Today's New York Times has an article discussing the increased prevalence of social hugging amongst teenagers; boys as well as girls. Some high school teachers and principals are worried about it because they're afraid it will lead to unwanted sexual touching or increase the spread of infections. There also seems to be a general air of mystification (on the part of the adults) regarding the meaning and origins of this phenomenon. I can't say that I have answers to their questions, but reading the article did inspire me to ponder my own experiences with hugging.
I've spent most of my adult life in very "huggy" social circles. Theater people are huggy. Church people are huggy. Interfaith seminary people are VERY huggy...
For the most part, I enjoy all the hugging that's part of my social and work lives. I haven't always, though. When I started as a student at the interfaith seminary, I found the pressure to hug perfect strangers, on the very first day of class, extremely off-putting. I do need to know people and feel something for them, before wanting to hug them. That first day, I found myself thinking, "I'm too old for peer-pressure; I'm 39!" Still, I went through the motions of, gingerly, hugging every one of my new classmates and teachers. If I hadn't, I would have offended people, and I really didn't want to do that. By the end of the year, most of the hugs were genuine. That fact didn't negate the unpleasant memory of that first day, though.
I like hugs, for the most part, I think, because I grew up with very demonstrative, physically affectionate parents. They both hugged and kissed me and my brother frequently. They were physically affectionate with each other in our presence, too, before their marriage went sour. In our family, you didn't need a reason for hugging. It didn't have to be a good morning, good night or welcome-home-from work/school hug. We would, frequently, just fling spontaneous hugs on each other, and those tended to be the sweetest ones. Sometimes, while my parents were watching the evening news, I'd crawl up on the couch and hug them; then run back to my room and continue drawing pictures, playing with my dolls or whatever I'd been doing to amuse myself. I could be outside playing in the yard and my mother or father would stop what they were doing, dash out and give me a quick hug, and then go back to their grown-up work.
I actually discovered, at a very young age, that hugs could sometimes heal my physical discomforts as well as the emotional sort. If I was feeling tired, hungry at a time when it wasn't possible to eat (like on the bus) or had a bit of stomach or headache coming on, I could hug my mother or father, and it would make me feel better. I'm not sure whether they ever knew that I sometimes sought their hugs as "medicine." I didn't think it was necessary to tell them. As a little child, I probably just assumed that everyone knew that about hugs. Looking back on it, I wonder whether that was something other people experienced, too, or just part of my own, weird, mystical spirituality manifesting...
Now that I'm an instructor at the interfaith seminary, I do my best to prevent today's students from feeling the same sort of pressure (regarding hugs) that I once felt. Of course, it's still a "huggy" culture and I can't do much to change it but, as an individual, I make sure that no one feels obligated to hug or be hugged by me.
I think everyone who hugs, socially, needs to be aware that it's a privelege; not an automatic right. We also need to be conscious of the fact that, even if hugs are brief and not too "squishy," they can feel sexual, if there's any (even subtle) attraction or chemistry between the people hugging each other. You have to prepare to deal with that energy in a safe, positive way.
This evening, I'm doing a show with my theater company. I know that, afterward, we'll go and eat in a diner (between my church folk and my theater folk, people in my circles are keeping Manhattan's diners in business) and then we'll do our usual goodbye hugs. The men in the company (all of whom are over 40, so don't have the teen guys' comfort level with physical affection) will do what they call the "guy hug." They make fun of their own awkwardness by slapping each other on the back and saying, "DUUUUUUUUUDE!" They will hug me, cautiously (I'm the only woman in the company) but without feeling the need to be jokey, as they are with each other. Maybe there is something better about the way today's boys are growing up? Anyway, I'm just glad that all the hugs in my life are good ones, these days, and not obligatory.
So...your thoughts on social hugging?