A couple of weeks ago I interviewed John Styn about his project Hug Nation. One of the points we talked about was how critical physical contact is to us humans – in particular how important hugging is. Then yesterday, the New York Times published an article on teenage hug culture: For Teenagers, Hello Means “How About A Hug”. I find the article to be a banal conversation on the subject that doesn’t honor or respect teenagers as a group or as individuals and glosses over the serious issue of sexual harassment and the need for appropriate responses to sexual harassment.
I read the following portion of the Times article out loud to my husband this morning:
Parents, who grew up in a generation more likely to use the handshake, the low-five or the high-five, are often baffled by the close physical contact. “It’s a wordless custom, from what I’ve observed,” wrote Beth J. Harpaz, the mother of two boys, 11 and 16, and a parenting columnist for The Associated Press, in a new book, “13 Is the New 18.”
“And there doesn’t seem to be any other overt way in which they acknowledge knowing each other,” she continued, describing the scene at her older son’s school in Manhattan. “No hi, no smile, no wave, no high-five — just the hug. Witnessing this interaction always makes me feel like I am a tourist in a country where I do not know the customs and cannot speak the language.”
And his reaction: “Right…because she isn’t a teenager…she doesn’t know their customs…where’s the confusion there?”
Teenagers often have different customs from their parents’ generation. This is relatively well established – and I’m not sure why anyone is surprised that hugging patterns are different in the same way that musical tastes, media usage, clothing, or after school activities are different.
There seems to be in the Times article and the parents and administrators they interviewed a distaste for teenagers hugging. There are hugging bans and three second rules in schools across the country. The dramatic inappropriateness of these rules astounds me. Teenagers need physical contact in the same way that everyone else of every age needs it – but American teenagers are in an awkward middle ground between getting that physical contact mostly from their parents and getting it mostly from their sexual partners. And this awkward distance at a time when hormones are raging and they are just truly beginning to acknowledge the pleasure of touch.
The argument for these rules, of course, is sexual harassment, peer pressure, and other ways that hugging can be used against someone rather than in support of them. Here’s a quote from the Times to prove just that:
“If somebody were to not hug someone, to never hug anybody, people might be just a little wary of them and think they are weird or peculiar,” said Gabrielle Brown, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in Manhattan.
But let’s be honest: Teenagers notice when someone stands out from the group norm. Maybe it’s because of their clothing, their interests, the way they walk, or the way they hug. But in fact, we all notice when there is a social norm that someone is not adhering to, regardless of our age, and generally our reaction is surprise – we might even think they’re weird or peculiar. Perhaps, for example, my male friend in his 30’s (40’s maybe?) with two kids, a mohawk, and a kilt. People notice him, and I’m guessing they often think he is odd or unusual. Because he is. Or what about this new cheek kissing trend that has swept through my community? The first time a friend’s husband kissed my cheek, I was completely thrown. Now I walk around kissing cheeks like I’ve been doing it my whole life. It’s a social nicety that I’ve come to accept and even like. There will always be social niceties and norms that some people aren’t comfortable and don’t like – and these people will always stand out, regardless of what the norm is.
This is not, of course, to suggest that someone should give a hug or a cheek kiss if they don’t feel comfortable with it. That social pressure is sexual harassment, and is inappropriate and damaging.
But banning hugs is not in any way a stand-in for sexual harassment education. Sexual harassment education is a nuanced, in-depth process that takes time and attention. I recently wrote about sexual harassment education. I teach sexual harassment education. Making hugging off limits is not sexual harassment education, and does nothing to limit sexual harassment behind the teachers’ backs or at the grocery store or online or anywhere else where it is so prevalent. It is not a way to address the problem.
At the end of the Times article, as it seems with all articles about youth these days, we must return to the digital world:
As much as hugging is a physical gesture, it has migrated online as well. Facebook applications allowing friends to send hugs have tens of thousands of fans. Katie Dea, the San Francisco eighth grader, as well as Olivia Brown, 11, who lives in Manhattan and is the younger sister of Gabrielle, the LaGuardia High freshman, have a new sign-off for their text and e-mail messages: *hug.*
While the Times article didn’t mention John’s Hug Nation, the digital connection is clear. I wonder if the reporter would be surprised to find that John’s community is primarily not teenagers? I wonder if the Times reporter found many people who are older than teenagers who have very similar hug-cultures in their work places, schools, churches, and other communities? Because in addition to a clear lack of understanding, experience, or knowledge about the developmental needs of adolescents and appropriate sexual harassment education, this article reeks of ageism.