To find out why guys have so much trouble talking about their emotions, I turned to hug therapy, apps, academia, and, uh, Tucker Max.
It is 3:45 PM on a Wednesday and I am in a candle-lit room hugging a man who I have just met. His name is Steve Maher. We have been hugging for ten minutes straight. We are not on drugs.
Steve is a certified Core Energetics practitioner who specializes in hug therapy. "I've been hugging for about 15 years," he tells me before our session. Core Energetics is a body-centered form of psychotherapy. Steve explains it to me like this: "Let's say you're tense and holding everything in your stomach. The body registers your history. It's about getting things unstuck." To him, hugging is integral to the process of emotional and physical expression. "Think of hugging as a language: of acceptance, care, comfort, and safety," he says. Though he admits that some of his clients see him for the "connective experience" of hugging another person, he also does "some pretty deep therapy with some clients who have early attachment wounds. A lot of them have trauma related to touch."
We start our session off hugging standing up. Steve, a barrel-chested veteran of the timeless art of embrace, leans in with his chest, his stomach touching mine. He breathes deeply, as one does when meditating or doing yoga. I follow suit, and soon enough my breathing falls in line with his. He tells me he senses trauma in my shoulders—a shaking, something he sees often in new clients. We stay this way for a few minutes, sometimes talking about my feelings, but mostly just hugging. It's nice, almost overwhelmingly nice, the kind of experience that makes you wonder, as you're nestling completely inside another human's touch, why you don't do stuff like this more often.
If you're a man or have been around men for any length of time, you've probably noticed that they can be extremely leery of discussing their emotions, and can use activities—drinking, watching TV, sports, playing music—as a way to avoid actually sharing. I know I have a problem talking about my feelings, even to my own girlfriend; I even have a problem admitting I don't talk about my feelings.
In the past six months, I've moved across the country to Los Angeles, quit drinking, got an apartment with my girlfriend, changed jobs, started doing yoga, improved my relationship with my parents, and gotten a dog. But despite all these changes, since I've come to LA I've had a problem that I think a lot of men have, which is that I've had trouble connecting to other men. In New York, I was friendly with lots of people—I couldn't swing a dead cat in a bar without hitting someone who I at least tangentially knew—but I also had a small number of intimate buddies, close friends I had formed connections with after sharing years in the city with them. Now I mainly talk to them over the internet, and haven't really replaced those bonds.
According to academia, my circumstances are representative of those of many guys. In 1982, researchers at the UCLA psychology department published a paper arguing that while friendships between women often centered around "emotional sharing and talking," friendships between men were generally based on "activities and doing things together." Additionally, the researchers found that men are closed off: "Because the male sex role restricts men's self-disclosure to other men, small degrees of personal revelation to a male friend may be taken as a sign of considerable intimacy." Women, meanwhile, were much more likely to share personal information even with women they weren't especially close with.
All of this adds up to something called the "Male Deficit Model," which posits that guys have three types of friends: "activity friends," "convenience friends," and "mentor friends." This boils down to the idea that, for one reason or the other, male friendships tend to be mediated by something, whether that's partying (an activity), proximity through the workplace or a scene (convenience), or through learning about life from one another (mentor stuff).
Many men are still Entourageian, Apatowistic pack animals, incapable of showing vulnerability or physical affection.
Even though the theory isn't exactly perfect—it ignores bonds formed by intense experiences together, for example—there's certainly something to it. My LA friendships are mostly centered around activities: I have an internet radio show with some guys and make music with another guy, which mostly gives us an excuse to hang out and joke around. When I meet people and think to myself, Hey! I should hang out with that bro sometime! I'm sort of at a loss for how to reach out to them without some sort of activity in mind.
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It's not like this is a new problem. In Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, first published back in the dark ages of 1993, John Gray argued that men tended to retreat from their problems. The ManKind Project has been around since 1985, offering retreats that help men trying to get in touch with the full spectrum of their beings. Then again, that group has faced accusations of holding bizarre ceremonies where naked men smashed cooked chickens with hammers, so they might not be the best people to emulate.
Contemporary men don't have to mutilate poultry to achieve a sense of brotherhood—there's an app for that. It's called Wolfpack, and it's meant to facilitate casual friendships between men based around activities. It was launched by Nile Niami, a producer-turned-speculative real estate developer who's building a home in Los Angeles with a proposed selling price of $500 million and who once sold a home to Diddy for $39 million that featured an underwater tunnel. Over the phone, Niami tells me that the idea for Wolfpack came to him after a recently-divorced friend admitted to him that he had no one to hang out with.
