Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Study: Straight men cuddle with other men. A lot.

Get a room, you two. Graham Stuart / AFP

Society is more accepting of same-sex marriage. But are public attitudes on broader gender and sexual identity issues changing as well?

British researchers hypothesized that yes, gender boundaries are expanding. To prove it, they talked to 40 straight male athletes aged 18 and 19, which the study labels the typical arbiters of masculinity, to see if they've ever cuddled and spooned with another man before. The researchers figured that, if gender norms are changing, more straight men will say they're okay with cuddling and spooning with another man.

What the researchers found was a bit surprising: the men said they were okay with man-on-man cuddling and spooning, and nearly 93 percent claimed to have done it before.

It turns out some straight men really like cuddling with each other

The study looked at three main topics: bed sharing, cuddling, and spooning.

Of the 40 men interviewed, 39 said they have shared a bed with another man at least once since attending university. The one remaining student said he didn't remember if he had before: "I might have been pissed [drunk]." But all 40 athletes explained that there was no stigma to sharing a bed with another man, even if the other man wasn't a particularly close friend.

Thirty-seven of 40 respondents also said they previously cuddled with another man.

"I feel comfortable with Connor and we spend a lot of time together," one respondent explained. "I happily rest my head on Connor's shoulder when lying on the couch or hold him in bed. But he's not the only one. The way I see it, is that we are all very good and close mates. We have a bromance where we are very comfortable around each other."

Other respondents seemed fairly enthused about cuddling, as well: "I love a quick cuddle, just so you remember your friends are about and are there for you."

The students also said they engage in spooning, when one partner holds another from behind as they lie down. Researchers found that some respondents cuddled and spooned quite frequently, and there seemed to be little correlation between social hierarchies and which position someone took while spooning.

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An artist's rendition of a spooning couple. Timothy Clary / AFP

Even early-morning erections weren't looked down on by respondents. The students instead explained that they broke the resulting tension and awkwardness by joking around, which the researchers noted as a historically common reaction to awkward sexual tensions between straight men.

The three students who said they had not cuddled or spooned with another man also said they didn't stigmatize the acts. One of these three respondents even suggested that it would be nice to cuddle or spoon with another man.

Still, the findings don't apply to everyone

The study's sample was definitely limited. Not only did researchers only interview a small sample of 40 people, but they focused on a very narrow demographic of men: 18-to-19 student athletes from a British university. And these students were hand-picked by the researchers, so the results weren't randomized (the golden standard for research). This focused sample allowed the researchers to carefully interview this specific group of British men, but, as a result of that focus, it's unclear if the findings apply to a broader, bigger population.

The study also relied entirely on self-reporting. It's possible many of these students misled the researchers, perhaps by misidentifying their sexuality, misrepresenting events, or even outright pranking the researchers. It's unclear how much these self-reports can be relied on, especially given the small sample size.

Another limitation is the study looked exclusively at British youth. It's entirely possible that America's gender norms are different. The UK, for instance, has been more accepting of homosexuals than the US since the late 1990s.

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We also don't have a previous point of reference for this study. We know that attitudes toward sexuality and gender identity have become more liberal over the past few decades. But we don't know if these particular men would have been okay with cuddling and spooning when anti-LGBT attitudes were prevalent.

Regardless of the study, attitudes are changing

There's legitimate reasons, as noted above, to doubt how the study's findings apply to a broader population, but the researchers are right that overall social attitudes about sexuality and gender identity are changing.

One way we know this: LGBT adults are reportedly less likely to face the kinds of direct discrimination that were all too common just decades ago, according to a survey of LGBT Americans from the Pew Research Center.

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LGBT adults also told Pew researchers that they feel more accepted by society, and they see that acceptance growing in the next decade.

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But has there been enough change to allow straight men to cuddle together without stigma? That's hard to say without more and better research.

So what are some good examples of man-on-man cuddling?

John Stamos has you covered:

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