On Hugging

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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. At my age, it takes a bit more than a hug to excite me.

    Would that it were otherwise!!

  2. Wait, doesn’t this extend to all kinds of other potentially sexualised interactions, other than physical ones, such as hugging?

    As I take it, your argument is: (1) When X hugs Y and X is attracted to Y, X might experience “sexual frisson” due to the physical contact; (2) It is possible that Y might not choose to hug X, if Y is aware of X’s arousal; (3) This possibility requires X to disclose any attraction/arousal X has for Y prior to any hugging out of respect for Y’s dignity as a practical agent.

    The important step seems to be (2), where we notice the possibility that Y might not wish to interact with X in a certain way, if Y is aware of X’s arousal due to the interaction. Setting aside questions of whether this argument extends to psychological states other than sexual arousal (e.g. I might not want to hug/interact in certain ways with anyone who is misogynistic), it seems that the argument would cover many more interactions between X and Y, where X is a heterosexual male and X is attracted to/aroused by Y, than just hugging. For instance, presumably, if X is attracted to Y, X could be aroused by Y through certain non-physical interactions (i.e. seeing Y in certain kinds of clothing–not necessarily revealing or sexualised, though). So, it looks as if we accept this argument, we ought to also say that X should disclose their attraction to Y before any interaction with Y where X would be aroused. If this is the case, then it’s not just hugging that needs to go, depending on the individual involved–to me, this seems to be a pretty direct route to a very strange state of affairs.

    A more troubling implication is that homosexual individuals, when interacting with individuals they are attracted to, are either morally required to out themselves in order to attain the proper consent before any interactions where they could become aroused, whether they are prepared or comfortable with doing so, or swear off such interactions (which could potentially cover a fairly broad spectrum, if my analysis above is right) with anyone they are attracted to.

  3. JT – Well, it *might* be the case that this argument extends to other potentially sexualised interactions, but it wouldn’t necessarily. It’s not particularly implausible to think that the physical aspect makes a large difference (for example, because of the idea that we have rights against unwanted physical contact).

    Also, de facto, it isn’t particularly implausible to think that physical contact makes a difference in terms of how one applies the cautionary principle I talk about. In other words, this is partly an empirical issue – it doesn’t follow that people who will be uncomfortable with the idea of hugging somebody who experiences sexual frisson as a result will also be uncomfortable having a conversation, etc, with that person.

    But I’m prepared to bite at least part of your bullet. If you have a non-trivial relationship with somebody that is thoroughly sexualized from your point of view, and the other person doesn’t realize it, and you have good reason to suppose they wouldn’t be comfortable with it if they did realize it, then… well, it’s a morally problematic situation.

    There are other things to be said here, but I’ll restrict myself to one final comment. I don’t think people are required to be moral heroes. If it were the case that a person was wired up in such a way that the whole world was sexualized, then although that would have implications for how he (or she) could properly interact with other people, it would not require large self-sacrifice (as imposed by reclusiveness, for example).

    Or, to put this in broader terms, there really is a moral calculus here, and “Y’s dignity as a practical agent” isn’t the only morally relevant factor in play.

  4. Your concerns depend on the theory that women cannot discern your sexual attraction to them. Women are very adept at detection of male interest in them. Men, on the other hand, lack this talent. Also, the female ego may lead them to assume male interest even when none is present.

  5. Hello Jeremy:

    I assume that there is a certain degree of ambivalence in most human interactions, including hugging.

    This morning a very attractive woman, dressed to kill, got into a small elevator with me, and in light of your blog above, I studied my reactions to her and her reactions to my reactions to her.

    First of all, in a space of perhaps 30 seconds, my reactions went from the frankly sexual/sexist to what I might call “feminist respect” to old-fashioned gentlemanly respect.

    By the time we both left the elevator, less than a minute after we “met”, we had established a “relationship” on the level of the most formal yet cordial politeness.

    I sensed that she sensed that I was first of all, unlikely to harass her in the elevator and second, that I was on some level conflicted about my own reactions, which is something that any intelligent and attractive woman must have noticed in many occasions in similar circumstances.

    So I would guess that any intelligent and attractive woman would understand that heterosexual males will have erotic feelings, of one or another sort, during a non-erotic hug and that being aware of that, they go ahead with the hug.

