If you’re a woman I find attractive, and you want a hug, then I’m not your guy. (Yeah, I know, women the world over are currently sobbing into their pillows.) Here’s why.
I find you attractive. This means if you have your body up close to my body, I’m going to be aware that you’re a sexual being, that you’ve got curves and soft bits that I find appealing. (If you find that thought shocking, tough luck.) I know some men will tell you that they’re not aware of that sort of thing, and that their hugs are purely platonic, and it’s even possible some of these fellows are telling the truth, but I’m not one of these guys. I’m aware.
This brings the issue of informed consent right to the fore. I think it’s likely that most women would not want to hug me if they were fully aware of the nature of the psychosexual dynamic in play. But, even if that is not so, and only a few women would be deterred, a cautionary principle is in force: you have to be sure you have informed consent for close physical contact, especially if it has an attached sexual frisson, and given that people don’t tend to see hugging as being sexualized (and, yes, yes, I know, lots of people will claim that it is not – don’t believe them, I say), I don’t know that I have informed consent, so I can’t take the risk. This means I don’t hug women. (If you’re a man, it’s normally very easy to avoid being hugged. Body language is your friend. Also being a misanthropic recluse helps.)
A few points of clarification here.
1. Obviously, if you experience no sexual frisson when hugging somebody you find attractive, then there’s no issue here, assuming you have consent (however that is communicated). But don’t kid yourself about it just because you want to get your arms around somebody you find alluring.
2. I’m not talking here about men and women who are enjoying an encounter that is by its very nature obviously sexualized (whether it be a fleeting encounter or whatever) – then it’s a different ball game (because one can assume that both parties are aware of the sexual dynamic, etc). But again, don’t kid yourself about it just because you want to get a thrill.
3. There are some female friends I will hug (almost always at their instigation). But only if they know perfectly well that I find them attractive, and that I’m aware of their sexuality, etc. (Oddly enough, this knowledge hasn’t put them all off – hurrah!). Obviously, the better you know somebody, the more open and intimate your relationship, the more likely it is that this will be the case.
4. This is not a plea for a conservative sexual morality. As far as I’m concerned, the world would be a much better place if people were not hung up about sex and bodies and monogamy, and spent their time shagging left, right and center. But unfortunately we don’t live in that world, and informed consent is crucial – for Kantian reasons, if nothing else.
5. There are risks here of infantilizing women. I’m aware, of course, that women are quite capable of making their own choices about the people they want to hug. The worry here isn’t about women not being able to make choices. It’s about the possibility they don’t have access to all the information necessary to make an informed choice. Of course, it’s also true that people aren’t going to be naive about the dynamics in play here (and there will often be behavioural clues if a man is deliberately seeking a sexual thrill in a hug). But again, a cautionary principle has to hold sway.
6. Male and female sexuality is not identical (on average, etc). This means the situation is different in the other direction (though not as a matter of principle).
7. Yes, of course – there are exceptions to this general rule. If somebody is in distress, for example, or whatever – there clearly are occasions where the sexual aspect just isn’t obviously in play, and in those situations the moral calculus is different.
8. And just because there has been a lot of talk in a less salubrious corner of the internet about sexual harassment policies, I should say this is not an argument either for or against such a thing. That’s a different issue (though obviously not entirely divorced from these sorts of observations).
I realise this all sounds rather pious, so… well, sorry about that! I blame Kant.