Culture

Biden and the Problem of Touch

Then-Vice President Joe Biden talks to Stephanie Carter as her husband Ash Carter delivers his acceptance speech as the new Secretary of Defense at the White House in 2015. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Before we close the books with the #MeToo conclusion that touching is “problematic,” we might want to consider some other evidence that suggests we aren’t touching enough.

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. — William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 5

Joe Biden’s explanatory video in response to stories of his sometimes overly exuberant physicality was well played. He seemed relaxed, sincere, unscripted, and above all, not supine.

The matter of physical touch is, well, touchy. One person’s affectionate hug is another’s creepy, unwelcome invasion of personal space. Biden does seem to have stepped over the line at times. Free advice: Inhaling the aroma of a woman’s hair and kissing her head when you’ve just met is not recommended. But most of the time, it seems that Biden’s hugs, shoulder rubs, and Eskimo kisses were well received. He is physically demonstrative with women, but also with other men and particularly with children.

“Social norms are changing,” Biden acknowledged, assuring viewers that he “gets it.” But before we close the books with the #MeToo-tinged conclusion that touching is “problematic,” we might want to consider some other evidence currently in the news that suggests we aren’t touching enough.

According to the General Social Survey, the huge study of America’s cultural patterns that has been conducted for decades, Americans are having less sex now than they did 30 years ago. Some of that is the consequence of an aging population. But even among Americans aged 18–29, nearly a quarter reported that they had been celibate for the previous year, compared with 14 percent in 1989.

It is well known that married adults have more sex than single, divorced, or even cohabiting adults, and that married people report higher levels of both sexual satisfaction and happiness. The trend away from marriage therefore virtually guarantees that more people will be isolated and vulnerable to the diseases of loneliness, which include drug and alcohol abuse. Marriage rates are plunging for those with only a high-school degree or some college, and though college graduates have high rates of marriage, they tend to marry later in life. That leaves many young adults without romantic partners. And it turns out that screens make very poor substitutes.

There is no delicate way to say this: Screens can deliver orgasms, but they are completely unable to provide the other benefits of human contact. People who are not romantically involved or who lack close friends or family are also missing out on the kind of touches that Biden sometimes inappropriately delivered — back rubs, head kisses, hand holding, and bear hugs.

There is a wealth of psychological literature showing that skin-to-skin contact is critical for the normal mental development of human infants. All but the most fragile preterm babies do better when cuddled in their mothers’ arms than in incubators. Studies have shown that babies in Romanian orphanages who were provided with nutrition and clean diapers but were rarely held or spoken to, grew into emotionally stunted children.

In childhood too, physical contact is critical for children’s well-being. When fathers roughhouse with their young children, the kids are better able to regulate their emotions, including aggression, and are found to be more popular with their peers than are children who lack this kind of play.

Our need to touch and be touched never subsides. Chronic loneliness has been found to be as harmful to health as smoking. Studies have found that hugs don’t just relieve stress and release oxytocin (the bonding hormone), they can also reduce susceptibility to the common cold, lower blood pressure, and diminish pain. And when humans pet animals, both experience physiological benefits. Even just holding hands with a loved one while enduring a painful medical procedure has been found to make the experience more bearable. When close couples hold hands, their heart rates and brain waves tend to synchronize.

Most of us just aren’t designed to live the kind of solitary lives that excessive entanglement with technology is encouraging. We are social and also tactile creatures. Our recent social trend away from marriage and toward silicone companions is the equivalent of taking people away from a roaring fireplace surrounded by loved ones and placing them in solitary steel and glass pods. Let’s not lose sight of our affective natures even as we police the excessively handsy among us.

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