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Are women the real reason men can’t hug?

Inspired by the title of a Festival of Debate event, Alice O’Connell asks what role women could play when men suppress their emotions.

A man in a yellow jumper holds up a sign that says FREE HUGS

Free hugs


As part of this year’s Festival of Debate, Assiduous Ensemble and Tim Norwood Theatre have created a piece called (What's the Worst That Can Happen?) When Two Men Hug. The show follows two men who discover their masculine selves in a society of marginalised masculinity. I am yet to see this production, but the title provoked a thought; I stopped to question how often I see men hug.

As a young woman in her twenties, you would think the men I am surrounded by are pretty emotionally comfortable and affectionate. Yet, when forced to think of the last time I witnessed two of them comfort each other physically, I was stumped. So I went to my male friends and family to pose the same question. To my surprise they found it pretty easy to recall the last time they hugged another man - and for most of them it wasn’t too long ago.

This sent me down a rabbit hole of questioning why this was. Was it just a coincidence that I hadn’t witnessed it recently or did it have a more significant reasoning. Toxic masculinity has, in recent years, finally felt like it is starting to be dismantled. As a society it seems to me we are extremely quick to jump to the conclusions that its men who are to blame for this old-school and toxic behaviour. But what if women play a part?

By inserting a ‘feminine’ energy into a space full of men, I would presume the dynamic and behaviour in the room changes, for better or worse. From conversations I’ve had with the men I know, it seems when a woman is introduced into a situation full of men, men can feel they have to step into what they deem to be a more ‘masculine’ role. So it is not only important to challenge why so many men still feel like this is, we also need to dismantle the associations we have about gender in the first place.

Straight woman are constantly saying they want a male partner who isn’t afraid to cry or speak about how he feels. But often, women are quick to reject a man who doesn’t seem ‘manly’ enough for them.

Maybe, as women, we have to examine whether the thoughts we have internally – that men should speak about their mental health and be emotional, affectionate and considerate – is the message we are conveying externally. It’s easy for us to presume that men are intimidated by talking and showing emotion because of the other men around them.

Since writing this, I’ve witnessed some women and girls become weirdly uncomfortable when witnessing two men show vulnerability, sometimes more than the men themselves. What if women actually play a much bigger role in men’s self-consciousness than it seems?

One hug has been scientifically proven to boost hormones such as oxytocin and affect the endogenous opioid system. So although a simple hug may seem insignificant, it seems hard to ignore the sense that changing one small thing could actually have a tremendous impact on someone’s day.

by Alice O'Connell (she/her)
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