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In the West, you express deference by distance. You simply cannot touch Elizabeth II. In business situations, you shake hands rather than hug, and you hold out your hand to be shaken rather than taking hold of the other person’s hand. So I’m thinking about which bodies are more likely to receive touch, and touch without specific necessity or permission. In socially acceptable scenarios:

Disabled people get stroked and patted, and other people feel the urge to take charge of wheelchairs and grab people’s arms to steer them around. Kids get their hair ruffled by strangers, and are required to kiss and hug relatives and relatives’ friends. Women get hands to the arm and the small of the back, and kisses on cheeks, where men would not. Non-white people’s hair is apparently free for the touching, and non-white bodies are coded as a lot less socially valuable than white people’s.

If distance is deference, if bodily autonomy is a marker of social status, than this is a pretty clear way of tracking how marginalised people are valued.

Some bodies, those of somebodies, are not acted upon, and some bodies are not seen as belonging to full people. Because if the toucher is valuing their desire to touch – and society legitimates that desire – over whatever the touched person might want, the toucher is only acknowledging their own thoughts, feelings, autonomy, and personhood.

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