body contact

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body contact Human beings are unable to survive without body contact. From the moment of birth humans are dependent upon physical contact with others, firstly for the satisfaction of basic needs and secondly for the social support necessary to maintain a personal and fully social identity in the world. The history of human societies can therefore be read as the history of the regulation of body contact. Body contact is essentially an expression of the social classification of human bodies.

Historical and cultural rules of body contact distinguish between physical contact between bodies themselves and contact with body products. In modern Western societies both these sets of rules are closely associated with the separation of social life into public and private areas and the emergence of the self-controlled individual whose rights of privacy include ownership of the body and the right to be free from pollution, physical attack, and sexual interference. There are therefore forms of body contact, for example sexual activity, which are widely regarded as expressive of the private bodily self, and are expected to take place in private spaces. Other forms are regarded as appropriate to the public arena, such as the diplomatic handshake and the sporting embrace.

Contact with body products is similarly subject to distinctions between the public and the private. Excreta, and the menstrual flow, are normally expected to be concealed from public view. The involvement of other people in these bodily functions is only acceptable when an individual is an infant, disabled, or very old. In such cases public handling is permissible in emergencies or when someone cannot function without help; when this occurs, however, the individual in need is usually considered to be excluded from normal adult status.

The rules regulating contact between human bodies and with their products were put into a historical framework by the German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990), in his work on ‘the disgust function’. For Elias, personal experiences of disgust over contact with certain kinds of bodies (like the diseased, the dying, and the dead), and with foods that are seen as nauseating (for example the garden dirt that children may put in their mouths), and over bodily functions, are the result of the gradual emergence of good manners and etiquette as techniques for demonstrating social superiority. Superior persons are those who have distanced themselves from their natural functions and whose conduct is correspondingly refined, setting them apart from the ‘vulgar’ masses. He traces their origin back to early forms of court society where relationships between monarch and courtiers were increasingly regulated by books of manners containing advice on bodily controls (for example belching and breaking wind, or blowing one's nose) and on forms of bodily contact, including the control of interpersonal violence.

The direction of historical change as developed in Elias' concept of ‘the civilizing process’ is the gradual diffusion of codes of good manners from the upper to the middle and eventually the lower classes. The civilized individual is one who experiences disgust over the violation of these rules. Feelings of revulsion over close contact with a sexually inappropriate person, a physically violent individual, a smelly or dirty body, disgusting food, or human excrement (ultimately even the smells of unperfumed bodies, of cooking, and of the closet) come to be experienced as ‘natural’, a sign of a ‘human nature’, even though they are essentially historical constructs.

Two forms of contact between bodies exemplify the general issue of regulation. The first is contact between enemies or bodies in potential conflict, and the second is contact between women and men.

In the control of contact between bodies in potential conflict the male handshake reveals that one hand at least does not have a grip on an offensive weapon. A refusal to ‘shake hands’ is regarded in both public and private life as a rejection of attempts to reduce tension between people and to reconcile conflicting interests. It is a refusal to go through the motions of conciliation or concord, to put up a polite performance and ritually to honour the rules of etiquette. The handshake is only one example of a broader category of ritual gestures involving body contact considered essential for the regulation of good order in complex modern societies. As a highly organized form of contact the handshake exemplifies a high degree of refinement in the expression of self-restraint and agreement about the rules of the encounter. It is an instance of one of the most significant developments in the history of human interaction: the refinement of rules making it possible for individuals to regulate their capacity to inflict violent damage upon one another's bodies and to effect the transition from friend to enemy and back again. As such the handshake is intimately bound up with the expression of the integrity of the self because it is an indication of the trustworthiness of the private self in the public world: ‘my word is my bond’; ‘let's shake on it’. The handshake therefore belongs also to the important category of body contacts through which the private self goes public; it may function, between men, as a highly restrained expression of deeper positive emotions such as love and devotion.

