Taboo Touch

12:12 PM

In response to the shooter in Santa Barbara who shot several sorority women in retribution for how all women rejected him, the American Conservative published an interesting piece called, "Our Starved for Touch Culture." Leah Libresco posits that such a violent reaction occurred because our culture knows no middle ground between sex and not touching anyone at all. There is no more platonic touch by which men like the Santa Barbara shooter can feel comfort. Of course, she recognizes that there are plenty more problems spurring the shooting, but still. . .it's a valid point about our culture.

Along the same lines, she references an article by Mark Greene called, "The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men's Lives Is a Killer." (Who knew, right?) He thinks that platonic physical touch needs to be disentangled from the sexual and liberated from the exclusive confines of a one man/one woman relationship: "The vast universe of platonic human touch is suddenly reduced to the exclusive domain of one person and is blended into the sexual. That’s a lot of need to put on one person, however loving and generous they might be."

I am torn about how I feel about this conversation on physical touch and its nature and relationship to purity and sexuality, especially as a girl in a committed relationship. I must admit that I find it very hard to see some physical contact as platonic. To me, holding hands, sitting on laps, even sitting with arms around each other signals opposite sex attraction. Even watching my boy engage in physical contact with a girl beyond a quick hug is really painful for me. (Quick note: he's super respectful of my wishes for distinct boundaries.)

But then, is such a mindset right? Is it wrong to deny platonic physical contact between guys and girls who aren't dating? Is all physical contact sexual or potentially sexual?

See, I grew up in a family where physical contact was low and everybody was happy with that. I kissed my mom goodnight and wrestled with siblings. All good on that front. The main demonstration of physical love belonged to my parents -- the hello/goodbye kisses and hugs and arms around each other. Nothing much. But enough to instill into my brain that physical touch occurred only within a committed opposite sex relationship. Then the purity movement came along in my teen years and drilled in the rest: all physical contact is somehow sexual. Even when within a committed dating relationship, keep your hands off.

Except that not all physical contact is sexual. It cannot be. People crave physical touch; they need physical touch to grow up healthy, secure, and loved. Sheesh, the early church greeted one another with a kiss. Physical touch is a sign of belonging. And if a couple cannot feel comfortable and accepted together. . .is that truly a healthy relationship?

I wonder if our culture's sexual angst is really just a confused cry for true affection, deep love, and comforting physical touch. . .and we've been told that the only place to find all three is within an opposite sex relationship (committed or no). This is so wrong, and as Mark Greene pointed out, puts so much pressure on our significant others to provide us the emotional and physical comfort necessary for human functioning. No wonder the Christian culture fears singleness as a great evil -- it cuts you off from any kind of intimacy with another human being, denying the very real need to not be alone.

I realized a while ago that back in the good ol' days (which are supposed to be more morally straight than our current decadent culture), people didn't follow the same taboos on physical contact -- that is, they didn't follow the constructions of the Christian purity movement. A kiss did not contain the whole of the individual's virginity. Guys and gals kissed, and it was funny or cute or meaningful depending on the context. Listen to the songs of the forties and fifties. They held hands, put arms around each other, even kissed, before going steady. It was part of falling in love in a healthy, normal, pure way. (Allegedly. Perhaps that's idealized too.)

Beyond metaphysical rumination, I know from personal experience the difference between affectionate and sexual touch. It bothers me to no end how critical some people are of people who get great comfort from physical affection. Not that I am fully out of the woods on that issue, too -- I am still bewildered at people whose main love language is physical touch. Touchy people just seem weird to me. (What do they want? Why are their hands always upon me? Why does every five-second parting begin and end with a long hug?) I'm actually dating a physically affectionate man who feels closest to me when he's, well, physically close. Some people interpret that as inappropriate, sexual, and overly-demanding of him. It used to upset me to the point where I would shove him away simply to escape the constant negativity of misunderstanding people. But really, shoving away a physically affectionate person is like constantly interrupting someone pouring out her heart. She feels rejected and confused at why her friendship and affection causes so much repulsion. 

So let's say that physical affection isn't always or even primarily sexual. Does that mean that there are no limits or boundaries on physical affection -- especially between the opposite sexes?

