The Power of Holding Hands

Kathleen Downes in Women's Media Center:

HandsWhen I was a little girl, I held hands with my friends. It was a sign of companionship and togetherness, one that wordlessly affirmed the strong force that is female friendship. As I grew from a girl into a woman, I started to get a lot of cultural messages, implicit and explicit, that holding hands was no longer acceptable between friends because it was now assumed to be romantic, reserved for those who are “more than friends.” Suddenly, this way to be close to those I love was sexualized. Hand holding between any two people is beautiful when used as a romantic gesture. But it grieves me, as it should grieve us all, that our culture is so hypersexualized that just about anything we do stands the possibility of being perceived as sexual. This is especially true for women. A simple gesture that in my childhood served as a means of human connection is now treated as sexual, and all its other meanings—like unity, strength, and togetherness—seem to fade away in the eyes of the world.

Not wanting my friends or those around us to misinterpret a gesture of friendship as something more, I stopped holding their hands. I more or less stopped connecting with my friends through touch altogether after childhood because I didn’t want to “give the wrong idea.” When we lose social permission to hold hands as an expression of sisterhood, all women lose something. As a disabled woman, I have felt this loss uniquely and profoundly. I was born with cerebral palsy, and I spend most of my time in a power wheelchair. I view my wheelchair as a tool of freedom, as natural to me as a leg or an arm. I do not resent my wheelchair or see it as confining. Any metaphors likening my chair to a metal prison will be swiftly rejected. However, it cannot be denied that being seated on an electronic throne of metal, plastic, and overpriced foam affects my relationship with physical touch. I live in a world that does not even know how to look at me, much less touch me.

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