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We Should Touch Each Other More. Here’s How to Do It Right

In my culture, touch is healing, caring and part of life. Sometimes Canada seems very cold.

By Abeer Yusuf 9 May 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Abeer Yusuf is a journalist and community builder currently living on unceded Coast Salish territories. You can follow her on @aboutabeer.

“I haven’t hugged anyone in six months,” my friend confided.

I was startled. I looked at him and asked why.

“It’s so nice to be able to hold someone and just be able to touch them, but it’s not something guys do.”

What about his parents, or siblings or even friends?

“I mean, yeah, of course, but it’s like a quick hug, or only appropriate if I’m seeing a friend after a long time. Guys don’t really hug other guys and touch each other.”

The conversation stuck with me for weeks. I couldn’t imagine life in Vancouver without being able to touch, hug or hold my friends, especially as a migrant miles away from my own family in India and Malaysia who would envelope me in hugs and kisses after just hours apart. Touch grounds us and keeps us in our bodies, and offers comfort, peace and a sense of ease.

Touch holds a mantle of sanctity in my life. In times of strife and discomfort, it restores calm and helps ease pain and hurt.

A recent example? I was one of many Muslims in Vancouver left reeling by the horror of the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand. Learning the news on a Thursday evening, I felt incredibly tight around my chest. Tears rolled down my eyes, and my heart beat super fast. I craved physical comfort.

The next day, when I went into work in a mood as sombre as our grey Vancouver weather, my colleague Alejandra López Bravo approached me and let me sink into her embrace, and I finally felt that constriction go. I ended up crying into her shirt, leaving faint tearstains on her shoulder.

Throughout the day I received texts, virtual hearts, email condolences and heartening messages of solidarity offering to accompany me to the mosque to stand by as I prayed jummah (Friday prayers). Comforting and consoling as those virtual outreaches were, it was Alejandra’s grace in physically holding onto me for as long as I needed that filled a void for me, a single Muslim migrant woman living alone in Vancouver.

The case for platonic touch

Alejandra and I touch each other all the time. We hug each other every morning when I get into work, kiss each other on the cheek, and she will often run her hand through my hair while we talk about work and other happenings. During my workday I get up from my desk at random times just to plant a kiss on Alejandra’s cheek, or give her a quick embrace. Neither of us thinks this is odd, but we both recognize that neither of us has experienced touch at a Canadian workplace before.

I asked Alejandra, originally from Mexico, how we came to touch each other so comfortably.

“I think it’s because we have a prior relationship of touch and because we have this unspoken understanding that we come from a dynamic other people don’t. It felt natural and felt like there were two people slowly making room within this space to be who we were — and that we weren’t alone, each by ourselves, trying to make touch happen.”

“When I started working here, the space felt cold and a bit alienating,” Alejandra added. “Having you to connect with, for whom touching and behaving in those ways was familiar, made me feel safer and comfortable. I long for touch in Canada, and it’s not unique to the workplace — it’s the lack of human-to-human interaction. It is very different where I come from — people touch in public spaces, on transit, not just in workplaces. It’s easier to be connected, even with something as simple as eye contact.”

Alejandra went on to pose a question. “In the workplace, there’s an expectation that we need to act, or behave in certain ways to be professional in certain ways. But professional according to who? Who defines what professionalism is?”

Of course, everyone rushing to touch each other at work isn’t the answer. There are complex patterns and power dynamics at play that make this a thorny issue. I’m not certain that I’d be as comfortable with a male-identifying colleague touching me in the workplace. Safe touch in that context would need to be earned because of the historical dynamics around how women and non-binary folks are treated in public and private spaces.

The need for “professionalism” affects a lot of ways of being in Vancouver, even in social settings and with friends. It means less platonic touch, which is just as important as non-platonic touch, but rarely as available in this Western society.

I’ve become the hugger and touch buddy in many friend groups. I often take the lead, through simple hugs and kisses on the cheek or linking arms as we walk around. Vancouver is a lonely and isolating place for many, and while I wouldn’t want to suggest an overly simplistic answer for a complex and intersectional issue like loneliness, I would ask the reader to consider where platonic touch fits into the picture.

1200px version of Triptych.jpg
Illustrations by Dorothy Woodend for The Tyee.

