Why getting a hug can be the healthiest thing you can do

Would you consider taking part in a men's cuddling group?

It's where groups of big, burly, beardy, balding blokes lie around in heaving clumps, like walruses on a wildlife doco, hugging, stroking, sighing and crying ... just not in a sexual way.

Imagine the feeling of your hairy tummy touching that of a sobbing stranger, as he strokes your beard, the scent of Old Spice and desperation hanging in the warm air. Tempting?

What, no?

Now, be honest, I'm betting many of you found that idea somewhere on a spectrum between funny and gross. How many more of the progressive among you thought "Well, that's fine, it's just not, you know, me."?

Open arms

That's where I have to confess I found myself this morning, when I read a story about a men's cuddling group, with the headline "Men's cuddling group aims to redefine masculinity and heal trauma". I have to confess, the accompanying pic, of the smiling members slumped happily in front of a sofa, arms around each other, did not scream "get involved" to me.

Comments around the story were inevitable. "But have they ever heard of gay sex?" wrote one woman, "I've seen gay sex on pornhub more masculine than this."

And that's the problem right there. Decades of conditioning about what it is to "be a man" made me, the author of a book on positive masculinity, briefly uncomfortable at the thought of a man cuddle party. It also created the avalanche of laughter and derision that followed the story.

Fear factor

But it's us who are weird. Cultures around the world enjoy non-sexual physical contact between straight men, as we did in the past in our own western culture. Somehow, we have policed our masculinity so heavily, the only opportunities men have to experience touch is through violence or sex. The rest is out of bounds because of the risk of being accused of being "gay."

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It's not homosexuality that's the issue. Calling each other "gay" is a quick and easy way for men to police the behaviour of manhood in each other. In her book, Dude, You're a Fag writer C. J. Pascoe spent two years at an American High School watching the behaviour of young men. They did not care if a gay boy was homosexual, but they did care if he presented as manly. A gay boy with short hair on the football team was warmly accepted. A gay boy who liked cross-dressing and dancing was viciously hounded out of the school.

Touch between straight men has become taboo in our society because it's seen as somehow unmanly. What a tragedy.

The politics of touch

Touch is our first language. It is profoundly connected to a positive mental state. Science shows it reduces stress and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Just as we are learning loneliness is a killer, it is becoming clear men are, literally, dying for a simple touch.

The majority of people looking for solace in the arms of the small-but-growing professional cuddling industry are almost always classic white males, straight, well-educated, probably divorced and in middle age. It's the same guys who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, the same guys who are killing themselves at the rate of six a day in Australia, and are bashing their partners to death. It's the same guys who, sex workers report, aren't looking for sex but touch and talk, care and communication.

Breaking down boundaries

The ManKind Project, is an international organisation working to create better, more emotionally responsible men. Larry Dawson, leader and founder, in 2000, of the Australian ManKind Project's Australian arm, says men have to "break down their beliefs", get in touch with, and express, their feelings. His sessions with more than 4000 men so far, include hugging "heart to heart", to help men learn to be vulnerable and "emotionally responsible".

Physical touch that isn't to do with violence or sex can open a door to the healing and rare emotional closeness men, and all human beings, need and crave.

Do you need a hug?

Men are skin hungry. We have starved ourselves of platonic touch for so long we no longer know what it feels like, or what it's for.

The performance of being a man has been shown, repeatedly and undeniably, in study after study, to be at the heart of men's problems with depression, suicide, domestic violence and early death from stress and workplace accidents. It stands between us and life-giving relationships with the ones we love. It makes us dangerous to be around.

Yet, here we are in 2019 and the idea of a group of men trying to break down barriers to find some healing touch is funny and gross.

Men are dying to be touched. But we're still not allowed to because of the requirement we "be a man".

It's sad enough to make you need a hug.

Phil Barker is the author of The Revolution of Man, Allen & Unwin.