Editorial: Don’t take hugging controversies lightly

California state Sen. Robert Hertzberg was accused by former assemblywoman Linda Halderman of inappropriately hugging her despite being told she is not comfortable with the hug. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

With Valentine’s Day being tomorrow, romantic gestures are rapidly proliferating across the country. One particular gesture, however, has been receiving unexpected new scrutiny: the hug.

In a piece for The Washington Post this Sunday, reporter Lavanya Ramanathan asked whether some kinds of hugging — an ancient human behavior that’s seen an uptick over the past several decades — should be included in the growing conversation surrounding sexual abuse. Citing a post from the Girl Scouts of America, Ramanathan suggested that forcing young girls to hug relatives fosters a culture of unwelcome embraces.

“Reminder: She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug,” the headline read. “Not Even at the Holidays.”

In light of 2018’s biggest issues, the connection to the #MeToo movement seems almost inevitable. Ramanathan’s story also includes evidence from Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, an etiquette organization, who describes the hug as unnecessarily invasive.

“A hug can feel too intimate to some people,” Post said. “Especially now, in an era when we’re illuminating how women feel on a daily basis.”

The immediate reaction to hand-wringing about the state of hugging in America might be confusion or contempt. Hugging is an integral part of our everyday social lives that pointing out the problematic parts of how we do it might seem ridiculous at first. And to some extent, this response is warranted — hitching the issue of aggressive and uncomfortable hugging to the #MeToo wagon could serve to make light of more serious issues relating to sexual assault. But it’s still worth noting that social hugging has begun to get out of control.

Hugging undeniably has a place as a social interaction in today’s America. Hugs play the role here that kissing on the cheek does in parts of Europe, signalling more familiarity and affection than a formal handshake and less than a kiss on the mouth. Organizations at Pitt have used hugs as a means for connecting people from different social groups on campus.

What’s more, research has shown hugging holds significant health benefits. A 2005 study from the University of North Carolina showed couples experiencing increased levels of oxytocin — a hormone active in social bonding — and lower blood pressure. Women specifically showed lower levels of stress hormone cortisol after embracing.

However, it should be obvious that people in positions of power can often take hugging too far. Accusations against a member of California’s state Senate, for example, alleged that the lawmaker inappropriately embraced a female member of the assembly. The state senator continued to hold onto her after she asked him to stop, pressing his groin against her. In other words, the hug as it was alleged to have happened was clearly excessive.

Everyone has their own individual physical boundaries, something that’s important to remember when determining how much is too much with a hug. It’s hard to say that hugging is a behavior totally devoid of sexual politics and imbalances of power between the genders, even if the issue might nevertheless be too subjective to include in the ongoing public discussion around sexual assault.

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