Physical intimacy

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The Proposal by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1872) William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Proposal (1872).jpg
The Proposal by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1872)

Physical intimacy is sensual proximity or touching. It is an act or reaction, such as an expression of feelings (including close friendship, platonic love, romantic love or sexual attraction), between people. Examples of physical intimacy include being inside someone's personal space, holding hands, hugging, kissing, caressing and sexual activity. [1] Physical intimacy can often convey the real meaning or intention of an interaction in a way that accompanying speech simply cannot do. Physical intimacy can be exchanged between any people but as it is often used to communicate positive and intimate feelings, it most often occurs in people who have a preexisting relationship, whether familial platonic or romantic, with romantic relationships having increased physical intimacy. Several forms of romantic touch have been noted including holding hands, hugging, kissing, cuddling, caressing and massaging, and physical affection is highly correlated with overall relationship and partner satisfaction. [2]


It is possible to be physically intimate with someone without actually touching them; however, a certain proximity is necessary. For instance, a sustained eye contact is considered a form of physical intimacy, analogous to touching. When a person enters someone else's personal space for the purpose of being intimate, it is physical intimacy, regardless of the lack of actual physical contact.

Most people partake in physical intimacy, which is a natural part of interpersonal relationships and human sexuality, and research has shown it has health benefits. A hug or touch can result in the release of oxytocin hormone and in a reduction in stress hormones. [3]

Due to the important role that language-based communication plays in humans, the role of touch is often downplayed, however there is ample evidence that physical touch still plays an important role in everyday human relationships. While humans often communicate verbally, they also participate in close contact. Physical touch has emotional and social connotations that often far outweigh anything that can be expressed via language. [4]

Inducements towards physical intimacy can come from various sources. During colder seasons, humans as well as other animals seek physical intimacy with one another as a means to apportion thermoregulation. [5] Some forms of physical touch among monkeys and apes, serve multiple functions, including cleaning, treatment of a lice influx or infection and social grooming. [6]

Some forms of physical intimacy may be received negatively. This attitude is especially marked amongst those with haphephobia. [7] One study has shown that there's generally a higher level of physical intimacy allowed between immediate family members than between second-degree relatives. [8] Intimacy norms are usually more negative near erogenous zones. Some jurisdictions may specify this as referring to the genitals, buttocks and female breasts. [9]


Physical affection and intimacy appear to have a profoundly important role during infancy and childhood. The skin is the largest sensory organ and is the first to develop. Humans experience touch as early as fetal development, when the fetus begins receiving sensory information from coming in contact with the mothers’ abdominal wall. In infancy, babies receive significant amounts of touch through being held, cuddled, and breastfed. In addition to necessary functions like breastfeeding, touch is also used to sooth and calm babies or with skin-to-skin contact called "kangaroo care." [10] Vision and auditory senses are limited in infancy and babies are introduced to their world primarily through touch and are able to distinguish between temperature and texture. [11]

Decreased amounts of affectionate touch from caregivers (i.e. for infants in institutional settings or infants with depressed mothers) is related to cognitive and neurodevelopmental delays. [12] These delays appear to persist for years and sometimes whole lifetimes. [13] Studies suggest that if depressed mothers give their infants massages, it benefits both the baby and themselves, increasing growth and development for the babies and leading to increased sensitivity and responsivity of the mothers. [14] There are also biologically beneficial effects of infant massage, with premature infants displaying lower cortisol levels after being held by their mothers. During the holding period, the mothers' cortisol levels also decreased. [15]

Personal space

Young men engage in cuddling, a form of physical intimacy Physical intimacy.jpg
Young men engage in cuddling, a form of physical intimacy

Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger or anxiety when somebody encroaches on their personal space without consent. [16] Entering somebody's personal space is normally an indication of familiarity and intimacy. However, in modern society, especially in crowded urban communities, it is at times difficult to maintain personal space, for example, in a crowded train, elevator or street. Many people find the physical proximity within crowded spaces to be psychologically disturbing and uncomfortable. [16] In an impersonal crowded situation, eye contact tends to be avoided. Even in a crowded place, preserving personal space is important. Non-consensual intimate and sexual contact, such as frotteurism and groping, are unacceptable.

On the other hand, most people occasionally desire physical proximity to others, and will at times welcome a familiar and trusted person into their personal space. When a partner or friend is not available at such a time, some people satisfy this need for human contact in a crowded venue, such as a bar, nightclub, rock concert, street festival, etc.

Display of affection

People who are on a familiar basis may enter into each other's personal space to make physical contact. These can be indicators of affection and trust. The manner in which people display affection is generally different in a public context to a private one. In private, people in an intimate relationship or who are familiar with each other may be at ease with physical contact and displays of affection, which may involve:

Bonding through intimate, non-sexual contact between platonic friends and family members includes, but is not limited to, holding hands, hugging, cuddling, and kissing on the cheeks.

