The Importance of Touch
And of asking permission first
Posted Mar 10, 2018
I have been just finished reading about the Untouchables in India. These are people who are treated in a cruel and hurtful way based on a caste system thought up by the human mind. It is a sad and disturbing story, the way these people are treated. It is only one of many that have sprung from the human mind over the centuries that we have organized ourselves on this planet.
We might consider the opposite plight in the Western world, that of the Touchables. Who are they? Here the important organizing principle still involves power, but that power is organised by the Western mind by gender and skin color.
These two visually invented characteristics1 are two the main issues seen through the lens of feminist therapy. The word gender has morphed and changed in meaning as different generations have confronted the personal effects of genetics, biology and culture. I use it here in the original sense intended by second wave feminists and, in that framework, it is of course, women, children and people of darker skin color who are touchable at any time by those with more power, men and boys with skin color designated as White.
One of the issues that you will surely discuss if you decide to choose a feminist therapist will be that of power. This includes the power differential between therapist and client. You will be an active participant in a healing relationship and not an object of unilateral analysis. The therapeutic relationship will offer clues to how you deal with power issues outside the walls of that sanctuary.
The power to say "No" to unwanted touch is one of the most common of these issues. One of the first interventions developed by feminist therapists many years ago was that of assertiveness training. This is very different from aggressiveness, although the popular stereotype of a feminist as an aggressive woman is dying a slow and painful death.
Feminists do not aspire to be aggressive, but to equalize power and to be treated respectfully as a full human being. Perhaps that seems aggressive to those who prefer passivity in females and people of color, but it is neither passive nor aggressive nor passive-aggressive. It is human.
Feminism and feminist therapy are about building bridges, not walls or boundaries. I do not consider asking someone respectfully not to touch you without permission at all a boundary issue. It is instead an assertiveness issue and one of clear and respectful two way communication and this sort of relationship is what can connect us to each other and what builds our bridges of connection.
Warm and gently loving touch is necessary for infants and children to thrive and grow just as much as it is for the physical health of vulnerable groups. It is biology as much as it is psychology. Loving touch is life itself.
1 Kaschak, E. (2015), Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes. Columbia University Press and Audible.