Rage against traditional masculinity has been swift and fierce over the past half decade. From the proliferation of privilege theory that casts men as the top perpetrators on the power food chain, to hashtag movements like #MeToo and “the future is female” branding, to claims of toxicity, masculinity has taken quite a beating.
Men’s rights activists and organizations are derided and laughed at, while the women and men who take up the helm are critiqued for what is perceived as their reactionary views. When men jump on board with practices that are traditionally feminine, they are lauded, applauded, and signal boosted. Enter the male-only cuddle party, the men, and the psychologists who love them.
Yes, People Do Need Touch
Chick flicks, sitcoms, and jokes about post-coital practices would have us believe that cuddling is entirely the purview of women, but we know for sure that human beings need to be touched, meaning men, too. It’s a basic human need. For those in solitary confinement, or the elderly, the hunger is more pronounced, and the lack of touch debilitating. For men without partners, spouses, or sexual contact, a demographic a recent Washington Post article revealed is on the rise, this lack of human contact can contribute to feelings of isolation.
Perhaps that’s why an educator at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University recently jumped into the fully clothed cuddle pile in support of the local Men’s Therapeutic Cuddle Group in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. Dr. Christopher Liang, who teaches a gender, race, inclusion, and trauma lab at Lehigh, believes that men’s cuddle groups can redefine masculinity. This statement is predicated on the assumption that masculinity itself is problematic, and needs redefinition.
Cuddle parties have been a mainstay of the intimacy industry for years, making waves and rolling eyes from Silicon Valley to Brooklyn. Touted by Cuddle Party as “a playful social event designed for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection,” a cuddle party is decidedly non-sexual, and rooted in the idea that human beings crave to touch and be touched. But is touch so far from the realm of masculinity that for men to engage in it is to redefine the term?
Liang was one of the creators of the American Psychological Association’s first-ever “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.” In a release from Lehigh, he advocated for the Men’s Therapeutic Cuddle Group as something that “can do a whole lot of good” for men. If what he means by “a whole lot of good” is based in the concept of masculinity that is elucidated in the guidelines, then “good” is the opposite of what’s being put forward.
Which Parts of Masculinity Should Be Scrapped?
Noted psychologist Jordan Peterson, of “12 Rules for Life” fame, assessed these guidelines for us laypeople, and concluded that “the authors are claiming that men who socialize their boys in a traditional manner destroy their mental health.” He goes on to say “that men who encourage their boys to be ‘self-reliant, strong and manage their problems on their own’ destroy the mental health of their children” and “produce adults who are a primary menace to their families and society.”
Is that what Liang means when he talks about redefining masculinity? Does he want to deconstruct masculinity to the point where it is not commonplace to teach boys to be ”self-reliant, strong and manage their problems on their own”? Even men who cuddle need to know how to get stuff done; they can’t stay all day in the cuddle pile. Men need to be able to address threats, they can’t be constantly vulnerable, because that vulnerability can harm their ability to compete in the world.
Unlike Cuddle Party, which is designated as a charitable organization by the IRS and has upcoming parties in Australia, Ireland, California, New York, Colorado, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Washington, the Men’s Therapeutic Cuddle Group is an amateur affair. It was founded a few years ago as a means to help men cope with stress, trauma, and the desire to express a masculinity that was not inherently toxic. A co-founder of the group, interior designer Scott Turner, was quoted as saying, “So often, we’re taught that to be an emotional stoic is the mark of manhood. If you show any emotional weakness or vulnerability, that’s a failure to your title of a man.”
Femininity and masculinity have come under fire all over the place in recent years. Femininity in females is either considered a weakness or is cause to objectify them, while masculinity in men is perceived as harmful or toxic. Through it all, men are getting the message that there’s something wrong with being traditionally masculine, but there isn’t. Men are being asked to step aside, make room, and take stock of those attitudes they have that have contributed to othering and objectifying, and to cede power and influence to, well, not men.
Vulnerability and Masculinity
It’s a mixed message, however, because while men are being asked to be less traditionally masculine, they are still held to the standards of that masculinity. The cuddle group is an opportunity for men to explore their emotional side with platonic affection, and for the men in the group, this seems to be a valuable undertaking. Men in the group use the new form of closeness as a means to deal with past trauma, learning to be vulnerable, and finding the language to ask consent. The problem is in assuming that being masculine means entirely hiding vulnerability, whereas masculinity contains within it the burden of taking existential risks.
My grandmother read parenting books during her time mothering four young children in the 1950s. The books told her to keep her children at a distance, not to hold them or cuddle them. She did as the books dictated, until she couldn’t anymore. She scooped up her children, cuddling them, holding them, covering them with kisses. She said it made her feel like a bad mother to disobey the book, physically showing love to her children.
The problem isn’t that culture tells men vulnerability isn’t masculine enough, or that standards of affection need be at arm’s length. The problem is that we negate, at every turn, what it means to be human, and to love. Touch is not anti-masculine; it never was. Masculinity doesn’t need to be redefined, nor does femininity.
These are valiant forces in culture that are viable expressions, with usefulness, and weight. Before they are destroyed, we need to know what is proposed to replace them. If the new rubric is one in which men and women are interchangeable, with neither able to take true risk, embark upon dangerous quests, or cover each other with kisses, we won’t like the loveless world we wind up with.