How touching: The evolution of the man-hug
Young men now touch each other more than in the 1990s, and it’s intimate not sexual
Jack Laugher and Chris Mears of Great Britain celebrate at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images
Young men are touching each other more. That’s part of the findings of a recent study from Winchester University about college “bromances”. The undergraduate interviewed for the – admittedly small-scale – study said they valued physical intimacy among their male friends, and were found to be more inclusive, tactile and emotionally diverse than their 1980s and 1990s counterparts.
It’s not a new observation – last year saw a wave of columns on the subject in the wake of a Speedo-clad clinch from Olympic swimmers Jack Laugher and Chris Mears.
There had been another spate of opinionising over Obama’s tendency to occasionally hug political colleagues a few years previously, followed by a viral obsession with the former US premier’s own “bromance” with his vice-president, Joe Biden (Trump, as you know, has no friends).
Hugiquette is an obsession among some Daily Mail writers who greet their infant sons with firm handshakes and live in fear of a day when they’ll have to French kiss the bank manager. It’s not their fault. There has, for some time, been a weird taboo in western culture about physical displays of affection between men.
It wasn’t always thus. In the 19th century close pals were regularly photographed embracing one another or sitting on each other’s laps or linking arms and generally being casually physically affectionate with each other. In other parts of the world, to this day, male friends embrace and hold hands as a norm, causing cultural dissonance when, for example, George W Bush wanders along hand in hand with the Saudi crown prince or a picture of Chinese and Pakistani border guards holding hands emerges on Reddit. Sociologists call this “homosociality.”
Wanting physical contact with other humans is pretty natural. We’re mammals. We like being held. The notion that such contact can only occur for men via a mother, wife or, ideally, a creepy mother-wife hybrid is a relatively new notion and most sociologists are clear that it stems from homophobia.
The reason 20th-century western manly men went through life in a sterile vacuum-packed bubble, the manliest of all never being touched by anyone ever, was because they feared being seen as gay. The reason it was less of an issue in the past (and in other parts of the world to this day) was because homosexuality wasn’t widely considered a possibility.
And so by the mid-20th century all acceptable physical contact between male friends happened adjacent to sporting events or booze. A lot of men’s deep human need for physical affection and intimacy was sublimated into hair-tousling and horseplay, and for many men the most touching father-son interaction they could imagine was outlined in Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue.
Men were starved of nonviolent, nonsexual physical contact, often starting a war just to rough-house with some dudes (the American writer Mark Greene, of the Good Men Project, dubbed this phenomenon “touch isolation”).
But things change. You can trace the man-hug through pop-cultural bromances (and many have; there are studies with titles such as American Masculinity and Homosociality in the Bromance Era). In the 1980s buddy movie a man-on-man embrace became acceptable, but only after an invigorating game of beach volleyball or if your chum needed to be held up due to his wounds.
By the 1990s, while Seinfeld had a “no hugging, no learning” policy, characters such as Joey, Chandler and Ross in Friends were man-hugging frequently enough. But they were doing so defensively, usually concluding the embrace with an aggressive pat on the back or a comedic misunderstanding.
At the time, the idea of a straight man being taken for gay was still played for laughs, and the humour masked a real and regressive fear. I remember reading, in a men’s magazine in the 1990s, a description of how to hug another man that prescribed a specific time-duration for an embrace and the importance of the concluding back-slap in order to retain one’s veneer of stoic masculinity. It wasn’t a joke.
The wisdom of young men
In the new century, things have changed again. In shows such as How I Met Your Mother or films such as I Love You Man and 21 Jump Street, the male characters were regularly emotionally intimate and tactile with each other, and there was much less manly back-slapping and homophobic paranoia. The joke here was how little these characters cared about being seen as gay, because, well, it doesn’t matter if you’re seen as gay.
And that, I hope, is where things have landed for many younger men (and yes, I also know that not all young men are the same). They are wise enough to know some things their older relatives did not:
(1) There’s nothing inherently sexual about physical contact between men.
(2) There’s nothing wrong with sexual contact between men anyway. And …
(3) It’s good to hug the people you’re close to.
In the mid-1990s a friend of mine returned from San Francisco with all sorts of notions. Hugging his friends unambivalently was one of them. It seems daft to think now that this seemed like a revelation to us. It took off among our small circle. We hug when we meet to this day (not for the whole duration of the meeting; that would, I admit, be a bit weird). It’s nice. My friend died a few years ago, and that’s one of his legacies.
But I get the Emily Post-ish fretting about etiquette. People like what they’re used to, and I don’t think anyone should be expected to hug if they don’t want to (people offering “free hugs” be warned: I will invoice you).
I get similarly anxious when people approach me for a continental-style double kiss (I don’t know how to do it right; the continental double-kiss helps me understand Brexit).
Not everyone, male or female, likes having their personal space encroached upon by someone they don’t know. But when it comes to the people you care about, physical contact makes simple mammalian sense. I like that young men seem more inclined to be physically at ease with one another. And I’m glad another silly taboo is disappearing.