It’s easy to poke fun at the things we don’t understand.
Even if the goal is to somehow mend broken hearts, the idea of men gathering on the regular to cuddle almost certainly demands ridicule, and so I wasn’t surprised by the mean-spirited reaction to a Facebook post about the Men’s Therapeutic Cuddle Group.
“They’re redefining something, but it ain’t masculinity,” one man wrote, referring to the story’s headline.
“My momma always said, ‘if you don’t have nothing nice to say, say it anyway’ what kind of sorcery is this?” another mused. “The world is so messed up!!”
Without reading the story, he’d captured my sentiments exactly.
Twice a month, it said, half a dozen men gather in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, to help each other work through past traumas, including childhood sexual abuse and loss of family members when they were young.
The men were from various backgrounds. One was a Mormon who works as an airport gate agent. Another was a married father of three. And another was a retiree. They ranged in age from 37 to 62 and were from various sexual orientations.
Cuddling, in short, was their way of healing.
Even after reading the piece in its entirety, I didn’t quite understand why the men felt the need to cuddle exclusively with one another, but I didn’t have the same visceral reaction to the idea.
My feeling was more in line with the woman who said: “It’s for men who have experienced trauma. If you haven’t, it isn’t for you.”
As I always do when I start asking questions, I learned something.
Cuddling groups aren’t exactly new, according to Christopher Hall, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, social worker focused on the study of men and masculinity. They date back to the 1980s and the mythopoetic movement, or self-help activities that encouraged men to recover a pre-industrial concept of masculinity through spiritual camaraderie with other men in, yep, male-only gatherings.
I wondered if this was sorta like women taking an all-girls trip or getting together for a ladies night out. I’ve had little experience with either of those, but I can’t imagine a lot of cuddling going on there or, say, among men out on camping or fishing or hunting trips.
More than anything, I wondered about this particular part of the story: At a time when traditional ideas of manhood are facing scrutiny and such terms as toxic masculinity are becoming more widely known through the #MeToo movement, the group aims to provide new ways for men to express themselves.
Does that mean that in order to avoid being accused of sexual harassment or invading a woman’s personal space, men would just retreat to cuddling with one another? Would they no longer pay us women compliments or rush to open the door for us or bother with us at all?
Claire B. Wofford, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, assured me that the #MeToo movement isn’t about ending courtesy and human decency.
“It’s a reckoning about the public’s access to women’s bodies,” she said. “A challenge to the deep-seated belief that men are entitled to touch women, that women’s bodies are community property. That belief is so pervasive that even ‘good’ guys cross boundaries sometimes. That speaks not to how bad men are, but how imbued our culture is with the sense that anyone has a right to touch women at will.
“As for an end to compliments and open doors, there may indeed be a short-lived backlash as we try to renegotiate our relationships. But to me, having to open my own door is a small price to pay for all women being recognized as full individuals.”
Wofford said that if cuddling groups are about breaking down norms of aggressive masculinity, that could be a positive.
Hall told me that if the movement is leading me and others to believe that men will be more cautious around women, then, perhaps, men who feel that fear need that fear.
As long as men’s interactions with women are done with a sense of appropriateness and consent, he said, then it’s not going to change politeness or physical contact with women, or how men interact with other men.
After all, Hall said propriety and politeness is a societal construct that’s constantly shifting.
It’s just that whether talking about sexual harassment or men cuddling, it’s a huge blip on the radar, an oddity, different from the social norm.
“I think there are a lot of things in media that gain attention but, in reality, they are not common,” Hall said. “At the same time, there are things incredibly common that don’t get the attention, like men’s sexual harassment of women. I think analysis of this blip is reason to discuss it and think about where it fits but at the same time think of the bigger message behind it.
“Men do need to look at how they treat women and how they treat other men, and it’s been a norm, particularly for men who have a position of power, to not be questioned. So the bigger message is men need to be questioned if they are doing something inappropriate.”
Hall said there are a lot of things that have historical precedence, and if you don’t have his “nerdy connection” to history, you think, “Oh, my God, what is happening?”
Even with the history, I can’t help thinking that.
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