness that we are able to connect, to become whole, and to offer a healing touch to one another. The power of these moments has become one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Communicating More Clearly and Authentically

A good friend of mine and I have committed to spending two to three days each year camping. This is a sacred time for both of us, full of peace, healing, and joy. Over the past few years, we have been able to share some of the deepest struggles we have faced, and many times in those intimate moments we have offered comfort to each other by crying together or putting an arm around one another. This physical presence is one not of competition, of domination, but of deep empathy, and authentic loving support. It is a recognition that, in a way, my reality and his reality have become one, a shared bearing of pain and struggle. It is in these intimate spaces that we both encounter God, revealing to each of us who we are made to be as brothers, as husbands, sons, and so many other identities we both hold.

The time that we spend together usually ends with a big hug, I cherish that moment. In that moment so much is being communicated that can’t be communicated in any other way. It is a sacramental, physical sign of the time that we shared, the trust that we built, and the love and care that we have for one another. This is an acknowledgment that we have experienced God through one another, in each other’s presence, and generosity of time and attention. At that moment we are able to express so many things simultaneously, “Thank you”, “I support you”, “I love you”, “I hear you”, we can and do say all these things out loud, but those words mean so much more with that physical acknowledgment of them.

Even describing this, writing this, and having it published feels strange, I wonder how people will interpret it, read it, and encounter this. This further suggests to me the need to normalize and work towards physical touch that does not ask for anything in return, rather simply says, you matter, you are important, you are enough.

Intimacy and vulnerability is a complex and highly contextual experience. Each relationship looks different, and every person’s comfort level with sharing, and with physical closeness varies. It is important that we respect where each person is at, especially considering life experiences, how people are comfortable communicating, and to what level of trust exists between you. Sharing deeply takes time, patience, presence and most importantly trust. Part of building trust is respecting the other person, understanding where they are at and what they are comfortable with. We don’t have a right to someone’s story, or vulnerability, but in offering our own trust and being open, that can help others to feel comfortable to share their true, authentic selves. This sharing is the ground that healthy relationships and intimacy are built upon.

Working through our discomfort is difficult, and is best approached in small ways that will eventually grow into habits, and ways of living. Showing healthy, physical affection is a habit that we have to build. Some of the small ways that you can start to do this:

  • Open up to your friends. Physical touch requires trust and vulnerability, which means we have to first work on expressing our emotions and feelings.
  • Greet your friends with a hug, rather than a head nod, or simple hello. But don’t force it…respecting and being aware of boundaries is important. Not everyone is a hugger.
  • Spend time one on one with your friends. The intimacy of getting to know someone one on one breaks down barriers and builds trust.
  • Acknowledge and pay attention to those moments and places where you might want to express yourself more fully, but feel scared or nervous. Explore those feelings, and understand what is at the root. Is it because that expression would be unhealthy? Or is it because of what people might think, or how you might be labeled?

Fist bumps and bro hugs aren’t necessarily bad, we just can’t let them be the extent of how we choose to show and express brotherhood. Let’s challenge ourselves to consider how we physically interact, and what we are saying through those interactions both to move away from any sort of physical touch that hopes to possess or dominate, but also to imagine more profound ways to be together. This new way of being might even help us to better express our deep love, care and need for one another when words are simply not enough.

About the Author

Will Rutt

He currently teaches religious studies at Brophy, in Phoenix, Arizona and serves as the Director of Ignatian Service and Advocacy in the school's Office of Faith and Justice. He is a product of Life Teen, growing up in Scottsdale at St. Patrick’s Catholic community; served as a core member in the EDGE and Life Teen programs for a number of years. He loves anything outdoors and spills any liquid he comes into contact with.

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