Just Hold Me
Do real men like to cuddle?
Most people don't fast-track cuddling in this way; traditionally it is practiced after sex—long after decisions about likeability have been made. Yet post-coital cuddling can bring its own tricky politics: Evolutionary theories of sexuality often suggest that women should love to cuddle more than men, because they put more on the line when they have sex. Evolution shaped their minds, so the notion goes, to seek mates who will provide resources and help with the parenting. That means they'll want to snuggle in the sack so as to draw their partners into an emotional bond. Men, by contrast, have less skin in the mating game, so they may try to make a "hasty post-copulatory departure" and get on to the next hook-up. One recent and well- publicized study on snuggling after sex claims to confirm these stereotypes.
For me, this was bad news. God, apparently, had made me nutso for pair-bonding. I was behaving in an evolutionarily inappropriate—and unstudly—manner. I was cuddling like a girl.
How did this happen? I didn't choose this life. According to my parents, my infantile hunger for epidermal reassurance—whether from a parent, a brother, or a beloved redheaded doll named Dolly who never, ever failed to snuggle me back—was evident fresh from the oven.
Not all babies are like this; in fact, some find snuggling totally disgusting. "Non-Cuddlers," observed a pioneering 1964 typology, "unfailingly protested at, resisted, and avoided" all entreaties to cuddle "whatever the circumstances and whatever the condition of the child." "Wriggles and arches back, and only stops when put down again," said one mother of a snuggle-hating, freedom-loving infant. In contrast, "Cuddlers" were motivated only to cuddle. "Laps it up," explained a parent. "Holds quite still and puts on a soppy face," said another.
About 15 percent of developmentally normal babies might be classified as Non-Cuddlers according to psychologist Michael Lewis, who has studied child temperament for 50 years. Lewis described one Non-Cuddler who was born "stiff as a board"—his daughter—and how he learned that she could tolerate touches to her back, but not to her stomach. It's not clear why babies differ cuddle-wise; some scientists think it may be related to differences in the distribution of reward receptors in the brain—the same kinds of variations that make some people into ski jumpers and others into actuaries. Among adults, there is some evidence that anxious people tend to be the real cuddlers. (These are my people.)
In any case, touch temperament is at least partly genetic. One study found that a mother's cuddliness gets passed down to her newborn children, and another showed that twins tend to be similarly endowed in the snuggle department. No doubt I inherited the cuddle gene.
If snuggling can be in your DNA, what does that say about gender differences? Is there evidence that girls are innately cuddlier than boys? In 1999, an intrepid research team tried to find out by staging a kind of newborn-snuggle-battle-of-the-sexes in a Montreal hospital. Healthy, full-term newborns—awake and alert—were cradled and cuddled by two experimenters who were blind to the sex of the child. (Freshly circumcised boy babies were excluded on grounds that the procedure might give rise to uncuddly feelings.) Then the researchers rated the babies' desire for contact on a scale from rigid to cuddly.
In the end, the girls significantly outsnuggled the boys, although it must be said that neither team cuddled well; both averaged out closer to rigid than to cuddly. There was also a good deal of variability—there were cuddly boys and rigid girls—and the researchers conceded that it was impossible to know whether all of the babies had been in the mood. So it's hard to conclude that girls are any cuddlier than boys, overall; in fact, several temperament experts interviewed for this story argued that they absolutely aren't.
For a girly cuddle-bro like me, this was cause for hope. Could it be that my sorry, soppy, snuggly disposition was not so perverse, after all?
In 1976—my second cuddly year on this tender planet—Vanderbilt snuggle scientist Marc Hollender got around to considering men. He ran a study that examined the "wish to be held" and the "wish to hold" across genders, hypothesizing that the former would be greater in women, and the latter in men. "[A]ccording to our prevailing viewpoint, it is unmanly to want to be held or cuddled; only women are permitted or encouraged to express such 'feminine' wishes," he explained.
But the data weren't lining up. Men were just as stoked to be on either side of the spooning. And they were barely any less cuddle-hungry than the ladies. Hollender was especially stunned by some of the wussy statements coming from his male subjects: "To have this woman hold me is like the world is gone," said one. Here, finally, were some soppy-faced dudes who seemed to think like me. Unfortunately, they were also a bit nuts—the research had been conducted on psychiatric patients. (One man who said he preferred to be held also thought his penis was shrinking.)
Some evolutionary psychologists are now reaching the same conclusion as Hollender: that cuddle-wise, men and women just aren't that different. "I think that the explanations for males doing it are quite similar for the reasons that women do it," said Binghamton University's Justin Garcia, who is trained in both evolutionary biology and anthropology and studies hook-up culture on college campuses. Both just want intimacy and validation, he says—and to feel it in their skin.
In a recent unpublished survey of nearly 700 college students, Garcia found that an identical proportion of men and women—97 percent—said they liked to cuddle in romantic relationships. In a hook-up scenario, 52 percent of men and 61 percent of women wanted to snuggle. "This idea that men want to disseminate their seed and women want love and babies is utter bullshit," he said. "That is total bullshit."
Indeed, the idea that evolved biology ought to drive cuddling behavior does not really fit with the evidence. The imprint of culture has always been apparent in touch: Biology does not explain why buddies hold hands in public in the Middle East, but not in the United States. No gene explains why men shake hands more than women. (Although female handshaking must be on the rise.) Some touch traditions defy analysis: Why do women ballplayers go in for more hand slaps, whereas gentlemen prefer butt slaps?
None of this means the world is safe for cuddly men. It isn't. During the current "mancession," it has become trendy to wonder aloud about why more men don't seek out jobs in caretaking professions like nursing. One reason, certainly, is that men intuit that they are not cut out for touch-oriented work: Studies of male nurses show they are cautious caregivers because they fear accusations of inappropriate touch. Lawsuits have made nursing wards—and classrooms—into hostile environments for men.
But there are hints that attitudes may be changing. A 2004 U.K. poll, for instance, found that today's dads think they adopt a cuddlier approach to parenting than their fathers did. Films and novels today abound with sensitive, touchy-feely men. A pro-snuggle stance can even be seen in the highest reaches of government: our last president was so committed to tactile diplomacy that he could not resist giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel a hearty but poorly received back rub. Our current leader also seems to have the snuggle gene, if the long and sweet bear hug he gave to departing chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is any indication.
David Merritt Johns is a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Photograph courtesy of the author.