Stupid Homophobic Men, Afraid To Hug Each Other!

I’m a hugger. I love hugs. They are one of my favorite things in the world. Personally, I think a good hug is something of great value, especially in abundance.

But I was not always like this. I remember back in my early high school years, I wasn’t very physically affectionate at all. I wasn’t affectionate with women or girls due to being afraid of “coming across wrong” and making them uncomfortable or creeping them out, and I wasn’t affectionate with men or boys because… well, it made me uncomfortable.

But then I got a girlfriend. And then she broke up with me. And suddenly I felt a huge gaping hole in my life. A physical-affection shaped hole that I never realized I had before. So I started hugging my friends as a greeting. And slowly it caught on, and together we became a physically affectionate bunch. And the rest is history, as they say.[1] My life is now filled with hugs and affection.

When I was a kid, I also remember watching Home Improvement with my family. One episode I remember in particular involved Tim trying to prove that he was “man enough” to hug another man, and doing so extremely awkwardly and uncomfortably. The clear message: men are uncomfortable hugging each other, or, really, being physically affectionate with each other in any way other than back-patting and shoulder-punching.

This, of course, is a common meme in our culture.[2] And it is one with some real truth to it, I think. Though it is certainly not universal.[3]

What is bothersome, however, is how frequently this is framed as “stupid men, being afraid to touch each other” or similar. And even in the gendersphere, you generally see it framed as a matter of homophobia. Basically, it is always framed as something that is purely driven either by male stupidity or by prejudice or by some combination thereof. And while I think there certainly can be very real homophobic components to it in some cases, I wonder about other possible factors. Factors that are perhaps more influential.

One such potential factor that occurs to me is our culture’s overblown fear of male pedophilia. If men in our culture live in fear of being viewed as pedophiles, then they’re rarely going to be physically affectionate with children. Those children might then in turn grow up feeling that physical affection from men is not normal. They may not be able to explain it, they might just feel an internalized discomfort with male affection. But it might be there nevertheless.

And our minds have a strange way of trying to figure out why we feel the way we feel, so in a culture of homophobia I can certainly understand if a lot of boys and men start explaining their discomfort in terms of “Blech! Gay!” Even when that is, perhaps, not really what’s going on.

Anyway, I would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this. At the moment this is mostly just pondering on my part. I would be particularly interested if anyone could point to relevant studies, though certainly any discussion is welcome, citations or no.


[1] It actually took me a lot longer to get over my fear of making women uncomfortable with my hugs. Even several years down the line, I still tended to avoid hugging women. One incident I remember in particular: I was working on a team made up of mostly men and only one woman. Several months into working with this team, this woman expressed dismay and genuine hurt that I never initiated hugs with her despite often doing so with the male team members. I never intended to exclude here, but rather I was trying to keep the environment safe and comfortable for her. Looking back on that, the irony is palpable.

[2] By “our culture” I’m referring to culture in the USA in particular, since that’s where I’m from. Though of course the USA itself is hardly a cultural monolith.

[3] Moreover, I think there are plenty of examples of women being loath to be genuinely physically affectionate with each other as well, which would also be interesting to discuss.

11 thoughts on “Stupid Homophobic Men, Afraid To Hug Each Other!

  1. Great post, Xakudo!

    Personally, I have no problem hugging other men, but I rarely actually do it — while it does not make me particularly uncomfortable by itself, I fear that it may make the other person feel uncomfortable, and that makes me uncomfortable. (This also applies to cases where the other person initiates the hug, but that may be specific to me ^^;) Thus, I tend not to initiate hugs with men or women, unless either there is an external justification (did/will not see each other in/for a long time, birthdays, new years…), I got into the habit of hugging that particular person (by the other person initiating it many times in the past), or it is the rare cases where I’m not overthinking everything :).

  2. The ridicule and contempt directed at men over this issue is something that has been on my mind recently as well. It strikes me as especially obnoxiousl considering that it’s kicking a man when he’s down- if you’re a man being harmed by typical attitudes towards male physical contact, folks who supposedly want to liberate people from those constraints see it as an opportunity to get a few licks of their own in.

    I think it’s a good example of how agency is attributed to men and not women, even (or perhaps especially) people ostensibly opposed to traditional attitudes. When women or girls are reluctant to forcefully assert their rights or think of themselves as sexual beings or pursue an interest in subjects like science or mathematics because she’s been socialized to believe that women shouldn’t do such things, the response is to ask what’s wrong with society and the attitudes inculcated in women and girls. When a man or boy is reluctant to express affection physically because he’s been socialized to believe that men shouldn’t do such things, he’s ridiculed as weak or stupid or “insecure” (which is just “weak’ in psychologized form, usually).

