During Aline Zoldbrod's childhood, she and her father had a bonding ritual. She would scratch his back, then he'd return the favor.
"I associated touch with pleasure," said Zoldbrod, a Lexington, Mass., clinical psychologist who has studied how childhood affects sexuality. "Having my back scratched means the person really loves me."
Although there was nothing sexual about Zoldbrod's interaction with her father, how a child is touched is central to shaping a person's sexuality later in life, she said. Families in which love is readily expressed through nonsexual touch impart caring, comfort, safety and relaxation through a hug, a kiss or a stroke.
But many otherwise caring, concerned families just don't use touch to express love enough, said Zoldbrod, author of "Sex Smart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It" (New Harbinger, 1998).
One of Zoldbrod's patients, a 50-year-old woman, said she thought of her body "as a means to carry my head around." She came from a "good family" that fed and clothed her well, but her parents were critical, cold and rarely touched their children. Sex, for her, was a grin-and-bear-it situation.
"She was married to a guy who just loved her," said Zoldbrod. "He loved sex, and he wanted her to enjoy it." After a year of weekly touching and talking exercises (mostly nonsexual), the woman finally began to feel pleasure in being touched. For the first time in six years of marriage, the couple experienced sexual passion.
When an adult has what seems to be a strange aversion to being touched on a certain part of his or her body, there is often a childhood-rooted reason. Maureen Wood, a 40-year-old Buena Park mother of two, recalls a brother grabbing her by the ankles and trying to pull her off balance. "My husband can tell you, no one can ever touch my ankles."
Unwanted tickling can leave emotional scars that manifest themselves in aversion to certain kinds of touch. A pattern of tickling a child until she is sick is hostile and tormenting, said Irene Goldenberg, a clinical psychologist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. A child learns she needs to protect herself and later may be guarded sexually.
Touch can also be suffocating, controlling and anxiety-producing, especially when it comes from parents who are fearful or tense. And insincere touching is almost as bad as no touching.
"Kids are amazingly intuitive about the message behind the touch," said Goldenberg. "Sometimes a parent will hug a child when they are not feeling loving but are feeling angry and uncomfortable."
For some reason, Americans are less touchy-feely than some other cultures. Tiffany Field, a University of Miami research psychologist, compared American and French people in public settings to see who touched more often. Watching couples in a cafe, she found that French couples touched 110 times in 30 minutes compared with twice for U.S. couples. On a playground, French parents touched their preschoolers about four times as often as their American counterparts. A similar study that compared French with American adolescents found that American adolescents touched themselves (played with their hair, etc.) while Parisian teens tended to touch each other.
"If touch is a part of a general daily diet, a kid will transfer that into adult relationships and have healthier adult relationships," said Field, who instructed parents in one study to give their adolescents regular massages. Afterward, the adolescents reported feeling closer to their parents.
As one famous touch researcher surmised: Without touch, we would cease to exist.
"If touch didn't feel good, there would be no species, parenthood or survival," proclaimed neurologist Saul Schanberg in Diane Ackerman's "History of the Senses" (Vintage Books, 1991). "If we didn't like the feel of touching and patting one another, we wouldn't have had sex. Touch is not only basic to our species, it is the key to it."
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.