As the domestic violence and sexual assault royal commissions roll on in Australia, revealing the extraordinary amount of inappropriate contact between people, and in the light of the Oxford University research showing us who can touch whom where (‘Maps show where touching is allowed’), the truth is: most of us want and need more touching, not less.
Personally, I’ve always struggled with the ‘right’ amount of touching, particularly for women or girls. The desire to show friendliness, affection, to commiserate, to share joy are all good reasons for touching another person. But where to touch, how much to touch, for how long and how will it be construed by the recipient?
Some touching experiences
When I was a university professor and department head, students came to me revealing their personal or career problems, staff announced their medical problems and when women had a big success, I struggled to know whether I should hug, kiss, caress, touch or just use words or gestures to show empathy or support. Though I actually love to touch, I probably still err on the side of conservatism in these encounters, not wishing to offend or embarrass. This probably leads to me being viewed as rather ‘cold’ when, inside, my emotions are actually raging.
When we feel sad or lonely, frustrated or overwhelmed, being touched by another person, particularly one of the opposite sex, can be absolutely the best thing for making you feel human again, feel wanted, regain your sense of self-worth.
When I started my working life, I shared a mixed flat with three women and two other men. Late one night, one of the girls came into my room when I was in bed, tears in her eyes. She explained she was having trouble with her boyfriend and asked if she could get into bed with me, just for a hug. I had a girlfriend at the time, whom she knew. Her boyfriend was my best friend. I welcomed her and we lay there, my arm around her, just holding her, comforting her. After a while, she recovered and went back to her room. We never mentioned it again. I never mentioned it to my girlfriend. Yet, it is an incident I remember all my life, knowing how valuable it was for her and because it was a wonderful experience just have her soft, warm body next to mine.
Many years later, I remember being massaged by a woman masseuse, chosen by my wife after she had had a massage herself. Taking my clothes off and having her strong but feminine hands running over my body was a sensual intimate experience, the best massage I’ve ever had. And, though both the women in these examples were very attractive, there was no sexual element to either touching experience, though both were extremely intimate. Just the wonder of enjoying touching or being touched by another person, giving or receiving pleasure or comfort.
Yet, if a girl fell over in a basketball game I was refereeing, I was extremely reluctant to touch her to pick her up, in case it might be misconstrued. How sad that our society has come to this. We all have times when we feel lonely, feel sad, feel hopeless or, at the other extreme, feel great joy and yet we are afraid to touch each other. And much of the touching that does take place is so formal (a stiff arm around stiff shoulders, a peck on the cheek, a light touch on the forearm), there is no real feeling, just like the handshake that they have replaced.
To touch or not?
Touch breaks barriers, bonds people, even if they are strangers. Yet, people offering ‘free hugs’ in the street are generally avoided. You can feel so good if you touch someone or are touched by them with a warm heart, a generous spirit. You share the experience, good or bad. The pain is reduced or the joy heightened.
So, today, when you have the opportunity, and the need is there, give touch generously, with warmth and meaning.