Touch is an intimate action, and variations in touch can evoke a wide range of emotions, from happiness to comfort to arousal to anger to fear. We have all been raised differently and had different life experiences, many of which can have an impact on how we feel about touching. What might seem comfortable and natural to one person will not be all right for somebody else. As such, the act of showing respect for others and asking permission before touching them is crucial.
I cannot talk about why asking before touching is so important without first divulging a bit of my personal backstory. I was born and raised in Australia. As a culture, Australia is fairly low-touch. We are not inclined to greet one another with hugs and kisses, we don’t hold hands (unless it is with partners or children), and we’re not predisposed to lying on top of one another for the sake of lying on top of one another. There can be a lot of variation depending on your family, and my family is low-touch.
That in itself would not have been a problem, but I was in primary school during the prime ‘girl germs’ and ‘boy germs’ era, and I was a fat and altogether weird child. I must have had girl germs coming out of my ears, because every time I had to hold hands with a boy in class, or accidentally brushed up against a boy, or whatever, my trouble would be met with exclamations of horror, dramatic recoiling, and extreme attempts to rid themselves of the dangerous pathogens to which my touch had caused them to be exposed. While I realise that these sorts of shenanigans happen to a lot of us, I haven’t been able to get over it as well as most. I still fear the horror and recoiling whenever I find myself wanting to touch someone (particularly someone who identifies as male). So, for the most part, I don’t do it.
Complicating matters is the fact that most of my friends are high-touch people. I have had to adjust to being around people who like touching one another, and it is an ongoing process. But I have to say that, as far as I am concerned, it has been a really nice thing. Despite my issues, I like being touched. I am not talking about sexual touching. I mean things like friendly hugs. Adjusting someone’s hair or clothing. Leaning on someone. Placing a hand on someone’s shoulder for support when you need to balance. These moments might seem insignificant, but my touch issue causes this contact to mean something, even when that something is just ‘Hey, I don’t think you’re disgusting.’ I spent my childhood being seen as disgusting, so these small instances of touch mean a lot to me.
But despite all this, I am still very nervous about touch. I am one of many, many people who do not like being touched in certain ways.
I think it’s natural to want to touch people as you become closer to them. Touching is, after all, a way in which many of us express affection. But a desire to touch someone does not mean that you should just go ahead and do it, regardless of how innocent/non-sexual/insignificant the touch might seem to you.
A few years ago, I went to a retreat with a large group of friends, and I became ill. One morning, one friend asked me how I was feeling. I answered ‘not great,’ and my friend hugged me. I then spent the next few hours feeling panicky and more than a little violated. There were a few things going against my friend’s favour, namely that he is male (I am less comfortable with being touched by men), it was morning (I am more emotionally vulnerable in the morning), and he was shirtless (touching skin is more intimate than touching clothing). But I could probably have dealt with that if he had asked before hugging me. As it was, his genuine attempt at comfort had the exact opposite effect on me.
My reaction could just mean that I don’t find touch comforting. Many people don’t. However, a second story shows that, in my case, this is not true. A few weeks ago, I arrived in a new place after a very long day. I hadn’t slept much, I had been lugging a heavy suitcase around, and I was a bit of an emotional wreck. I mentioned how I was feeling to my friends, and one of them said, ‘Would you like a hug?’ I considered it for about half a second before nodding a pathetic affirmative.
This time, the hug was comforting. Admittedly, it was evening, my friend is female, and she was fully clothed. But even so, had she just gone ahead and hugged me without asking, I do not think I would have been very happy about it. But she did ask, and that made all the difference. She might have known about my touch issues at the time, but even if she hadn’t, she understood that not everybody is all right with being touched all the time, and she wanted to make sure I would be.
I realise that, for many people, the idea of asking before touching someone might seem a bit strange, robotic, or fussy. Requiring permission before touching someone takes a little bit of the spontaneity out of life, after all. Sometimes it’s fun to just hug someone, or stroke their hair, or touch their face, for no reason except that you feel like it. It’s friendly. It can even be a little sexy. Who doesn’t like to suddenly find themselves wrapped up in someone else’s arms?
That line of thinking annoys me, mainly because it is incorrect. Spontaneous touching is not fun, romantic, or sexy if the other person is not willing. If you are being held in a ‘loving’ embrace against your wishes, it is not loving. To believe that it is not necessary to ask before touching someone reeks of privilege and a lack of respect. It also reeks of not knowing just how fun, friendly, and sexy asking can be.
Picture this: A friend is fussing with her hair and not seeming to get it right. You take a hair tie and say ‘May I?’ Or, you are sitting next to someone, about to watch a movie, and you say ‘Hey, can I lean on you for a while?’ Shoot, if you want to upgrade the act of asking into ‘sexy’ territory, how about if you catch the eye of someone you fancy and, blown away by how pretty they are, reach out just a little with your hand. If they smile back, or nod, or otherwise indicate it is okay, then you touch their face. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would find all of these situations far nicer than if someone stepped up and started caressing my face without my having any say in the matter.
Asking does not have to be rigid or awkward. It just has to be there.
As with anything else, sometimes we make mistakes in the world of friendly touch. You might read other people’s signals wrong, or you might assume that, since someone was all right with touching yesterday, they’ll be fine with it today. You might assume that, since they are all right with other people touching them, they would be all right with you touching them as well. And it is fine to make mistakes. Mistakes are human, and we all make them. The important thing is that you own up to your mistakes. Do not get defensive. Do not start saying things like ‘But it was fine yesterday’ or ‘But you let that other person touch you.’ They have no obligation to accept your touch for any reason. And that goes both ways. You do not have to accept their touch either if you don’t want to.
In the end, asking before touching is about respect. It is about respecting boundaries. It is about not forcing your affection onto others when they aren’t ready or willing to receive it. If that respect can be shown, we should all be able to engage in friendly touch without too much trouble.
Love and Vegemite,
[Headline image: The photograph features two hands, barely touching, against a light blue background.]