Cassandra Keenan

The sexual politics of a hug

Filed By Cassandra Keenan | November 15, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender identity, queer relationships, sexual dynamics, sexuality

Far from just warm and fuzzy, hugging is commonly rich with personal revelations regarding our sexual and gender identity, as well as sexual equality.

What got me to thinking about this? I was hanging out recently with this girl I used to date before I transitioned. We had a few drinks, shared a few laughs and caught up on old times. It was nice. Then when the time came to say goodnight, she moved in to make out with me. And that's when she cast me in my prior sex role - without even a second thought.

When I say "cast me in my prior sex role," I'm not referring to the kiss. I mean, I am in fact attracted to men and generally consider myself hetero, but that doesn't mean I have an aversion to kissing another woman. So the kissing was no biggie. It was the hugging part that got to me. In fact, it caused me to abruptly end the embrace due to my overwhelming feeling of awkwardness.

The reason? She automatically threw her arms around my neck. And that meant that mine wound up around her waist. So, there we were, the two of us locked in a hugging position normally assumed by a couple who relates to one another based on a traditional male-female dynamic.

Afterward, I began thinking about this incident, and how and why it seems that most self-identified straight women primarily automatically reach for the neck when romantically embracing a guy, based on what I've seen. Even in mainstream art and media, hugs traditionally are depicted with the woman's arms around her male partner's neck, particularly when a romantic kiss is involved. Anecdotally, wikiHow directs sweethearts similarly. See "Lover Hug" under "Step 2, Embrace." Excerpt from the hugging instructions:

Males: Carefully sliding your hands down from her shoulders, put them on her waist and slide them around her lower back ... Females: Extend your arms toward him and hold them around his neck and shoulders.

The fact that the position is so common and unquestioned makes me think it's due to the ingrained perception that men are the dominant sex by default. It seems that many women themselves still believe this at some deep-rooted level, so they tend to reach instinctively for the neck.

Reaching for the neck is in fact loaded with meaning, in my opinion, with the significance being that women's bodies generally tend to be much more objectified than men's. So when a woman (or someone who takes on a traditional female role in a relationship) reaches up to place her arms around her partner's neck, she is leaving her body open and available to her partner's touch -- surrendering it to her partner's hands. Also, if she has to stand on her tippy toes for it, she is that much more in a vulnerable -- or submissive -- position.

I will be the first to admit that I am primarily a traditional girl, and I like it when my arms are around a guy's neck, and his arms around my waist. And I know my friend well enough to say that she likely feels the same way. As far as the hug that we personally shared, she evidently didn't realize that we were essentially two women in each other's arms. If she actually had been fully aware of me in my new, female sex/gender role, I think things would have went differently.

Which leads me to this thought: I think queer couples actually put more thought and sensitivity into how they hug. Probably because they tend to be more in touch with who they are gender- and sexual identity-wise. I mean, it frequently takes a good degree of soul searching to discover, accept and assert yourself as gay, lesbian, bi, trans or queer. Hence, I think LGBTQ individuals are more in touch with and mindful of their partners' needs, because they know their partners have gone through a similar process and likely are very aware and open about what they need and want. I could be flat-out wrong, but that's my take, anyway.

Traditional heterosexual couples, meanwhile, are more apt to follow the cue of popular culture and social expectation when embracing in a romantic context, it seems. And it also seems like it doesn't matter who has the dominant role in the relationship. If deep down inside, a woman in a traditional male-female relationship feels like she has the dominant role over her male mate, I think she is still highly unlikely to part with convention and ask her guy to place his arms around her neck instead of around her waist. And vice versa.


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I don't know much about hugging positions, but I do know that it's always awkward. We need a better system of expressing greetings and farewells that we'd all know, going into it, what we're supposed to be doing. The hugging thing just doesn't work unless you know someone well, and not everyone who initiates a hug can say that.

I had always thought that the hug position was related to dancing and it dealt with putting your weight at their center of balance to cause the least amount of discomfort.

Maybe I'm just being the traditional girl that I am and assuming that woman's arms around neck and man's arms around waist is somehow "natural," but maybe it has something to do with the usual relative height difference. A taller man's arms around a shorter woman's neck, and her arms around his waist, just doesn't seem to work that well physically. It would be an awkward embrace.

Really interesting observation about the interaction with your ex. It's so difficult to get full acceptance from people with whom we have a history.

A very enlightening and well written article.
I can very much relate to your experience and feelings.

Thank you!

@Alex very true. I normally only feel comfortable hugging people that I know and truly care about. And that always helps in easing the awkwardness.

@Steve and Veronique Hmm, I thought of your points, but don’t think it has much to do with why the hugging position is assumed automatically. Also, I routinely see couples who are similar in height use it, as well. Plus, there is this certain swooning feeling that overcomes me (beyond the normal warm and fuzzy feeling of a hug -- and I’m sure most hetero women experience it) when I feel a guy’s arms around my waist and the rest of my body, and I am reaching up for his neck. I think that feeling compounds (or complements?) the significance of the traditional position.

In addition, it doesn't make sense that a woman would be reaching up for physical convenience. If they wanted comfort and convenience, then it seems more likely that shorter women would reach for the waist, because then they wouldn't have to reach all the way up to the neck.