    More speculatively: A lot of men find the sight or just the thought of a man in physical contact with a woman he cares about disquieting or disturbing or outright repulsive, too. You described your younger self as being very reluctant to hug people of either sex, which doesn’t fit with the homophobia explanation. (If anything, I’d expect a man who won’t touch other men out of fear of being gay to be ESPECIALLY eager to touch women to prove that he’s not.)

    Given how frequently male sexuality is thought of as aggressive, damaging, or dirty, and how ANY male physical contact is often thought of in sexual (and thus damaging, dirty, etc.) terms, it would not be surprising to me if many men recoiled from such contact not because they think it’s “gay,” but because they feel that close physical contact with men is just unwholesome in general.

  3. “What is bothersome, however, is how frequently this is framed as “stupid men, being afraid to touch each other” or similar.”

    I am fed up with the ethnocentrism of this attitude. I am old enough to remember when men hugging became fashionable, and that’s what it is – fashionable. It came out of a movement starting in the 60s and gathering full force in the 70s against any kind of self-containment in interpersonal dealings. That was “hung up”, “uptight”, “hypocritical” – WASP. Anything WASP was uncool in those days. The people, mostly psycholgists, pushing this line were either rarely WASP or else were ashamed of this aspect of our culture.

    I am not impresed much anymore with cultures where people put their feelings in the street and then expect perfect strangers to respect those feelings, feelings they obviously don’t respect very much themselves. There; there’s my ethnocentrism.

    Here. Want to be really edgy and transgressive and moving the culture forward? Dare to bow to people in public. People are even more uncomfortable in this culture with open displays of subordination. THAT really offends the Puritan ethic.

    “And even in the gendersphere, you generally see it framed as a matter of homophobia.”

    I consider this another kind of genderitis – when you try to cram gender onto every issue as the answer to it all because it’s the only answer you know. Think of how many class issues are presented as gender issues.

  4. I find myself agreeing with John here.

    It seems that when it comes to the insecurities around men and physical touch people are too quick to heap the agency all on men themselves.

    Personally I’ve found that my position on not touching people that much has changed over the years.

    In my teen years it was a matter of not touching girls for fear of being thought of as being sexual (and I just happen to a fat guy, meaning that I was automatically deemed a fat disgusting creep and what girl would want me touching her?).

    In my young adult life it was a matter of not coming off as threatening.

    These days I’ve just concluded that I’m just too far gone emotionally that I don’t do a lot of touching. Safe to say I’m the last guy you have to worry about initiating a hug with you (sure if you initiate with me I’ll respond in kind, but sometimes I think its more because I don’t want to be rude and deny you rather than actual desire to hug you).

  5. I agree with the points being made here, but I do point out that there are different types of people with different preferences. I’m wildly introverted and I don’t want to hug ANYBODY–men, women, whatever. It’s not homophobia, either–I just prefer my privacy and don’t want any physical contact unless it’s specifically needed for a specific purpose.

  6. Yeah, I’m actually like Copyleft as far as personal preferences go- I generally try to avoid touching or being touched by other people to the greatest possible extent. But I hate the way attitudes on the subject affect so many men, as well as the way it can devalue men’s relationships with each other. (I’ve really come to suspect that part of the reason so many men are so fixated on women is that for many men not being liked by women means being cut off from acceptable sources of physical human contact almost entirely.)

  7. I think homophobia could be one aspect for why men dont hug in a gentle soothing manner, but the more likely aspect is that we are usually culturalized to be hard. The truth is, from an early age men are not allowed to be gentle and sensitive because it is viewed as a weakness. As a Massage Therapist I frequently encounter men who are hestitant to come in for treatment because they think its just a touchy, feely kind of thing. As soon as I make it a practical thing, such as taking your car in for a tune up, they are more than willing to let me work on their physical issues. The funny thing is, after they let their guard down they are so much more likely to tell you how good it feels. The sad part is they would never admit that to their friends, they would just say Im working out their musculoskeletal problems. :(

  8. I was playing cards once (long ago) in the game store and an old friend from high school came through the door. We hadn’t seen each other for years, he yelled out and ran over and slapped me on the shoulder. Everyone was staring at me because he’d called me by a name none of them had heard before. But I was wordless because I was feeling his hand still on my shoulder, and it felt so good. I was thinking right then that I don’t touch people, and I go out of my way to not be touched. If I hadn’t been seated it wouldn’t have happened, I would have stepped away. But it was natural for him.

    For a while things were different. Now it’s mostly lack of opportunity.

  9. You know what’s good? Shaking hands. Physical contact, without presumptuous over-intimacy. And you can save the hugs for people you’re that close to.

  10. “You know what’s good? Shaking hands. Physical contact, without presumptuous over-intimacy.”

    Shaking hands is presumptuous equality. It’s bullshit. There are very few encounters in real life where people meet as true equals and all this fakery is distracting. Bow like civilized people do. /just kidding

    The only people I’m on truly equal terms with are people I don’t shake hands with except as a little wry gesture.

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