Lesbians Demolish Patriarchal Power Standards With Egalitarian Hand-Holding Habits, Study Says

A new study from The Journal of Homosexuality conducted by Alison Che and Richard Wassersug has revealed yet another way in which gay people are infinitely more evolved and intelligent creatures than straight people: we’re way cooler about how we handle hand-holding.

most of all, lesbians prefer to run through wild sunny fields while holding hands

most of all, lesbians are more likely than straight people to run exuberantly through a field while holding hands

It turns out that there’s a surprisingly plentiful bounty of research on mammalian hand-holding habits. Because “the simple biomechanics of handholding require one partner to take an overhand grip of the other person’s hand,” many smart humans have wanted to investigate the precise impact of social norms and physical stature on which partner adopts the lead/anterior hand vs. the trailing/posterior hand.

These studies have shown that when heteros unite in hand-holding, men generally take the “dominant hand,” a situation often credited to men usually being taller than their female partners. But researchers note that social norms about men as “protectors” of females have an impact, too, because even when the woman was taller than her male partner, “the male is still significantly more likely to be in the lead position.” (I’d be interested to see the impact of actual hand size, however, rather than full-body height.) In his 1971 study, Erving Goffman wrote about the egalitarian-seeming but not-actually-egalitarian traditions inherent in heterosexual hand-holding:

“The insides of the two hands are pressed together, in mutual embrace as it were, but the outside of the male’s hand typically faces the oncoming world, whereas the outside of the female’s hand merely follows in the wake of projection… [the man is able to] let go at will, since he is the grasper, allowing him to deal with the enemy; she, however, must wriggle out to be free…but… for what reason could she have for needing to free her hand?”

In a 2004 study of howler monkeys, researchers found that males were generally the “initiators” and females mostly the “recipients” of hand-holding, which they hypothesized reflected either a display of dominance or a “care-giving and/or mate-guarding role.” Multiple researchers have apparently concluded that hand-holding is “regarded as representing differences in power and/or stature between the two people holding hands.”

Naturally, Che and Wassersug wondered how this might play out with same-sex couples, which studies have shown to be more egalitarian in general than straight relationships, and therefore surveyed 340 American women in same-sex relationships about their hand-holding habits. Participants, found online, were asked to hold their partner’s hand, observe their position, and then provide information about their “age, height in comparison to their partner’s height, handedness, duration of their relationship, length of time living with that partner, their income, the country and state/province in which they lived, if they had previously been partnered with a male, and whom they felt had the most ‘say’ in decision-making.” Che and Wassersug’s stated goal:

The goal of this research is to determine whether handholding position signifies  differences between two partners in a dyad when sex is no longer a factor, and if  physical and/or psychosocial differences are predictive of handholding position.

They found that “handholding position does not reflect a dominance or power differential between partners, at least within a female-female relationship” and instead was “a matter of anatomical experience.” Age had no significant impact. The only two variables that impacted who took the top was height and dating history . Women who were taller than their partners and women who had never dated men were more likely to take the lead/anterior position and women who’d dated men in the past were more likely to take the posterior.

One of the questions Wassersug and Che asked the participants, “who takes the lead in a sexual or intimate setting, e.g., initiating a kiss/hug?” was particularly interesting to me. The first half of the question seems to be an academic way of asking “do you have a top/bottom preference when you do the horizontal mambo?”, but the example given (initiating a kiss or hug) is (as far as I know) hardly a correlate to top/bottom preference in the sack. It’s difficult to know how participants interpreted that question, too, but 26.5% said they took the lead, 19.1% said their partner took the lead, and 54% answered “no difference,” and although Che and Wassersug said their findings “approached statistical significance” related to hand-holding, it didn’t quite go all the way. They ultimately concluded no significant correlation between initiative-takers and leading hand-holders.

