When Holding Hands Becomes Punishment

In order to avoid suspension after fighting, two male students at a high school in Mesa, Arizona were forced to hold hands for approximately 15 minutes. Pictures of the boys holding hands, and covering their faces while numerous students surrounded the pair are now spreading quickly across the Internet.

It is troubling that the initial reaction to two boys fighting in class is to “humiliate” them with a gesture (holding hands) that is deemed non-violent and for the most part affectionate. What the school is doing is not really addressing the violent act, why the boys chose to use physical violence, or even reinforce that violence does not belong in school. Instead, they allow violence to take place while making non-violence the forced punishment for a violent act.  As mentioned, the picture of the boys shows them both covering their faces, humiliated by the act of holding another boy’s hand. One of the boys also admitted to skipping school following the incident since he was being bullied and teased by classmates.

What has happened is not so much that the act of holding hands is somehow naturally embarrassing in itself, but the inferred message associated with boys holding hands becomes loaded with meanings about sexual orientation, masculinity, homophobia and appropriate gender expectations. When adhering to traditional notions of masculinity, boys are not suppose to show any form of affection towards one another, since such gestures are traditionally reserved for either women and gay men. And when you are a teenage boy ready to prove your masculine worth and power, being associated with actions of women and gay men has the opposite effect.

Traditional masculinity is often framed in opposition to women and gay men, making fun of anything “female” or stereotypically “sissy.”  It is almost as if there is little meaning to the notion of masculinity if it does not have an opposite, almost like a handbook of less-than-manly behavior that all men should stay away from.

What comes to mind when thinking of the “punishment” of holding hand is the decision made by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had prison inmates in Phoenix, Arizona wear pink underwear as “punishment,” or the Canadian hockey team who “humiliated” the opposing team by covering their bench in women’s lower bodies (something that Elin and I wrote about in an earlier post).

When using women and gay men to set examples of how not to act, or invent ways in which to humiliate straight men by comparing them to women and gay men, we are simultaneously sending the message that one’s personal worth is synonymous to one’s gender and sexual orientation and that deviating from the celebrated norm of masculinity comes with consequences, such as being teased and bullied.

Picture of two people holding hands uploaded by flickr user katerha and shared under a Creative Commons license. 

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