"It started off an an app for a divorced guy that's lost track of all his buddies and needs to reconnect again and try to make new bromances to hang out with guys," Niami says. Right now, Niami tells me, the app has around 8,000 users, most of them in LA, but like all app proprietors he has big dreams of it being used "a million, two million" lonely bros in the coming years.
But despite the friendship apps, the websites telling us we need to share our feelings, and the naked ceremonies, many men are still Entourageian, Apatowistic pack animals, incapable of showing vulnerability or physical affection, of telling each other that yes, we too are trapped in glass cases of emotion.
For some more perspective, I turned to Professor Geoffrey Greif of the University of Maryland, author of 2008's The Buddy System, an academic tome about the nature of male friendship. Though he says that societally, "there's a general shift that men are becoming more comfortable" with expressing themselves, "the notion of an incredible closeness between men is scary." He describes female friendships as being "face to face," while male friendships are often "shoulder to shoulder." By that he means, that men are going to be more comfortable participating in activities with one another rather than simply talking. "Part of the reason men like hanging out with other men," he says, "is sometimes they don't like the emotional demands on them that women put on them."
According to Grief, while men have been socialized to accept romantic rejection from women, it's a whole 'nother ballgame to be rejected platonically by a man. Making friends requires the letting of one's guard down, he says: "Most men—especially when they make new friends—don't want a high-maintenance friendship. They might interpret it as vulnerability."
In the process, we miss out on some really good hugs.
I don't just keep coming back to hugs because Steve Maher gave me a really good one: It turns out there is an actual, chemical reason that it feels good to hug another person. "The body is made to respond positively to hugging," Steve tells me. "When people hug and they feel safe," he says, "it generates oxytocin, which is a feel-good chemical." Indeed, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that those who receive a surplus of hugs and physical contact tend to have higher oxytocin levels in their bodies. Oxytocin triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control how we experience pleasure, and reduces stress in the body. Steve tells me the relationship between hugging and oxytocin is established early, when mothers hug their infants. "From infancy, (hugging) is how we learn to feel safe in the world."
But my feelings aren't just a repository of warm goop inside me—like everyone, I have anger and regret knotted up somewhere, in my case maybe related to the time last year I was punched in the head in the bar because someone didn't like something I'd written. I've mentally gotten over that, but subconsciously, who knows? That's why, after we hug, Steve suggests I beat on a large foam block with a tennis racket.
"We call it 'hitting the cube' in Core Energetics work," he says. "It's a place to express strong emotion physically."
So I start beating the shit out of the block while imagining what I would say to the guy who had hit me. I did. It felt good. Later, in an email, Steve tells, "I think that you had a lot of energy flowing at that moment, both from hitting the cube and from the energy of what got stirred up from your assault."
It seems silly to me to say that hugging allowed me to feel safe enough to let my rage out, and that expressing my feelings about the incident might have allowed me to better come to terms with them, and ultimately let them go. Then again, I don't like to talk about my emotions.
It would probably be journalistically irresponsible of me to throw out some theory about why men close themselves off. How to we learn to be the way we are? Is it because we're taught, from a young age, to associate manhood with competing and winning against other boys and men in a variety of arenas? Is it because of some weird, fucked up inherited misogyny? Is it just homophobia? Is it because large swaths of the Western literary canon has been penned by guys like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway—guys who, if the term had been around back in their days, probably would have been labeled "bros"? Is it those movies that idolize those almost mute, sometimes even nameless, Clint Eastwood types as they float through a cartoonish world killing everything they see? Or those other movies that depict guys as immature schlubs who need to be rehabilitated by a got-her-shit-together leading lady who is almost motherly in her guidance but also way hotter than the guy?
At the risk of even more journalistic irresponsibility, I'm going to let Tucker Max expand upon all of this. "Most guys," Max tells me over the phone, "think they're supposed to hold their emotions in, they're supposed to be strong all the time, and that they're supposed to create a barrier to deal with this stuff. These are old cultural tropes, but they're still very deeply embedded."
Max, of course made his name as a publishing enfant terrible with the books I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Assholes Finish First, and Hilarity Ensues, which depict sexual encounters and drunken mishaps in detailed, explicit, and sometimes fairly misogynistic prose. Though he is not without his detractors (the 2009 film adaptation of Beer in Hell subject of protests for the way it depicted women, and in 2012 he caught flak for trying to get Planned Parenthood to name an abortion clinic after him in exchange for a $500,000 donation), the Tucker Max of 2015 is at least on the surface different from the Tucker Max of yore.
He's married, for one, and has a child. He invests in startups, and as an investor allegedly shies away from superfans of his drunken endeavors. Along with the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, Max has a new site called The Mating Grounds, a blog and podcast dedicated to helping guide young men through "the entire mating process—from its beginning (puberty), through the different forms and stages of dating, all the way to marriage (or whatever form of relationship a man chooses)." Sure, it's not exactly The Feminine Mystique, but it's a far cry from Max's story of the childish glee he felt about fucking a midget.