@Dee Thanks so much, love. I’m glad you enjoyed. J

"it seems more likely that shorter women would reach for the waist, because then they wouldn't have to reach all the way up to the neck."

This is actually my response to hugging. I'm a heterosexual woman standing at 5'-2" with a 6'-2" boyfriend. I can't remember an instance when I've reached for his neck when hugging. I usually reach around his upper waist and he usually embraces me around the lower shoulders. But I've never been known as being traditional either :P

I do understand your point, though, that a good majority of heterosexual couples embrace in that manner.

Hmm, fascinating. I don't think I've ever hugged that way, at least not while conscious of it. If it's such a straight thing, perhaps it has to do with growing up in a queer family.

I'm immediately aware of the type of hug, of course, I watch TV. And after a few hug experiments, I realize I on occasion do something like that with my partner. But still, I'm going to have to agree it's not just "natural" or to balance your center of gravity. In fact, when I try to do it I'm more likely to fall over.

The hugs I've automatically engage in are with arms around each other's chests, whoever's arms go on top often but not always determined by height, and sometimes each person has one arm on top and one on bottom. As a tall person, I find it physically easier to put my arms on top when hugging someone shorter, not just around the neck but more wrapped loosely over the shoulders. And when someone hugs me with arms around my neck, my arms don't go for their waist but rather just underneath their arms and reach for their upper back.

I find my kind of hugging is very common in non-romantic hugs, but it's also how I've done my romantic hugs as well.

I'm the same way, Tobi. The "hetero hug" feels a little artificial to me, now that I'm thinking about it. It's right up there with the woman raising one foot when she gets kissed. Kinda cheesy.

Thinking of Alex's comment, I think there is a distinction between a romantic hug and a friendly hug. The arms around neck and waist hug is, as far as I can tell, always romantic. When I hug a friend of any sex, it tends to be left arm low, right arm high, duplicated by the other hugger.

I tend to hug good friends. I try to remember not to with those who aren't comfortable with it. Those hugs really are awful. :)

I find that I do that with my current partner sometimes, simply because said partner has a wide girth and is over a head taller, so it's more comfy.

But a friend of mine who's in a same-sex relationship says that the girlfriend, who is taller, tends to put HER arms/hands around said friend's neck to hug/snuggle.

So... I think it's just that most people imitiate a certain form of body language, and others don't.

I do agree that the arms-around-the neck thing does seem to be a vulnerability thing, though; it's easy to make a comparison to the universal female tendency to tilt her head (known to body language experts as "the neck cant") while flirting or engaging in similar "trust me, like me, work with me here" type interactions (therefore exposing the jugular artery, etc.); this is a form of body language which appears to be universal in women across cultures, sexual orientations and age.

That said, a hug in general would seem to be a "trust me, because I trust you" gesture, since you're pulling a person towards your most vulnerable spots while leaving them wide open.

It is certainly interesting food for thought, that's for sure. ;)

You state: "She automatically threw her arms around my neck. And that meant that mine wound up around her waist."

Huh? Among your many other options: You could have put your arms akimbo, or put you hands in your pockets, or used your arms and hands to push her away from you.

All of your psycho-social, political and philosophical reflections aside, your physical choices in the situtation you describe were not as limited as you seem to think.

Huh. I find that when I hug my boyfriend (I'm bi in a hetero relationship) my arms usually end up around his waist, because with the height difference it's awkward to reach up to his neck. My arms only ever end up around his neck when he picks me up in the middle of a hug and I panic and cling :P

When my female friends hug me (a couple of them are the touchy-feely type) I just remain awkward until it's over. It's like I'm the stereotypical teenage boy who freezes and goes "oh god it's a girl what do I do?" Hopefully I'll get past that eventually.

I've had experiences with exes from before transition that I still know now, where they tried to put me into the "male role" for any given social situation. It's extremely awkward, even when it isn't intentional. It was awkward for me *before* transition, and when it happens now it feels like they're just trying to deny my existence.

Heterosexuals (whether in a relationship or not) are definitely more likely to follow gender-role scripts. Which is the nice thing about families and relationships that aren't so straight-laced, they're more egalitarian and less likely to make all those blind role assumptions.

Really interesting post!

The one thing I'm not sure I agree with is the idea that a hetero woman reaching for a guy's neck is necessarily submissive. I think that reaching for someone's neck can be a very dominant move - especially when one does it in order to bring their partner's face in for a kiss. In that way, they are initiating and guiding the entire encounter.

To be sure, that style of hug is very traditional and certainly counts as behavior conditioned through romantic comedy films. But I still think that every case is different, and a woman going for the neck could be a submissive or a dominant move.

Thinking about it I, a short-ish female, sometimes hug one of my male partners, who is about a foot taller then me, like that. When I do, I feel childlike, like a toddler saying "Mommy pay attention to me!" So is surprised me to hear that it is generally considered a romantic or sexual hug, because, for me, it is a needy hug that is more child like then anything else.

Odd.

(After experimenting just now, I when I kiss I hug with one hand above his shoulder on his back, so I can pull him toward me and my other hand wrap around him at slightly below my shoulder level.)