Physical Intimacy

Spiritual Friendship contributor Jordan Monge in her post observes that the increased acceptance of homosexuality is likely connected to increased homophobia.

“A consequence of our bizarre cultural blend of both open homosexuality and yet still deep-seated homophobia is that people worry that open displays of affection for people of the opposite gender will provoke misinterpretations of orientation. As college freshmen, I remember the first time that my best friend and I were walking around Cambridge, MA holding hands; we noted after a while that people would probably think us lesbians and promptly ceased such public displays of affection. We had no such concerns back home in more conservative Irvine, California.

It’s precisely the dearth of this physical intimacy within normal friendships that makes celibacy in the modern world so difficult. Man was made with a need for physical intimacy, but in our rather touch-phobic society, it’s difficult to meet that need outside of a romantic relationship.”

I’m inclined to agree. It’s a very worrisome trend in our culture today that friends don’t feel the freedom to exercise chaste physical affection, without fear of having their actions misinterpreted or stigmatized.

Yet the Church doesn’t appear to be exempt from fault. True, Christians on average—as Monge rightly observes—do seem better at showing physical affection than their secular counterparts, in a society where touch is taboo; and credit must be given where it’s due. But it’s doubtful whether this is enough.

Gay celibates in conservative evangelical churches are often warned against the dangers of physical intimacy with members of the same sex. Such admonishments make one suspect whether Christians really understand the true nature of friendship. It’s only natural for friends to want to express their love for one another through physical affection. The fact that we deliberately refrain from such public displays of affection, out of fear of being misunderstood, is unfortunate.

Touch communicates affection and trust. Withholding it signals distrust; discomfort; distance. Without it, we lose a vital way of telling another that we care for them. To deny yourself touch is to deprive yourself of care in that form. Yet this is exactly what we are told to do: “cut off the hand or eye that causes you to sin.” In that way, it is said, we may avoid sexual temptation, meaning less opportunity for sexual sin.

Such advice, however well-intended, does more harm than good, and affirms neither the need for physical intimacy nor its normalcy in friendship.

The continued absence of touch makes it virtually impossible to pursue chastity. Any celibate gay Christian can attest to the importance of affectionate friendships: how the presence and comfort of close friends plays an integral role in one’s survival and sanity.

Moreover, I have my doubts as to whether there are usually any real dangers of sexual transgression, at least in–if I may coin the term–mixed orientation friendships. Let’s be honest. Is there any real danger of a hug turning into some unguarded moment of intense homoerotic passion, when the other person is straight? That happens only in our dreams (and perhaps our friends’ worst nightmares!). Yes, a hug might lead to unhealthy fantasizing; feeding unhealthy patterns or temptations, for one to act on, alone, in private. But this is an issue of conscience and of private purity: an opportunity for us to exercise our discretion; a judgment call for us to make, not for others to decide. Plus, even if the possibility of sexual activity is real, this is the last thing any sensible gay celibate Christian wants. Perhaps it crosses his mind, but the cost of losing a close friend is too risky. I doubt that’s a gamble any gay Christian, who seriously considers his options, wants to make.

Yet shouldn’t we watch our for our weaker brother’s conscience? Whatever lip service paid to Paul’s admonition not to “stumble one’s brother” has, in my experience, proved unconvincing: a veneer of spirituality disguising a refusal to confront our elemental discomfort towards friendly touch in western culture.

In some respects, the situation is even worse for celibate gay believers. Not only are perfectly innocent forms of physical intimacy (or what ought to be recognized as such) still stigmatized to some degree in the Church, worse yet—there’s a moral stigma attached to it, since nobody wants to be seen or suspected as the closeted homosexual who’s secretly “living in sin”.

This worry is always there, with or without an audience. There’s obviously the fear of coming across as gay in public or in front of other people. But image maintenance is a symptom of something far more entrenched. Even in the absence of public judgment or peer pressure, we are afraid of touch. Our culture discourages any serious expression of physical intimacy between two friends—even when no one else is looking.

Inversely, public displays of affection between friends do appear to be less stigmatized in those societies where homosexuality remains a largely hidden and unrecognized phenomenon. For instance, in Korea, having a gay orientation, I’m told, isn’t even acknowledged by older generations to be an existing “thing”. (Although people there are beginning to develop a greater awareness of homosexuality, as it enters into the mainstream, e.g. through film.) Some people tell me that many Korean-American church subcultures are like this too: the possibility that someone in their congregation might actually be gay doesn’t even cross their mind. (“Jaekwon–gay? No! He just dresses well… Or maybe…”)

This isn’t to advocate a return to a former state of society where homosexuality isn’t recognized–which is neither possible nor feasible. The homophobic coloring of same-sex touch that discourages physical intimacy among friends is a problem that calls for a return to a richer, healthier understanding of friendship love, not a regress to an outdated conception of sexual orientation.

Here lies a rare opportunity for the Church to foster a space where friends can exercise chaste physical affection, without fear of being misinterpreted or stigmatized. It’s a chance for the Church to witness powerfully to homosexuals, by showing how chastity is done, while shedding its own image–the typical media caricature–as a homophobic oppressor of sexual minorities. Doing so, however, first requires reeducating ourselves about the nature of friendship.

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