I consider myself blessed to have grown up in a physically affectionate family. Not only was I regularly hugged and kissed by my mother, but I still hug and kiss my father whenever I see him. (I am grateful that my father, born in Austria, grew up in a relatively demonstrative culture.) As a schoolboy, however, I learned quickly that any sign of physical affection between men (other than during a sporting event, and even then, of a very limited and specific nature) was associated with homosexuality and effeminacy. I didn't hug a man to whom I wasn't related until I went to college.
Now, of course, I work as a volunteer youth minister at the local Episcopal church. During the past five years, I've worked with a couple of hundred high school-age youth. It's given me a lot of time to think about gender and physical affection. If there's one thing I'm committed to, it's modeling appropriate but loving physical contact with my kids of both sexes. That isn't always easy to do. Not surprisingly, I have had to confront my own acculturation when it comes to physical affection with young men.
First off, we live in a society that is absolutely obsessed with issues of sexual abuse. This obsession is particularly apparent in our churches and our youth ministries; the past three years have brought devastating news of molestation and abuse in every denomination (though our Catholic brethren seem to have taken the brunt of the hit). In this climate, all men who choose to work with youth are open to suspicion. Some of what is being done in response is good and necessary: stricter background checks, for example. But much of what has happened has not been useful, and some of it has even been counter-productive. I have a friend who works in youth ministry at a Presbyterian church nearby, and he says he has been told that the church's policy is to never have any youth minister touch a kid in any way at any time. No hugs, no pats on the back, nothing. He's looking for a new church.
Working with adolescents has taught me just how starved most of them are for safe physical affection, especially the boys. And over time, with input from those on staff at the church, I have developed my own guidelines for my own behavior. What it boils down to is this: I am an inveterate hugger. I hug everyone. Kids, adults, men, women, boys, girls, chinchillas, the ficus tree in the corner. That sounds more compulsive than it is. I have to be constantly, keenly aware of body language. I don't foist hugs on anyone. Nor do I treat hugs as inconsequential, like Hugo's version of a casual handshake. What I'm trying to do doesn't always work perfectly, but it does seem to work most of the time. I'm trying to create a culture in our youth group where non-sexual physical intimacy feels safe and reassuring and validating. That takes a lot of time. Some kids came for six months before I could hug them. Some hugged me the moment they met me. Even in a nurturing and safe environment, there will be different levels of comfort with physical affection.
Many of the girls, of course, have little experience of non-sexual affection from men. If I hear one more story from a teen girl about how her father stopped hugging her when she began to develop, I'm going to scream. (I'm not a father, of course, but I'm just mystified by that phenomenon, which, anecdotally, seems to be epidemic). Many of them, though very young, have already been objectified and harassed by men my age or older. They are in desperate need of truly safe adult men -- men who are neither responsive to their sexuality nor terrified of it. For the record, as a matter of common sense, I am never alone with teenage girls at the church. Ever. I also regularly "check in" with my fellow volunteers and with the church staff, asking them to be willing to challenge me should I ever even appear to behave inappropriately. But none of that stops me, when the barriers have been broken down, from hugging.
I don't hug boys the same way I hug girls. For the most part, with the boys, "horseplay" is the safest environment for physical affection. We do a lot of that at All Saints Church. Mind you, I don't get down on the ground and wrestle with the kids! But the playful pretend punches, the slaps on the back -- all of these can be imbued with very real caring and affection. When I was a high schooler, I wasn't ready to be held by older men -- but I sure as hell wanted their attention, and I did want their caring and affection. A quick squeeze of the shoulder was about all I could take, but damn, did I want that squeeze of the shoulder from men I looked up to! I try and remember that. (I should note that some high school boys do like to hug just as much as the girls do, especially once they realize that ours is a safe environment).
In our current climate of hysteria, we in the church need to struggle to find a balance. We must of course protect our young people from exploitation and abuse. We must do everything we can to create a safe place within our church communities for our teens. But a place where every gesture of physical affection is seen as dangerous is an inherently unsafe environment! Our young women need to be reminded, over and over again, that they are loved and cared for non-sexually; in that effort, a hug is worth ten thousand words. Our young men need to be reminded, over and over again, that here, at least one night a week during youth group, they don't have to be "tough guys." They need men in their lives who will love them without judging them or assessing their fragile masculinities.
I have to admit, it's a bit scary to post about this. I know that many, many women out there -- and some men -- have devastating stories of betrayal at the hands of male authority figures. I know that many of them know just how awful it can be when what was supposed to be a "safe" hug or touch becomes something far different. I try to never lose sight of that reality. But it is also because I am so aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse that I insist on touching the youth with whom I work. I do so not to show my disregard for common sense, but as an act of defiance against a culture that declares all affection to be suspicious. I do it because the kids need it. I do it because we all need it. And I do it because Jesus did it.