Our Unhealthy, Touch-Averse Culture

Last week, we talked about the fact that I believe in incorporating touch into therapy. Today I want to talk about why this concept is revolutionary. I want to consider the fact that in our culture, the idea of a therapist ( a non-relative adult) touching children is totally out of the norm, possibly even creepy. But first, let's understand why a lack of touch is unhealthy for us humans. 

Touch is crucial for basic brain development, sensory integration, immunity and physical growth.

Babies who are not touched (but who have every other basic need cared for) often fail to thrive, won't meet basic developmental milestones, and are at higher risk of premature death. Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself here. But even beyond our childhood needs, all humans of all ages have a deep need for touch. We are social creatures; we are mammals; we die in solitude.

In our country today, touch is highly sexualized. Think about it. Most forms of touch between adults are reserved only for a romantic or sexual relationship: holding hands, cuddling, caressing, long hugs, dancing with body contact, spooning, kissing, even piggyback rides. This is not the norm in other parts of the world; for instance, it is totally normal for heterosexual Arab men to express friendship through holding hands, rubbing noses together or kissing one another's cheeks. Imagine two male friends in the United States engaging in that sort of behavior! A psychologist named Sidney Jourard did a cross-cultural study of 60 minute conversations in cafes between friends. He found that friends touched each other varying amounts of times based on their country: In England, 0 touches. In the US, the friends touched each other twice. But in France and Puerto Rico, those numbers shot up to 110 and 180, respectively (check it out here). Compared to other countries, the United States also has one of the largest "personal space bubbles." We don't even want to stand too close to other people, let alone touch them! 

It's like we all believe on some basic level that Touch = Sex. 

Perhaps the two exceptions to this cultural (mis)understanding are 1. Mothers relating with their own children and 2. Professional massage. That's it. Otherwise, it seems that any touch deeper than a short hug must be sexualized in some way. Touch is an innately human need that we deny ourselves in this country, except if you want to shell out $150 to get an hour long massage! Isn't that weird and sad? 

With children, our boundaries around touch are possibly even more extreme, during a time developmentally when kids need more touch. Here, teachers are trained to never hug their students as part of school policy, or if hugs are allowed, to only give "side hugs." Parents are freaked out by the nightly news reports of pedophiles molesting children at churches and schools. It's genuinely terrifying. I get that. But how is a perfectly innocent and well-intentioned teacher supposed to calm down a youngster who is preverbal or Autistic without hugging him? Do you know how many behavioral problems at school could be prevented entirely through hugs? I'm not even joking about this: Hugs can be powerful medicine, and we are afraid to hug the most vulnerable amongst us. It's a damn shame if you ask me.

Let's face it: No one wants to be seen as creepy. Everyone is afraid of a lawsuit, of their intentions being misconstrued. Heck, when I use touch-based play therapy I always have a parent in the therapy room witnessing, or I videotape the session, for my own self-protection. I don't want to be sued! Parents are afraid of other adults' intentions, understandably. The news is so disturbing, and parents want to protect their kids from all the creeps. Other adults want to protect themselves from lawsuits and from being perceived as a creep. All of that I understand. 

But when this cultural fear of touch creates a cultural lack of touch, we have a major problem. It's a health hazard for our children, and for us. 

So today, I encourage you to reach out and hug someone in need of a hug. Hug them deeply, maybe even "for too long" (you know what I'm talking about)- as long as it feels right for the two of you. Hold someone's hand as you walk down the street. Give a high five or a pat on the back or a hair-ruffle. It will do you both a world of good. We don't have to be afraid of all the goodness that touch can offer us.



photo credit: Shadow play via photopin (license)