Why is it called a “man hug” when two men put their arms around each other?
It’s not exactly news to anyone that men usually have a different relationship with their bodies than women. There isn’t as much pressure on them to look like photo-shopped models (a beer belly can be “cute,” while women are likely to be advised to lose some weight), but on the other hand, all the responsibility for whatever happens or does not happen in the bedroom seems to traditionally fall on men. The way society is structured, women are supposed to be insecure about their bodies and men should worry about how they make use of theirs in the bedroom.
Unless women are too overtly sexual (“sluts”), their bodies and behaviours are seen as sexually passive. This isn’t a reflection of reality—it’s actually an increasingly false stereotype, based on an out-dated assumption that women aren’t into sex as much as men are. However, most of these stereotypes are still alive and kicking.
As a result, behaviors that would likely be interpreted as sexual if a man were performing them are usually dubbed “friendly” if done by a woman—things like patting, hugging, putting an arm around someone, or even a smooch. In real life, this means that in western societies women are given more freedom to express their feelings physically (society generally gives women more space for being “emotional,” which, like anything, has its advantages and disadvantages). Female friends hug, hold hands, and sleep in one bed with no problems whatsoever.
Men, on the other hand, have worked out elaborate rituals to minimize physical contact or “institutionalize” it. (Hugging is OK if you’ve just had a baby or your football team won a major game.) That’s mostly because men are seen as sexual aggressors and male initiation of the physical contact is often interpreted as sexual. I’m the first one to admit I’m guilty of this myself. I have a few male friends who tend to do a lot of arm touching when they speak, and I find this uncomfortable. And it’s not just about private space violation—I don’t mind when my female friends, who I’m as close with, do the same thing.
Haven’t we all witnessed/been part of men awkwardly trying to show affection, not knowing whether to just stick their hands out or to go for a “man hug?” (Why does there even have to be a “man hug?” Isn’t it just a hug? Or are hugs female by definition?) I can’t imagine just sticking my hand out for a semi-formal handshake with my parents after not seeing them for months. And my male friends do this all the time.
Of course, this goes beyond contacts amongst adults. Some time ago, Hugo Schwyzer wrote an excellent post called “Hug Your Daughters,” addressed to the fathers in the audience. Somehow we don’t need to be asking mothers to physically show affection for their children, and it’s got nothing to do with women being more affectionate than men (although some undeniably are, but maybe they were simply brought up that way?). It’s rather about men worrying they will be “inappropriate.” And why would it be inappropriate? Why should hugging and being affectionate toward a family member be seen as wrong on any level? Well, it really is all about gender perceptions, stereotypes, and socialization. I’m a firm believer that these terms explain much more about individuals’ behavior than does evolutionary biology (and I’m actually trained as an evolutionary biologist!).
Because society tells us (and science keeps disproving) that all men want is sex and they want it all the time, we get a little iffy about grown men hanging around small kids. If men think about sex all the time, what’s to stop them from doing so when they’re hugging a kid? And thinking about sex while hugging a kid is wrong on very many levels. But there’s an easy way out, right? Just stop hugging kids, or people generally, except for romantic partners.
Just recently another “all men are sexual predators waiting to happen” type of story got a lot of attention. A mommy blogger posted a piece on how outraged she is that her daughter’s preschool allows for men to accompany kids to the bathroom. The post has since been taken down, but before that happened anyone interested could read about how every man is a pedophile until proven otherwise. Her original post actually talks about how her husband is well aware of the potential danger he might seem to pose to other kids and is appropriately paranoid:
My husband said the same thing, that he would never dare be alone with a strange child, just because of the potential of false accusations. He even said that if he ever found himself home with Kira and a friend of hers that he would sit in one spot with a camera on him at all times until I came home LOL.
Lol? Seriously? Somehow I don’t find this at all funny—I actually think it’s a pretty sad statement about gender stereotypes in our society. Yes, most sentenced pedophiles are men, just as women constitute the vast majority of parents sentenced for inflicting disease and harm to their children to get medical attention (this used to be called the “Munchausen by proxy syndrome”). Yet we would never dare assume that every mom bringing her child to the hospital has hurt him or her, and similarly it’s wrong and harmful to assume that every man is a potential pedophile.
A lot of the talking, thinking, and arguing about sex and gender focuses on women. I think there are good historical and cultural reasons for this, but that’s not to say that men don’t have to tackle sexual stereotypes and gendered perceptions of their behavior every day. Making sweeping judgments about people’s sexual behaviours and interpersonal relationships based on gender is wrong, sexist—and very common. It would truly be to the benefit of all of us if we tried to put a stop to it.