In a recent study conducted in France, Italy, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Russia, researchers examined where people like to be touched, how relationships affect the stimulation and why. The experiments were detailed in the medical journal PNAS, where researchers at Aalto University in Finland and the University of Oxford in the UK gave 1,368 participants blank silhouettes of human bodies labelled with the different parts of a social network like friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. The participants were then asked to color in the regions of the body where they would feel most comfortable with being touched by each relationship type.
Many of the findings were fairly obvious. Women are generally more comfortable with being touched compared to men; men would rather be touched by women than another man. However, it also touched on some interesting and not-so-straightforward observations, like how men feel more at-ease than woman with being touched by strangers, and that women are commonly allowed to touch more areas of the body than men.
“The partner was allowed to touch basically anywhere over the body, closest acquaintances and relatives over the head and upper torso, whereas strangers were restricted to touch only the hands,” wrote the authors in the study. “Taboo zones, where touching was not allowed, included the genitals for extended family and males in family, acquaintances and strangers, as well as the buttocks for males in extended family, acquaintances and strangers.”
Furthermore, how often an individual had social contact with another was found to be a less important factor than the shared emotional bond. The larger the bond, the more areas of the body are effectively deemed appropriate for the individual to be touched. Although experts stress that it’s more complex than that, explaining that the same participants taking the same study in a different frame of mind would produce vastly different results.
“One’s response to touching is totally context-dependent,” said David J. Linden, a neurobiologist and author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind. “If you do it in a laboratory or you ask people to imagine, it’s really hard to get a useful answer,” he added.
“Imagine a caress on your arm from your sweetheart when you’re feeling connected and loving. Now imagine the exact same caress, yet it feels completely different if […] it’s in the middle of an argument that’s unresolved. It will feel different from the very first moments of perception, because areas of the brain responsible for touching also compute things like context: ‘Am I under threat?’ ‘What’s my emotional state?’ ‘How much attention am I paying to this?’ ”
Another point to consider is the limited data set, as the participants selected were all European.
“They confined their analysis to countries and cultures where a certain degree of social touching is allowed,” noted Linden. “If you did the study with Orthodox Jews or devout Muslims or other groups out in the world, it wouldn’t work at all.”
On the more predictable side of things, the regions on the body that were most restricted were our most sensitive spots, such as the genitals and areas with the strongest nerve endings.
“Acceptability of social touch was most limited (i.e., most relationship-specific) in regions with the strongest hedonic sensitivity,” the authors wrote.
“Different parts of the skin convey different kinds of touch,” said Linden. “In the brain, there is a different biological basis for these maps. In general, we’re averse to being touched sexually by strangers — and women are more averse than men. Your (sexual organs) feel vulnerable and you want to protect them.”
Linden went on to say there are even different kinds of nerve endings that transmit different kinds of information, but our knowledge of them is still cloudy.
“We know that a touch on the genitals feels different than a touch just about anywhere else on the body,” said Linden. “If we took the skin of the genitals and looked at it under a microscope, we would see something different that accounts for that: mucocutaneous end organs, that look like coiled, naked nerve endings.”
This might be why we aren’t as opposed to having our backs touched as we are somewhere more sensitive like our lips. If someone poked the small of your back with two pencils, it’s unlikely you would be able to differentiate the two points, but if you were poked with two pencils on your lips you would be more likely to distinctly feel the difference, says CNN.
Lastly, the level of comfort men had with strangers compared to women’s was examined, with experts concluding that this was due to the gender’s relationship with sexual violence.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that women are wary of being touched by strangers,” said relationship expert, author and radio host Wendy Walsh. “Women have evolved mechanisms to be choosy about whom they mate with and to fear rape by a stranger. However, touch by friends is both relational — women tend to befriend as a buffer against stress — and pleasurable. Touch gives a nice boost of dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ hormone. Men, on the other hand, tend to be less choosy with whom they mate. So it stands to reason that touch by a stranger increases the chances for a sexual opportunity.”