A new study out this month in the Journal of Homosexuality looks at what factors affect handholding positions among lesbian couples. When two people hold hands, explain authors Alison Che and Richard Wassersug, “the simple biomechanics of handholding require one partner to take an overhand grip of the other person’s hand.” Just as we are all chaos or order muppets, or on team Jif or team Skippy, we can be divided into lead/anterior handholders and trailing/posterior handholders.* But what does this mean?
In heterosexual pairings, the man is more likely to have the dominant hand—in part because he is often taller, which makes that position practical and comfortable. Yet even when height is factored out of the equation, men tend to favor the overhand grip, while women usually slide their hands underneath. (Think, too, of the way children clasp an adult’s hand, as if to claim protection.) In 1971, the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote that while handholding appears egalitarian, “the details neatly allow an expression of the traditional [heteronormative] ideal.”
He continues: “The insides of the two hands are pressed together, in mutual embrace as it were, but the outside of the male's hand typically faces the oncoming world, whereas the outside of the female's hand merely follows in the wake of projection." Goffman believes that the man can "let go at will, since he is the grasper, allowing him to deal with the enemy; she, however, must wriggle out to be free." But, he asks, "For what reason could she have for needing to free her hand?”
As someone who cannot grasp the hand of another human being without immediately developing an itch or getting hair in my eyes (does scratching my nose count as “dealing with the enemy?”), I assume that last question is sarcastic. But to further complicate the link between relationship dominance and handholding position, Che and Wassersug looked at pairings that are traditionally seen as more equitable: lesbian couples.
The researchers administered an online survey to 340 women throughout the country in same-sex relationships. Participants were asked to briefly grip their partner’s hand in the way that felt “most natural and comfortable” to them. After noting whose hand fell where, these women were questioned about their “age, height in comparison to their partner's height, handedness, duration of their relationship, length of time living with that partner, their income, the country and state/province in which they lived, if they had previously been partnered with a male, and whom they felt had the most ‘say’ in decision-making.”
Out of that overwhelming stream of variables, exactly two made a difference: height (the taller partner was more likely to lead) and relationship history with a man (the partner who’d dated a guy was more likely to trail). “Our results suggest that handholding position does not reflect a dominance or power differential between partners, at least within a female-female relationship,” the researchers write. Instead, it is matter of anatomical expedience. Straight women should be so rational.
Che and Wassersug take things a little further by theorizing a link between heights and dating history, suggesting that shorter (smaller) women may feel more “femme” relative to other ladies, which could lead them to adopt traditionally feminine gender roles. Those same roles would also dispose them to dating guys. So the same variable—shortness—that leads gay women to experiment with men might independently steer them toward taking the lower hand position in their same sex partnerships.
The life-altering effects of a few inches aside, what difference does it make how we entwine our extremities while meandering through the park? I guess it’s nice to be aware of when your expressions of affection are doubling as power displays. Same-sex couples have been held up before as examples of healthy egalitarianism. This study speaks, in one small, specific way, to lesbians’ ability to discard gender scripts that don’t suit them. If only their hetero counterparts were so good at knowing when to tighten a grip—and when to let go.
*Correction, October 4, 2013: This post originally misspelled the name of the peanut butter company Jif.
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