There was also no correlation relating to income, age disparity, or who made household or relationship decisions, but Che and Wassersug did wonder “whether a partner’s self-identification compared to that of their partner, on a butch/femme spectrum, correlates with their handholding position.” They then took a giant leap into the canyon of WTF and speculated, “Since the partner with the posterior hand is likely to be shorter, does she perceive herself as more “femme” (as the term is currently understood in the contemporary lesbian community) in comparison to her partner?” Clearly I didn’t need to pass statistics to know that there is zero correlation between height and gender presentation or butch/femme roles in queer relationships. (And I think it’d be an entirely different study altogether to examine whether ingrained patriarchal expectations might impact our personal perception of our gender identities and presentations regardless of our public presentation or identity, and that study would also have to look at physical variables besides height (such as body type, weight, etc.). (It’s a topic we’ve dug into a few times here, like in this essay.))

So basically, couples with pre-determined gender-based roles act more like couples with pre-determined gender-based roles than couples without pre-determined gender-based roles. Science!

Che and Wassersug concludes that their data is “the first to show that the taller partner will likely have the lead hand even when sex differences are eliminated from the partnership.”

They end with a helpful tip to all ye intimacy-seeking lezzers and queers and homos and bis and pans and gays out there: “handholding can be a factor in staying intimately connected to one’s partner, independent of other sexual practices.”

can also be a factor in couples maintaining their intimacy with shrubbery

can also be a factor in couples maintaining their intimacy with shrubbery

I wondered while reading this why I’d never even noticed who took the dominant position when I held hands with my partners. See, I’m taller than my girlfriend, but I’ve been taller than all my girlfriends because I’m taller than 99.3% of American women. I’ve had many relationships with men but my girlfriend has not. We make decisions together. She’s butch and more dominant, but I’m not femme — I’m just a girl in hoodies and jeans who likes eyeliner. So I asked her who takes the top when we hold hands and she answered, “You do, despite the fact that I would prefer to. You always switch your thumb to be on top.”

I look forward to a future study on how being a pushy bitch with giant hands impacts hand-holding egalitarianism. Or you know, maybe it’s just ’cause I’m tall.

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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1758 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    I saw another reference to this but it didn’t link the actual study, so thanks for that.

    It’s all self-reported survey online with nothing in place to check whether couples were naturally holding hands or whatever — so I’d need a little more to take this as meaningful. In the actual study they suggested going to a Pride event and discretely looking at hand holding, so that might be useful.

    I’d love to see a hand size study too — my tiny little Cee-Lo hands always end up being more comfortable on the bottom (also because I am short).

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    I was so confused by this study when I saw it earlier today — seriously, short lesbians are more likely to have dated men?! I’m so glad you wrote about it because I’ve been a little amused (and bemused) by it all day!

    Now, my better half and I are about the same height and I feel like we generally interlock fingers when we hold hands. Are we doing it wrong? All I know is that next time I’m in heels and towering over her, it’s my job to be the “hand top.” I’ve learned so much today!

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      yeah those speculations were SO WEIRD??? it was totally the kind of thing i would want to write off as oh god straight people think the weirdest things about us, but i kinda assumed the researchers were gay for some reason.

      i seriously spent 1.5 hours writing this, and then two hours staring at the study thinking BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN. every time i tried thinking too hard about it i felt like my brain was going to explode.

      i mean like i wrote, the only conclusion is that couples with pre-determined gender-based roles act more like couples with pre-determined gender-based roles than couples without pre-determined gender-based roles. so nothing.

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    Reading this article alongside my girlfriend resulted in a discussion over how and why one hand placement is considered more dominant than the other, which is a good point. (She used the analogy of leading in ballroom dancing to argue the opposite of what the researchers assigned).

    Anyways, I’m shorter with smaller hands, we’ve both had relationships with men, but it feels more comfortable with my hand being anteriorly positioned. This is a way nicer arrangement because my ex-boyfriend never let me have my hand anterior so we ended up never holding hands as a result of nobody being comfortable.

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    I don’t like “lead/anterior hand” and “trailing/posterior hand.”

    And “the outside of the male’s hand typically faces the oncoming world, whereas the outside of the female’s hand merely follows in the wake of projection…” = false.

    And here’s why:

    I automatically am the posterior hand, but I don’t see myself as trailing, or following behind. I see myself as grabbing the hand I want to hold from behind, and pulling to lead. I am a lead/posterior hand. A hand doesn’t have to be in front to lead.

    (Is this making sense to anyone else or am I talking jibberish?)

