I just learned the term cuffing season four days ago, and already I know I cannot talk about it without showing my age. The phenomenon it refers to has been around, probably, for centuries: the tendency of humans to “cuddle up” as the weather turns colder and to seek freedom when the flowers come out in the spring. But its specific contemporary reference, and the advice that goes along with it, feels less anthropological and more trendy.
The term cuffing, or cuffin, as far as I can tell, emerges as slang around 2008 to refer, as Urban Dictionary puts it, to not wanting to share a mate with anyone else. The idea is that you’re handcuffed together, which (unless you’re into bondage) doesn’t sound all that romantic or even intentional. The season of cuffing gets its name sometime in 2010, coupled with an even less attractive sobriquet, lonely bitch season. The rap track that popularized the term, with its line “Summer hoes turn into winter wifeys,” doesn’t help.
Some African-Americans point out that the term was urban slang intended as a joke that white folks have taken too seriously. It’s hard to know. The season gets announced like the start to a horse race … or a hunt. “The decision to take part in cuffing season is entirely up to the predator,” advises The University Star of Texas State University. “If you’re not doing the cuffing, you’re getting cuffed,” says Madame Noire. In the mainstream media, those playing this “game” are advised to “treat it like a real relationship,” even though it has an expiration date stamped loudly on its wrapper. The cuffing-season guide is surely tongue in cheek, but slick magazines (which some people take seriously) are using the term to badger women into even more strenuous attention to the sexiness of their bodies and their lingerie wardrobes (yes, everything is an opportunity for a sale), even when the typical image of the season is of a couple in bulky sweaters and Uggs.
And here’s where it gets strange for me and I start to feel old. Cuffing season is specifically about sex, specifically designates relationships as temporary (the season ends on April 1), and blames the darkness, coldness, and loneliness of singlehood in winter for the need to cuff. If it weren’t so dark and cold — if warm weather and sunlight could fool you out of feeling lonely, as happens in Hawaii where “cuffing season is not reported” — you’d presumably still be having sex, but you wouldn’t be handcuffed to a partner as a sort of nightly security blanket.
Maybe my distaste here stems from the number of hours I’ve spent, this year, talking about differences in sexual mores between certain tribal cultures and the secular, urban habits of the West. My latest novel explores some of those differences, and I’ve found myself recounting to audiences how practices we almost take for granted, like exploring intimacy with a partner before committing to cohabitation, and cohabiting before committing to marriage, provoke disgust among people I came to know while researching the book in northern Pakistan. Having seen mouths widen in horror as I described that common American path toward matrimony, I can only imagine the expressions I would receive if I were to describe to young Pashtun women the planned three-month break from unfettered hookups that we call cuffing season.
But I don’t think my disquiet is that narrowly based, and I don’t think it stems from prudery. The term itself bothers me. It suggests a pair of people chained together, not a couple embracing. An older term, bundling, which suggested co-sleeping without sex (and which, whatever its Colonial roots, was still practiced at a Southern university in the 1970s), at least had the advantage of connoting coziness. Those iron circlets at the wrist look cold, especially in winter. The other meaning for cuff, as a verb, is to strike with the palm of the hand.
Now that I’ve thought about it, I’m glad I’m old and happily partnered. I never did take well to being cuffed.
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