the performance of affection in male spaces

I’m really bad at hiding my close relationships. Not necessarily in a PDA sense (though, when I was younger, that was a thing too)—no, I get attached to people and I want them to know it. This isn’t just romantic or sexual; most of the time, it manifests most loudly in my platonic relationships (which, for y’all who could use a refresher, covers the friends-and-family category, plus any acquaintance you’re not interested in dating). However, when most of my friendships spend most of their time in a scene high in toxic masculinity and a little messy in terms of affection of any kind, I feel the effects of my Othering pretty acutely.

Now, the Othering (read: I am queer, though allocishet-passing) doesn’t seem to be inherently connected to the affection problem if you look at it on the surface—at least, if it is, we choose to ignore it or lump it under sexism generally. But here’s the truth I’ve been able to articulate for five years and known even longer: if you are a female-presenting person and you hug the same male-presenting person a whole bunch, people assume you’re an item. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if you’re just sleeping together or something more, though in certain circumstances, being someone’s girlfriend or partner can afford you a great deal of protection. (That’s a whole other post waiting to happen.) In fact, it doesn’t matter that usually, you’re not sleeping together or dating; the rumor mill gets going, and it doesn’t favor you. No amount of “we’re just friends” will convince anyone who doesn’t know you well.

As a result, I tend to operate under one set of rules: everyone/most everyone gets a hug, or no one does. Some days this goes better than others, and it raises some important concerns from a personal safety standpoint. Chief among them is the Schrödinger’s rapist concept I’ve written about before: I have to take risk factors into account anytime I’m out interacting with anyone (especially anyone male), and I don’t have the same relationship with every guy I might interact with during one night. So how do I deal with that guy (or two, or three, or whatever) who I’m not comfortable hugging? (The answer varies from night to night, but it’s most valuable as a rhetorical question.) So I do my best, and I hug a little more than I’d like to, but it keeps prying eyes turned away.

Still, though, I have those friends—that handful of people—who bring me absolute, utter joy and whose contributions to my life I deeply value and try to honor at every turn. These are folks I’ve been hugging for years and who I can’t imagine greeting any other way (so long as they remain comfortable, of course). Those friends are the ones that raise eyebrows and whispers of “are they dating?” Being demisexual inherently complicates this, because when I do choose a partner, chances are good they’re already in that boat (if you’re reading this, John, hi). The whispers don’t usually stop when I’m seeing someone and not seeking a partner, either, because I’m female and showing some male-presenting person affection, and so many of us are socialized to assume that means I’m looking for something other-than-platonic. The net effect? It’s scary to pursue relationships you actually want, and it’s scary to be settled (in a relationship or otherwise) because the nature of your affection to everyone is questioned at every turn.

As difficult as this can be to navigate, it’s extra-Othering when you take into account the myriad (often unhealthy) ways men in these spaces can show affection toward each other. Perhaps surprising no one, these moments often involve dick jokes (at times verbal, visual, and/or physical). There’s a lot of things at play here, but here’s what I think is most important in the scope of this discussion: when we are assuming that the default setting for a lot of these folks is allocishet, it becomes clear that these overly-phallic displays of affection are rooted in an insidious combination of toxic masculinity, transphobia, and homophobia. The point of them is to say “hey, here’s a joking comment about your dick (and inherent perceived masculinity) to show you I like and respect  you! But not in the way you might take that comment at face value!”

Yet, somehow, these comments from one (presumably) straight man to another are perceived as praise and affection, even though when said in any other gender or sexuality combination they would be perceived at best as flirting and at worst as sexual harassment (which, by the way, is what they feel like to me when I walk into a conversation involving them). Or, put simply, they hit on each other to prove they’re casual friends, while in the same breath they take platonic female affection and distort it into something inherently and insidiously sexual. In situations where women and femme-presenting folks are discouraged from any sort of physical affection (or anything that could be construed as non-platonic), men are encouraged to use hypersexualized, homoerotic phrases and actions to prove how much they don’t care (beyond certain limits). The hypocrisy is astounding.

And this disadvantages the entire community! I realize that’s a no-brainer up to a certain point, but hear me out a little further: in limiting affection to awkward, potentially abusive dick jokes and stifled, measured hugs, we exclude ourselves from (consensual) hand-holding and cheek kisses and really good hugs and platonic cuddling and a whole gamut of affection that’s sensual, not sexual. Do all (or any) of these things need to be practiced by a community for it to be healthy? Of course not—and when practiced, it should always be consensual. But for every verbal way we have to communicate our admiration and compassion for someone, be it I love you or you sounded great up there or get home safe or can I walk you to your car?, we have countless visual and physical cues that can effectively convey the same message while honoring the nuances of each individual relationship. Accessing this nonverbal language, though, requires interrogating and dismantling aspects of the toxic masculinity inside each of us (including us women and femme folks—what do you think formed the foundation of my Hug Everyone Or No One policy?). This process takes time, and it can be pretty scary, especially if you’re not used to platonic touching or have trauma informing your mindset.

In the future, I’m hoping to expound on this and write a little bit about trust exercises and their uses for musicians and folks in male-dominant spaces, but that’s a topic for another time. In the meantime, though, I hope you’ll examine your relationships and how, when, and why you tell people you love them. What rings truest for you? Who do you Other, even tacitly, and how do you Other them? How can you hone your communication skills to express your appreciation, admiration, and respect while allowing everyone to feel safe and welcome?

The work never stops. But I’m glad we’re doing it together. ♦

Many thanks to Chaz Martineau and Rebecca Drapkin for beta-reading this post to make sure the words I put out on paper still make sense when somebody else tries to digest them. It takes a village.

To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.