    It is positive that you air this topic and it would be interesting to read the responses of women.

  6. I wonder if this is culture specific. I grew up in a fairly traditional catholic environment and feel incredibly awkward hugging people who I don’t know. It was never part of my experience growing up to hug friends. Where I live now in Sweden, on the other hand, it seems quite different – hugging is an entirely normal interaction between the children in my sons primary school. To me the discomfort is (or at least feels)more a case of invasion of personal space rather than a worry that I’ll get turned on and poke someone in the eye with my knob. I don’t feel more discomfort in hugging attractive women than unattractive women (or men).

  7. @NAL & @Amos – Yes, I anticipated that objection (hence my comment about people not being naive).

    I accept that some people, maybe many, would happily concede that psychosexual stuff is going on even in a situation that is ostensibly platonic (including hugging, etc).

    However, I’m much less convinced that this awareness is (often) in play during the encounter itself, and as I say, a cautionary principle holds sway.

  8. @SF – Oh, culture is definitely part of the story. Not least, it’s not implausible to suppose that the more normal hugging is culturally speaking, the less sexually charged the situation might feel in the sort of situation I’m talking about. Even I don’t (normally) experience a frisson when shaking somebody’s hand (though if it were the right person’s hand…).

  9. I think there may be a confusion, a linguistic problem here, between Hugging and Sexual embracing. So far as I can see a hug is a spontaneous action lasting merely a few seconds. It is done for a certain reason, such as delight in meeting an old friend after a long separation, to console someone who is distraught, to congratulate someone who has achieved something they dearly desired. Say for instance one is caught in a terrorist attack and one finds oneself unscathed, but requested by an attractive person of the opposite sex to hug them. Would it not be preposterous to regard it as a pleasurable sexual embrace, or to say sorry I am not your man?
    I think that Jeremy’s point of clarification No. 3 does not really deal with hugs as I have defined them they are requests for a certain degree of sexual embracing, which is no doubt pleasurable and harmless provided one is aware of where the line needs to be drawn, if at all.
    The two actions Hugging and Sexual embracing are similar in execution but should not be confused. Certainly a hug can be a prelude to a sexual embrace. Great problems can occur when one party is merely hugging and the other is sexually embracing, so one has to be clear in one’s mind, which is which, and who wants what.
    Feminine viewpoints concerning all this would I am sure, be invaluable.

  10. Jeremy, I like Don’s distinction between hugging and sexual embracing – though doubtless there’s a continuum and there are sometimes moments of confusion.

    One of the interesting things about our still rather sexually hung-up and puritanical society is that a certain amount of low-level sexual embracing between close friends of the opposite sex (or the same sex in more enlightened milieux) is accepted. No one calls it that, but everyone knows that that’s what it is. I don’t think a “cautionary principle” applies here at all, because everyone knows the score.

    Conversely, my experience at least is that hugs between people who are not close friends are not at all sexual. In my milieux – or at least that part of it which is constituted by science fiction fandom – non-sexual hugs are handed out pretty freely, including between people who are very unlikely to be sexually attracted to each other. They’re a nice way to show warm feelings of friendship, good will, etc.

    I’m just in the past couple of weeks back from Continuum 8, the Australian national science fiction convention this year, and one feature that everyone commented on afterwards that made it such a good convention was the feeling of warmth and good will, much of which was expressed in physical ways, in that people in that community are very willing to greet each other with non-sexual hugs.

    More generally, though, I think we can be too assiduous about applying a cautionary principle to our interactions with people. Doing so is not necessarily doing those people a favour if it has the effect of undermining spontaneity, and if what you want to caution them about is not a possible physical harm (like a possible side effect from a drug) but something that, realistically, they probably already know about and likely welcome. An overly cautious approach can deny something good for others as well as yourself, by sucking the spontaneity out of your interactions.

    This doesn’t mean that I’m going to go around giving close embraces, or even non-sexual hugs, to random women (phew! all the female readers of this blog can say). But nor, at the other end of the scale, does it mean that I’m going to tell a treasured ex-girlfriend, “Before you hug me closely, as I sense you’re about to do, let me warn you that I am sexually attracted to you and am likely to gain some sexual pleasure from the experience.” I can be confident that she knows all that and that drawing attention to it would just destroy the spontaneity and warmth of our friendship.

