Tuesday, March 10, 2009


"Touch is the meaning of being human." - Andrea Dworkin.

I don't know that touch is the entire meaning of being human, but it is certainly an important component. It is well known that infants who are not held and touched "fail to thrive" and, I believe, the same holds true for the rest of us, if in less obvious ways.

One of my teachers in massage school pointed out that touch is the one sense that is reciprocal. We can't touch someone else without feeling something of it ourselves. And it is a profound means of communication when words are totally inadequate in times of joy and grief. It transmits comfort and connection in ways that nothing else can. The words "I'm so sorry" take on added strength when the words are accompanied by a comforting touch. It provides tangible connection in situations where we might otherwise feel isolated.

So it seems odd that ours is such a touch-phobic society. Granted, in certain situations,it is wise to exercise caution and restraint, but those cases are not the ones I mean to explore here. It is a given that unwanted touch is always unacceptable; however, I think we've taken touch avoidance to some strange levels.

I imagine that the seed for this no-touch or limited-touch attitude can be laid at the feet of our Puritan ancestors. Despite the fact that these people had an astonishing rate of babies born within 6 or 7 months of weddings, their reputation and their self-image was one of extreme restraint. Add to that a liberal dose of Victorian prudery and we have a fertile ground for a huge taboo to grow.

Part of it can also be attributed to our litigious society. In this country we have an unhealthy habit of suing people and organizations over the least thing, which leads to absolutist regulations, or zero tolerance policies. Recently, I heard of a middle school that had issued a zero tolerance rule on touching, all touching. No one was to touch anyone for any reason. That included congratulatory hugs and couples holding hands. Obviously this policy was established to allow punishment for unacceptable touching and to safeguard the school in lawsuits, but it is truly a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than teaching children to differentiate good, healthy touch from bad or illegal touch, we forbid them any touch at all. This will probably lead to fear and a skewed relationship with touch.

Another aspect is the fact that touch has been highly sexualized in our culture and often there is a misinterpretation of touch, as though it must have some ulterior motive. In many cases, the only touch some of us experience is in a sexual context which adds to our collective suspicions. But the elderly and the uncoupled need touch, just as much as their younger and mated counterparts and, all too often, they must do without any at all. I can't help but believe that this leads to a less obvious state of failing to thrive.

So, what's to be done? I don't for a second think that any of us can alter the centuries old societal taboos that have grown to the extreme in our culture. However, I do believe that we can incrementally subvert them in our own little corners of the world. And it is past time we regained healthy touch for ourselves.

Our subversion of the status quo can begin simply and in small ways. We can couple any words of comfort with a touch on the arm or a hug, showing greater connection to the person we're speaking to. When greeting or leaving friends, add a hug. Whenever you feel moved to reach out, and you know the recipient won't faint from shock, do so. Only by behaving as if touch is a normal part of relationship will we all come to see it as such. What's the worst that can happen? Some onlookers might disapprove, but doesn't that say more about them than you? You might get a reputation as a notorious hugger. But would that be such a terrible thing? And you will have given the gift of touch to someone else and yourself.


Knitman said...

Touch is very important tot me. I hug people. It never used to be. I was terrified of it. I only had a massage for the first time when my pain got bad and I was scared witless of it. Then I found I loved it. Nothing bad happened at all. I have had both men and women massage me and although it took some getting used to, it is a good thing for me.

Keli said...

So very well said!