No such thing as a free hug?

What started as an innocent public display of affection has turned into a controversy for the Cordova Bay United Church.

  • Feb. 1, 2011 12:00 p.m.

What started as an innocent public display of affection has turned into a controversy for the Cordova Bay United Church.

Last month, youth minister Beth Walker saw her event stifled by security at Mayfair Shopping Centre.

Walker and a group of 12- to 17-year-olds from the church were asked to stop displaying signs offering “Free Hugs.” Walker said the Christmas crackdown left her feeling “scrooged.”

On Jan. 21 — National Hug Day ­— Walker’s second attempt at staging the event was also squelched. Three other shopping centres have now denied Walker’s requests, sparking debate within Cordova Bay United Church over whether or not youth can safely invite hugging.

“I’m not quite sure what to make of it,” Walker said. “All of a sudden, something that’s quite innocent has become something else.”

Hillside Shopping Centre, the Bay Centre and Broadmead Thrifty Foods wouldn’t comment on why Walker’s request was turned down.

The issue prompts Walker to question what a fear of hugging says about our society.

“For me, it’s a bigger conversation about what we’re doing to intimacy,” Walker said, quoting our culture of text messaging and social networking.

“They’re inviting hugs and being supervised … What is sexual and what isn’t?”

Danu Stinson, University of Victoria psychology professor specializing in self esteem and relationship behaviour speaks to the importance of touch in human development — a proven necessity for babies, and ongoing desire for adults.

“Our brainwaves, our blood pressure, our respiratory rate, everything just calms right down when we’re in close contact with a loved one, but these are not loved ones,” Stinson said.

By maintaining zones of interpersonal distances, we’re able to regulate relationships with the people around us, she said, adding that inviting strangers in for a hug is welcoming them into the 0 to 46-centimetre “intimate distance.” Calming physiological effects of a stranger’s hug are possible, but unlikely, Stinson said.

“I actually suspect for most people, letting a stranger into their intimate distance actually makes them uncomfortable and would have the opposite effect that it’s supposed to have through this process.”

“If you’re uncomfortable with it, then you wouldn’t go over for the hug,” she said.

“What was special about Mayfair was that it became a spontaneous response,” Walker said.

An eldercare facility has offered the use of their foyer for Walker’s group. The more removed venue is appealing to Walker, yet she said it would remove the chance for spontaneity.

As far as safety, the concern is not so much with hugging as it is with the chance a child could be touched inappropriately by an adult.

Saanich police Sgt. Dean Jantzen said no offenses are directly linked to offering hugs. Each situation would need to be put into context on a case by case basis if an offence occurred after the invitation to hug.

For Walker, the controversy has underlined the importance of boundaries.

As the effects of our physical boundaries and the benefits of hugs are nearly impossible to quantify, it may be a while before the true value of a free hug can be measured, Stinson said.

“Social isolation, which would involve a lack of touch, is extremely detrimental to someone’s health, both mental and physical,” she said. “Being isolated from other people can cause us to shrivel up and die, basically.”