Touch: Its Crucial Role in the Emotional & Physical Health of Americans.
By Assad Malik or Sikundr. -a 27 year old Pakistani American
Source (very interesting site): Touch

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  “We aren´t giving our children enough loving touch for them to distinguish between loving and sexual touch” (Davis, 1999:79). America is no exception to this mentality. For example, Phyllis Davis, a licensed professional counselor, says that most Americans have an 18-inch boundary between them and the other person (Davis, 1999:83).  In a conversation between two people, if one participant moves closer to the other person, then the other immediately responds by backing away.

        Although certain ethnic groups within United States rely on touch as a form of communication, the American culture, like Canadian, German, and English cultures, avoids touch (Davis, 1999:79).   For instance, U.S. friends in a cafe touch each other on the average of twice an hour, but friends in France touch each other 110 times and Puerto Rican friends an average of 180 times an hour (Davis, 1999:80).  There are many reasons to explain why this enigma exists.  Factors such as childhood experiences and gender influence Americans’ perception of touch.  Furthermore, people’s attitudes toward touch permeate throughout other aspects of their lives, defining ‘appropriate behavior.’
       Depending on the amount of touch received during the formative years, one either has strong aversion or fondness for touch.   Abusive touch leads to physically and sexually violent relationships as where loving touch leads to nurturing close relationships.    Given the impact it has on the quality of the relationships, touch plays a crucial role in the development of the emotional and physical health of Americans.  Furthermore, attitudes toward touch are a result of social conditioning, influencing people’s actions from birth to death.

       Touch is the act of placing the body, especially the fingertips, in contact with another person or thing (Microsoft Encarta, 2000).  Touch is not only a physical act, but one in which emotions are involved since it serves as an essential and intricate way of intercourse (Fosshage, 2000:1).   It is a well-known fact that the skin is the largest sensory organ (Montagu, 1986:4).  There are two types of touch: abusive and loving.   Abusive touch involves using touch to punish, rape, or kill another person. When it occurs, the skin becomes a receptor of pain. (Montagu, 1986: 227)  Loving touch is when contact is used to reassure, comfort and heal.  As a result, feelings of love and security develop.  Moreover, unlike with  abusive touch, the skin becomes a receptor of pleasure  (Montagu, 1986: 227).

        Loving touch also serves many purposes.  Through repeated animal and human experiments over a 50 year period, medical researchers, such as Bowlby, Harlow, Hansen, Montagu and many others, have stated that touch is vital for the growth of several “physiological systems” and is vital for the foundation for healthy, loving, relationships (Fosshage, 2000:5).  Moreover, Montagu points out from his research that loving touch is an essential behavioral need just as breathing is a physical need.  From this, a newborn is made to “grow and develop” receiving nurturing, maternal touch and sustaining that form of touch with others throughout its life (Montagu, 1986: 46).  Furthermore, the development of self-esteem is at least partly based on the amount of loving touch one receives (Andersen and Lusting, 1987: 99).

        The benefits of touch are not limited to emotional and psychological health, but carry over to physiological health. For instance, Patton and Gardner scientifically documented “detailed records” of young kids that were denied touch from their caregivers (Montagu, 1986:46).  The results were surprising.   Records showed a direct relationship between children’s bone growth and amount of loving touch received.  One of the subjects, a three year old child deprived of maternal affection, had half the growth in his bone size than the average three year old (Montagu, 1986: 244).  Moreover, Doctor Colt from Miami’s Research Touch Institute has discovered that a gesture as simple as a hand resting on the shoulder or arm around the waist has the power to decrease the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.  In addition, he found that some people in deep comas had their heart rates strengthened when they had their hands held by a close friend or family member.  He believes that touch arouses the brain, creating endorphins that naturally suppress pain. Doctor Colt’s belief explains why after a child cuts himself that a mother’s hug can literally heal the wound (Fosshage, 2000:6).

