Lynn Beisner wonders if the men who say they like to cuddle are simply doing it to please their wives or girlfriends.
In Harris O’Malley’s article debunking the idea that women do not want sex, titled “It’s OK To Want Sex,” he examines one half of our culture’s myth “that men and women are diametrically opposed by their very nature; men want sex, women want love.” He does an admirable job establishing the fact that women like sex and that men should view sex as a collaboration with women, not a con-job perpetrated on them.
What O’Malley and male writers never seem to address is the other side of the “men want sex/women want love” myth.
As it happens, this particular gender myth—that men do not like cuddling—has been the subject of debate in our relationship since Pete and I first started dating. Pete swears by all that is good and holy that men love to cuddle. I am not sure that I believe him. Perhaps he genuinely likes to cuddle, but I cannot believe that cuddle-cravings are endemic to his gender. I have been told all of my life that men cuddle out of obligation, to be kind, or to manipulate a woman into sex, so I am having difficulty letting go of this particular piece of essentialist nonsense.
I first learned that men do not like to cuddle from Sunday school teachers and the other morality-nags that haunted my adolescence. They told us: “Men use cuddling to get sex. Women use sex to get cuddling.” We warned that snuggling was a slippery slope, sort of like what happens in the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you let a man hold you, he is going to want to run his hands up and down your back. And if you let him caress your back, he will start to stroke your butt. If you let him touch your butt, he’ll want to feel your breasts. And if you let him in your bra…well, you get idea.
When I was in my late teens, I found a sex manual for men that my stepfather had hidden behind a multi-volume guide to the Old Testament. It was the first and only form of sexual education that I had as a teenager. Two things stand out in my memory of that book. The first was that I had no idea of what the word “ejaculation” meant. I searched our dictionary in vain for a definition that matched how the word was used in the book. Somehow a “strong verbal exclamation” just didn’t seem right. The other thing that stood out for me was an entire chapter devoted to how to manage a woman’s desire for cuddling and affection. The premise of the chapter was that cuddling is distinctively unsexy and that women need to be firmly but kindly reminded that they will be rewarded with cuddling after they have put out.
The “men hate cuddling message” was driven home by my generation’s seminal movie about relationships: When Harry Met Sally. In one scene Harry talks about how sex works for men: “you have sex and the minute you’re finished you know what goes through your mind? How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home…All men think that. How long do you want to be held afterwards? All night, right? See there’s your problem, somewhere between 30 seconds and all night is your problem.”
According to Harry and others, women’s desire for cuddling is a problem. There is something incredibly shaming about how women’s alleged desperation for snuggling is generally portrayed. At the very least, it is seen as a point of vulnerability, a chink in women’s chastity armor.
At some point after my divorce from my first husband, I started to feel like a schmuck every time a man cuddled me. It made me wonder what kind of an idiot he took me for. I respected a guy who asked for sex when he wanted it. But attempting to manipulate me with cuddling or feigned affection is an affront to my intelligence and a violation of my trust.
At best, it seemed like a wasted act of self-sacrifice for a man to engage in a form of touching that he did not want (cuddling) when the kind of touch he craved (sex) was something that I very much enjoyed and wanted as well. I could not accept physical touch given out of obligation or self-sacrifice. Pity cuddles are no more pleasant and affirming than pity sex.
The idea that cuddling was a chore and not a joy for men was reinforced by my experience of being cuddled. Most of the time it is done thoughtlessly, passively, and without any eye-contact, since a man usually holds a woman with her head against his chest. The best way that I can describe how the men that I dated cuddled is that it was like they were humming. When you hum, you are singing unconsciously and without the desire to communicate. Cuddling, in my experience, was touching unconsciously and it carried no communication.
In recent months, Pete has started expressing his need for cuddling as being something as intrinsic to his nature as the desire for sex. I am confident that he is not trying to manipulate me into sex. For starters, Pete does not need to manipulate me to have sex with me. All he needs to do is ask or even hint. On top of that, Pete does not have the sort of calculating mind that manipulation requires. However, my inner-skeptic, which is capable of wonderfully convoluted thought, wonders if he is unconsciously expressing as his need what he believes that I need.
I tease my husband about his “unnatural urges” and he kids me about being a closet sexist. Beneath our gentle jokes lies a tension we have yet to resolve. Based on our culture’s stereotypes about what men and women want, my husband’s desire is unnatural or even deviant. And I will admit that my refusal to believe that men enjoy snuggling is blatant sexism.
It is hard for me to change my belief when I have never heard a man other than my husband express a need for snuggling. In my mind, there is a Someecard that reads: “I cannot wait to get home tonight and cuddle with my wife, said no man ever.” So if there are guys who love to snuggle, who seek it out and are even bigger cuddlers than their spouses, I for one need to start hearing about it. Just like you guys needed abundant evidence that we like sex, we need demonstrations that you like cuddling.
Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.