Don't be embarrassed, embrace your fellow man

Real men don't cry. They hug each other.

It seems a simple gesture, an expression of closeness between mates, which, if done correctly, exudes virility. But when the manhug goes wrong, the repercussions can be horribly awkward.

It's why the perfect male-on-male embrace is governed by strict rules: three pats on the back, no ''nuzzling'' and definitely no contact below the chest.

But don't bother looking for these rules. They're neither written nor spoken, making sealing the deal like walking a minefield of masculinity.

Nevertheless, there appears to be an increasing propensity for physical interaction among young men whose displays of emotion to each other were once confined to a firm handshake.

In Europe and South America, men have been kissing and cuddling each other for centuries. On sporting fields worldwide they've been embracing for decades. But, among some demographics in Australia, for a man to hug his male friend in a social setting brought with it unwanted connotations.

The change, however slow, might suggest commonly held notions of masculinity are being redefined.

''Guys have generally become more sensitive and open to expressing their feelings,'' says Nick Smith, editor of men's magazine, GQ. ''We know through our magazine that 18 to 21-year-old guys, especially, are more in tune with emotions and are happy to express them.

''But we're in a funny time, where it's still changing and you have some awkward moments where you don't know whether to go in for the handshake or the hug.

''You can get it quite wrong.''

The behavioural change among young men, Smith believes, is symptomatic of a relaxation of once-rigid concepts of manliness.

''Dressing well, being comfortable with who you are and showing emotion have drifted right through to the broader masculine base,'' he says.

''Nowadays, if you walk into a pub and give your mate a hug, no one bats an eyelid.''

Among the connotations, however inaccurate, was that to cuddle another man was ''gay'' or ''weak''. But while the man-hug revolution suggests the end of homophobia is nigh, all may not be as it seems.

The willingness for young men to hug is positive, just 10 or 20 years ago, men were supposed to have no physical interaction at all, but the manner in which they embrace might raise more problems than it solves.

Dr Harry Blatterer, a Macquarie University sociologist who specialises in the boundaries of friendship, speculates the definitive rules around the manhug indicate that the exchange is underpinned by homophobia.

''If you watch guys hug, they often pat each other on the shoulder or back and the hold is generally quite light,'' Blatterer says.

''It's a very specific hug. On one hand you could say that we are seeing a redefinition of homophobia or heterosexuality. But at the same time, the fact that men have to hug in a very particular way, still draws very clear boundaries.

''In a weird way, it reaffirms heterosexuality. This probably means there's some sort of hangover, evident in those hugs, from the old traditional ways. It really comes out of homophobia.

''Men will only be able to hug intimately once there is no more homophobia, because straight males still want to make sure they're not mistaken for being gay.''

Professor Raewyn Connell, a world-renowned expert on sex, gender and the social construction of masculinity, agrees there is a ''change of custom going on''. But rather than see it as a re-affirmation of heterosexuality, she believes men's lessened inhibition about body contact, even if confined by boundaries and rules, signifies a greater social acceptance of gay men and gay life.

''It means there are probably fewer men who are anxious that expressing emotion through the body will lead to them being treated in a homophobic way,'' Professor Connell says.

''Homophobia still exists … but it's not as deep and unchallenged as it was a generation ago.''

She says it would be ''a splendid thing'' if it were proven that there is more freedom today to express emotion through the body, including among women. However, she warns against generalising behavioural changes among social groups.

''Middle class, youngish, Anglo-white Australians might be hugging more,'' she says. ''But they are actually a minority among the whole population of men in Australia.''

The jury's out on the big squeeze

Sean McManus doles out hugs liberally and with relish. The 26-year-old barista hugs friends, family as well as customers having a tough day.

''I'm an embracer,'' he says. The cardinal rule of male hugging, he says, is not to linger: ''Get in tight, pull and you're out.''

Drinking next to him on Friday night at Manly's 4 Pines bar is Dave Camphin, Mr McManus's housemate and a man who takes a hostile view of modern men's readiness to embrace.

''Hugging's what you'd do with a woman,'' says the 37-year old construction worker. ''You maybe hug someone at a funeral and even then it's a distant pat on the back.''

He lowers a beer and raises a burly forearm to trace a semi-circle round his chest. ''This,'' he says, ''is the International Dave Line: you don't cross that.''

James Robertson

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