Sarah Thebarge thinks those awkward side-arm hugs might be doing way more harm than good.
A few weeks ago I was a guest speaker at a conference. When it was my turn to speak, the sound tech handed me a microphone and the man who’d organized the event pushed me toward the opening between the thick velvet curtains, and suddenly I was on stage.
I gave my talk and then, as the audience was applauding, slipped backstage where the organizer was waiting to hug me. As he said, “Well done,” I prepared my usual male-to-female hug stance. I balanced on one leg and held out one arm, ready for what I call the Safety Side-Arm hug, the one Christian men usually give me that avoids any front-to-front contact.
Instead, the man wrapped both arms around me and gave me a bear hug that caught me off guard, made me lose my balance and almost took both of us crashing through the curtain and onto the stage. As I was finding my feet, I tried to remember the last real hug I got from a man who wasn’t related to me and…well…I couldn’t.
I first learned about the Safety Side-Arm hug when I was attending a conservative Christian college, and earnest young men who were training to be pastors sat around in their dorm rooms talking about the dangers of hugging women.
I always wondered exactly which dangers they were afraid of. Were they worried that my nose might try to seduce their chin, or that our belly buttons might be attracted to each other? Were they surprised to learn that my chest, like any woman’s, has curves? Shouldn’t they know that already?
Besides safe hugging techniques, the other thing I learned about in college was the free radical. It’s a molecule with a single unpaired electron that has such a strong need to find its missing partner that it wreaks havoc with surrounding molecules as it tries to steal an extra electron from them. Chemistry books describe free radicals as “aggressive and highly unstable.” If the body lacks the ability to neutralize the molecule, it can disrupt the entire cell and even lead to diseases like cancer.
After earning a science degree from that conservative college, I went onto grad school. I kept attending church, where I was met with half-hugs every Sunday. The noncommittal hugs started to make me feel like I was the free radical. As if I, as a single woman, was unstable because I was unpaired, and was aggressively seeking a partner, even if it meant disrupting the stable cells (or marriages) near me.
Now, as a single 34-year-old woman in the church, I’m treated the same way. I’ve come to expect a man to leave his arm around my shoulder for two, at the very most four, seconds. As if my shoulderblade is on fire and it is scorching his hand. As if I carry a contagious disease. As if either, or both, of us has a combustible sex drive that might be ignited by prolonged arm contact.
But here’s the thing about those Safety Side-Arm hugs; taking extraordinary measures to avoid normal human contact gives the embrace even more sexual overtones than it had before. It implies that by simply existing as a sexual being, I am somehow dangerous, and that any man who makes contact with my body will be unable to resist the overwhelming sexual impulses that will inevitably ensue.
It puts all the responsibility for our encounter on me, and insinuates that should sexual urges arise in the man, they should be a source of guilt for me and not a cause for restraint for him. And maybe a cause of shame for him.
But I don’t think I’m dangerous to you if you hug me, and I don’t think you’re an innocent who risks getting blindsided by temptation through platonic physical touch. It’s simply not true that a normal embrace is likely to lead to sexual misconduct for either of us.
In the off chance that it is true for you — if a normal, platonic hug makes you think about me inappropriately, or tempts you to bail from your marriage — that’s not my doing. That’s a bigger issue that you need to deal with, and it existed long before I ran into you in the church lobby.
Just like the embraces I get from my sisters in Christ, I crave normal embraces from my brothers. It would be nice, especially as a single person who is rarely touched, to receive this warm gesture from the people I love and trust the most. To be wrapped up securely in safe, strong arms, even if it’s just for a few seconds. To be treated not as a free radical wreaking havoc on the partnered molecules, but as an included, committed part of this living organism that is the Body of Christ.
Now about those holy kisses…