  11. @Russell – Your points in turn:

    1. Agreed, the cautionary principle doesn’t apply in the situation you describe where everybody knows the score.

    2. If hugs are genuinely non-sexual, then there’s no problem, of course. But – and it’s possible this is just me – well, normally, but not always, if I’m hugging a woman (man or goat or whatever) I find attractive, then I just am going to be aware of their sexuality. Obviously, there are individual differences here in terms of how tuned in we are to sexual stuff; and possibly it also interacts with cultural stuff (as SF suggested).

    3. Yes, I think the point about applying the cautionary principle too assiduously is a powerful objection. Generally, I can see how one could construct a utilitarian challenge to my more Kantian position, and part of that presumably would be the claim that the effect of my sort of position applied across the board would be to suck some of the joy out of life.

    I guess I’d respond that part of what I’m arguing for is honesty about this stuff, and that I’d want to advocate for a shift in our attitudes towards sex so that we don’t get freaked out about the fact that we live in a sexualized world (which is a good thing, not a bad thing), which hopefully would have the effect of reducing the number of situations in which one needs to apply a cautionary principle in order to uphold individual “rights” (for want of a better expression).

    But yes, your fourth paragraph is definitely a challenge to my position.

    5. Yes absolutely. That’s a situation where a shared history makes the sort of thing I’m talking about redundant (and, of course, the point you’re making is relevant for how one looks at sexual harassment policies).

  12. @Don – There are situations where the sexual thing isn’t in play, of course. I’ve given a woman a hug after running a half-marathon together (because she got the time she was aiming at), and sex was the last thing on either of our minds at that point. But I’m not convinced there’s a sharp distinction. Or rather, I think it entirely possible that whether there is a sharp distinction is likely partly a matter of individual differences.

  13. Jeremy:

    This whole issue seems based on the supposition that it matters to most people (in this case, to women) what is on your (or my) mind.

    Most people just don’t care about my intentions or my secret desires.

    In this case, women probably are concerned that a man may take advantage of an “innocent” hug to
    touch part of them which normally one is not supposed to touch during a hug, etc., but not about what is on the man’s mind.

    There may be people who are concerned about what goes on in my mind, but they are very few and far-between.

    Now it may be that you are of a psychological bent and are interested in what goes on in the mind of others. I have the same bad habit myself, but interest in the inner life of other people is not common.

  14. Hi Amos – I can see how it looks that way, but it doesn’t straightforwardly depend on the claim that people are generally interested in what’s going on in my head.

    Basically, I’m following Max Weber’s dictum that an act is partly defined by the meaning that it has for the social actors involved. In the situation I’m describing, there is a disjunction between what the act means for me and what it means for the other person, and the other person isn’t (immediately) aware of this disjunction. This means they think they’re participating in an act of one nature, whereas they’re really participating in an act of a different nature.

    My argument is that some proportion of these people would be bothered about this disjunction if they knew about it, and because a cautionary principle is in play, it is necessary to worry about the fact they’d be bothered (because of thoughts about informed consent when it comes to unwanted physical contact).

    In an odd kind of way, it is precisely because people don’t spend much time worrying about what’s going on in other people’s minds (unless they have particular reason to do so), this difficulty arises.

    More generally, I agree most people don’t care about your (or my) secret intentions and desires when it doesn’t affect them. I’m not convinced, though, that they don’t care when it does. So, for example, I think some fairly large proportion of women (men or goats) would be bothered if I were imagining masturbating while hugging them. (And I’m not saying that this is the case!)

    I’d be curious to see what some women think about all this. I’ve had a couple of brief conversations with women on Twitter, but they were fairly abstract.

  15. Kantian arguments are slippery, Jeremy, and I’m no fan of them. To the extent that they have a grain of truth in them, I think it can be explicated in other ways (though Kant himself did bring some important things to our attention … while also, I think, making some bad mistakes).

