The young man and woman spot each other in the singles bar, exchange glances, eventually talk and casually touch, engaging in sexual semaphore. But do they understand each other’s signals?
Often they don’t, suggests Dr. Marc Hollender, 63, chief of psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. The young man probably perceives a come-on heading for bed, but the woman may only want to be cuddled. “If she stops short of sex,” Hollender says, “the man may feel he’s been teased. The woman feels what she was offering has been misunderstood. Both are upset.”
At the heart of the dispute is Hollender’s theory—for which he says he has considerable evidence—that women have a far greater psychological need to be hugged than men. “There’s an old saying that women give sex to get affection and men give affection to get sex,” he says. “That seems to hold true in my studies. A substantial amount of promiscuity results from a need to be held.”
Hollender was a would-be ear-and-nose specialist with an M.D. from the University of Illinois who switched to psychiatry after working with combat-shocked air corps crews during World War II. He began practicing in Chicago and joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1970. He formed his hugging theory after years of treating “female patients who talked about needs that were often unfulfilled and, even worse, not understood.” In 1968 he began interviewing what is now more than 1,000 men and women on the subject of sex vs. cuddling. In his sample, 22 percent of the women and only three percent of the men admitted an intense need to be hugged. Hollender suspects there are a lot more closet huggers among women who sublimate their frustration.
“Some turn to eating,” says Hollender. “Others give the hugging to their children. These women get into trouble when they run out of children. There were even a few women who described having blankets they clutched. It was a substitute for being held.”
Sometimes “women have affairs to compensate,” Hollender adds. In a few cases, “When they finally found a man who was willing just to hold them, not to barter, the women would instigate sexual intercourse. The holding would be too childish in the woman’s own eyes, so she would make it acceptable or adult-like by making it sexual.”
Such needs, Hollender believes, stem from early cultural and family conditioning: “A mother may feel that little girls should be cuddled and little boys not cuddled. Playmates and peers also help set standards for how much hugging is right. A cultural pattern is a pervasive thing.”
While his theory tends to portray women as constantly searching for father figures, Hollender insists he is no male chauvinist. He says men satisfy their need for security in different ways, such as physical contact in athletics. “Equality between the sexes does not mean sameness,” he says. “It’d be a pretty dull orchestra if the only instrument played was a violin.”
Hollender does confess to some good-old-days nostalgia. Married 37 years and the father of two grown children, he misses “the old form of family with very prescribed roles for the father and the mother.”
Hollender hopes his studies will help in the treatment of sexual maladjustment. “Some women who seem to have intense sexual cravings may really want to be cuddled,” he says. “It’s important that these cravings not be mislabeled.”
Next year he’ll broaden his research into cultures outside the U.S. In China, he points out ruefully, “even a husband and wife do not hug in public.”