We rely on touch, the most basic human form of communication and connection. It’s a pity that we now need studies to confirm what human touch can do and why it is so life-affirming. And it’s no surprise that yoga establishments around the city are beginning to offer more classes that allow participants to experience touch.

But perhaps one of the reasons we seek out situations where we can embrace touch — dance classes, massage therapy, even petting or owning dogs — is because there is a dearth of spaces and places in which platonic touch is welcomed, accepted, or even offered.

When touch is traumatic

Not everyone has a healthy relationship with touch. For some, touch is traumatic based on past experiences. I’ve caught myself almost bounding towards people, then remembering to take a step back and ask if it’s OK to touch them or hug them — not a normal practice in the places I come from.

Vikki Reynolds is a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver with years of experience responding to trauma, from survivors of torture to the frontline workers dealing with the opioid crisis. She suggests two factors that explain why people here aren’t as warm to touch.

“Canadian society is less warming and less touching, compared to folks who come from different cultures where there’s a lot of touching,” she notes.

And in Canada concerns about consent have led us to avoid all touching.

“I think we need to find better ways to negotiate and navigate touch as opposed to assuming that not touching people is consensual,” Reynolds said. Touch becomes traumatic when people feel “they’ve been transgressed against,” she said.

“I, for example, have been sexually assaulted by several men, and all of it’s been people I don’t know, don’t know well, and often from the back, so I don’t like people standing behind me,” Reynolds said. “I don’t appreciate that in line. But what I do is, I turn around and say, ‘Could you move back a little bit? It’s just edgy for me.’ And everybody totally gets it.”

“I think it’s a great act of resistance to name what you need, and to name space,” she added. “To be able to ask for that and have the person behind you respond to that without being outraged or feel that they’re being called a perpetrator, but to negotiate permission with you, that’s the creating of consent culture. That’s a resistance of all of us against rape culture.”

“The problems are disconnection, and the answer is connection. Touch is a huge piece of that,” Reynolds said. “When I was clinical supervisor for the Centre for Survivors of Torture, I set up a bodywork team that had reiki workers, massage therapists, whatever people were doing, because many folks don’t find talking about things very helpful — I say that with great respect as a psychotherapist from a narrative therapy tradition, I’m into talking — but there’s great research that shows safe touch is one of the most profound avenues for people to liberation and getting their lives back. I’m very concerned that many sectors in our healing communities are embracing not touching people, not connecting with people as an enactment of professionalism and I think that’s a transgression.”

In my own Indian culture, personal space is not a concept. Aunties would often see me after years and immediately begin to pinch my cheeks or force me into their sometimes sweaty and musty bodies. You had to hug them, or it came across as a lack of respect. Resisting touch was futile in many of those situations, and it’s served as great conversation starters with peers to discuss tactics in avoiding being “auntie-handled.”

Towards a consent culture

So what do you do if you wish to initiate touching in your community?

Reynolds offers a simple piece of advice. “You ask permission. You don’t assume that you can’t, and you don’t assume that you can. Say, ‘Is it OK if I touch you?’ It’s about creating a language of consent.”

“If someone doesn’t want to be touched, that’s cool — but I do think that if someone asked you for a hug, I don’t see how it’s good ‘professionalism’ to deny any kind of touch to people. I just wonder how much we’re trying to protect ourselves from litigation and denying whole access to us as human beings.”

But is asking enough? I’m unsure. As someone who hasn’t been sexually assaulted or had a traumatic relationship with touch, Vikki’s solution sounds good to me. But I can appreciate that the answer isn’t as clear cut for others. Our relationship to touch moves as we move through different spaces.

Power dynamics are also critical in understanding when we might be transgressing personal space and comfort. Being open to touch, as I am, is not an invitation for unwanted touch that is intended to make me feel like a sexualized object. Straight men can have a conniption over being touched by other straight men, which raises questions about how we define masculinity.

Increasingly, I find Vancouver making it on list upon list of the most livable cities in the world — and I find myself laughing. Certainly livable because of its beauty and bike lanes, but where do community, human connection and happiness, comfort and safety of the soul factor into livability?

I’ve started introducing myself in social gatherings as someone who loves touching and hugging, showing others in the room that touch need not be something only sought out in a sexual relationship.

Our community could look and feel a lot different if others did the same.  [Tyee]

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