Adapted from the work of Ashley Montagu


Discrimination is necessary when studying love and society, because the subject is so big and so complex. Many cultural factors may interlink to produce a result. Determining which factor is the critical one can be extremely challenging. Furthermore, within a culture, families and other smaller groups may create their own sub-cultures; and this further complicates the issue. Nevertheless, the study of cultures is worthwhile as it can yield fruitful insights for individuals about becoming more loving.


With these qualifiers in mind, let us look at one factor that seems to contribute to habitual patterns of nurturing and caring in a culture—Touching.


How does physical contact—nurturing touch—relate to the choice to love? Ashley Montagu, in his book Touching, puts it this way:


“Tactile stimulation appears to be a fundamentally necessary experience for the healthy behavioral development of the individual. Failure to receive tactile stimulation in infancy results in a critical failure to later establish contact relations with others. Supplying that need, even in adults, may serve to give them the reassurance they need, the conviction that they are wanted and valued, and thus involved and included in a connected network of values with others.”


So, we can see that, in this sense, touching does impact on interpersonal relation­ships and may well relate to the individual’s ability to experience love and direct it toward others. There is some evidence to support the idea that the more touching a culture promotes, the less aggressive/violent it is, and the less touching a culture allows, the more aggressive/violent it is. Montagu describes the study, published in The Futurist by James Prescott, which analyzed forty-nine non-literate cultures. Prescott found that, in all but one culture, those which had violent adult behavior gave low tactile experience to their infants, and those which had peaceable adult behavior gave high tactile experi­ence to their infants.


Let us look at some specifics about tactile experiences in different cultures. (Please note that all these cultures are non-literate, so exercise discrimination as to exactly how their stories can relate to our culture.)


The Kaingang of Brazil

These people, according to Montagu, are “splendidly tactile.” The children “lie like cats absorbing the delicious stroking of adults. Children receive an enormous amount of attention from adults, and can always depend upon someone to caress and cuddle them… Married and unmarried men lie cheek by jowl, arms around one another, legs slung across bodies... but never do the men make an overt sexual gesture at one another.” “The basis,” writes Jules Henry, who studied these people, “for man’s loyalty to man has roots in the many warm bodily contacts between them… The relationships built on these hours of lying together. ..bear fruit in the softening of conflicts that are so characteristic of the Kaingang.” Violent conflict occurs only between men who have never shared such physical closeness.


The Tasaday of Mindanao

This was a recently discovered, very small culture which lives quite primitively. According to Peggy Durdin, an observer of the Tasaday, “everyone who meets them is immediately impressed by their sensitivity, gentleness, and loving nature… Adults and children do not seem afraid of being openly loving. They hug each other publicly, nuzzle their heads together, put their arms around each other…The Tasaday live in remarkable harmony. I found no one who had heard them exchange harsh words or even speak sharply to the young. In the face of something displeasing, they seem to use the tactic of evasion: They simply walk away.”

The Arapesh of New Guinea

 “Among the Arapesh, children are always being held by someone…Half an hour’s cuddling, and the child will follow anyone anywhere. The response to demonstrative affection is immediate. As a result of such demonstrations of affection from everyone on every possible occasion, the Arapesh child grows up with a complete sense of emotional security in the care of others. The result is an easy, gentle, receptive, unaggressive adult personality and a society in which competitive or aggressive games are unknown, and which warfare, in the sense of organized expeditions to plunder, conquer, kill, or attain glory, is absent.”


Perhaps the best way to use such anecdotal reports of other cultures is to see them as evidence that there are other ways of doing things besides the ones with which we are familiar. If we feel as if something about us is wrong—or not the best way to do things—there are other options. If we feel that we have difficulty choosing to love, the reason may not lie in some warpage of us as individuals, but rather in cultural habits that are not as supportive of our choosing to love as they could be.


But what can we do about this? Well, we can test the idea that physical contact is related to the ability to love by increasing the amount of pleasurable touch in our lives, and seeing if that makes it easier to be loving. And we can search our memories for concrete instances that we’ve seen of special ways of being loving that may have run counter to our culture’s dominant themes.


Exercises for Getting in Touch:

1.       Exploring your tactile environment. Tell your partner about the tactile environment you live in now. Who touches you as a regular part of your life, and how often does this happen? What parts of your body get touched the most? The least? Who do you feel comfortable touching, and how? Do you feel comfortable with the amount of tactile contact you get in your life now? If not, what could you do to increase it?


2.       Massage. Choose a part of you that you feel comfortable having your partner rub—neck and shoulders, back, feet, hands—whatever seems best to you. Have your partner spend about five minutes rubbing you as you like. Then, switch roles. What did you notice as a result of this? Is this comfortable and enjoyable for you, or do unresolved feelings or discomforts surface?


For Further Study

Read one of the recommended readings on love and society, listed on the next sheet. Alternatively, you can view the video on Touching produced by the Nova programming on Public Television.


Try testing the hypothesis that if you receive more nurturing, physical contact, it will be easier to choose to experience and direct love. Using the space below, make a list of the ways you could increase the amount of pleasurable touch in your life. Place the list in a prominent place in your home, and check off the number of times you create each experience. Note your reactions to increasing physical contact. Does it seem to help you become more loving?


Become aware of how you may be acting on cultural programming that inhibits the choice to express emotional warmth and physical affection. Choose one “program” you’d like to change, and write it out below. Then, write the new program you’d like to put into effect. Over the next month, do your best to live the new program and not the old.


Recommended Reading

Touching, by Ashley Montagu

This is the classic book on the importance of touch and the correspondence between physical contact and nurturing behavior. Montagu’s style is scientific but readable, and his book covers just about everything there is to say about the area. Of particular interest is the chapter “Culture and Contact,” which summarizes the touching norms of many different cultures.


The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff

Here is a rather unusual, not to say unlikely, book—the very readable description of a primitive matriarchal culture, as seen by a fashion model who visited and observed it a number of times. Liedloff’s observations are fascinating and anecdotal, and provide some clear pictures of matriarchal ways of being. Liedloff devotes much of the book to her theories on childrearing drawn from her experiences and to analyzing Western cultural patterns in terms of her views.