Like many entrepreneurs who are growing their businesses, I do rideshare driving to help pay the bills. It is a good fit for me: the hours and the money are flexible, I like taking care of people and listening to their stories, and it’s often a fun job. I have tons of opportunities to learn new things about the city I live in and the events that go on here and I cross paths with many folks I would otherwise never meet.
One thing I’ve learned is that Austin is a destination city for bachelor parties. It makes sense: there are five different bar districts where you can walk around and get drunk, and if you have people coming from many different parts of the country, it’s pretty central. I often find myself with a car full of young dudes on their way to or from breakfast tacos, barbecue, tubing or drinking. I love their hope and excitement for creating a future with their brides-to-be, and to get to be a fly on the wall when observing male friendships.
Friday afternoon I got a ping from an address around the corner from my house. I instantly recognized the address: it’s a super-popular Airbnb rental that often hosts bachelor parties. Sure enough, I drove up and there was a horde of guys in their late 20s with matching t-shirts that had been designed to commemorate their weekend of drunkenness and debauchery.
One of the guys asked if they could all fit in my car; sadly, my clown car was in the shop and I could only take four of them. Three of them piled into the back seat, and the groom got into the front seat. We started heading for a bar downtown so they could start what would clearly be a long night of drinking.
As we drove off, the groom put his hand to his forehead and started complaining loudly to his friends. “You guys, my dad is driving me fucking crazy! He’s ruining my weekend! It totally sucks!” Turns out that dad had invited himself along to party for the weekend, and had an agenda that differed slightly from the rest of the crew. The groom had woken up that morning to find him perusing ads for escorts on Craigslist and trying to figure out where he could score some drugs. We all laughed - it was funny as fuck - but it was clearly stressing him out. The groom proceeded to get louder and more agitated, and was beating himself up for not saying no. Instead of having a fun weekend where he was the center of attention, he was doing damage control.
Like many people who grew up in a household with yelling, I’m not fond of loud voices. It’s even worse when it’s going on inside a small, enclosed space while I’m trying to focus on piloting a 3000-pound vehicle through Friday afternoon traffic on a holiday weekend. I had to do something to bring this guy back to the present moment and calm him down, for my safety and theirs.
At a stop sign, I turned to him and asked, “is it okay if I put my hand on your shoulder?” He looked a bit surprised, but agreed. I placed it on his shoulder blade and patted him in a comforting gesture. He quieted down, and started breathing more deeply.
In the back seat, his friends started hooting and hollering. “Dude! She’s trying to turn you on!” they crowed, grinning and nudging each other. They hadn’t even started their evening and already their boy was getting some action!
“No, actually, I’m trying to calm him down,” I replied.
“Yeah, no, that feels good. I appreciate it,” the groom told me. A few moments later, I removed my hand (it was required for steering) and the rest of the ride was calm. When we reached the bar, they tried to get me to park the car and come in for a drink. I could think of dozens of things more appealing than sitting in a bar at 4 in the afternoon (like driving in rush-hour traffic) and I sent them on their merry way.
After I drove off, I started thinking about the reaction of the guys in the back seat. They immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was trying to hit on a guy whose sole reason for being on vacation was to celebrate his impending nuptials to a woman he clearly loved (after he had chilled out, he talked nonstop about her).
These young men couldn’t wrap their head around the idea that touch can be used for relaxation, not arousal, and that my clearly stated intention was to be kind and supportive toward their stressed-out friend. If I had put my hand high up on his thigh, I could see where they would have been confused, but there was nary an erogenous zone within my reach. And of course it never crossed their minds that I was madly in love and didn’t have any interest in boinking their friend (though had they known, I suspect they would have been even more derisive – no woman who with a boyfriend should be touching a man who isn’t her partner).
I wondered about their relationship status: were they all single? Did any woman who smiled and said hello become a potential sex partner in their eyes? Was it possible to have a tactile human interaction with the opposite sex that was based on friendliness, or was it always seen as flirtation? Why would a woman touch a man unless she wanted to have sex with him? Did they get confused when they were touched by a female nurse or hairdresser?
If they did have girlfriends, would they automatically assume that she wanted sex when she went in for a hug at the end of a hard day? Would they find themselves being rebuffed for sex and couldn’t understand that their wives were touched out after giving to their brand-new infants all day long? Or would they learn that it’s important to feel nurtured and safe in the arms of another, and that sometimes it has absolutely nothing to do with sex? (If they were lucky, they would have daughters who would teach them that lesson.)
As I’ve spent time studying the cultural implications of touch, one of the most damaging trends I’ve noticed is that we suffer from our society’s inability to uncouple sex from touch. Men in particular bear that burden; while many women are comfortable being affectionate with each other, many men are not. If they don’t have friends and family living close by, some men can go weeks without being touched by another human being. It’s gotten to the point where I can look at a man and see that it’s been a long time since anyone embraced him.
I’ve had an easier time offering strangers a hug as I’ve aged, but I still hold back for fear of my intentions being misconstrued if said stranger is a man. And I am saddened by the fact that many men are afraid of being touched by other men. What a different world we would live in if we could see touch as a part of our health and wellness, similar to exercise, nutrition and a good night’s sleep. I think we would be happier and calmer and more relaxed.
I hope that my bachelor pals got smashed drunk last night and offered each other copious, celebratory hugs…but not so drunk that they crossed boundaries with women they found attractive. And I hope the next time they find themselves in a situation with a woman comforting a man, they can tell the difference between sex and kindness.