In public, however, and depending on the nature of the relationship between the people, a public display of affection is generally constrained by social norms and can range from a gesture, such as a kiss or hug in greeting, to an embrace or holding hands. Maintaining eye contact can be regarded socially and psychologically as analogous to touching.


The role of touch in interpersonal relationships across development and in different cultures is understudied, however, some observational data suggests that in cultures who engage in more physical intimacy have lower rates of violence, demonstrated in adolescents and children. [17] Peoples living nearer to the equator (Mediterranean, central and south America, Islamic countries) tend to have high-contact social norms, whereas countries further from the equator tend to be lower contact (northern Europe, north America, northeast Asian). The public display of interpersonal touch and intimacy appears to vary across cultures as well. [18]

The term "skinship" (スキンシップ, sukinshippu) originated as a pseudo-English Japanese word ( wasei-eigo ), which was coined to describe the intimacy, or closeness, between a mother and a child. [19] [20] [21] Today, the word is generally used for bonding through physical contact, such as holding hands, hugging, or parents washing their child at a bath. The earliest citation of this word appears in Nihon Kokugo Daijiten in 1971. [22] According to Scott Clark, author of a study of Japanese bathing culture, the word is a portmanteau combining "skin" with the last syllable of "friendship". [23] The similarity with the English word 'kinship' suggests a further explanation. [21] Use of the word "skinship" in English publications seems to focus on the notion of sharing a bath naked, an idea known in Japanese as "naked association" (裸の付き合い, hadaka no tsukiai).[ citation needed ] It is not clear why the meaning shifted to the parent–child relationship when borrowed back into English. This word is also used in South Korea. [24]

Among non-human primates

Some animals participate in behaviors similar to physical affection in humans. Called social grooming or allo-grooming, these behaviors are less common outside of primates, while other species do perform these behaviors, primates seem to spend much more time doing this compared to other animals. Some species devote as much as 20% of their day to grooming behaviors, much of which is spent grooming others, rather than themselves. [25] [26] In more social species the amount of time spent in self grooming is much less than the time spent in social grooming. While these behaviors may appear to be for the purpose of hygiene (i.e. removal of parasites, fur cleanliness, etc.), evidence suggests that grooming behaviors perform a unique social function which facilitates bonding. [25] From an evolutionary perspective, the amount of time being devoted to allo-grooming appears to exceed the amount of time in which it would be adaptive, therefore underscoring the idea that grooming must have a purpose beyond hygiene maintenance. Furthermore, there are core grooming partnerships which remain quite stable and do not change frequently, sometimes with the same partners on the timescale of years. [27]

Some argue that grooming is something which is exchanged like a service with the expectation that equal amounts of time will be spent or reciprocated by their grooming partner. [28] Primates tend to groom each other equal amounts of time or with the expectation that they will be reciprocated with defense in a dangerous situation. Primates who spend more time grooming each other are more likely to defend each other when attacked. Although it is not clear how this effect is brought about, in all likelihood it is the protective effect that known relationships have: more dominant animals are less likely to attack or harass an individual who is known to have grooming partners who might come to its aid. However, the likelihood of a female going to the aid of another female when the latter is under attack is significantly correlated with the amount of time the two of them spend grooming with each other. [29] A more plausible interpretation is that grooming provides the psychological underpinning for an individual's willingness to offer subsequent support. [30] It does this not by offering a direct exchange of benefits, but rather by creating the psychological environment that allows support to be traded mutually.

See also

Related Research Articles

Flirting Social behavior that suggests interest in a deeper relationship with the other person

Flirting or coquetry is a social and sexual behavior involving spoken or written communication, as well as body language, by one person to another, either to suggest interest in a deeper relationship with the other person, or if done playfully, for amusement.

Foreplay Set of emotionally and physically intimate acts between people meant to create sexual arousal and desire for sexual activity

Foreplay is a set of emotionally and physically intimate acts between two or more people meant to create sexual arousal and desire for sexual activity. Although foreplay is typically understood as physical sexual activity, nonphysical activities, such as mental or verbal acts, may in some contexts be foreplay. Foreplay can mean different things to different people.


Primatology is the scientific study of primates. It is a diverse discipline at the boundary between mammalogy and anthropology, and researchers can be found in academic departments of anatomy, anthropology, biology, medicine, psychology, veterinary sciences and zoology, as well as in animal sanctuaries, biomedical research facilities, museums and zoos. Primatologists study both living and extinct primates in their natural habitats and in laboratories by conducting field studies and experiments in order to understand aspects of their evolution and behaviour.

Proxemics is the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction.


A hug is a form of endearment, universal in human communities, in which two or more people put their arms around the neck, back, or waist of one another and hold each other closely. If more than two people are involved, it may be referred to as a group hug.