It is through the rules governing body contact that human emotions are structured and brought to life. The most obvious example is, of course, the regulation of sexual contact between male and female bodies. Contact between men and women is closely monitored according to the beliefs of the day concerning what is sexual and what is sexually neutral. But that boundary is blurred by experimentation with cross-dressing, operations to change the external sexual organs, and the manipulation of male and female self-images. The fact that such experimentation is by no means a recent feature of human history implies that the rules of sexual contact, like all other social rules, are not fixed in tablets of stone but open to negotiation, manipulation, and radical change.

A good example is the Western concept of romantic love. Whilst sex is clearly a basic biological guarantee of the perpetuation of the human species, its gradual transformation into a vehicle for the expression of the intimate emotional self is the result of specific forms of social organization and culture. As tragedies like the legend of Tristan and Isolde indicate, the romantic notion of ‘unrequited love’ is made possible by the existence of social barriers preventing the couple from enjoying a sexual relationship. And as many a lover in real life has discovered, the intensity of the emotion is fostered through distance and prohibition. In this cultural context the sexual consummation of the relationship may be less rewarding than was anticipated.

The question of body contact in romantic love raises the broader issue of how the meanings of intimate body contact are constructed and the ways in which they shape personal experience and identity. In love between men and women part of the answer can be found in traditional gender distinctions between male and female bodies and the aesthetic beliefs which associate physical beauty (in both sexes) with sexual desirability. The problematic move from looking to touching is exemplified in the Western art of the nude where, until comparatively recently, bodies were sanitized, desexualized, and idealized. This is especially the case in images of the female nude, where the sexual organs are traditionally painted out and the viewer is presented with a safely ‘sealed’ body with no potential for actual physical sexual relations. Through this device the female body becomes simultaneously desirable and disgusting: desirable in its idealized form yet by implication disgusting in reality. And this complex pattern of associations feeds into the rules of contact between living bodies and the correspondingly ambiguous emotions experienced in everyday life. As the cultural historian Stephen Kern has shown, the move towards more accurate paintings of the bodies of lovers coincides with the demands of women to change the rules of romantic love and to acknowledge the realities of contact with living female bodies. This development provides further evidence of the essential flexibility of the rules of body contact and their close relationship with the social classification of human bodies.

The sealed nude typically encountered, for example, in Victorian art is a reflection of the wider concern over exposing and handling the genitals of the adult human. The problem is that these organs are associated both with the essential and bodily private self and with the close proximity of sex and waste disposal. Having elaborated a social code around the regulation of the ‘private parts’, society is then faced with the need to dismantle these regulations in order to cope with the potentially embarrassing experience of a medical examination. Research into the social organization of nursing care and medical examination of the genitals — increasingly common in contemporary society — shows how the associations between sexuality and exposure and contact with the breasts and genitals must be neutralized by doctors and nurses. Techniques of neutralization are of particular interest because they also involve attempts to depersonalize the ‘patient’ by fragmenting the body into parts and relegating sexuality to the non-medical sphere, thus implying a significant connection between sexuality and the self. These techniques are also therefore methods of depersonalizing body contact by separating the self from the body, a process which is facilitated by the removal of the body from private life into the more public world of the doctor's surgery, clinic, or hospital.

Body contact in close situations involving face-to-face interaction is a feature of everyday life. But as techniques of communication expand there are signs of interpersonal relations becoming increasingly disembodied. Electronic forms of human interaction now make it possible to cultivate a distance from the material bodies of other people. Even intimate sexual contact is being challenged by ‘cybersex’ on the internet. Violence too is becoming depersonalized in modern warfare as technological innovation enhances the distance between combatants and transforms the destruction of human life into a remote action. Whilst the long-term effects of these changes are uncertain, body contact is beginning to look quite different as technology and science become the culture of the future.

Mike Hepworth


Lawler, J. (1991). Behind the screens: nursing, somology and the problem of the body. Churchill Livingstone London.
Seymour, W. (1998). Remarking the body: rehabilitation and change. Routledge, London.