One of the things that’s said to be true about “Real Men” is that they don’t need affection or comfort. They are the lone wolf, never allowed to be vulnerable or to afraid or insecure. “Real Men” expected to literally take bullets for the ones under their protection, whether that’s a country or a family. There is an extended list of things “Real Men” aren’t allowed to do, ranging from drinking from a straw to eating ice cream to eating a banana out of the peel to wiping their butts after pooping to enjoying a cuddle.
This would all be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.
Toxic masculinity is the idea that men must remain within a very constrained set of behaviors and beliefs to remain “Real” men. Deviating from this type of behavior results in the loss of one’s “man card” – defined by Urban Dictionary as the “requirement to be acceptabed as a respectable member of the male community. Can and should be revoked by other respectable males for doing non-respectable male things.” The example cited on Urban Dictionary is of having to take away the man card of someone who cried in public after being dumped.
Not all of the examples in the first paragraph are particularly serious (though they are all real). But this has been studied seriously, as well. A study by Promundo (funded by Axe bodyspray) found seven pillars of traditional masculinity, including self-sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, rigid masculine gender roles, heterosexuality / homophobia, hypersexuality, and aggression / control.
Staying within the “Man Box,” as it’s called in the study, can provide a sense of satisfaction, but that comes at the price of feeling “cut off from their true selves.” Men who value being within the man box are significantly more likely to suffer from depression and are significantly more likely to have thoughts of suicide.
This is a big deal. Suicide is a leading killer. Globally, half of the people who die by violence commit that violence themselves. More than 75% of the nearly 45,000 people who die by suicide every year in the US are men. White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016, with the rate of suicide being highest in middle aged white men.
Men who subscribe to these rigid gender roles are likely to hurt others, too. There are countless stories of men who commit violence to prove their physical, economic, or sexual dominance. This article in the Economist says that “throughout history, men have killed men roughly 97 times more often than women have killed women.”
And violence isn’t the only way men are being hurt. Cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death of men in the US. A factors that increase risk of heart problems are correlated with stress and loneliness. Being trapped in the man box increases both of those factors.
Enter professional cuddling. This is a service that “Real Men” would never use, for multiple reasons. First of all, a Real Man has no need to be nurtured. Second, a Real Man has no need to feel connected to others. Third, a Real Man doesn’t indulge in self care. He eats stress for a snack, and doesn’t need a break from it.
The problem, for all those “Real Men” out there, is that none of those three things are true –but when you’re trapped in the “Man Box” you have to pretend that they are, or you’ll lose your man card.
Most of the people who see professional cuddlers nationally are men. Cuddlist.com did a study in 2017 where they found more than 90% of the people requesting time with a Cuddlist were male. My own client roster has been about 65% male since the start of my practice.
Many of the men who come to see me are dealing with the man box. You might notice none of the clients interviewed in the recent media pieces about my practice are men – that’s because the men who come see me aren’t willing to publicly admit that they do. That’s fine, by the way, I keep all my client information confidential. Most of my clients even pay me in cash, so there’s no record of the transaction anywhere.
The men who come to see me do report that it makes their lives better. Touch improves health and mood, and being able to be seen and accepted even in a vulnerable situation like asking to be held has powerfully positive effects.
Part of the reason I brought Holding Space into the world, and the reason I persist in trying to get this idea to catch on (in Indiana, which is definitely a place where lots of people still hold on to these toxic beliefs about masculinity) is because I believe that it’s important to normalize platonic touch. Not only is the practice beneficial, but the idea itself has benefits as well. A culture that understands that touch is so normal and useful that it can be bought and sold is a culture that has broken at least part of the grip of toxic masculinity.
Professional cuddling also provides a turtle step along the path of men experimenting with receiving nurturing in a non-sexual environment. They can come to me and not have to admit to anybody in their community that they are seeking this sort of care. Hopefully the work we do together will help them to explore connecting with another person, and they can take that skill into the world with them and use it in other parts of their lives.
I hate toxic masculinity and it’s damaging effect on our culture and the people within it. But I love men. I will never buy the hashtag that “men are trash”- because I know too many strong, brave, loving men about whom that’s simply not true. My approach to toxic masculinity can be expressed by quoting Rose Tico from The Last Jedi, because we’re gonna win by “not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”
I’d love to have a snuggle with you.