How Cuddling Battles Toxic Masculinity

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. 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.

Consent and Courtesy

The salesperson who just called tells me I need to advertise more, which may be true. But I’m not looking to spend money on that today, and I’m pretty sure their platform isn’t the right choice for my business. I explained that politely to the sales person. What he heard, apparently, was a series of objections he wanted to overcome so he could make his commission.

I stated my boundary clearly and politely, and gave the guy a chance to respond to my “this is not the right time for me, but I wish you good luck with your next call. Have a nice afternoon” with a “thank you, please call us when the time is right.”

Instead he decided to do what they teach you in sales training – work to overcome the objections. I’ve read enough sales training to know that a lot if it says never to take no for an answer. It says there is never a reason to accept a no from a potential client, and that if you’re good enough you’ll be able to get a “yes” from everybody.

Apparently, this guy was familiar with those ideas, and he just kept talking after I clearly told him I wasn’t interested. After just a couple of tries to wrap up the conversation, both of which he ignored, I ended the call in the middle of one of his sentences.

I felt a little rude doing that, to be honest.

And yet.

That feeling, that defending my boundaries was a little rude? It’s dangerous. It’s how we end up doing too much, spending too much, sacrificing our sanity and safety in the name of being “nice.”

But what if instead of being nice, we decided to be kind (to ourselves as well as to other people). What if we worked from the assumption that we know what we want better than anybody else does? What if we extended that idea to everybody and assumed each person knows best what they want? What it we stopped feeling like our primary purpose in life was to make other people comfortable?

What if we looked for the ways our boundaries helped the people around us. Nothing this sales person said was going to change my mind about spending money to advertise – especially not with a company who claims they are part of Google (they’re not) and can make me the #1 search result in my area (that’s not how that works.) I don’t have to be mad at the person who called me, after all, they’re simply doing a job and trying to make a living. But I’m also not obligated to waste my time (and theirs)  because I’m not willing to just hang up the phone.

As a business owner, I read a lot of advice about how to market things- and a decent amount of that advice goes against my principles as a consent-based business. I don’t want to be pushy. I don’t want to sell my services to someone who’s really looking for a different type of service. I don’t want to trick anybody into trying what I have to offer because they might like it. That’s not the type of business I want to run. You’re not going to find an invasive pop-up on my website, because I believe that people who want to sign up for my newsletter can find the sign up themselves (it’s shown prominently on the first page, after all.) You’re not going to find me glossing over the “this is definitely platonic” part of my screening call – I want people to be clear about what I offer before they fork over their money.

What you are going to see is me showing up places and sharing what I do. Sharing the benefits of platonic touch with people. Offering free hugs. Offering pay-what-feels-good-to-you community events. I am going to insist on marketing my business in a way that feels authentic and respects other people’s right to make informed choices about whether they want to do business with me or not.

It’s not your typical business model, and it might not work. But it does reflect the sort of world I want and believe we can create.

Are you looking for the same sort of world, but worry that you don’t have the skills to help create it? I specialize in helping people to develop those skills; identifying where their own boundaries are and communicating those boundaries to others. That work can happen in a coaching environment where we never touch, or in a cuddling environment where we can use touch as a workshop took to help develop these skills. Interested in learning more? Book a session today!

The Subversive Idea that Men can Control Their Behavior

I grew up with the message that men can’t be expected to control themselves if they become sexually aroused. You can still see this message now in the conversation around dress codes in school – the idea that a boy isn’t capable of learning if an exposed female shoulder is in the room with them.

I find this idea impossibly insulting to the men I know.

In my work as a professional cuddler, the boner question is the one I most frequently encounter, both from potential clients and from people who are merely curious. People ask me what would happen if arousal occurs during a session, or they ask me how I can feel safe alone with a man who might become aroused.

In cases like this, people are typically using “arousal” as a euphemism for “erection” – a common practice that is, frankly a little problematic. First of all, it assumes that arousal and erection are the same thing, and they aren’t. If they were, arousal would be limited to people with penises capable of becoming erect, and that’s simply not how the world works.

So let’s start by stripping out some euphemisms and talk instead directly about erections, and whether or not men who have erections are able to control themselves.

Spoiler alert – OF COURSE THEY CAN.

