Australian feminist Clementine Ford thinks isolation from platonic touch is a “tragedy of modern manhood.” Mark Greene, executive director of the Good Men Project, calls it a “killer.” And according to Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, American men have become so deprived of touch, many have resorted to attending cuddling groups — as I did last summer.
But new research published this month in Men and Masculinities from Aussie sociologists Brittany Ralph and Steven Roberts suggests that “homosocial intimacy” (e.g., hugging, kissing, cuddling, spanking, penis fondling, etc.) among straight men is alive and well. For example, Ralph says men freely hug each other and say “I love you” in private. Cuddling isn’t off limits, either — nor is hand holding, kissing on the lips or genital fondling — just so long as it’s never in public.
To get a better understanding of all this totally not gay platonic touch (and penis fondling), I asked Ralph and Roberts to take me through the myriad ways straight guys show affection for each other (totally behind closed doors, of course). Or at least how the participants in their study sorted images of straight men embracing in different ways — classifying the embraces as either “okay,” “it depends” or “not okay.”
Handshakes, Hugging and ‘Chin Sex’
Nearly all of the hugging photos were considered “okay” without objection, Ralph says. One participant explained that he “wanted to go in for a hug all the time.” Another recounted a guy saying “nah” when he reached for a handshake, opting to hug him instead. They noted similar interactions with women, but only when meeting them for the first time.
There were a couple hugs that crossed a line, though. “No guys that are perfectly straight would do this,” one participant said of the photo below. “It’s the faces touching — like really really in there. It’s a next level hug.”
There were also reservations around hugs that were either held too long or constituted “chin sex” (i.e., draped over another guy’s back like the photo below). “There are rules around hugging,” Ralph says. “You’ve crossed a line if the hug implicates the other as being gay.”
The image below crossed a line as well. One guy said, “I wouldn’t hold a girl’s hand if I didn’t have feelings for her, so why would I hold a guys hand?” Women aren’t necessarily constrained in the same way, Ralph notes. “I’ll hold my friends hands and rest my chin on their back and feel totally comfortable.”
Cuddling and Snuggling
Ralph says participants thought the embrace below between Jason Segel and Paul Rudd would be okay for a photo as a goof, but they “wouldn’t sit down and watch a movie wrapped in each other’s arms like that.” There were exceptions, though. A focus group of Christian men said it was fine without question, while another comprised of MDMA enthusiasts said if they were rolling, “they wouldn’t have a problem it, even with strangers.”
Ralph says something called “friendship closeness” — i.e., the extent to which a man feels he can engage in platonic physical/emotional intimacy without triggering homohysteric anxieties — allows men to push the envelope so long as it’s clearly understood that it has nothing to do actual sexual desire (or even a desire to express platonic affection). In other words, before kissing his straight friend on the lips, a man must be sure the friend won’t slip him the tongue. That said, sometimes kissing is encouraged, one participant noted, like during “initiation rituals” or celebrations on the playing field.
Another slightly different realm, Ralph notes, is when men kiss each other to attract ladies. “It’s like, ‘If we kiss, you guys kiss,’” she says, describing it as “overt, hyper-masculine behavior” meant to draw attention to themselves. “These guys may not categorize themselves as being hyper-masculine, but they do use it as a form of exchange, figuring if they kiss their male friend, women will be interested on some level.”
Spanking, Fondling and ‘Genital Horseplay’
Ralph and Roberts coined the term “genital horseplay” to describe the phenomenon of straight men grabbing each other’s dicks for a laugh. This may include spanking or grabbing a guy’s dick, all of which Ralph says fit the masculine schemes of being risky, controversial and funny. At the end of the video below, one of the men begins playfully jerking off his friend (perhaps he was just trying to “help a bud out”). This inspired cheerful discussions about “sack whacking” (i.e., playfully yet painfully hitting each other in the testicles) in the focus groups. As Ralph explains, there also was a guy who liked to pin a friend down and put his balls on his friend’s face.
There are still rules, however — even in sack whacking — and Ralph noted “increased tension” amongst the men when these rules weren’t followed. Take, for instance, this conversation between two men who often wrestle and kiss each other on the cheek once in a headlock. “That’s how Johnny expresses his love for me,” one explained, before Johnny quickly corrected.
“No, I don’t — it’s just me being funny.”