    Anyway, irrespective what Kant himself might have thought (he appears to have been sexually puritanical), I expect that even a Kantian could make out an argument for a degree of spontaneity in interactions, a degree of not bending over backwards to make sure that people are fully informed about everything in their interactions, etc. Indeed, I want to be treated with a degree of spontaneity, etc., at least when people are treating me kindly rather than in ways that are intended to cause me harm, and I don’t want the spontaneity of my interactions disturbed by overly officious warnings, etc.

    If that’s how I want other people to treat ME, and I guess I want them to be guided in their interactions with me by some sort of maxim about being spontaneous, not being infantilising, etc., then why would I not universalise that maxim (which will include my treating THEM in that way)?

    A Kantian who thinks that acting with full knowledge is all important may reject what I’ve said above. But if we proceed from the Kantian insight about not advocating or acting on maxims unless you’re prepared that they be universalised, well… I think we can get to much the same place even irrespective of utilitarian considerations.

    The trouble here – or one trouble – is that we don’t all want to be treated in the same way. It’s all very well saying that no one can want to universalise a maxim such as “Never show charity to others.” But we (or many of us) could certainly universalise a maxim about “Try to create a certain atmosphere of spontaneity when you deal with others.” This could then be filled out in detail. And conversely, we could not universalise a maxim along the lines of “Always make sure that others are fully informed about how their actions are likely to affect you emotionally.” Even a narrower maxim that ends “… affect your sexual feelings” could not be willed as a universal law, at least not by me, and probably not by most people if they were honest.

    In short, it’s not at all clear how Kantian reasoning, to the extent that I think on independent grounds that there’s actually a point to it, is going to come out with something like this. It’s possible that different people would find themselves able to will different maxims as the universal laws to be applied.

    Now from an Aristotelian viewpoint, I guess there’s a virtue of social spontaneity, which involves being spontaneous in the right way, for the right reason, with the right person, at the right time, etc. We are left to make subtle judgments of practical reason. But how we will ever get people with different prior values to agree on what is being spontaneous in the right way, for the right reason, with the right person, at the right time, etc., kind of escapes me. 😐

  16. Jeremy:

    There’s a Bob Dylan song (It’s Alright Ma) that says: if my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.

    They would probably put mine in one too and that of any thinking person, especially someone whose mind works as fast and as creatively as yours does.

    I suppose practice wisdom is about avoiding the guillotine, not advertising that one is a candidate for it.

  17. @Russell – Thanks for your latest. Food for thought. I’ll endeavor to write a lengthier response in the morning.

    @Amos – I wonder, though, if we’d be less inclined to put people’s heads in a guillotine if we were generally less shy about inner-lives.

    Come to think of it, maybe not… 😳

  18. Do you have the same difficulty *looking* at attractive women? Should they not approach you or cover themselves in burkas? We are not condemned to act on every emotion we feel. (Phew!) Surely, you can control this and many other urges you have. Learn to hug. It promotes flows of oxytocin and cooperation. This is a good thing.

  19. @Ed – You’ve missed the “looking at” boat (see JT’s comment above).

    And obviously I’m able to control my behavior, otherwise the entire blog post wouldn’t get off the ground.

  20. Oops. I skimmed those juuust a little too quickly. JT’s algebra must have thrown me off. Well done typing this up. I won’t make the comment about using two hands.

  21. Supposing everything you said made sense (I don’t think so–see below), then I think you would have a duty not to say it openly, since by doing so, you let women you do hug know that you don’t find them attractive. What’s the good of conveying that message? I think most women would find it slightly insulting. Secret wish of all women: to be found dazzlingly attractive by everyone, without exception. Better to just have your pattern of hugging and not hugging and leave it ambiguous what it all means. It might just mean your a cold bastard, often disinclined to hug.

    As to why your hugging policy doesn’t make sense to me: I think most people know there’s a bit of a sexual undercurrent to hugging and they either accept it with equanimity or they fend off hugs, or keep huggers away from the soft bits, or hug very quickly. So women feel like they have a reasonable amount of control over these things on their own, and don’t need “cease and desist” from you.

  22. @Jean – Hmmmm. Not sure about your first point. Obviously I don’t tend to announce my reasons…but… well, I think there might be an interesting asymmetricality here. I’m not in the least bit insulted that most women don’t find me attractive. Obviously one doesn’t want to announce that fact to particular people, but I’m not sure there’s a strong imperative not to allow people to make that deduction (after all, one often communicates that fact by one’s behaviour), etc.