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    This is interesting; the height factor totally makes sense. When I dated a boy a couple of years ago, he was taller, and he was the dominant hand. However, when I dated my ex gf she was smaller than me, and I was the one with the dominant hand. Although she didn’t like holding hands much, so that was probably a factor too. We had an egalitarian relationship too, we made most of the decisions together and all.

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    I’ve never thought so much about hand positioning when holding hands before, but my main take away is that as a short person with tiny hands I’ll pretty much always have the non-dominant hand. But it’s cool, I can dominate in other ways.

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    Does anyone else have a correlation between anterior/posterior position and which hand you’re holding with? When I’m on the right side (using my left hand), I almost always try to lead, and the opposite is true when I’m on the left side and using my right hand.

    Then again, maybe this isn’t significant because I tend to date people that are my height +/- an inch or so.

  8. Thumb up 1

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    All I got out of this article was that I wish I even had a girl to hold hands with in the first place.

    But seriously tho, I never figured hand holding could be so complicated – like, you don’t just hold hands??? I always hated the arms over shoulder as you walk thing however. My bf of 3 weeks tried it once when I was still in my (naive) straight phase and I was so nhft.

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      Oh I hated that. It’s such a weird “claim” thing, not to mention it’s hardly comfortable walking down the street while having to hold up someone’s immobile arm with your shoulders. How is that fun?

      (Seriously, this might be just as high on my list of things I’m glad I don’t have to deal with anymore from the man-dating days as “blatantly did not ever enjoy sexytimes.” Which says a lot.)

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    I’m sorry, still staring at the wonder that is the title of this article.

    also that entire paragraph on factors they considered in the female couples made me burst into laughter out loud. It was so weird I’m probably gonna go stare at the original study for more amusement.

    To add to the anecdata, I find it ridiculous uncomfortable to make the back of my hands face the front, for reasons unknown.

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    I like this article because weird confusing science… but then I got sad when I wanted to try this and remembered that I have no girlfriend

    I never really thought about this. As I’m trying to hold hands with the air both positions feel weird. I have to try this with friends/family. I am on the smaller side and have never dated men, so according to this study everything is possible!

  11. Thumb up 0

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    Okay who else ended up having a discussion that went something like “I’m the hand top!” “I’m the thumb top!” so confusing.

    Then we watched straight couples hold hands on campus, and yep, the dude seems to be the hand top.

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      Are hand top and thumb top different? The person I’d like to test this with lives 1000 miles away so I’m holding hands with myself and getting confused.

      Also did you notice any differences between when people were sitting together or walking together? The whole time I was only thinking about people walking together with their hands in between them, fingers interlocked (or not, because it works either way). But I didn’t think about those weird couples who hold hands ALL THE TIME. Like, at a table Starbucks or something. I think this is when thumb top would matter more than hand top.

      Please continue to (slightly creepily) watch straight couples on campus and report back.

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    I think I usually take the posterior hand position but I’m definitely the top in bed. People usually perceive me as the femme one (my wife is also a hoodie and jeans woman) but I think it depends on how you judge it – I don’t know how to work make up or hair. And our “gender role” behaviour is more a matter of convience and the fact I really enjoy cooking. She hates being called the man.

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    Riese, I am also among the 99%. Yes, we were expected to try out for the basketball team. (sigh)

    My girlfriend is 5’6″ so that would appear to make me the dominant one, but that is not the case. With us I believe it depends upon the position of her hand when I reach.

    Well, here we go again with the whole top/bottom conundrum.

    So in bed, who spoons who? Who has there leg over the other? Who kisses with their top lip over the partner’s?

    Think of the new avenues of study for doctoral candidates jogging along the Charles River!

  14. Thumb up 0

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    There are many factors that go into whether one’s dominant that I feel like the study kind of neglects. My hands are absolutely tiny, even for those of my height. So when I hold hands, it’s not as natural for me to be the dominant hand, since, odds are, my partner’s hands are much larger. Furthermore, what about those in different climates and those of varying attitudes toward bodily contact? Either of those would play a much bigger role than mere height. Then again, that might have just been the first set of trials. Maybe they’ll do a similar experiment in the future focusing on different factors.

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