At the Gold Cosmetics kiosk in the mall, I watched a man in a beige suit sit still, relaxed back in his tall chair as another man in a polo daubed potions and poultices onto his face. He had that peaceful look written on his brow that only comes when someone is enjoying being cared for as the kiosk clerk fussed with the creams and lotions.
Seeing this, I felt my own tingle of relaxation, but the scene struck me as odd. I like watching people make contact with one another. I like it when people touch me, for the most part. With permission. When a friend brushes my hair. When I get a massage. Those instances seem so rare. What was odd about the scene before me was that the recipient was male.
By social rules in the U.S., it seems that women are allowed to touch one another far more often than men are. Hugs between women are normal. The hand laid on the shoulder, or on top of another hand. The thought of a woman at a spa doesn’t cause an eyelash to bat. But men? When do you see a man go to spa, and there is no comment? It happens, yes, but there is a bro-ish commentary that occurs before it’s okay, devaluing dude’s masculinity. Because massages are gay. Touch is always sexual. A hug must be mannishly justified. Cuddling is only for enjoying within the confines of a heterosexual relationship, and even then, the man shouldn’t actually enjoy it, And in the public sphere, you pay for touch, for human contact.
And beyond that, many such interactions are transactional: the haircut, the massage, the day at the spa, the manicure. We pay to be touched and pampered. And most of these transactions are available only to women, because we’ve constructed them as feminine things, because we’ve culturally cut men off from the need for contact. When men pay for certain types of contact? The reaction is swift: they’re obviously gay.
I maintain that contact is a human need. Even if we section off types of physical contact into pre-approved boxes, even if we define manliness as a rugged island on which half the population live in social isolation, it doesn’t take away from the fact we link pleasure with touch, well-being with physically demonstrated care. But cultural change is slow.
Did I think the man pampered at the kiosk was gay? Hell if I know. It didn’t matter. I just enjoyed that tiny voyeuristic high of watching someone receive care from someone else.