Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

I remember going to the barber for a haircut with my father when I was a boy. I grew up in Rising Sun, Ohio, a small town with a general store, a lonely post office, and only one barber. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old. I don’t remember much about the barber himself or the shop except for the traditional, red and blue swirled barber’s pole and the smell of overly-applied aftershave. The most significant part about getting a hair cut was being touched by a man.

The barber would clip the back of my neck with one hand while cradling his other palm to the side of my head. It was a powerful sensation – to be touched gently and purposefully. It’s important to clarify that the barber’s touch was professional and never felt inappropriately sexual. I assume he was doing his job and unaware of my fascination for his touch.

I remember his fingers were strong and skillful. He’d transfer the full weight of his arm onto my shoulder while laying his palm flat. His hands were warm, mostly comforting but also confusing for me. His touch illuminated a stark contrast of awareness about physical closeness or the lack of it. In that moment, I became aware of how little I was touched by other boys or men on a regular basis, including my father.

It’s surprising (and somewhat sad) how being touched infrequently by my barber became a significant part of my childhood. Although I had ample nurturing touch from my mother to whom I am grateful, growing up in the absence of friendly male touch affected my development, especially as a gay man. I developed a high tolerance for little or infrequent touch and also became highly selective and cautious about sharing touch with others.

The truth is that we all need consistent, nurturing touch in our lives. We must learn how to give and receive as a necessary relationship skill. Touch is vital to good health. It is essential to belonging. It offers encouragement and reassurance. Meaningful touch communicates caring and safety. Moreover, touch transcends the limitations of language and communicates beyond words. Imagine the power of a silent hug between friends at a restaurant or boyfriends holding hands during a movie or two men patting each other on the back after winning a game. Touch speaks for itself.

It’s not uncommon for men both gay and straight to be starved for touch. Many of us have not had proper practice or enough opportunities. If that’s the case for you, then how can you learn to give and receive better touch? Or if you know you are touch-starved, then where can you go to find it?

Lucky for me years ago, I found an amazing group of people in Chicago with a common goal of sharing healing touch. Every Tuesday evening upstairs at Ann Sather’s restaurant, anywhere from 30 to 50 people would gather, offering each other “laying of hands.” This practice was formally guided by the principles and teachings of Reiki (pronounced ray-kee), a Japanese-based form of hands-on energy healing.

Now while this all might sound a bit spiritually far-out if you’re unfamiliar with Reiki, let me dispel any stigma or judgments by breaking it down into the basics. It’s quite simple really. One person would lie down on a massage table for 20 minutes while 3 other people would lay their hands on his body – that’s it. Although the process was simple, the results were profound.

Let me explain why. Touching someone acknowledges his body or acknowledges that he is some body (literally). Therefore, affirming another person through touch, affirms his embodied sense of self or self-worth. The Reiki sessions deeply nurtured my self-worth. I felt affirmed. And if that wasn’t enough, the group sessions ended with all participants hugging each other. Let me assure you that being hugged sincerely by 40+ people weekly does wonders for well-being and self-esteem.

So with this all said, what’s a guy to do if he’s touch-starved? Well you could start your own Reiki healing group and invite me; or if that’s not an option, then you’ll need to experiment with giving more touch. Initially, you might not be able to control the amount of touch you receive but you can focus on how much touch you offer to others. By initiating more touch in your life, you will increase the likelihood for its reciprocation.

Keep in mind initiating touch is boldly courageous, which means you’ll have to be willing to take risks. Taking risks becomes easier when you’re clear about your intentions and boundaries. If you’re overly needy, manipulative or inappropriately sexual with your touch, then chances are others will be turned-off by your attempts (unless that’s what they want too). For the most part, no one wants to be touched by a selfish vampire (maybe except for Anne Rice or if you’re in love with Robert Pattinson.)

Lastly, let’s be practical and remember you can always pay to be touched. Good massage therapists are trained to understand we all got needs. Now go out there and touch each other.

Alan Robarge is a Philadelphia-based Psychotherapist in private practice. Learn more by visiting or

Read Related Posts...