…the parched land shall become a pool, and the thirsty lands springs of water…(Isaiah 35:7)

Don’t Fence Me In

By Rex Goode


I first saw heard the old song, “Don’t Fence Me In”, on The Muppet Show with the immortal Bob Hope. It’s a great song, a great video, and possibly even a great message.

As funny as the routine is, the title has a very serious application for me. Decades ago, when I covenanted with the Lord that I would stop having sexual contact with other males, it became my task to figure out how to keep my end of it. In my weak and mortal reasoning, I thought that meant that I had to be utterly careful about anything coming even close to my former behavior.

Among other things, I resolved a strictly hands-off policy when it came to men. The only contact I would allow was a handshake. I was certain that anything more than that would be my eventual downfall, or so I reasoned at the time. This I could not afford.

For many years, I went without any male contact other than handshakes. The only exceptions I made were in cases where I ordained or baptized a man, and then I hugged very briefly with the obligatory back-slap that hugs between men so frequently involve. Even those hugs I did with a great deal of fear.

This strategy seemed to be working. Whereas before I couldn’t go more than a few weeks without some kind of inappropriate contact with a man, my abstinence from such activity stretched into years. What I did not see at the time was that something else was growing. Looking back, I can only call it a deprivation of my natural and normal needs for appropriate and affectionate contact with men.

I did not understand that this self-imposed deprivation was not without consequences. The main consequence was a growing sense of loneliness and separateness from men. It also included such tragedies as increased rigidity, formality, volatility, and lack of sense of humor. It was not enough for me to merely control my physical contact with men. I was controlling and limiting all forms of intimacy. There are only two destinations for such behavior: isolation or acting out.

For most people, I think the latter the most likely. Isolation creates a vacuum that is hard for any human being to resist for long. For me, the first man that came along that breached my wall in the least brought with him the potential for the entire crumbling of that wall.

He came along in the form of someone I refer to as Albert, which is obviously not his real name. Albert was a hands-on kind of guy. He seemed to have no concerns about putting his hand on your shoulder, around your shoulders, or around your waist. I know that every time he did it to me, I stiffened.

Now, the more salaciously-minded among you, myself included, might have inferred some innuendo in that last statement. I want you to know that it did have a double meaning for me. My whole body would go rigid when any man touched me in any way other than a handshake. There are not many other ways to describe what else would happen simultaneously. I got physically aroused by the touch.

As time went on and my friendship with Albert deepened, I allowed more touch without my whole body going rigid, but certain parts of me did not relax. I was terrified that Albert would notice and stop touching me altogether. It seemed as if the more I worried about it, the worse it got.

Almost anyone can identify with being in a situation where the fear and anxiety over saying or doing something stupid results in saying or doing something stupid. Such it was with my anxiety over bodily reactions to Albert’s hands-on policy.  The fear of it only made it more likely to happen.

I was faced with a decision that was almost more than I could bear. I had to either continue to allow Albert’s attentions and risk it going too far or slam the gate shut again on my wall of physical isolation. I was spared that decision when Albert’s true intentions were revealed to be less than honorable and he was fired from his job.

Without sharing those details, I want to make it clear that I don’t think that Albert’s affection for me was false, nor do I think it was erotic for him. I really think he cared deeply about me, but was wrapped up in a scheme cooked up between him and other coworkers where I was concerned.

I was devastated, but spared having to make the decision about my barriers to being touched. In fact, it threw the gate wide open, but no one was going through it. I think there is nothing so empty as an open vessel that nothing wants to enter.

Any attempt I made in the years that followed the collapse of my relationship with Albert to establish another affectionate and caring relationship with another man resulted in failure. Either other men were as walled up as I was or they were willing to invade too far and inappropriately inside my territory.

I was still keeping my agreement with God about sexual contact, but only by white-knuckled abstinence. Slowly and steadily, I was able to shut that rusted gate and lock myself up again inside. The loneliness was all too apparent to me, but I assured myself that isolation and hands-off thinking was my only refuge from acting out behavior.

