Touch - Dwelling Spaces

Wednesday, 21 March 2018


Another thing that struck me in Tanzania was the higher level of physical contact people have with each other.  It was fairly common to see men holding hands with each other, especially when talking one-to-one.  At the end of church services there was a great snake of people as you would shake hands exiting the building and then join the end of the line so everyone ended up shaking everyone else's hand! One of the challenges for me as quite a tactile single person is the lack of human touch I experience day-to-day, and in particular with men.  Commentators are beginning to talk more about the general absence of touch in our society (see for example this recent article from The Guardian) and the implications for our general well-being.  It is lovely holding hands with children as they skip along, or being able to hold someone's hand to offer comfort or reassurance.  I have a few friends who I might hold hands with from time to time, but none of them are men, and I have to admit that I miss that sort of contact.  So it was really great to spend time in Tanzania with lots of married men who thought it perfectly normal to hold my hand when talking!

Given the issues that arise for people in the absence of regular touch, and yet the understandable withdrawal from physical contact out of fear of it being misunderstood or abused, how should we navigate this?  I don't see any obvious easy answer, but I am sure that part of the answer must be reclaiming touch from always having sexual overtones.  When I hold hands with people, it is a sign of sharing life, of being focused in my conversation and attention with that person.  It is not a sign that I want to jump into bed with them.  We don't assume this when we see people of different generations holding hands, but I'm not sure this is our default assumption for people of the same generation holding hands.  And so it takes a lot to be secure enough in your own identity not to be undermined by other people's assumptions about you.  I have been single now for over 20 years, and confident in that as my calling, but I am still susceptible to modifying my behaviour to avoid further speculation from people about me.  If I hold hands with a female friend then perhaps people think I am a lesbian.  If I hold hands with a male friend, I am either being too forward or threatening their marriage.  I'm sure I have probably had the same horrible thoughts about other people, but what I want to do is train myself to think that this is a great sign of friendship first and foremost.  Is that too naïve?  What do you think?



  1. This is brilliant, Jo. I have thought about this often too. I’m aware of older folk in my churches who have been widowed many years and have little physical contact. I was singly until I was 26 so not long but I remember lack of hugs, especially from males, was something I missed. Especially after leaving a peer group at uni.
    Not sure how we do overcome cultural norms and look to model relationship that is wholistic, and reclaim physical touch from being exclusively sexual... but we definitely need to try!!

    1. Thanks Becca. Definitely a huge issue for single elderly people particularly those who need physical care too when touch can become something purely functional or that feels invasive (personal touch from people you don’t really know).
      I think in church there is more of an opportunity for non-sexual touch between genders and intergenerationally through sharing the peace and general welcome which is good, but I wonder if that’s becoming more culturally weird?