On their podcast, Max and Miller coach young men through the world of sex and dating what I have to admit sounds like a responsible manner. Though the podcast can certainly be read as "Tucker Max is trying to help guys get laid," to hear Max tell it there are big differences between what he does and, say, your garden-variety pickup artist guru.
"A huge part of the podcast," he tells me, "is explaining basic foundational stuff about women to men." The idea, essentially, is to help young men get girlfriends through teaching them to understand and respect the experience of women in society, and through that understanding better themselves so that they're not part of the problem. His hope is that "guys can group together and be like, 'We can go out and meet girls with the goal of finding a girl we want to date instead of pretending that everything is just about putting our penis in women and that's it.'"
"Most guys are boring or annoying or boorish or awkward or transparently objectifying of women. They literally look at women like a piece of meat."
Max readily admits that "it sounds fucking ridiculous and ironic that I'm the one trying to teach guys how to get girlfriends," but I have to admit his advice has a certain legitimacy to it.
For example, Max begins one episode by saying, "Most guys are boring or annoying or boorish or awkward or transparently objectifying of women. They literally look at women like a piece of meat. Women notice this, and this annoys the shit out of them." The episode's notes add, "If you just want a female-shaped body to get sexual pleasure from, try a Fleshlight or a sex doll."
"It's not like I made all this stuff up," Max tells me. "There's nothing that I say in this podcast that wouldn't be old hat for someone in any sort of therapeutic situation, or most female advice-type spaces, or any sort of place where people openly talk about their emotions." Max sees his role as that of a translator. "Really, if we're doing anything new, it's just that we're bringing a lot of ideas that other people and other groups have talked about for a long time that are very valid to men in a way that men can listen to and connect with."
He thinks the issue of men's lack of friendships as well as their inability to interact with women as results of the same basic problem of not being able to communicate, period. "Young guys think that everyone else has it figured out, and so they have to act cool like they have it figured out, and like they're killing it or whatever. But underneath that thin veneer of false confidence and bravado, they're all deeply insecure and scared and afraid, and they don't know what the hell to do, and everything's very confusing for them."
Steve and I lay down on a mat. He tells me to spoon him. At this point, any weirdness that might be associated with spooning a stranger has melted away. One of Steve's ground rules is, "You're not allowed to be physically uncomfortable." This means both in the most literal sense (I'm encouraged to shift my position if my arm is falling asleep) and a more figurative one. This is an environment, he says, where "straight men are out of their comfort zones." He tries to create "an environment where they're comfortable enough to explore it."
The experience is certainly new—I honestly think it was my first time spooning another man—but not at all unwelcome. Though I'm the big spoon, it's clear that Steve's running the show, putting his arm over mine protectively and occasionally patting me. We breathe, again in unison, sometimes talking, but mostly just lying there. He then tells me to put my head on his chest, explaining that this is an extremely paternal position. He tells me that I am safe, and then tells me to tell myself I am safe. I feel, well, safe.
There's something about being physically cradled by a large human who is professionally obligated to not judge you that makes one feel deeply, almost primordially secure. That security allows me to let out my latent fears and anxieties, articulating thoughts that had been floating around my head in packets of vague badness. I talk about how I felt stupid after getting punched in the head. I talk about my issues with substance abuse. I talk about my relationship with my parents. I talk about my relationship with my girlfriend. I talk about my relationship with my dog.
I have no idea if these things would have come out in traditional therapy. But they sure as shit came out in hug therapy. In the email afterward, Steve tells me, "I wanted you to feel safe and cared about. In that place you opened up and shared stuff you were holding in. Hugging supported that happening, as well as my being a listener for you. How you responded is natural."
As I drive home from Steve's therapy space, I feel something of an afterglow, something he told me might happen. I don't necessarily feel better, just different—it turns out that spending an afternoon talking about my feelings helped me achieve a sense of clarity. I've spent a lifetime conditioning myself to not talk about my feelings, to suppress them to the point that sometimes I can't even recognize what's actually bothering me. By articulating the underlying bullshit that's been on my mind, unspoken, I managed to unclog my brain.
In the days that follow, I take care to notice not just my reactions to stressful situations, but the actual root causes of those reactions. I feel less closed off from the world, because I'm literally opening up the channels that have prohibited me from understanding myself.
A couple nights later, I meet up with my bandmate to write and bullshit. I tell him about my experiences with hug therapy, and for the first time in months, talk to him about my feelings. He tells me about his. In this moment, we have transcended the "activity friendship" of the Male Deficit model. We're just two people, talking about life. Before I leave, we hug. It feels good.
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