As before, such a way of thinking can only cause pressure to build and when it finds an avenue of escape, it is likely to result in an explosion. I felt it growing and became concerned about it, yet had no idea what I could do to stave off what felt like the inevitable.

That is when I found the Disciples group on-line. It was safe for me, not only because I could participate anonymously, but because the only physical contact I had to worry about was my fingers on a keyboard. I could share about how desperate and lonely I felt without having to worry about triggering a return to my old ways.

I was so naive in my thinking, because as wonderful as that group was and still is, it could never take the place of the kind of appropriate male contact I very desperately needed. It wasn’t long after I joined there that I was told about an in-person support group in my area where I could join with other like-minded men in a controlled setting where they shared the same goals of faithfulness to the gospel and would support me in being faithful to my wife.

I looked forward to my first meeting with a mixture of excitement and fear. I was excited and convinced of the necessity of sharing my burden with others, but afraid of, among many things, that I would have the same kind of physical reaction to any kind of touch. I hoped that these men weren’t huggers.

My hopes were not realized. It was a common thing before and after meetings for hugs all around. I approached it with the same anxiety and result as I had with Albert. I was terrified that they would notice and I would not be welcome.

If they noticed, they never let on. I became comfortable with them and with their customs. The more comfortable I became, the less I reacted in the way I feared. It was worth continuing.

Several months into it, my work situation changed and I had to go on the road during the week. I could not attend a lot of my group meetings at home, but found one near where my work was. Again, the old fears were renewed. During the ritual hugging, I stayed back. When I couldn’t get away without hugging, my anxiety created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was in bad shape and not really benefiting at all from the camaraderie.

At the same time, I was in therapy. I discussed my concernes with my therapist who explained to me that the neural pathways that are related to that certain male arousal reaction, called in more direct fashion, an erection, were related to more than just sexual arousal. Many things can cause it. I should not assume that if I experience it that I’m also experiencing lust.

I believed him, but still could not bring myself to open up to more contact than I felt safe with. One night, at group, I felt I could not bear it any longer and I let myself hug the others. Yes, I reacted physically the same as usual, but I told myself, “I’m not letting fear keep me from this any more. I don’t care whether I end up embarrassed in some way. I’m going to give and get as many hugs as I can.”

Over the years, I met other men that were on the Disciples list. One of them dubbed me “Hugasaurus Rex.” I finally arrived at a place where I could hug, be hugged, and only react with warmth and love. It is a good feeling.

As often happens with barriers like my wall of isolation, when they break down, we don’t replace them with anything. The new freedom I felt to accept and give affection was good, but I did not realize that it too needed limits. It needed boundaries.

As dangerous as the wall was, the lack of anything was even more dangerous. Again, I found myself in a position where I might have failed in my covenant with the Lord, but this time, instead of because I was depriving myself of needed affection, I was not placing any limits on it.

The need for boundaries became clear to me when I allowed one man more affection than I should and was given the choice between stopping there and going too far. With much effort, I chose the former, but was shaken by the experience.

I was lost. Where should I go from there? Barriers had not worked. They had only intensified my loneliness and deprivation. I coined a phrase then that I still remind myself of: Deprivation leads to depravation. Enough said on that.

If barriers weren’t the answer and wreckless openness was even more dangerous, I had to find something between the two that would help me be safe. What I discovered and began to practice were boundaries. I had to become self-aware, know my limits and stick to them. I had to be as open as I could without being more open than I should.

It took some trial, error, and risk to get there, but I’ve found what for me is a healthy balance between physical affection and knowing when I’m slipping down a muddy slope to a pit. I don’t claim to perfectly know where those boundaries are at all times. I rely on the Spirit to warn me. I reach out, am free with hugs and other friendly forms of touching. I know when I’m feeling too close to crossing boundaries.

