The simplistic message that personal boundaries are being redrawn is a missed opportunity to think about how touch is supposed to work. This doesn’t need to draw on some idea of political correctness; it’s right there in the studies. None of the touch studies involved unwanted, unexpected, or unpredictable touch. For example, Field did a study to see whether the effects of massage therapy were different in people who had and had not experienced past sexual abuse, and there was no apparent difference—both groups saw similar benefits. But this should not be expected to apply to the way both groups would react if a man on the subway initiated a shoulder massage.
The unwanted hug is an act on a spectrum of submission that produces neurochemical responses similar to any other violation of autonomy, from having a credit-card number stolen to feeling your car lose traction on the highway. A perceived absence of control becomes a spilling of neurotransmitters from the brain into the blood. If a boundary is being redrawn, it’s around people’s ability to continue to make others feel that. The benefits of a hug evaporate when a person perceives it as aggression. The trove of pro-touch research involves consenting volunteers and professional researchers in controlled scenarios where the interaction isn’t loaded with potential for escalation, or imbued with subtext or meaning based on prior interactions. In the real world, the exact same touch might cause blood pressure and heart rate to increase, and stress hormones to surge.
If it can be said that touch has medicinal properties, then, like any medicine, touch is not good for everyone in every situation. To play the metaphor out: Appropriate dosages vary, and any particular responses are dependent on what’s already going on with that person. This is why many doctors start a medication at a low dose and monitor the patient’s response closely. If it’s well received, the doctor can titrate dosing up and, over time, be less vigilant about monitoring for adverse reactions.
The analogy, of course, isn’t perfect, but experts in platonic touch advise the same: Start with small gestures. Some people might recoil at a touch on the shoulder; others will reach back and touch yours. It is not some mysterious code that should scare people into simply never trying to touch anyone—but it is a code predicated entirely on power dynamics. Just because a person is not actively pushing someone else away does not mean that touch is well received. Active reciprocity may be the surest sign, though even that is imperfect.
If the current lexicon of physical touch feels too loaded with meaning, there is also room for innovation. Americans largely practice one of two types of hug: the full-body press that’s generally reserved for close relationships, or the “A frame” type: bending at the back, partially twisting, and barely even touching. There are many ways to deviate from the hug canon in less awkward and potentially even fun ways, Field noted, citing a book of hugs numbering more than 300 in type—written by someone named “Dr. Hug,” whose credentials I can’t verify. “We’re getting a lot of calls about cuddling groups,” Field said with some degree of marvel, “which I think is related to a decline in touch not just among strangers, but even among intimate couples.”