    Although the benefits of loving touch are clear, they have been many influential “experts” who have stressed the benefits touch avoidance between child-adult and adult-adult interaction.  This paper focuses on two: Desmond Morris and Sigmond Freud.  In his book Intimate Behavior, Desmond Morris links a children’s shift away from their parents’ touch as a way of establishing autonomy.    He classifies the following three phases:

 1. Hold me tight
 2. Put me down
 3. Leave me alone

Each phase represents the changing intimate needs from infancy to childhood to adolescence.    Furthermore, the progression from one stage to another shows the children’s gradual shift in “asserting their independence” (Davis, 1999:66).
     Davis counter’s his theory in two ways.  First, she states children’s need for autonomy and touch is not mutually exclusive.  She agrees that kids want to declare their independence, yet they desire touch on their terms vs. their parents.  Second, as children grow, they are repeatedly told that they cannot touch objects, persons, and animals.  For instance, kids are constantly told not to touch the porcelain, not to touch someone else’s books, not to touch the guinea pig, not to touch the little child, and more. Nevertheless, children are discouraged from exploring their own bodies through religious and social taboos.    As a result, children associate shameful feelings with touch. Even if children have the courage to defy parents’ orders, punishment serves as a form of negative reinforcement.  Contrary to their innate need, kids are socialized not to want touch (Davis, 1999:67).

          Another example of avoidance of touch in our society is in the field of psychoanalysis.  Members of the medical profession are highly respected in the American culture; just as people go to preachers for spiritual guidance, Americans turn to psychotherapists and psychiatrists for therapuetic guidance.  The basis for professions of the mental health profession has been psychoanalysis.   It has had a long history of avoiding any forms of touch.  That prohibition can be attributed to Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.  He adamantly prohibited touch.  Freud believed any form of touch between therapist and patient would inevitably lead to sex. As a result, there would be irreparable harm done to the therapeutic relationship.

     To explain why Freud prohibited touch, Mintz pointed out three reasons that have led to prohibition of touch within the psychoanalytic field.  First, psychoanalysis grew and developed in the Victorian era, a time known for its excessive sexual modesty.  Mintz states that Freud and his students were seen as sexual deviants... a threat to society (Fosshage, 2000:3).  Furthermore, given that Freud focused so strongly on “sexuality and aggression”, any form of touch could have been interpreted as being sexually or violently suggestive.  Consequently, that would have threatened the very existence of the psychoanalytic field.  Second, the strong connections of touch with religious traditions and magic went against Freud’s objective of creating a methodical and rational field of science.  Third, Freud repeatedly made attempts in mastering hypnosis.  His hypnosis technique involved laying his hands and placing pressure on the client’s forehead, directing him or her to recollect past memories.  Due to his failure in mastering hypnosis, he became frustrated, abandoned the technique and distanced himself away from it (Fosshage, 2000:3).

        If loving touch is a crucial need, what are its benefits?  Infants learn through touch.  Touching physical objects, people, and themselves increase infant’s knowledge of themselves and their environment (Davis, 1999: 42).  What is more revealing was the research done by The Touch Research Institute and J. & E. Carton.   In 1996, medical investigators from The Touch Institute examined children’s playing fields, homes, and McDonald restaurants’ playgrounds in Paris and Miami. Researchers explored the differences and similarities between the high tactile French kids with the low tactile Americans.  The concluding results showed that French preschoolers were more affectionate among one other and less belligerent than their U.S. counterparts (Davis, 1999: 81). 50 second grade children, 25 males and females, participated in a research experiment conducted by John and Erin Carton in examining the impact maternal warmth had on children’s learning experience.  It was discovered that mothers that frequently smiled, gazed, and provided reassuring touches to their children increased their self-confidence when examining their environments and the repercussions of their actions.  Furthermore, these children were found to participate in less distracting, “off-task” behavior.  The opposite was found to be true for the children who received little or no maternal affection (Carton, 1998: 83).  Although 50 Caucasian American second graders are not a representative sample, the results of the both studies are profound and confirm the previous studies done on maternal warmth, reinforcing the importance of loving touch.  The loving bond established between mother and child is so crucial because it gives child the necessary tools for creating and maintaining future loving relationship (Montagu, 1986:206).

