No such thing as a free hug in Victoria?

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, pointing to 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 behaviours, speaks to the importance of touch in human development – a proven necessity for babies, and ongoing desire for adults. “Social isolation, which would involve a lack of touch, is extremely detrimental to someone’s health, both mental and physical. Being isolated from other people can cause us to shrivel up and die, basically,” Stinson said.

“Our brainwaves, our blood pressure, our respiratory rate, everything just calms right down when we’re in close contact with a loved one — but (in the case of hugging strangers at a mall) these are not loved ones,”

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.”

Stinson calls the event “hardly a dangerous activity.”

“If you’re uncomfortable with it, then you wouldn’t go over for the hug,” she said, encapsulating why Walker was interested in staging the event again, after experiencing a few minutes of hugs with unsuspecting holiday shoppers.

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

Recently, an eldercare facility has offered the use of their foyer for Walker and her 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 weighed in on the issue, saying no offences 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 – distances that Stinson said are upheld more in North American culture than many European countries.

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.

Local hugs on big screen

Esquimalt High students show that spiritual well-being is easy to share with “Free Hugs,” a short film by Fenn Olsen, presented by the Victoria Foundation at Victoria Independent Film Festival. The film screens at 5 p.m., Feb. 12 at the Odeon before “Primodial Ties.”

Controversial holiday

Jan. 21 – National Hug Day – was officially patented in the U.S. in 1986. Don’t expect stat pay any time soon.

Schools quick to ban hugs

Canadian children’s performer Charlotte Diamond may have taught kids in the ‘80s that “4 Hugs a Day” was the minimum, but some selected schools – from B.C. to Britain – have imposed a ban on touching. On Jan. 17, a Grade 12 student from New Hampshire wrote into a popular parenting blog to publicize a petition against her school’s no-touch policy. Two days later, following the suicide of one of her classmates, the student postponed the petition indefinitely. Respondents to the post noted hugs were not regulated in the wake of the tragedy.

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