    (Mind you, I was once walking with a girlfriend, and a woman shot across the road, and started telling my girlfriend what beautiful hair she had. It then occurred to her that she hadn’t made it clear that she was talking to my girlfriend and not to me – So she turned to me and said: “Not you, you don’t have beautiful hair!” – which was quite true, and pretty amusing.)

    Your second point. Well, that’s an empirical question, but interesting that you say so. However, other people are claiming precisely that there is such a thing as non-sexual hugging. If you’re right – that there is a sexual undercurrent to hugging – given that some people claim there is non-sexual hugging, then… it means I’m right. People often don’t recognise it when it’s there.

    Okay, I’m not being entirely serious there. More seriously, I refer you to my reply to Amos – 11.58am.

    FWIW, I’m currently working on a much more careful reply to Russell’s argument about spontaneity and joy, etc.

  23. On Spontaneity and Hugging | Talking Philosophy - pingback on June 28, 2012 at 5:27 pm
  24. Jeremy, I’ll be relatively concise here as you’ve given me a whole new post to think about. But I think the reality is that in many situations there is, as Jean says, a sexual undercurrent to hugging that everyone knows about. In other situations, however, there is clearly no such undercurrent.

    I do think that there can, in principle, be grey areas, so part of the issue might be how big the really difficult grey area is – as opposed, say, to the very light grey area and the very dark grey area.

    This may depend on the life experiences and milieux of individuals. But again, I don’t think there’s much of a grey area if my treasured ex-girlfriend gives me a hug. Nor is there if, at the other end of the scale, my sister gives me a hug. For very different reasons, no warning would be appropriate in either case.

    I’m not ruling out that there could be cases where some sort of warning is appropriate, but I’m struggling to think of a case in my own life where I’d think the issue is one to take very seriously. Most, perhaps all, the hugs I receive are either 1. from people whom I’m not sexually attracted to – other blokes, relatives, women whom I’m not actually attracted to but am friendly with – OR 2. from people who know damn well that I’m attracted to them and will gain a certain sensual pleasure, shall we say, from the embrace. With these people, one of us might even say to the other, “That was nice!” or whatever.

    Within 2. are basically my wife, the stray treasured ex-girlfriend, the stray very close friend with whom I have a flirty relationship. We could count the people in my life within 2. on the fingers of one hand, but they do exist in my life, and I’m sure many people have the equivalents.

    So one way or the other I can’t envisage (many?) practical situations for me where I’d even think about applying Jeremy’s approach. But again, I don’t rule out such situations, and there could be questions about how “cautionary” to be, given what might also be lost, etc., from an overly cautious approach.

  25. How about you just manage to stop sexualizing a woman for a two second human interaction? Is that possible, or…?

    No, then?

  26. Jeremy,

    You are probably morally obligated to wear a warning label. Perhaps something like this:


  27. Actually, you should probably get that as a tattoo-just in case you are naked when someone approaches for a hug,

  28. @H – In the situation I’ve described it’s not possible, obviously.

    @Mike – Nobody in their right mind would approach me for a hug when I’m naked, so probably a label or badge will do.

  29. People who hug each other are already aware–or should be–that touch may communicate or cause all sorts of things. If you don’t want to experience a “sexual frisson”, then don’t allow the hug. Otherwise, stop patronizing people (well, women) as if they’re stupid. If inadvertently inspiring arousal is a big ethical concern, then nobody should enter a room with me without asking first.

  30. @Elle – But lots of people in this thread have explicitly stated that there is such a thing as non-sexual hugging, and I’ve also been told that I should stop sexualising women (whatever that might mean), so clearly it isn’t “patronising people as if they’re stupid” to think that there might be occasions where people are not aware that what they take to be non-sexual contact actually has a psychosexual dimension.

    And, of course, you’ll have noticed that I’m entirely aware of the dangers of what I call “infantilizing” women – what you call “patronizing” women – but my claim is that a cautionary principle is in play, which means that even if one accepts that most people are precisely aware of the nature of these things, one must nevertheless proceed with caution.

