Science: Straight Athletes Love a Same-Sex Snuggle

Apr 30, 2014 at 1:35 PM ET

‘‘I love a quick cuddle. Just so you remember your friends are around and are there for you.” This is John, a self-identified straight guy who took part in a study investigating attitudes toward same-sex cuddling at a university in the U.K. Researchers found that 97.5% of heterosexual, male college athletes have shared a bed with another guy and 93.5% have indulged in spooning. “We very often have hangover cuddles and naps together,” reported another participant named Max.

The findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Men and Masculinities. In it, researchers Eric Anderson and Mark McCormack describe how changing attitudes toward homosexuality have lessened stigma around nonsexual contact, and that the majority of young men now have no problem being affectionate with their friends—a particularly common trend among those on sports teams.

“As part of my ethnographic work on sports teams, as well as interview research on athletes and nonathletes, I find that cuddling in bed is a normal and acceptable part of heterosexual male youth culture in England,” Anderson tells Vocativ, adding that it’s becoming increasingly common across the pond. “Friends are tactile with each other in other locales as well,” he says. “I show that it occurs among high school runners in California.”

The sociologists deliberately focused on athletes to gauge the changing beliefs of a group traditionally thought to harbor negative opinions about same-sex contact. Conducting qualitative interviews with a small sample size of 40, Anderson says their responses were consistent with his earlier research. A total of 39 out of 40 said they have shared beds, usually after a night out, and 37 said they often fall asleep spooning.

The reason for this, researchers believe, is that homophobia is on the decline, and intimate contact is no longer seen as a breach of masculinity. A recent national survey found that 29% of British adults think same-sex relationships are wrong, a sharp drop from 46% in 2000. It’s backed up by data from the Pew Research Center, which found that 74% of Americans born after 1980 believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

“I feel comfortable with Connor and we spend a lot of time together. I happily rest my head on Connor’s shoulder when lying on the couch or hold him in bed,” said study participant Matt of his best friend. “But he’s not the only one. The way I see it is that we are all very good and close mates. We have a bromance where we are very comfortable around each other.”

Even early morning erections aren’t an issue.

“We don’t give anyone shit anymore,” said Stephen, another interviewee, who added that any joking is light-hearted. “Sometimes you grab his cock, sort of as a joke, particularly if he’s got a semi going. …It just relieves the tension. It’s not like you’re going to wank him.”

When asked why the behavior seems more accepted among athletes, Anderson says that it has more to do with opportunity than comfort levels; men on sports teams travel together, shower together and develop tighter bonds. He adds that research shows the behavior is common among all young guys, but it begins to taper off with age.

“Outside of an undergraduate setting the numbers are likely to be far less. While we know, definitively, that it is a regular occurrence among 16- to 18-year-olds in addition to university students, it is not likely to exist whatsoever among 40-year-old men,” he says. “This is both a function of the homohysteric culture that 40-year-old men experienced in their adolescence, as much as it is a function of the fact that 40-year-old men go home to sleep in bed with their spouses.”

More of Eric Anderson’s research appears in his upcoming book, 21st Century Jocks: Sporting Men and Contemporary Heterosexuality.