Skip to main content

Power implications of touch in male—Female relationships


Nancy Henley argues that nonreciprocal touch in male—female relations is used by men as a “status reminder” to keep women in their place. This study examines Henley's argument by exposing 60 observers to photographs of male—female interactions and asking them to rate the pictured actors on the degree to which each dominates the interaction. The interactions differ across two dimensions: status differences evident in the age and dress of the participants (female higher vs. equal vs. male higher) and who is touching whom (female toucher vs. no toucher vs. male toucher). Results of the study support but qualify the status reminder argument. Nonreciprocal touch reduces the perceived power of the person being touched whether the high-status or the low-status person is doing the touching and whether the man or the woman is being touched. Thus, nonreciprocal touch can be used by high-status men to remind lower-status women of their subordinate positions. But it can also be used by lower status women to undermine the status claims of higher status men. In the equal status interactions, nonreciprocal touch does not alter power perceptions as systematically. This finding suggests that without other status cues evident in the relationship, touch alone is insufficient to establish a power advantage for either party.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. Love and hate: The natural history of behavior patterns. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goffman, E. Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, N. Y. Anchor Books, 1967.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, E. T. The hidden dimension. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

    Google Scholar 

  • Henley, N. M. The politics of touch. In P. Brown (Ed.), Radical psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. (a)

    Google Scholar 

  • Henley, N. M. Status and sex: Some touching observations. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 1973, 2, 91–93. (b)

    Google Scholar 

  • Henley, N. M. Power, sex, and nonverbal communication. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 1973–1974, 18, 1–26.

    Google Scholar 

  • Montagu, A. Touching: The human significance of skin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

    Google Scholar 

  • Scheflen, A. E. Body language and the social order: Communication as behavioral control. Englewood Cliffs, N. J. Prentice-Hall, 1972.

    Google Scholar 

  • Winer, B. J. Statistical principles of experimental design. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Summerhayes, D.L., Suchner, R.W. Power implications of touch in male—Female relationships. Sex Roles 4, 103–110 (1978).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Status Reminder
  • High Status
  • Lower Status
  • Status Interaction
  • Equal Status