  31. I find it very difficult to take of my consequentialist-hat and engage with ‘rights-based’ arguments. I understand that informed consent is important in most cases because people are generally upset when they discover that they made a decision under false pretenses. But what about the times in which that discovery is never made?

    Say, for instance, that somebody that I find very attractive decides to say goodbye to me with a hug. The hug is a mildly sexual experience for me and I enjoy it. The hug is purely friendly for her, but nonetheless she enjoys it also (because she enjoys being affectionate and friendly). I see this as a mutually beneficial situation. In fact, if someone where to alert her of the mildy sexual nature of the hug this would be a bad choice because it might cause her to feel needless discomfort. — So yes, I’m in the camp that thinks that harm occurs in the ‘knowledge of breached consent’ and not in the ‘breach of consent’ itself.

    I’m sure there are problems aplenty with this view (and hopefully some readers can tell me what they are) but currently this is where I stand.

  32. Jeremy,

    Have your tried the Axe products? No, not axes. Axe. 🙂

  33. @Andrew – Suppose I develop a drug that functions to lower inhibitions, and it has the side-effect that it erases a person’s memory.

    I give it to a person I know would not have sex with me in the normal course of events. They don’t know they’ve taken it. I proposition them, and because of the effects of the drug, they consent to a sexual encounter. They would not have done otherwise (or, if you’re not keen on the omniscient version of this thought experiment, we’ll just have it that I have very good reason to suppose that they would not have done otherwise).

    As it turns out it was a pleasurable experience, partly because of the effects of the drug, but mainly because I’m a fabulous lover (of course!), and afterwards the person falls asleep. They wake up, their memory of the event has disappeared, and I’ve gone. As far as they’re concerned, they went to bed alone last night after a rather heavy session of drinking.

    In utilitarian terms, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. I had a good time, they had a good time. No harm, no foul.

    Except… it’s incredibly hard to believe that there has not actually been a very large foul, precisely because there was no informed consent.

    What do you reckon? Surely there is a large moral problem here, isn’t there? Yet I’m not sure how you’d cash that out given your remarks about the absence of discovery, etc.

  34. I realize that to criticise a thought-experiment is awfully pedantic BUT it really does depend on the finer details whether or not the drink spiking would be the best course of action (or an acceptable course of action). BUT, supposing that having sex with the stranger really IS the best possible course of action for them at the time (it causes the most pleasure and it is better than any other available option) then I find it hard to pinpoint the problem. In such a case the drink spiker is giving the recipient what they ‘never knew they wanted’ (but wanted nonetheless – because we all want pleasure). I realise how paternalistic and ‘high and mighty’ this sounds, but don’t think for a second that I’d advocate this sort of drink spiking. There are massive epistemological barriers in ascertaining that administering this sort of drug would be the best course of action. Perhaps this person will be resistant and/or allergic to the drug, perhaps they would have had a better time out with their friends, perhaps someone will find out about what you’ve done and persecute you, perhaps you won’t even enjoy it (for whatever reason). The list goes on. . . BUT, assuming that the administer of the drug has a god-like certainty that doing so will maximise pleasure for all the parties involved I must concede that I don’t think ‘informed consent’ needs to be a concern in the decision making process.

    As a sidenote, as far as I’m aware I might have been having this sort of a sexual encounter every night of my life. Furthermore it might have been with people I find grossly unappealing when not under the influence of the drug. Nevertheless if I enjoyed it at the time then my life (and the life of my nocturnal seducer) is all the better for it; sex produces more pleasure than sleep.

  35. Jeremy, interesting subject. I agree somewhat with Jean’s comment. I can’t bet my life on this – as women don’t admit this openly – but I’m pretty sure there’s not a (straight) woman out there who wouldn’t secretly enjoy knowing you were turned on by hugging her. If admitted, she would deny this in order to maintain her ‘pure’ image but she would be loving it. My suggestion would be to hug whom you want to hug (being guided of course by their body language) and don’t over think it.
    On a more important matter, what prompted this post? Do you feel guilty that you are aroused by hugging women who aren’t your girlfriend and attempt to reduce your guilt by being honest and upfront and pre-empting it before it happens?

