Touch me/Don’t touch me: Bodies, boundaries, and non-sexual physical intimacy

by Natalie Dee



There’s an awful lot of physical intimacy in Aikido. I continue to find it fascinating how comfortable we are with that and how much trust it requires. I also think there’s a lot to learn from the experience of non sexual physical intimacy.

Aside people who work with bodies (doctors, massage therapists etc) few people spend a lot of time in close proximity to the bodies of people other than sexual partners and family members. Indeed our society has pretty strong taboos against touching the bodies of strangers. When these are violated, most often when those in positions of power claim the right to touch those they believe to be subordinate, anger results.

Now in the dojo you consent to allow others to touch you. Training partners get up close and personal. You get to know the bodies of those in your dojo quite well. I know who is flexible and who isn’t. I know who is strong and who isn’t. I could easily guess how much people weigh.

But it’s even more particular than that. I know how certain people smell. I can tell you who has a stiff shoulder. I know who just tolerates pain and who enjoys the pain of a good pin. I know the speed with which people move. Indeed when I recognize people from the dojo out on the street, it’s often their gait, their movements I recognize first.

I also put other people, and they me, in very vulnerable positions. Most strikingly, I throw them. I also take them to the ground and pin them, holding the pin until they tap the mat. Sometimes we don’t just hit the mat we slap it loudly or we hit the arm or the leg of the person pinning us. That slap means stop.

You don’t immediately let go of the pin. That might hurt too. Instead, you gradually and gently release the pin and move away. You turn to face your training partner and then the two of you make eye contact and return to standing together.

Sometimes it’s serious. Sometimes it’s playful. We have quiet moods as a club and at other times there’s a lot of laughter.

There are three observations I want to make about this kind of training and the intimacy it brings about.

First, as unusual as it is to have this kind of contact between adults, it’s especially unusual to have this kind of contact between men and women. There was one man who joined our club who, for religious reasons, wasn’t able to touch women. He trained only with the men. It made me uncomfortable and I’m frankly glad he didn’t stay. That’s been controversial in other Aikido clubs. See Teen felt ‘degraded’ after teacher backed aikido student’s request to avoid touching females on religious grounds. I’m with the teen here and I’ve never been sure how to deal with men who won’t shake my hand. (For a time I had an academic colleague who wouldn’t touch women. It was awkward.)

Second, women don’t often get this kind of opportunity for rough, physical contact. See Jessica’s guest post, In praise of physically aggressive sports and my post on the clash between ladylike norms and sports performance.

Third, it’s a terrific chance for younger women and men to learn about consent and bodily autonomy. You, the person on whom the technique is being performed, get to say when enough is enough. Yes, attack me. Now stop. Personally I find that pretty empowering.

Further reading:
The rules of engagement: Negotiating painful and ‘intimate’ touch in mixed-sex martial arts
Alex Channon and George Jennings

“Within a social-constructionist, feminist framework, we suggest that heteronormative, patriarchal and paternalistic gender structures can potentially be challenged through sustained mixed-sex practice. As such, this article contributes to work on transformative sporting bodies, martial arts and gender subversion.”

 Sociology of Sport Journal, 2013, Volume 30, 487 – 503

Towards the “Undoing” of Gender in Mixed-Sex Martial Arts and Combat Sports
Alex Channon

This paper addresses sex integration in martial arts and combat sports, discussing the implications of mixed-sex training for challenging orthodox Western constructions of gender. Drawing on qualitative interviews with 37 long-term martial arts practitioners from around the English East Midlands between 2007–2011, the paper argues that restrictive, essentialist and hierarchal conceptions of sex difference can be challenged through integrated training practices. The paper advocates the “undoing” of gender in this regard as helping to build a more progressive, inclusive and liberal form of physical culture, seen as a key potential of sex-integrated training. To that end, the paper makes a number of proposals for instructors and practitioners interested in developing such inclusive environments in their own clubs and training settings.”

Societies, 4 (4). pp. 587-605. ISSN 2075-4698 (Print), 2075-4698 (Online) (doi: 10.3390/soc4040587 )

3 thoughts on “Touch me/Don’t touch me: Bodies, boundaries, and non-sexual physical intimacy

  1. Interesting. Certain streams of Asian derived sports –tai chi (some of it is strenuous) a person learns to deflecting the fist, arms of the opponent but in a way that doesn’t hurt oneself nor overly the other person.

    Learn how to deflect negative physical touch.. it actually is a useful skill.

    As for men who won’t even shake a woman’s hand in a business environment, sad and weird actually.

    Of course, there is to me, the other extreme: hugging work colleagues that one doesn’t know well at all or barely at all. Seriously…

  2. Tangentially related – about 20 years ago and friend and colleague was training to be a massage therapist. One of the teachers from her course had offered to give her some extra tuition, and I had volunteered to be the massagée (it’s a word, I made it!) My friend was massaging my back and the teacher bloke decided she wasn’t doing it right, moved her out of the way, and took over. I was immensely uncomfortable with it. I had already realised I didn’t like the man, but he didn’t ask me if he could take over the massage, he just did it. I hadn’t given him permission to touch me and I didn’t like it. These days I would say “I’m here so Jane can practise, can you stop please?” or something, but in my early 20s I didn’t feel able to and he was either oblivious to or chose to ignore my discomfort.

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