Hugging is Harrassment?

A controversial trend is creeping across the globe. People are taking to the streets in support of it, or trying to ban it from harming our children. What's the polarizing practice that's making waves around the world? Hugging.

In one corner we have "Juan Mann," the Australian innocent who scrawled "Free Hugs" on a sign and videotaped the results of people pushing aside their personal space needs for some human contact with a stranger. The video was a hit on YouTube, and copycat schemes have cropped up around the country. Writing for the alt weekly City Pages, Jim Walsh explores the motivations of Minneapolis' Hug Brigade, a troupe of embracers sporting the now-notorious "Free Hugs" sign. "I was sitting around thinking 'How can I make a difference?'" says hugger Carrie Rupp. "And I thought, 'I really like giving hugs, and I'm really good at it, so why not just go stand out there and spread some love?'"

Not everyone is comfortable with the hugging lifestyle, though. Writing from Milan for Spot-On, Nicole Martinelli suggests that despite the reputation that "Italians touch a lot," those handshakes and air kisses still leave some space between bodies. Some intrepid Italians have been hitting public spaces with free hugs, leaving Martinelli to speculate that "it just may be awkward hugs all around here, too."

It's not even just a comfort thing. Earlier this month, Chinese police swooped in and detained Shanghai huggers, a fate shared by some Beijing arm-spreaders a few weeks before. Reporting for China Daily, Cao Li writes that these participants were brought into custody for lacking a certificate to organize in a public place. Organizers are pessimistic that the powers that be in China will provide proper documentation for future hugathons. "Why can't we melt the coldness in people's hearts with our hugs?" asked Shanghai organizer Baigu.

Hugging isn't just causing problems in the streets; it's also started affecting schoolchildren. Steven Morris reports in the Guardian on Callington Community College, a school in southwest England, where the headteacher, Steve Kenning, recently asked students not to hug each other anymore. Apparently some youthful hugs have been deemed "inappropriate" and can be excessive to the point of "making youngsters late for lessons." While the penalty for school embraces has not officially been announced, students report that huggers have been "named and shamed" and slapped with detention. Parents and outsiders have been concerned about the problems a hugging ban could cause. "Surely it is better [that] youngsters get the human contact they need innocently," says David Cohen, author of the book Body Language in Relationships, "if you ban it they are far more likely to seek it round the back of the bike sheds." Still, headteacher Kenning is looking out for the "victim[s]" of school huggings and beseeched students on the school's website: "To avoid putting anyone at risk please avoid hugging."

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