  36. P.S. Andrew, I completely agree with you re a hug being a mutually beneficial situation. And Jeremy, do you seriously alert all women to the fact that you are mildly attractive to them and therefore may be aroused by their physical touch and for them to approach you at their own risk?! I can’t imagine being told that by someone!

  37. We are born hugging, as the mother’s body is our home while the dad patrols. Altruism may have its base in that cycle, in which we return the favor as parents.

  38. @ Jeremy I generally agree with what you say. Kant provides a reasonable principle guiding preparation for action, but we need to discover its application by trial and error at times. This may be, as you say, because sexuality is our totality as individuals nothwithstanding the different forms to universal gender across formal species (birds or bees). It gets down to reasonable self analysis, but that is insufficient without knowing the specific modes of application in the human species as a cultural aggregate, religious doctrine, or by analyses of the commonsense behavior of selection.

  39. No hugs please, we’re atheists | Talking Philosophy - pingback on July 11, 2012 at 3:17 am
  40. I find your approach thoughtful, but in practice, if one of my male friends stipulated that he found me sexually attractive and that he just wanted me to know in case it altered the hugging dynamics, I would have FAR preferred he hadn’t told me. Although I implicitly understand that some of my friends may experience sexual thoughts or feelings about me, I do not want to be confronted with it. You can’t just choose to forget or ignore that information once you know it. And if someone weren’t willing to hug me because of his attraction to me, it would make the friendship feel brittle.

  41. @Clandestine – Don’t you think the fact that you wouldn’t want to be confronted with the knowledge means that your friend actually is in a difficult moral position?

    If he or she knows that the fact that he or she finds you sexually attractive would make you uncomfortable – if that is the case – then I think the person just is in a difficult position when it comes to hugging you. S/he has knowledge about what’s going on that you don’t have, and s/he has good reason to suppose that it would alter the way you feel about the hug. I’d argue this needs to be part of his/her moral calculus when it comes to the decision as to whether to hug you.

    The whole sexual dynamic thing is interesting. I have no problem hugging gay guys, and I’d have no problem hugging them even if I knew they found me attractive (though hopefully most of them have got better taste than that), so I find it quite hard to understand why some people are disconcerted merely by the fact that other people might have sexual feelings towards them (which is a different issue than the physical contact thing), but it’s absolutely the case that some people, maybe many people, are so disconcerted.

  42. “I’d argue this needs to be part of his/her moral calculus when it comes to the decision as to whether to hug you.”

    Jeremy — Sure, but it sounded like what you are saying is that the moral calculus is in service of my *comfort* (e.g. whether I would make a different decision if I knew); I’m just suggesting that that isn’t necessarily true.

  43. @Clandestine – It’s not in the service of your comfort, generally (because I don’t think people have rights against being made to feel uncomfortable). It’s in service of the possibility that the consent being given for the physical contact would be withdrawn were it properly informed (i.e., if the person being hugged was aware of the existence of a sexual dynamic).

    In the situation you describe, I think the friend who finds you sexually attractive has to worry about whether that knowledge would alter whether you’d consent to a hug (assuming that they know that you wouldn’t necessarily welcome being found sexually attractive by them). Obviously if you’ve made it clear that your consent isn’t dependent upon them not finding you sexually attractive, or they know you well enough to suppose that this is the case, then the moral worry goes away. But in the absence of this knowledge, and given the cautionary principle I’ve set out, I think your friend is in a moral bind.

    I don’t think this infantilizes you (which is a real worry associated with my position). Basically, it relies on the thought that we have rights against unwanted physical contact, the further thought that consent needs to be relevantly informed, and also the fact that we’re going to know things about ourselves (i.e., that we might be responding sexually to a hug) that we have good reason to suppose would be relevant data in how a person would feel about our behavior (which in this case involves physical contact with another person).

  44. I think we are using different language to say the same thing, in a sense, but arriving at different conclusions. If you believe there is something morally wrong with withholding that information, it is I think because you believe I would make a different decision if I had it: because I would be *uncomfortable* with the status quo of hugging you anyway. The knowledge of your mental state has instrumental value in that it contributes to my comfort. I’m arguing that since it in fact would make me less comfortable to know, the instrumental value of the knowledge is compromised, and thus that perhaps it’s better not to know (but still to be hugged 🙂 ).

