First Contact

The Touch Research Institute promotes the laying on of healing hands

How and why touch works magic within the body is still a matter of speculation. It's up to researchers like Schanberg, who performs most of his work with animals, to uncover the biochemical causes. Field notes that her study, despite its implications for preemies' health and hospital savings, has had a minimal effect in the treatment of premature babies -- even in Jackson's newborn intensive care unit, where her research took place, minimal touch is still the rule -- because the underlying mechanism has not been explained to the medical establishment's satisfaction.

Adds Schanberg: "It's like my grandmother said to me one time, 'You went to Yale all that time, and you got a Ph.D. and you got an M.D., and that's what you've shown? That touching babies is good?' I said to her, 'Grandma, you know science is slow. Sometimes science is very slow.'"

As glacial as science may be, Field says, at least there is forward progress. But the continuing reluctance of Americans to touch anyone other than family or the closest of friends and the trend toward stricter legal and social prohibitions on touch in the workplace and schools still cause her grief. "The only thing we're allowed to do anymore is shake hands," she fumes. "That's it."

This would be in contrast to, say, the Andaman Islands, situated in the eastern Bay of Bengal between Burma (Myanmar) and India. There, anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown observed, "when two friends or relatives meet who have been separated from one another for a few weeks or longer, they greet each other by sitting down in the lap of each other, with their arms around each other's necks, and weeping and wailing for two or three minutes until they are tired." The !Kung Bush people of southwest Africa tend to hang out together in bodily clumps, leaning against each other with arms brushing and legs overlapping.

Cross-cultural studies generally attest to the fact that Americans are, as a rule, uncomfortable with touch. It's a national attribute that has left social scientists casting the blame on such disparate sources as the country's English roots, Puritanism, technology, materialism, and the long-standing celebration of traits like individual independence and autonomy. The discomfort may also be traced to the lingering effect of late-nineteenth-century pediatric beliefs that practically forbade nurturing contact between parents and children (espoused by Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, whose 1894 booklet The Care and Feeding of Children is described by Montagu as "the 'Dr. Spock' of its time").

However, quantifying the extent of America's touch taboo is difficult at best, since such evidence -- like Field's account of a friend who is being sued for sexual harassment simply because he touched someone on the forearm -- is largely anecdotal. In fact, sifting through sexual harassment statistics for proof of an increased prohibition on touch is problematic, as the area is a broad one that includes remarks, gestures, and a generally hostile working environment. While the number of sexual harassment cases is on the rise -- 15,549 complaints were filed with the EEOC in 1995, compared with 6100 complaints in 1990 -- the cases are not broken down to show how many may have involved incidental touch. The increase may also be attributable to factors such as the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill became a household name, and subsequent changes in the law increased monetary awards while lowering the legal hurdle for bringing such harassment charges.

"Worldwide, every culture has touch taboos; it just depends on the scale," observes Washington-based anthropologist David Givens. "In very few societies can you touch private parts of the body by just walking up to a person and laying on hands, but in the U.S., in the Nineties, it's like we're into a don't-touch thing in the career sector and in education. Now it's universal that you can't touch anybody anywhere, period, or else the lawyers will come into it."

Field reserves special ire for public schools, where she says all physical expressions of affection between teachers and students -- including simple hugs -- are slowly being mandated out of the educational process by lawyers and bureaucrats who are fearful of accusations of sexual molestation.

Technically Dade schools don't have a no-touch policy, says associate superintendent of schools Russ Wheatley, although that's pretty much the general advice given in the school system's manuals. "But it certainly is not meant to extend to pats on the back or holding the kid by the arm, or certain things that normally go along with working with kids," he adds. "I think it's a matter of common sense."

Teachers are getting much stronger advice from their own lawyers. Elizabeth J. du Fresne, an attorney and general counsel to the United Teachers of Dade for the past 25 years, says she's sympathetic to Field's views but has no choice but to advise teachers not to touch students. "When I began representing teachers, it was considered a normal and totally acceptable thing for someone who taught elementary school to hold children in their lap, to hug them, to kiss them when they did good," du Fresne notes. "If they fell down and hurt themselves, to kiss their knee where it was scraped. That would be how you would react."

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