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.
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.
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.