Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another and what to do about it. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
If you’ve closely examined a picture of actor Keanu Reeves posing with a fan (and who hasn’t, apparently?), you might have done a double take and wondered, what’s that he’s doing behind her back? Jazz hands? Guess again! As the internet has discovered, that’s just Reeves’ special “no-touch” way of taking pictures with women—women he doesn’t know, including fans, but also ones he does, like Dolly Parton.
The media had already taken to calling Reeves the “internet’s boyfriend,” thanks to his mysterious, thoughtful demeanor and proclivity for random acts of kindness, like giving up his seat on the subway or taking extra time to chat with a fan who uses a wheelchair. He was informed of the internet’s love affair with him at the “Toy Story 4” premiere a few days ago, and responded characteristically: “That’s uh, that’s wacky. Well, the positivity’s great.”
But after this latest “no touch” revelation, Twitter fans are officially hailing Reeves as their “respectful king,” a man who is taking the lessons of #MeToo to heart. Many have suggested he can serve as a role model for other men confused about what respect for women’s personal space looks like in platonic settings.
Are we sure about that lofty praise? Certainly, Reeves seems like a wonderful guy. But he’s also never spoken publicly about the reasons that he chooses not to touch women in pictures. Perhaps he’s indeed being respectful of women. Or perhaps he’s adopted a “better safe than sorry” attitude, as many men have since the sexual harassment reckoning—which could cast at least a little doubt on Reeves’ altruistic intentions, since this attitude tends to cast men as unwitting, innocent victims to women’s irrational, predatory motives.
And it’s already proven damaging: According to a recent LeanIn.Org survey, 60% of male managers now express concern about mentoring, socializing or being alone with their women employees, up substantially from last year.
Of course, being alone with women is different than taking a picture with a fan in a public place. But given the fact that powerful men like Al Franken and Joe Biden have taken hits for unwelcome touching in photographs and public settings, men everywhere are paying attention.
There’s another perspective to be aware of, too, before we go and put every interaction between men and women these days through the #MeToo filter. And that’s to consider that not touching people may be Reeves’ personal preference. From all that we know of him—which isn’t much, considering his 35 years of A-list movie stardom—he seems to be an introverted and somewhat socially anxious person, at least according to a recent New Yorker profile.
He didn’t grow up with privilege and has experienced some serious tragedies. In the late ’90s, his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, gave birth to their stillborn child, and then died two years later in a car accident. His father served some time for drug dealing when Reeves was a kid, and then left their family. Reeves moved all around the world with his mom, from Beirut to Sydney to New York to Toronto.
All of which may be relevant: Certain traumas, and the amount of physical affection we received in early childhood, can go on to affect how comfortable we feel about being touched by others when we grow up.
Likewise, social anxiety, an affliction that affects 12% of the adult population, is often correlated with touch avoidance. Reeves has described himself as having a “wallflower demeanor” at parties. There are also more intense neuroses that people have about being touched, like germaphobia and the most extreme iteration of touch avoidance, haphephobia.
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And thus there are a variety of plausible explanations for Reeves’s no-touch policy of picture-taking. Unfortunately, like most of the rest of his life, the true reason may remain a mystery to the rest of us.
What we can pull from the conversation surrounding it, however, is that it’s never a bad idea to be mindful of another person’s personal space, whether female or male. And that even though we may think of Reeves as our internet boyfriend, if we have the good luck of encountering him out in the wild, it’s wise to take a cue from his awareness of boundaries, and give him back what he’s dishing out.