When Can I Touch You?
While in high school I volunteered to read to the blind. The program assigned me to Robert, a pixie-ish young man who was a music student at the local college. Though he read braille fluently and books on tape were available, the texts he needed were only in print.
It took me a while to adjust to his touching, his need to take my arm when going somewhere, his delight in touching objects to get their feel, to “see” them as he said. I think he had formed a keen kinesthetic sense of assembling an appearance of objects that made him feel more at one with sighted others.
At one point he asked to feel my face and I sat, wary and embarrassed and unsure, as he delicately ran his fingers about the contours of my face. “I can see you now,” he said with a smile.
To the blind touch is a reserved and seldom indulged sensation. And they rarely can allow themselves to take the lead.
Or so it seemed with Robert. Yet he enjoyed hearing about how I perceived things, how they looked to me. The language of visualization somehow translated to him. But touch was his true touch-stone, the element that sent his imagination soaring. Reading braille relied on exquisite fingertip sensitivity and ultra fine dexterity. Touch and touching gave him access to a world otherwise visually empty. More than sound, touch brought him closer to the unseeable community of others. Touch was his living connection to others.
“Henry Harlow, René Spitz, the Romanian adoption experiment, and B.F. Skinner proved that touch between infant and parent was critical to phenotypic development.”
So when are we allowed to touch? Culture often leads the way. In Italy, as in other Romance language countries, kissing both cheeks is a greeting and a farewell gesture, sometimes extended to three kisses. Not endured in the USA. Handshakes are almost universal, although not permitted between genders in some cultures.
Hugging seems to be reserved for gestures of comfort and of joyous reunion unless when it partakes of courtship and sexual intimacy.
But then there are repertories of touch that range from widely socially acceptable to boundary breaking.
Joe Biden is currently raised as an example of both.
Sexual groping, although not socially condoned, is practiced widely and differentially and usually without serious or public consequence. It tends to remain a private little perpetrator’s conquest as well as the victim’s personal disgust and disgrace.
What are the limits? Who is deciding? What happens, now in the digital age when touch is transformed into visual images, texts or sextexts sent to emotionally “touch” another?
Touch, of course, is evolutionarily a mammalian prerogative. Henry Harlow, René Spitz, the Romanian adoption experiment, and B.F. Skinner proved that touch between infant and parent was critical to phenotypic development. And touch thereafter assumes a role in social affiliation. Culture then applies rules and limitations and expansions of touch while individuals and social groups evolve variations on the limits and varieties of permissible touch.
Then comes the intercession of courtship and sexual seduction, most of which have evolved under special conditions of all of the above parameters. While most species require formalized penetration that alone barely suffices in human sexual practice. Most human cultures, at all levels, have specialized touch techniques to induce libido, promote seduction and even enhance sexual pleasure.
Auto arousal, given the immense proliferation of pornography, is evidence that variations in visualized touch can be conjoined actually to self-touch.
When is a Biden snuggle not a gesture of comfort and encouragement but a provocative and disturbing invasion of personal space?
What, then, are the bounds of personal space and are these determined by culture—which most surely are—and are there looser boundaries created in the moment between toucher and touched?
Have forms and variations and outraged moments of touch weaponized the #MeToo movement too far?
And what about children? Are they not touched by others far more and often more intimately than are adults.?
And pregnant women: are their bellies not touched by strangers, often other women, for far-ranging reasons and often out of some deep compulsion? And are not pregnant women sometimes viewed by men as fecund sexual beings to be so commented upon politely or obscenely?
Power and all manner of social primacy have routinely over-ridden existing cultural touch norms and societies have bent to those leaders, political, religious or self-generated.
And therein lies the dangerous privileges to touch. The private shame, even the traumas, of violent or fearsome inadvertent touch renders individuals, and assemblies of individuals, insecure among the cultural bounds that had contained them.
When will we learn to rebalance all this?
Touch boundary violations seem to be exponentially expanding.
People are walking among each other unsure of the other, unsure of their own vulnerability, unsure of the social stability they had relied upon.
And violators of boundaries, as leaders are often championed for doing, are racing forward to proclaim their own boundaries, and to rush others into submission or compliance or total reset.
Touch catalysts are knocking us all around.