    Or are you saying that the knowledge is intrinsically valuable whether having it contributes to our comfort or not? If so, I think that assertion requires a separate defense.

  45. Hi Clandestine

    I think we’re saying different things, but the difference is quite subtle.

    Basically, I think you think I’m making a “consequentialist” argument. But actually I’m making a kind of rights-based argument.

    So, for me, the fact that you might be “uncomfortable” hugging me if you knew I was getting off on it isn’t the key thing. The key thing is that I’m taking the fact you’d be uncomfortable – if that is the case (really here, we’re talking about my judgement that likely you would be uncomfortable) – to be indicative of the fact that you wouldn’t consent to hugging me if you were in full possession of the requisite information. The important thing here is that you have rights against unwanted physical contact, regardless of how the physical contact makes you feel. (It might be that you’re a fairly laid back kind of women, in which case it’s possible that you don’t want to hug people you’re not involved with if they’re getting off on it – perhaps because you think it inappropriate, because you’re in a relationship with somebody, or whatever – but it doesn’t actually make you feel uncomfortable. In that situation, you’d still have rights against unwanted physical contact, even though you weren’t necessarily going to be distressed by it).

    Your response that I need to weigh up the fact you’re going to be made to feel uncomfortable if you find out I fancy you doesn’t have moral significance for my sort of rights based argument, because you don’t have prima facie rights against being made to feel uncomfortable.

    Of course, if this were a consequentialist argument, then you’d be quite right, it might well be the case that what I need to do is to keep quiet, and just get on with hugging (since if nobody is any the wiser, nobody is harmed). The trouble with that position is that it results in a whole load of highly counterintuitive stuff (including, for example, that it might be okay to grope you without your consent, so long as you didn’t find out about it). See, for example, my response to Andrew here:


  46. Yes, this makes sense — thanks for the response.

  47. ColinGavaghan

    I’m coming late to this discussion, and it may be that everyone has moved on from it, but here goes anyway.

    Jeremy, is it possible that your huggees (??) may be said to be consenting to a risk that you are feeling a particular way when you hug them? Certainly, they may not know that you are sexually attracted to them, but then, neither do they know – or have any particular reason to assume – that you are not.

    The situation may be different if you were concealing some super-rare fetish that no-one could have anticipated. It’s a possibility that my dentist becomes terribly aroused while fixing my teeth, but it’s a remote enough possibility that I may be said not to have, in any meaningful sense, consented to that possibility. But ordinary adult women must be aware that there’s a reasonable chance that a reasonable number of heterosexual adult males will find them (reasonably!) attractive, and also that close physical contact may be, to some extent, arousing to those adult males. If you had misrepresented yourself as gay, for instance, that may be different, but otherwise, I think some degree of implicit consent to that risk could be assumed.

    It’s also not entirely clear to me that the character of an act to which someone has consented changes because of the way the other party thinks about it – or at least that it changes to an extent that would invalidate consent. If I consent to sex with a women because I believe she loves me, that doesn’t become rape because it turns out that she was only feeling sorry for me, or was after my vast fortune (ha!) Likewise, my root canal surgery doesn’t become a battery just because my dentist didn’t disclose his curious paraphilia (I’m assuming that the treatment was actually medically indicated; if he lied about that, then my consent would indeed be rendered invalid.)


  48. I think hugs are commonplace, except in the case of trusted, selected persons:family,people that you trust to not have a hidden agenda, ok. Church hugs are rotten; we are rather coerced into something that is superficial and shallow. If a ball game is on, better watch out in the parking lot-the same “religious hugger” may be the one who cusses you out for not moving fast enough. Recently, I met a man that I hadn’t seen for years.After he informed me that he is on his “paper” marriage number 3, he forced a hug and a kiss on me-I turned my head in disgust as he had a sudden “ethnic attack”: Russian Hands and Roman fingers! Hugs? Keep ’em. Unless you’re family, or someone that I know and fully trust, keep your meathooks to yourself!! Oh I am sooooooo nice!!

  49. Ethical Hugging - Council for Consensual Intimacy - pingback on April 30, 2015 at 3:31 pm
  50. Ethical Hugging - Consent Council - pingback on May 18, 2015 at 6:06 pm
  51. What if i’m Demisexual

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