We’ve got this cultural myth that an erect penis changes the behavior of the man it’s attached to. Being a cultural myth, it shows up in our consciousness without anybody paying it a whole lot of close attention. It’s “common sense” that people who are distracted with sexual thoughts might not be able to focus on anything else, but only because we’ve seen so many stories and heard so many jokes that rely on this idea to make sense.

And it’s ridiculous.

Let’s talk for a minute about what the world would look like if it were true that an erection negated a man’s ability to function in the world. We wouldn’t be able to have billboards on the side of the road, or signs on the side of a vehicle, or mudflaps on the back of a truck with sexual imagery on them, because if “all the blood rushing from a man’s brain” reduces his ability to function, how can we trust him in that state behind the wheel of a car.

And what about sexy movies or strip clubs or restaurants where busty waitresses dress in skimpy outfits? How can we allow men to be out in public places designed to create arousal? How would they, for instance, remember to pay their bills if they aren’t functioning? How could they be expected to keep their hands to themselves in strip clubs if their brain has been taken over by their penis?

You might say that those businesses have bouncers because we don’t expect men to behave themselves, and point out that wait staff deal with some of the most pervasive harassment in the workforce, and all of that is true. And yet, most of the men who show up in those places keep their hands to themselves, do math to pay their bill, and generally function as a competent adult. And some sort of bouncer or greeter is present at lots of businesses that aren’t promoting sexual arousal in men.

The question, then, isn’t whether a man can interact respectfully with another human while aroused. There’s abundant evidence that it’s possible and even common. The question we’re actually faced with instead is whether we really expect men to interact respectfully with other humans (whether they’re aroused or not.)

This becomes a more challenging question. Part of the toxic in toxic masculinity is the idea that men must have dominion over all they survey to keep their “man card.” This shows up in a myriad of ways. Men are expected not to show emotion. That same “man card” is in danger if a man is known to consider the opinions or feelings of other humans, especially women. A man who asks his wife he can go to the bar is likely to be teased by his “buddies” for it, because considering how one’s actions affect other people isn’t very manly in this system. A man who interacts with someone they’re sexually attracted to but doesn’t have an orgasm can lose their man card for that, too – whether the other person is interested in sexual interaction or not.

Interacting respectfully is another thing that can cause one’s “man card” to be in danger. It’s pretty common for toxic masculinity to involve a pretty hefty side of treating people seen as lower status (read: anybody who’s not a white male) badly just to prove that you can.

Men who buy into these ideas are dangerous. They’re domestic abusers and men who kill women who won’t give up their phone numbers or say yes to a date. Some of them, like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, go on literal killing sprees and claim that it’s because they can’t get laid. Some men worship these killers in online forums where they also talk about creating terror in the streets unless they get their way.

And yet.

I have a professional practice where I snuggle up with men I don’t know, after a brief screening process. I’ve been doing this for more than a year, and I’m still alive and unharmed. The work I do with men is some of the most rewarding work in my practice, and they tell me repeatedly how grateful they are and how much difference I’m making in their lives. I have never once been afraid during a session that my safety was in danger.

I’m not going to assert that I couldn’t be in danger from the culture of toxic masculinity. It’s entirely possible that one of these days some trolls are going to show up and call me names, threaten my safety, or maybe just flat up attack me. But none of Elliot Rodger or Alex Minassian’s victims were professional cuddlers. The risk that exists is there because of our toxic culture, not because of the work that I do.

And with a little bit of luck and a lot of persistence, this idea of professional cuddling might just catch on and help to disrupt the toxic masculinity that pervades our system now. This toxicity is deadly not only to women, but to men as well. Loneliness and touch deprivation are a part of why men live shorter lives than women. So is suicide: men are significantly more likely to die by their own hand than women.

Is it a little grandiose to think that a little thing like cuddling strangers for money can help shift the tide? Sure.

And yet.

The idea that it’s safe to offer affection and support to men (even though some of them are very dangerous) is subversive. The idea that emotional labor and nurturing labor is valuable is subversive. The idea that consent is an important part of a business interaction is subversive. The idea that men want to give and receive affection, and not just sex, is subversive.

If we subvert enough of the toxic ideas that have been allowed to flourish in our society, perhaps we can create the consent culture and thriving masculinity that we want to be.

I have a piece of calligraphy in my office that says “Do small things with great love” It’s the philosophy behind this business. Simple and humble, and perhaps not enough to make a difference.

But maybe it is. And, more importantly, it definitely makes a difference in the individual lives of the clients who come to see us. Curious? Come check it out for yourself.