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Are women more sensitive to touch than men?

Mike was having an argument with his girlfriend Rita. In the midst of a hateful exchange of words, Rita decided that she’d had enough and turned around to leave. 

Mike grabbed her arm, in an attempt to prevent her from leaving, wanting to continue the altercation. It was at that very instant when Rita pulled herself back and shouted angrily, “Don't TOUCH me!”

Now my question is this: Had it been Mike who was trying to leave and Rita preventing him from doing so, would he have said the same thing?

Why don’t we ever hear men saying “Don’t touch me” to their female partners in a relationship when they’re angry or emotionally cut off with them?

The short answer is: It doesn’t matter to men. Men don’t care as much about touch and touching as women do in relationships.


Women and touch

The reason why women attach a huge importance to touch in relationships is that they see touching as a crucial part of bonding. They give more importance to cuddling their men, friends, and children.

This is evident in the typical greeting gestures of women with their same-sex friends. They will shake hands, hug and kiss their best friends. Look at the pictures that women upload on social media with their friends. You’ll often see they’re very close to each other, holding each other tight, cuddling, and sometimes even kissing if they're not making a pout face.

If men were to upload such a picture with their male friends where they’re cuddling and embracing each other, everyone would feel uncomfortable. Heterosexual men avoid touching their male friends ‘inappropriately’ and both men and women display a repulsive attitude toward those who do it, often suspecting them to be gay.

Some have dubbed this common phenomenon 'a lack of platonic touch in men's lives' and blame society for such stereotypical behavior. It's more likely a visceral reaction that has nothing to do with societal influence since such behavior cuts across cultures.

The reason behind all this is that men do not see touching as essential for social bonding, at least not as important as women do. This stems from the fact that they tend to have a lower sensitivity to touch than women.

It’s all in the skin

Skin is the organ of touch and if women give more importance to touching it only makes sense to assume that their skin sensitivity should be higher than men. Women show greater sensitivity to pressure on the skin on every part of the body.1A microscopic analysis of women’s skin revealed that they have more nerve receptors on their skin.2

Also, women’s higher sensitivity to touch (at least in the hands) could be because they tend to have smaller fingers than men. 

People who have smaller fingers have a finer sense of touch and researchers believe it’s because tinier fingers likely have more closely spaced sensory receptors. This, however, applies to men too. Men who have smaller fingers (which is a rare case) have greater touch sensitivity.3

Simple observation tells us that men’s skin tends to be coarser than women’s. This is why women’s skin wrinkles more easily as they age.

Higher sensitivity = higher pain

If women have more nerve receptors on their skin then it’s obvious they should feel more pain in comparison to men.

Studies have consistently shown that women exhibit greater pain sensitivity, enhanced pain facilitation, and reduced pain inhibition compared to men.4

But what would main gain, evolutionarily speaking, by having a lower sensitivity to pain?

When puberty hits men and their bodies prepare them for ‘hunting’ they lose most of their sensitivity to touch.5

Ancestral men needed desensitized bodies because they came across pain-inducing situations more often than women. They had to chase their prey through thorny bushes and fight with their enemies. They couldn’t worry about feeling pain in such circumstances. They couldn’t let pain stop them doing what was critical for their survival.

Many men have had that experience, usually as teens, where they’re so engaged in an outdoor game that they have no idea they scraped their knee. They don’t even feel the pain during the entire game but only afterward- when their attention is drawn to the bleeding and scarred knee.


ancestral man feeling pain

Evolution, women, touch, and social bonds

The reason why women have a higher touch sensitivity that facilitates social bonding in them could be because they've evolved as natural caregivers and nurturers. 

Human babies, unlike other mammals, require extended periods of nurturing and caring. The higher touch sensitivity in women would ensure that human babies receive all the extra care and nurturing they require while women simultaneously feel good providing it.

Physical contact with infants is critical for their physical and psychological development. It not only reduces the stress levels of both the mother and the infant but a study conducted on premature infants also showed that the benefits they received from ample touching by their mothers extended up to the first 10 years of their lives.6

Therefore, the importance that women give to touching in relationships is likely an extension of their predisposition to provide adequate skin-skin contact to their babies.



References:

1. Moir, A. P., & Jessel, D. (1997). Brain sex. Random House (UK).

2. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. (2005, October 25). Study Reveals Reason Women Are More Sensitive To Pain Than Men. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 22, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/10/051025073319.htm

3. Society for Neuroscience. (2009, December 28). Women tend to have better sense of touch due to smaller finger size. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 22, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091215173017.htm

4. Bartley, E. J., & Fillingim, R. B. (2013). Sex differences in pain: a brief review of clinical and experimental findings. British journal of anaesthesia111(1), 52-58.

5. Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2016). Why Men Don't Listen & Women Can't Read Maps: How to spot the differences in the way men & women think. Hachette UK.

6. Feldman, R., Rosenthal, Z., & Eidelman, A. I. (2014). Maternal-preterm skin-to-skin contact enhances child physiologic organization and cognitive control across the first 10 years of life. Biological psychiatry75(1), 56-64.


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