Only girls like to cuddle, right?
It’s generally accepted in Western culture that cuddling is an activity that women like, and that men agree to because we like sex. This belief has confused me a great deal, as someone with a Y chromosome and a “why wouldn’t you cuddle” attitude… After all, I’m pretty sure I could convert any theoretical male cuddling skeptic in one move, with the question: “you do realize that boobs are often involved in cuddling, don’t you?”
As is always the case when we are presented with a belief that contradicts our personal experience, or vice-versa, we should investigate using scientific principles. Borrowing from the field of psychology, the easiest (but least rigorous) method of inquiry we can employ is the case study. And by far the easiest and least rigorous case study I can drum up is… me.
Physical social contact relaxes me, makes me happy, and makes me feel more comfortable around those I’m interacting with—and I like that it makes them feel the same way. My very existence logically disproves the maxim that “guys don’t like to cuddle”.
If you came here from Yahoo! Answers, that should about solve your problem, but feel free to stick around. For everyone else, this is a laboratory, and I don’t expect you to believe me “because I say so.” In order to evaluate the more plausible claim that “most guys don’t like to cuddle,” we’ll need to start talking quantitative analysis.
Fortunately, the Kinsey Institute recently published a study of long-term relationship satisfaction in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which measured as one of its variables the frequency of intimate touch in respondents’ relationships. And this study is a trendy one—it resulted in more cuddling-related media coverage than any other single event that’s occurred since my research began. The reason? The researchers reported that the correlation between cuddling frequency and overall relationship satisfaction was higher in men than in women.
This statistic is pretty mindblowing, and according to some analyses the data show that cuddling contributed twice as much to relationship happiness in men as it did in women. Of course, we know that correlation isn’t causation, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that guys like cuddling twice as much as girls. Certainly some or all of these differences could be explained by men cuddling more often with their partners because they were more satisfied with their relationships, rather than vice versa. Or they could be correlated in an even more complex manner—the significant others of men who cuddle more often could be returning the favor in other, unfactored ways, for example. Nevertheless, for now, the findings (which controlled for the effect of more frequent sexual activity) seem to support a guys-like-cuddling worldview.
That may come as a surprise even to those with a long-term scientific interest in cuddling behaviors. For example, an earlier study on post-coital behavior preferences conducted by Albright College’s Susan Hughes and published in The Journal of Sex Research seems to contradict men’s greater need to cuddle. The study concluded that women were more likely to want to engage in intimacy and bonding behavior (including cuddling) after sex than were men. (What were men more likely to prefer? Extrinsic rewards, food, or, shocker of shockers, having sex again.)
So, alright, you say, I’ve blown up my spot here. This study shows that women truly are the cuddling fiends, and that men are just sex-hungry and… well, just hungry in general, I guess. But in fact, these studies do not contradict each other. And further, their juxtaposition helps us not only by answering our initial question—yes, men do like cuddling—but by explaining why, if that’s so, we persist in incorrectly believing otherwise.
The data actually suggest that cuddling is at least as important to men as it is to women, but that women would prefer more cuddling specifically after sex, whereas men feel otherwise. Indeed, this interpretation makes sense for many reasons—hormonal, technical, and emotional—so settle in and I’ll explain my “Unifying Theory of Gender Differences in Cuddling,” followed by my recommendations for behavioral modifications based on that theory.
The Cuddle Labs Theory
If it surprises us that men may derive more satisfaction from cuddling in their relationships than women do, we have to ask why—not only why guys are so cuddle-hungry, but also why we’re surprised.
One possible reason that men’s relationship satisfaction is more highly correlated with cuddling frequency than women’s is that men are essentially touch-starved. There are few socially-accepted outlets for male physical contact (touchin’ a dude? gay. touchin’ a lady? fired.), and so the only context in which we’re touched tends to be in our romantic relationships—whereas women might have a more satisfactory level of physical contact with friends. Because of this, men may require more non-sexual physical contact in their romantic relationships than women do, even if we don’t require more overall.
If this were the case, then why would the “men don’t like cuddling” cliche persist? Handily, our second study provides a potential answer to this question. Its lesson is that men really don’t like to cuddle right after sex. This time-based difference is highly plausible, for two reasons. First, emotional vulnerability associated with the post-coital period might make women more likely to recall their partner’s refusal to cuddle. Secondly, another cliche suggests the reason men don’t want to cuddle after sex: we’re quite sleepy.
The fatigue men experience following sex is well-documented by research. It’s theorized that the release of the hormone prolactin following orgasm results in this effect, assisted to some extent by the release of vasopresin and our wonderful friend oxytocin! (And in fact, it’s not the orgasm itself that’s wholly responsible—researchers have found that prolactin levels are up to 400% higher following intercourse than, say, masturbation.) Higher blood levels of prolactin are associated with relaxation and, in general, inversely correlated with dopamine levels.
I suggest another reason why men don’t like to cuddle after sex: post-coital cuddling almost always takes the form of the dreaded spoon. Ain’t nothin’ men hate more than an ineffective cuddle. And to make matters worse, because we tend to be bigger than the girls we’re cuddled up to, guys are generally relegated to the big spoon—easily the worst position in cuddlesport.
These data suggest to me that the widely-held belief that men don’t like to cuddle might simply be unqualified—when people cite it, they really are talking about the post-coital period. This highlights the need for more precise terminology in discussing cuddling behaviors (say it with me three times: cuddling isn’t just about sex), but it also matches up with what we know hormonally and anecdotally. Therefore, I propose the Unified Theory of Gender Differences in Cuddling: “In general, men seek cuddling in their long-term relationships because we can’t get it elsewhere, but we don’t want to do it after sex because zzzz… and that’s all anyone remembers.”
Phew. That was some serious sciencing. Now all that’s left is to use what we’ve learned (or more accurately, what we’ve tenuously endorsed until we can get better data to contradict or support it) to save the world. Y’know… the easy part.
Guys, you like cuddling, and damn it, you know the ladies love it too. So here’s an easy suggestion: let’s make an effort to cuddle at times when we’re not about to pass out. I was going to recommend it anyway—we need the practice and the oxytocin. And… yeah… maybe every now and then, try to fight the prolactin. For her sake. (But not too often! We must stand united, like an oxytocin OPEC.)
And, ladies, meet us halfway—if you’re feeling cuddlesnubbed, let’s be proactive and do it before we… do it. Trust us, we’ll be into it. (Home experiment to prove it: ask your current guy if he’d rather go shopping, see an opera, or just stay in and cuddle.) And if we pass out at exactly the wrong moment, cut us some slack. It’s prolactin’s fault.
Guys do like cuddling, a lot, just not after sex. We’re sleepy, and spooning’s awful! Let’s all cuddle more often during the daylight hours, and try to be understanding during our emotionally divergent post-coital period.
If you need suggestions for how to cuddle, you need look no further! Read our posts on Spooning (linked in the “theory” section) and on the Prom Dance. And if you felt strongly about this article, whether love or hate, let us know in the comments!