Barriers may provide a temporary means of safety, but a walled off city cannot thrive forever. Deprived people eventually starve to death.

I heard it said once that a penis has no conscience. I agree. As a moral compass, it is seriously flawed. Before, I let my body, especially one part of my anatomy, be the barometer by which I judged my boundaries.

Now, I let the Spirit be my guide. God is far more reliable than my flesh. What the Spirit tells me is that love and affection between men is a holy thing. As with all things sacred, they must be treated seriously and with respect. They have limits and boundaries.

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5 Responses to “Don’t Fence Me In”

  1. Jeff said:

    Hi Rex. I appreciate your writings. We each are a product of so many life experiences that even though we can truly identify with others we each have, of course, our own differences as well. Even though I have a been ss attracted for probably 50 years I have had limited encounters with men- most of those a long time ago. I can only remember one man who I was with for one night that I really started feeling overwhelming feelings of love for. The rest of my encounters were purely to satisfy my lust.

    As far as hugging is concerned, I have never become aroused by hugging other men- or women. I am sure it could have happened if the other man had wanted sex and we had hugged for too long. I was thinking that there is a whole dynamic- I guess you could say- about hugs. I was at the funeral of a very close female cousin lately. The hugs and comfort I tried to give, mostly to my female relatives, warmed me and not just physically. It satisfied some deep need I (and probably all of us) have inside. It was like communicating with another at some very deep and fulfilling level. Too bad it takes a funeral for those moments to occur!

    As far as hugging men is concerned, we all know that men, a little unlike women, have only a certain tolerance for hugging other men. Most of the friends and acquaintances at my sa meetings know that I am ssa. I am not positive how that affects the intensity and lengths of hugs when I see them at meetings? All I know is that there are very few that I can hug where I am sure both of us feel a warm but righteous love and concern for one another. It is such a good feeling when this happens!

    Many years ago I saw this church counselor a few times. He knew my situation. Since my wife and I were moving to another country this would be the last time I would see him. We hugged and then I was surprised when he hugged me for 10-15 more seconds than was “normal”. Thankfully there was nothing sexual about it. But there was such an overwhelming sense of connection, acceptance and brotherly love and that came out of that hug. I have never forgotten it. Afterwards he said, and I truly believe him, that he was prompted to give me that hug and somehow it meant more to me than counseling ever would.

    First time I have commented on a blog and I am sure it is too long but here you have it.

  2. Jason Gagnon said:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve reflected on the basis of it many times in my own life; and still do.

  3. Jim Merrell said:

    Just what I needed to hear. Thanks Rex. You Da Man!!!

  4. Bruce GK said:

    See! I knew you would know what to say. Thanks!

  5. Art Cornett said:

    Thanks for posting this. It brought back to me some things I hadn’t thought about in some time: Several years ago I was an active member in a Coda (Co-dependents Anonymous) 12 step recovery group. The normal thing at our meetings was to share hugs both before and after the meeting and I was finding myself wanting to hug certain people for not so honorable and honest reasons. I talked with my sponsor about what was going on for me and he recommended that I set a no hugs boundary (for this meeting only) to last for one month’s time and see what happened both within myself and what kind of reaction/response I got from others when I politely turned down their offer to hug. I learned, and it felt good to know it, that there were people who really enjoyed sharing hugs with me and they seemed to have no ulterior motives. One woman was almost offended and near to tears, even though I explained my boundary and why I was setting it and that my reasons had nothing to do with her. After a month of this the major lesson for me was that most people, even in recovery groups, will respect boundaries that people set and the respect they give comes because they cared about me and because they were realizing that they could set boundaries to take care of themselves, too. Because of my past experiences with being abused, it was difficult for me to trust that people would respect me or that I could respect myself. I’m glad that experiment in setting boundaries had those good lessons in it for me.
    Thanks for reminding me of those lessons.

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