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Power implications of touch in male—Female relationships

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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.

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

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