The Taboo on Touch

Research Jottings by Larry K. Brendtro, PhD

We have become strangers to each other, not only avoiding but even warding off all forms of “unnecessary” physical contact, faceless figures in a crowded landscape, lonely and afraid of intimacy.[1] —Ashley Montagu

As a teenager, Jabari risked his life, unaccompanied, to escape war-torn Africa to the United States. But he told a teacher that he was lonely and missed the close physical contact with friends which was abundant in his native land. He fondly recalled walking with friends through their African village with arms around one another. Jabari was dismayed to discover that this kind of open expression of friendship was not the norm among males here.

In a classic treatise of Touching, anthropologist Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) described deep cultural differences in expressing affection through physical contact. Many with Anglo-Saxon backgrounds—such as English, German, American—were traditionally reared to avoid touch. Boys were taught that demonstrating affection was unmanly while girls were told that touch was immoral. Parents were even advised to avoid unnecessary displays of affection with their children. In contrast, in many other cultures, social warmth through touch is plentiful, pleasurable, and distinct from sexual stimulation.

While all humans have brain-based programs for touching, our cultural and personal experiences encourage or restrict expression of this natural drive for closeness and belonging. In general, those from warmer climates are more open to touch than persons from colder cultures. Some years ago, a residential treatment center in Quebec hosted an exchange program with French youth work professionals (educateurs). Canadian staff were initially surprised that the French were more comfortable with physical contact in relationships with the children. Observing this behavior, reserved Canadian youth workers soon became more physically expressive themselves. Even persons reared in touch-averse societies or families still possess an inborn desire for close human bonds, and this drive can sometimes override inhibitions, e.g., embracing in moments of great tragedy or celebration. “The uninhibited hugging on such occasions is something to behold—all the more pleasant to witness because of its utter spontaneity.”[2]

Research shows many surprising benefits from touch across the lifespan. Stroking an infant reduces stress chemicals and builds neurons in the hippocampus essential for both short-term and long-term memory.[3] Physical nurturing of the young calms emotions and helps children develop self-regulation. Children’s play involves physical touch which builds social bonds.[4] Frequent physical hugs from spouses lead to higher oxytocin levels and lower stress.[5] In nursing the elderly, touch strengthens the immune system and can be more effective than drugs in calming agitated patients.[6] Research has also shown that pleasant touch can have a positive effect in counseling, business, and even in sports. For example, touch among teammates increases performance in professional basketball; the more on-court touching (high fives, back slaps, and hugs), the more successful were teams and individuals.[7]

Touch builds attachment which meets needs for both belonging and safety. When frightened or in danger, a securely attached child rushes to embrace a trusted caregiver.[8] Throughout the lifespan, humans are inclined to flock toward others when scared or upset. But those who have not had the protection and nurturance of adults in their lives are more likely to react with fight, flight, or freeze.

As children mature, their response to touch is modified by cultural and interpersonal experiences.  We can tell a lot about personality through touch—persons may be open to touch or pull away—and such information guides behavior in that relationship.[9] Some children placed in foster care are slow to warm up to touch, as they have learned to be adult-wary. And what is appropriate touch depends on the closeness of relationship, gender, and age. This creates a challenge for teachers, counselors, and care givers who seek to build trusting bonds while still preserving boundaries that ensure safety.

There is considerable uncertainty about whether to physically touch children who have histories of sexual abuse and might interpret affectionate relationships as threatening or seductive. David Finkelhor, a leading expert in this field, notes that child victims who have traded sex for attention from the abuser may come to view this as the normal way to give and obtain affection.[10] Understandably, many adults may avoid close relationships and physical touch out of concern that this might be viewed as inappropriate. But, says Finkelhor, children who have only known physical touch in abusive sexual encounters need healthy touch if they are to heal.

When discussing these issues, a worker from a youth corrections program expressed frustration with simplistic rules that forbid any physical contact—other than physical restraint, of course. Professional boundaries intended to promote safety sometimes become barriers to belonging. In some settings, close positive relationships make adults vulnerable to suspicions of sexual impropriety. Further, a youth in crisis sometimes is isolated instead of being provided warm emotional support. The rationale is that such attention might reinforce negative behavior and compromise adult authority. While young people need appropriate boundaries, a radical “no touch” policy cuts off children from positive relationships. The following article, Touch: The Foundation of Belonging, highlights research on touch and its role in work with youth.  

Ainsworth, M. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44(4), 709-716.
Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul.
New York, NY: Penguin.
Cai, F., & Zhang, H. (2015). Effect of therapeutic touch on agitated behavior in elderly patients with dementia: A review. International Journal of Nursing, 2, 324-328.
Chillot, R. (2013). The power of touch. Psychology Today, 36, 52-61.
Finkelhor, D., & Browne, (1985). The traumatic impact of child sexual abuse: A conceptualization. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(4), 530–541.
Light, K., Grewen, K., & Amico, J. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenstrual women. Biological Psychology, 69, 5-21.
Miles, R., Cowan, F., Glover, J., & Stevens, N. (2006). A controlled trial of skin-to-skin contact in extremely preterm infants. Early Human Development, 82, 447-455.
Montagu, A. (1986). Touching: The human significance of the skin. New York, NY: William Morrow. Montagu, A., & Matson, F. (1979). The human connection. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[1] Montagu, 1986, p. xiv.
[2] Montagu & Matson, 1979, p. 101.
[3] Miles et al., 2006.
[4] Brown, 2009.
[5] Light, Grewen, & Amico, 2005.
[6] Cai & Zhang, 2015.
[7] Chillot, 2013.
[8] Ainsworth, 1989.
[9] Chillot, 2013.
[10] Finkelhor & Browne, 1985.

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