        Before addressing the effects of tactile deprivation, the reasons for America’s ‘hands off’ social policy need to be explored.  Montagu points out that Christianity reinforces “fear of bodily pleasures” from sermons and lessons given in Sunday school. For instance, children are taught that masturbation is a misdeed.   Given that touch creates pleasure, as well as, consoles, it becomes labeled as a sin.  As a result, people develop feelings of guilt whenever they touch (Davis, 1999:80).  Furthermore, the Puritan belief that anything pleasurable is a sin strengthens Christianity’s link of sin and touch.

        The association of touch with sex influences people to avoid touch.  A healthy, romantic relationship would have loving touch as one defining characteristic.   However, loving touch goes beyond romantic relationships.  It can be found in family relationships and friendships (Davis, 1999:84).  Since men sexualize touch, they tend to view every woman they meet as a potential date.  As a result, males limit themselves to the type of relationships they can have with women.  Furthermore, women learn to be more touch avoidant in cross-gender settings since any form loving touch can be easily misconstrued as a sexual interest (Andersen and Lusting, 1987:99).

         Davis uses the term ‘phobia syndrome’ to explain several factors that inhibit people from touching one another in American culture.  First there is the misconception that people who casually touch other people, such as a pat on the shoulder, are promiscuous.  However, that is not the case.  Most touchy people come from family background in which loving touch was and continually used as a form of communication.  Their touch focuses on the nonsexual areas of the body.  Examples include the head, shoulders, and arms.    Promiscuous people tend to touch in erogenous zones (Davis, 1999:85).

        Then there is the homosexual factor.  Although women engage in more same-sex touching, men tend to avoid it.  Although more men are giving hugs to each other, there are still barriers that prevent men from openly expressing their nurturing side.   One of those obstacles comes from the fear for appearing to be homosexual. Consequently, their ability to express loving touch among their male comradeships is severely limited (Davis, 1999:86).

         Finally, the influence of Freud can still be felt today.  With his theory on children developing sexual feelings for opposite sex parents, the Oedipus complex, many parents stop touching their children as soon as they reach puberty.  However, adolescents’ need for touch increases.  Although they may outwardly avoid parents’ touch, by acting timid and mature, they still want reassuring, comforting touch.  In addition, it is important for children to learn and understand the different types of loving touch; some are sexual while many others are not (Davis, 1999:86).

        Just as loving touch has the power to emotionally and physically heal, the lack of loving touch has the adverse effects.   Montagu wrote, “when the need for touch remains unsatisfied, abnormal behavior will result” (Montagu, 1986:46).  Provence and Lipton observed 75 institutionalized infants, comparing and contrasting their behavior with 75 family raised babies.  They noted that the institutionalized infants were uncomfortable with being held.  They described them as “saw dust dolls” in that they were bending all their basic joints with no difficulty, but “felt stiff”.  Moreover, they noticed that by 8 months, all infants had gotten in the habit of rocking themselves.   They came up with the following explanation for their rocking behavior: rocking was due to feelings of frustration from the lack of maternal warmth.  As a result, self-rocking served as an “auto-erotic activity”.  Moreover, infants used it as a way to alleviate their “infantile psychoses” (Montagu, 1986:242).  If it can be assumed that the institutionalized infants were fed the same amount of food as the family raised ones, then results Provence’s and Lipton’s study confirms previous findings on maternal deprivation among animals and humans. Tactile deprivation also has negative nuero-phsyiological effects.  Prescott explains that the extensive research on animal development has repeatedly shown that the “developmental brain abnormalities” are a result of prolonged separation between mother and child (Prescott, 1996:3).