I am not the most super touchy person in the world, either because of my childhood impressions of physical touch or just my personality. Physical touch isn't something sexual, but it is something personal. It belies a strong, intimate bond between two people. I cuddle with my immediate family, boyfriend, and close girlfriends and cringe when I experience physical contact between myself and anyone not in those categories. Not all people feel that way. Some people are open with their physical contact in the same way I wear my heart on my sleeve. Is that wrong, simply because some people hold impure motives?

At the same time, I won't kid myself. Too much physical affection or certain kinds of physical affection make sexual purity really, really hard. (Though perhaps that is also a result of a culture that promotes long courtships and engagements.)

Interestingly, Scripture raises a high bar for purity while never explicitly addressing this subject of physical touch (which is why the Christian debate about when to kiss will forever rage). And cultural do's and don't's are surprising -- kissing and hand holding, the two most private and exclusive physical touches to me, are things friends do in other cultures. (Ew?) Perhaps my discomfort with some displays of physical affection is not righteous so much as cultural and personal.

How do we judge? How do we discern? If physical touch is a basic need -- and I believe it is -- there must be some way of showing physical affection so that it can be disentangled entirely from the whole sexual purity issue. Maybe it's as simple as not overthinking this.

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5 impressions

  1. I wasn't able to follow this very well, as physical contact between persons is personal. And the way we deal with it is personal. It is different for every individual.

    Physical contact in relationships is more unique than a fingerprint. And very special, whether often or seldom.

    But I am curious, what is "hold hanging?" I am not familiar with the phrase.

    I know what "kissing" is. No need to explain that one to me.

    -Daniel Abbott

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  2. Bahaha! "Hold hanging" is what I type when I'm writing "hand holding" while extremely tired. Thanks for the heads up on that. ;)

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  3. I should have known that. I am very disappointed. I was looking forward to learning a new phrase.

    I figured it was maybe holding the upper arm of your escort which has always seemed to me much more intimate than holding hands. I mean holding hands you can get quite a ways apart, but when she's got a hold of your arm, she's right there...

    -Daniel Abbott

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  4. I'm older (50), but something that always wigged me out (and still does to a degree) are people that kiss on the mouth, regardless of relationship. I'm okay with someone close (family) kissing me on the cheek, or vice versa, but the whole kissing on the mouth thing. Um, no.

    We are a "huggy" people, though. We hug each other and will often walk up to each other and demand a hug if we are feeling tired, stressed, or just need a hug. My daughter did this just this morning: "Mom! I need a hug!" And after a few seconds she said, "Okay. I'm good." And walked off to get ready for work. LOL

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  5. Wow, this post was really along the lines of what I've been thinking about lately. Thank you! Because physical touch is probably my primary love language this post hits home. A few thoughts (I'll try to keep this somewhat brief)...

    I grew up in the Christian, homeschool culture until ninth grade. Even then, most of my friends were guys. Lack of physical touch didn't become an issue till I hit my early teen years, and then I felt alone. Church guys have been trained to stay away from touch so much, even platonic touch. I had my family but that was it...and then I entered one of my (now) favorite places on earth, the local high school.

    There nothing was sacred. Sitting on a guy's lap wasn't considered a big deal. But even more than that, there was gym. With floor hockey and mat games in the wrestling room...and while everything that had been taught to me unconsciously rebelled my heart rejoiced. I felt loved.

    It's been hard. I kept some lines. I still don't let guys sit on me, I've still never been kissed, and I never was a big fan of hugging in general, but I broke my line of not sitting with guys on the bus. I've pulled back the lines of no backrubs or tickling for people I trust. I love contact sports, and am continuing to play floor hockey at school even though I've graduated now.

    I think it's important to note that not all physical touch has to be hugging or kissing or cuddling. A friendly punch in the shoulder, a high five, an elbow on someone's shoulder while walking, putting cold snow on a friend's face, sitting together while sledriding... my guy friends are mostly wrestlers, and watching them wrestle playfully outside of actual practice I see the sparkle in their eyes. They know they're loved.

    Now I get frustrated with the Christian guys who have been victims of culture too easily. You won't push me off in king of the dock 'cause I'm a girl? Then I lose a lot of respect for you. Touch is so important to me, and sometimes guys misread me. Sometimes they think I'm flirting, and things get complicated. The fact that most of my friends are non-christian guys leaves my dating prospects slim. But I would be a less happy person without friendly, platonic touch.

    I don't know if I shed any light on this topic with my too-long, snippet of my journey comment, but you really hit a nerve with this one Bailey. Your posts are always so thought provoking. Keep up the good work.

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