The weirdest thing happened while I was riding my bike the other day.
It’s a handmade French bike that weighs in at 17 pounds. I ride as fast as my 63 year old body will let me. Don’t get me wrong…I enjoy riding. I just take it sort of seriously.
As I was riding on the highway between Clarkesville, Georgia (where I live) and Helen, Georgia (where tourists buy fudge and funnel cakes), I heard a sound coming from behind me. The next thing I felt was a light touch on my left hip. Four motorcyclists were passing me and one of them had intentionally touched me as he rode by. He hadn’t touched me with much force, but I clearly felt his hand on my hip.
My first response was that of awe; I couldn’t figure out how or why this had happened. My next response was to feel that I had been violated. He had no business touching me. My third response was one of helplessness as I watched him and his green motorcycle jacket disappear in the distance.
Even though I am a big fan of touching, I had no idea what to make of this touch. It reminded me of a touch from long ago that I didn’t invite or appreciate…
An Earlier Touch
During the summer of love (1968), I hitchhiked from Chicago to Haight-Ashbury. Once there, I imagined that I was truly in the Promised Land. Drugs were freely available, as was love. People were amazingly sweet to each other, and it felt as though we were all connected and destined for a good time.
My first night there, I was seeking a place to stay. I met a tall, thin stranger with shoulder length hair. He invited me to crash at his place. I agreed, and once I was there, I discovered a wild party. Though it was two o’clock in the morning, there was no sign of it stopping. I was exhausted, and my new “friend” indicated that I should curl up in his bed.
Innocently, I did so. I fell asleep quickly, but some time later, I felt him touch me. I bolted upright. I was a Midwestern boy, and this didn’t make any sense to me. Without so much as a thought, I threw on my shoes, grabbed my pack, and headed out of there. I spent the rest of the night walking the streets of San Francisco.
But I didn’t do so alone.
After about an hour, I met a guy who played the role of a therapist for me. I told him the story of my evening. He listened closely and when I had finished, he explained to me that what I had experienced—being infringed upon by someone—is what women experience often. Whether they are actually touched, just looked at, or flirted with, their boundaries are continually violated without permission or invitation.
It is now forty-five years later, and I still recall that conversation. I think it has resulted in me treating both women and men with more respect when it comes to touching. It hasn’t made me touch people less, but it has inspired me to make sure that any touching or flirting that I engage in is consensual.
More Touching Please
Touching hasn’t fared so well over the last couple decades. Though studies indicate it is vital to our well-being, political correctness has resulted in teachers being fired, sexual harassment suits, and a climate in which touching is frowned upon.
All this bad press has resulted in less touching and an enterprising professional “cuddler” in New York City who charges $80 an hour for hugs.
Scientists call our comfort level with physical contact and with physical closeness general proxemics. Proxemics develops early, based on how often family members touched you when you were young. But luckily, whether you grew up in a home where people touched or not, it is never too late to discover the power of touch.
Many factors determine our responses to touch. Some of these factors make sense; other factors are from far out in left field. Studies indicate that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious types. If you spent time in a different culture where touching is accepted or around touchy-feely friends, you will likely become more acclimated to touching.
Touching does tend to raise the stakes in any interaction. Seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses. Strangers are more likely to help someone if touch accompanies a request. At our core, we are social animals and touch is an important form or communication that is full of impact.
In a marriage, the amount of touching appears to peak early and then tapers off. Couples who are satisfied with each other tend to touch more often, but the real indicator of a couple playing well together is one-to-one reciprocity of touch.
When one partner touches the other more often, trouble is likely ahead.
While inappropriate contact can be creepy or upsetting, touch is a powerful way to get to know someone, especially if it is a tactile exchange celebrating familiarity and intimacy. While most people know that being touched is important and that touching is important too, the dictates of political correctness can result in touching being a danger zone or even out of bounds.
The act of embracing floods human bodies with oxytocin, a bonding hormone, which causes the body to be more trusting and loving. It also lowers cortisol levels, reducing stress. Even in our touch-free culture in which we are taught not to touch or hug, it is important to our sense of wellness that we get—and give—enough touch.
And only appropriate, consensual touch will do.
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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: elephant archives