Public display of affection Acts of physical intimacy in the view of others

Public displays of affection (PDA) are acts of physical intimacy in the view of others. What is an acceptable display of affection varies with respect to culture and context.

Harry Harlow American psychologist

Harry Frederick Harlow was an American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, which manifested the importance of caregiving and companionship to social and cognitive development. He conducted most of his research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow worked with him for a short period of time.

Robin Dunbar

Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. He is currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is best known for formulating Dunbar's number, a measurement of the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships".

Haptic communication Branch of nonverbal communication that refers to the ways in which people and animals communicate, and interact via the sense of touch

Haptic communication is a branch of nonverbal communication that refers to the ways in which people and animals communicate and interact via the sense of touch. Touch is the most sophisticated and intimate of the five senses. Touch or haptics, from the ancient Greek word haptikos is extremely important for communication; it is vital for survival.

An intimate relationship is an interpersonal relationship that involves physical or emotional intimacy. Although an intimate relationship is commonly a sexual relationship, it may also be a non-sexual relationship involving family, friends, or acquaintances.

Social grooming Behavior in social animals

Social grooming is a behavior in which social animals, including humans, clean or maintain one another's body or appearance. A related term, allogrooming, indicates social grooming between members of the same species. Grooming is a major social activity, and a means by which animals who live in close proximity may bond and reinforce social structures, family links, and build companionships. Social grooming is also used as a means of conflict resolution, maternal behavior and reconciliation in some species. Mutual grooming typically describes the act of grooming between two individuals, often as a part of social grooming, pair bonding, or a precoital activity.

Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. There is some evidence that brain structure predicts the number of friends one has, though causality remains to be seen. Dunbar explained it informally as "the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar."

Dependency need is "the vital, originally infantile needs for mothering, love, affection, shelter, protection, security, food, and warmth."

Human bonding is the process of development of a close, interpersonal relationship between two or more people. It most commonly takes place between family members or friends, but can also develop among groups, such as sporting teams and whenever people spend time together. Bonding is a mutual, interactive process, and is different from simple liking. It is the process of nurturing social connection.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to interpersonal relationships.

Social connection is the experience of feeling close and connected to others. It involves feeling loved, cared for, and valued, and forms the basis of interpersonal relationships.

"Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship." —Brené Brown, Professor of social work at the University of Houston

Cognitive valence theory (CVT) is a theoretical framework that describes and explains the process of intimacy exchange within a dyad relationship. Peter A. Andersen, PhD created the cognitive valence theory to answer questions regarding intimacy relationships among colleagues, close friends and intimate friends, married couples and family members. Intimacy or immediacy behavior is that behavior that provides closeness or distance within a dyad relationship. Closeness projects a positive feeling in a relationship, and distance projects a negative feeling within a relationship. Intimacy or immediacy behavior can be negatively valenced or positively valenced. Valence, associated with physics, is used here to describe the degree of negativity or positivity in expected information. If your partner perceives your actions as negative, then the interaction may repel your partner away from you. If your partner perceives your actions as positive, then the interaction may be accepted and may encourage closeness. Affection and intimacy promotes positive valence in a relationship. CVT uses non-verbal and verbal communications criteria to analyze behavioral situations.

Non-reproductive sexual behavior consists of sexual activities animals participate in that do not lead to the reproduction of the species. Although procreation continues to be the primary explanation for sexual behavior in animals, recent observations on animal behavior have given alternative reasons for the engagement in sexual activities by animals. Animals have been observed to engage in sex for social interaction, demonstration of dominance, aggression relief, exchange for significant materials, and sexual stimulation. Observed non-procreative sexual activities include non-copulatory mounting, oral sex, genital stimulation, anal stimulation, interspecies mating, and acts of affection. There have also been observations of animals engaging in homosexual behaviors, as well as sex with dead animals and sex involving juveniles.

Affiliative conflict theory (ACT) is a social psychological approach that encompasses interpersonal communication and has a background in nonverbal communication. This theory postulates that "people have competing needs or desires for intimacy and autonomy". In any relationship, people will negotiate and try to balance out their own behavioral acts of to maintain a comfortable level of intimacy.

Tie signs Clues pointing to a relationship

Tie signs are signs, signals, and symbols, that are revealed through people's actions as well as objects such as engagement rings, wedding bands, and photographs of a personal nature that suggest a relationship exists between two people. For romantic couples, public displays of affection (PDA) including things like holding hands, an arm around a partner's shoulders or waist, extended periods of physical contact, greater-than-normal levels of physical proximity, grooming one's partner, and “sweet talk” are all examples of common tie signs. Tie signs inform the participants, as well as outsiders, about the nature of a relationship, its condition, and even what stage a relationship is in.


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