        Lack of loving touch also affects adolescence’s sexuality.  In the beginning of the teenage years, parents cease to touch their children. This is partly due to their discomfort with the physical developmental changes within their children. However, as Dr. McAnarney points out, it is at this time when children’s need for touch increases (Montagu, 1986:211).  To add to America’s touch avoidance culture, several high schools throughout the country, such as Nicholas Junior High School in Fullerton, California, have enacted school policies prohibiting hugging, “high five’s”, and other forms of affection between students and teachers. (Davis, 1999:72).    Since teenagers cannot have their touching needs fulfilled by their parents, friends, nor teachers, they focus their energies on finding a dating partner.  The search for a boyfriend or girlfriend becomes a symbolic journey for their “sensory fulfillment”(Davis, 1999:71).

        In his documentary on life in the Ghetto, Bill Moyers was surprised to find out that a lot of teenage boys were fathers of several illegitimate children.  When the teenage mothers were asked why they had sex, they talked about their desire to be held, cherished and loved (Davis, 1999:74).  In addition, Dr. Elizabeth McAnarney has worked with many pregnant teenagers. She points that at a time when adolescents need for touch increases, parents stop touching their children.  She suggests that 10-14 year old early participation in sexual intercourse is motivated by “non-sexual motives” (Montagu, 1986:211).    However, desires of touch and intimacy are not limited to pregnant teenagers, but apply to all teenagers.   As a result, teenagers become willing to have sex in order to have their needs for touch satisfied (Davis, 1999:71).  Moreover, this practice of having sex for affection continues on into adulthood.

        History has repeatedly shown that whenever any desire is suppressed, an alternative method will be used to satisfy it (Davis, 1999:66).  Tactile deprivation does not only affect teenager’s sexuality, but leads them to be more violent.  Harlow, in studying the effect maternal tactile deprivation rhesus infant monkeys, discovered violence to be leading result.  He studied the behavior of five female rhesus monkeys raised in isolation. When they had children, none were equipped to provide nurturance to their infants.  Of the 5, two were “indifferent” toward their offspring.  The other three where so brutally violent toward their young that they had to be physically sequestered (Montagu, 1986:42).  Although monkeys are not human, they are the most similar mammal to human beings.

        Lack of loving touch cannot only create a home atmosphere of neglect, but initiates a cycle of physical abuse in which one, the other or both are present.  Gelles and Cornel say “the greatest risk of suffering violence, emotional abuse, sexual assault, and murder for people in western society occurs in the home, at the hands of other family members” (Hosking, 1997:2).  For instance, the infamous case of the Menendez brothers; they were two male teenagers who murdered their parents.

         The significance of loving touch can not be overemphasized.  It aids humans in learning, expressing themselves, and healing.  Furthermore, it aids in preventing destructive behaviors such as having sex for the sake of meeting emotion intimacy needs. Positive experiences with loving touch have lasting impacts on people’s lives.  I know.   Reflecting back on my past experiences, I remember my Saturday morning rituals with my daddy.  When I was five years old, I would sit on his lap and watch Bug’s bunny cartoons.  Then we would have fish and chips for lunch and watch classic movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird.  These are my most precious memories because when lying on his lap, I remember how safe, loved, and cherished I felt.  If I had not had those experiences, then I would not only be a totally different person, but I would not have an understanding of tender, loving relationships.

          On Sunday morning, I found myself feeling stressed because of self-doubts concerning whether I could do a good job writing this paper.  I had the strong desires to be held and talk to someone, but I was by myself in my apartment.  Moreover, I was in a foreign country without my familiar, close friends.  Due to feelings of frustration, I started crying profusely.  I tried being “manly” about it by suppressing my emotions, but that only made feelings more intense.  Then I held on to a pillow, but that did not help.  Finally, I came to the realization, that as scary as it was, I was going to have to reach out to someone.  I called my friend Tina and cried on the phone.  She immediately came over and gave me a hug.  As I was expressing my feelings, she comforted me with her reassuring touch and words.  Afterwards, she gave me a half-hour backrub.  From that moment on, I felt confident that I could do a good job of writing this paper.

        Starting from an objective point of view, I have found the evidence to validate my personal, positive experiences with loving touch.  Loving touch is many things.  It is comforting, reassuring, and healing.  Most important, it is a crucial need that every Amercian can no longer afford to live without.


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