The New York Times recently ran an article about some research showing that physical touch has a lot more benefit than many people realize.
A supportive touch from a teacher on the back or the arm encourages students to be twice as likely to volunteer in class. A doctor’s sympathetic touch gives the impression that a medical appointment lasted longer than it actually did. When athletes touch their teammates, they all perform better.
While the scale of the effects surprises me, the overall trend doesn’t. After all, physical touch is one of our most basic ways of communicating and we can share many of our emotional states with a high degree of accuracy from nothing more than how we touch each other. (see the NY Times article for links to the research)
Unfortunately, US society is very touch-phobic. A lot of people are scared about being perceived as offering sexual advances if they touch a co-worker. Many therapists avoid touching clients our of fear of being sued for sexual harassment. And men who offer a hug to a child other than their own risk being seen as pedophiles. We’ve become so scared by sexual assault and intrusion that we’ve lost the ability to tell between good touch and bad touch, and between physical contact and sexual contact. And we have a long legacy of assuming that any physical touch is inherently sexual. Given all of the benefits of physical contact, I have to wonder how we’re hurting ourselves out of a desire to protect ourselves.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that all touch is good- most of the people I’ve ever spoken with about it have experienced the creepy kind of touch, and every woman I know has been the target of intrusive physical contact, sexual harassment and/or assault. Sometimes, it’s really hard to define what makes the experience unpleasant, other than “it felt weird,” while other situations are pretty obvious.
I think it’s time we developed a more nuanced approach to touch. We need a better language around it. We need to be able to set our boundaries and communicate them openly. We need to be able to hear other people’s boundaries and respect them. We also need to have room for the right kind of touch. The kind that makes us feel better. The kind that calms us down. The kind that communicates respect and care. The kind that isn’t about sex.