By Pat Shellenbarger
Copyright 2005 The Grand Rapids Press
All rights reserved. Used with permission

The customers in the Web, a blue-collar bar on the west side, were drinking and minding their own business the other day when someone threw out the issue of men hugging men.

“I wouldn’t say you’d see a lot of hugging in here,” said a patron named Rocky, both arms tattooed from shoulder to wrist. His baseball cap carried the message: “Make someone happy. Mind your own business.”

“I hug my dad about once every 10 years,” Rocky said. “We don’t make no big issue of it. It’s just a quick thing, and carry on. Myself, I got male friends, I give ’em a hug. But I ain’t kissing them, and they ain’t kissing me. If it’s a minor display of affection, that’s OK.”

This aroused a response from the far end of the bar. “As long as they don’t hug me,” said a burly man, to which the fellow on the next stool added: “Leave me alone.”

That attitude may explain some of the reaction to photos showing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry hugging his running mate, John Edwards.

Jay Leno recently ran a slow-motion montage of Kerry and Edwards hugging, accompanied by the Joe Cocker song, “You Are So Beautiful.”

“Have you been watching Kerry and Edwards on the campaign trail?” Leno asked. “These guys have done more hugging in four days than Bill and Hillary have done in 26 years.”

Late Late Show host Craig Kilborn said: “Even the ‘Queer Eye’ guys are going, ‘Get a room!’ ”

Matt Drudge, whose Web site the Drudge Report sparks a lot of political gossip, ran several photos of Kerry and Edwards along with his own steamy commentary: “Hugs, kisses to the cheek, affectionate touching of the face, caressing of the back, grabbing the arm, fingers to the neck, rubbing of the knees … John Kerry and John Edwards can’t keep their hands off each other.”

The Proper Man Hug Procedure

But hugging is not just a Democratic affectation. Even Republican men — including George W. Bush — do it, although an extensive search turned up not a single photo of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hugging each other.

Men hugging men is becoming more socially acceptable — as long as they follow the proper procedure. The typical male hug begins with a handshake, followed by the pull-in and a couple of quick slaps on the back, and that’s it.

Grand Rapids psychologist Randy Flood, who specializes in men’s issues, called it “the inverted V hug.” When most men hug, he said, the chests may come into contact, but the lower bodies remain apart.

“When peers come together and hug, that’s when some of the homophobia kicks in,” said Flood, director of the Men’s Resource Center in Grand Rapids. “Men tend to sexualize intimacy.”

Thus, the slap on the back becomes a key component of the man-on-man hug, removing a bit of tenderness.

“It’s typically a thunderous slap on the back,” Flood said. “If you start hitting someone 10 or 15 times, it would become awkward. Usually it’s three or four slaps. That’s the time you move away. It’s more a that-a-boy, as opposed to being more of a tender moment.”

Most men also avoid the face-to-face hug, a habit rooted in some atavistic instinct that says when two males come face-to-face, a fight often ensues.

“If you’re going to go face-to-face with a man, the question is, who’s going to take the dominant position?” Flood said. “The way to avoid that is to go side-to-side.”

Cultural Differences

Some cultures — Russians and Italians, for example — are much more comfortable with the man-on-man hug, Flood noted, some even adding a kiss. In others, it’s a verboten sign of weakness, maybe even femininity.

Flood recalled when his 15-year-old son, Zach, was 9 or 10, they were in line to sign up for Rocket Football. While they waited, Zach hugged his father from behind.

“One of the coaches told him if he’s going to be hugging like that, he’s going to be sitting on the bench,” Flood recalled.

Yet the sports pages are rife with photos of male athletes hugging each other. Even NASCAR drivers have been known to hug.

“When we see Shaq O’Neil hugging Kobe Bryant, why can those guys get away with it?” Flood asked. “The reason they can get away with it is nobody can question their masculinity. They have power. They are tough guys. They are the pinnacle of masculinity.”

Some men likely don’t initiate a hug, fearing rejection, he speculated, adding: “Arnold Schwarzenegger might call you a girlie man.”

Yet Flood said he sees times are changing, that even the nonathletic males are willing to show a little affection toward other males. Eventually, male hugging may become a Darwinian imperative, he said.

“You look at the nature of survival of the fittest,” Flood said. “John Wayne survived and adapted. Giving a hug to a man you respect and care for is a humanitarian and loving thing to do. It has nothing to do with being weak or gay or otherwise.

“Today, as we progress in society, my perception is the fittest male is going to be the one who can show emotion. Men just need to evolve.”

As for Kerry and Edwards, he suspects much of their hugging is calculated to soften Kerry’s aloof image.

“John Edwards tends to be more naturally spontaneous and expressive in a Clintonian way,” he said, “where Kerry, although he is progressive in his ideology, he’s more traditional in his demeanor.”

‘A Handshake and a Pat’

Back at the Web — a name that predated the World Wide Web by many years — a couple of drinkers also suspect Kerry’s hugging is politically motivated.

“I think they’re doing it because of this gay marriage issue,” said a woman, who, like most other patrons, declined to give her name.

If men are going to hug, “it should be upper body only,” said a customer, whose shirt identified him as Bill. A man with a ZZ Top beard added: “Oh, yeah. It should be a handshake and a pat on the back.”

Rocky moved away from the bar and sat down at a table next to a woman.

“I grew up in that atmosphere that a greeting between men was a handshake and a slap on the back — ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ — about like you’d see on ‘Rawhide’ or ‘The Virginian,’ ” he said. “You can say in my family we hug about as much as Clint Eastwood.”

He turned to the woman next to him and added: “Unless you’re a woman. Ain’t that right, sugar plum.”