Joey and Ross are sleeping on the couch together, cuddled up after watching a film. As they wake up, they scream and jump apart. “What happened?” Ross yells. “I don’t know!” Joey screams. They are horrified that they slept together. The scenario is, of course, a scene from Friends. That two men should fall asleep against each other—hugging, but fully clothed—wasn’t just humorous, it was the bedrock of the episode. And it was funny for a simple reason: men just don’t do that.
Well, they didn’t do that, at least, not as much back in 2000 when the episode aired. Nowadays—as I’ve observed over the course of 6 years of sociological research on young British men—straight guys don’t hesitate to hug, cuddle and even spoon in bed. It’s a normal part of their friendships, and they don’t even mind if other people find out. The reason is simple: in an era where homophobia is less potent than ever, men no longer fret so much about being labeled as gay. For straight guys raised in an era of gay-acceptance, male intimacy is no longer a joke, but an everyday and visible part of their friendships.
Those Cuddling Brits
Researching the changing state of masculinity among young straight men in England between 2008 and 2010, I documented a great deal of touching between male friends. They hug as a greeting. They sit on each other’s laps in their high school lounges. They give each other backrubs during assembly. These are guys who play sports and are popular among their peers— in the U.S., we’d call them ‘bros’.
Traditionally, the world of sports has been somewhat contradictory: an enclave of male touching as well as homophobia, where the intimacy of an ass slap is countered with an anti-gay affirmation. But locker rooms are rapidly changing, with the NFL’s Michael Sam and NCAA’s Derrick Gordon joining a growing number of openly gay, high profile athletes. From our previous research on team sports, my colleague Eric Anderson and I knew that the decline of homophobia had allowed tactility to flourish amongst friends and teammates on sporting teams. In 2013, we set out to understand the phenomenon in more detail—by collecting in-depth interviews with forty men doing sport degree programs at a British University. Our results showed just how normalized non-sexual forms of touching (AKA “soft tactility") had become.
“Cuddling is a standard part of my uni life really,” said Max, one of our research participants. “We very often have hangover cuddles and naps together…I really enjoy it!” Max was not alone among his peers: All but one of our participants had shared a bed with another male, often after a night out of heavy drinking. What was more remarkable, however, was that the majority of men in the survey—37 out of 40—had also cuddled and spooned with a friend, either on the couch or in bed. “Like, proper spoon,” guys like Tom clarified. “He’s my best mate, it’s a pleasure.’’ There weren’t even fights over who got to be big or little spoon. ‘‘You switch sometimes,” Stephen told me. “You know, one guy rolls over, so you roll over, and now it’s your turn to hold him.’’
These men publically discussed their cuddling behaviors and were proud of the intimacy they shared with their friends. But when I discussed the findings publicly with the media, there was disbelief that such behaviors would occur. Just as the audience to Friends found the idea of Ross and Joey spooning hilarious, so most men who were 30 and older could not understand how or why young straight men would spoon in bed.
Radio hosts were shocked, and as for the comments on The Huffington Post… suffice to say that many older commenters did not perceive this to be a positive thing. Perhaps the most enlightening discussion occurred on The Young Turks. While host Cenk Uygur (age 44) welcomed the softening of masculinity that allowed straight men to feel comfortable with cuddling, he was dumbfounded, nevertheless: “I can’t comprehend cuddling with a guy. I can’t comprehend it.”
Yet, compare this to the lecture I gave to the 100 students who take my class at Durham University in northern England. They were shocked as well: not by the cuddling, but by the fact that anyone cared. “How have you managed to write an article about this?” one student asked me afterwards. “We do it all the time at my house, and it’s news?” asked another. Both male and female students thought these were normal practices for straight young men in Britain today. So, how do we explain the fact that older men are surprised by the news that men are cuddling, and younger men are surprised that it is news at all? The answer lies in the changes in attitudes toward gay people.
Decreasing Homophobia and the Softening of Masculinity
One of the most significant social trends in the UK in recent years has been the erosion of homophobia. Data from British Social Attitudes survey show that only 22 percent of adults think homosexuality is always wrong in 2012—down from 64 percent who thought so in 1987. Another recent survey found that 86 percent of British citizens would be comfortable if a close friend were gay. Matters are similar in the US, with a recent PEW survey finding that 70 percent of those born after 1980 support same-sex marriage. 74 percent of these Americans believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
While these changes in public opinion (as well as laws governing marriage, employment and military service) most obviously affect gays themselves, less attention has been paid to the significant impact the lessening of homophobia has had on straight people. In homophobic cultures, the fear of being labeled ‘gay’ has long policed male behavior. Straight men refrained from touching, from expressing their emotions, and from devoting time to their appearance to avoid seeming feminine or gay. In the 1990s, we began to witness how the decline of homophobia might affect straight male behavior with the emergence of “Metrosexuals”—heterosexuals who were so image-, clothing- and grooming-conscious, they pushed the boundaries of acceptable masculinity.
20 years later, writer Mark Simpson (who coined the term), argues that “metrosexual” ideals have been so absorbed by the mainstream that it’s not just fashion-conscious or feminized guys who care about their appearance. It’s also jocks who want to be desired, guys whose “own bodies … have become the ultimate accessories, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity—one that they share and compare in an online marketplace” of selfies. While the shift Simpson describes is largely an aesthetic one, I’d argue that our research adds an emotional center. Men are starting to feel comfortable expressing their desire to be desired sexually, but also their need to be loved: By themselves, but also by their friends.
What better way to do this than with a cuddle.