Mammals groom. As I type this, I’m sat next to a cat who is busily washing herself, with her tongue. For most mammals, washing means licking. For any non-solitary creature, grooming is also a collective activity with a community bonding aspect to it. I wonder when it was that humans stopped licking themselves, and each other. Clothes clearly have an influence. To lick a fellow human these days could only be understood as a sexual act, and certainly none of us would be likely to think of it as hygiene.
The grooming of fellow humans is also something we no longer do as a natural part of daily life. Parent humans apply water, cleaning products and brushes to offspring, until said offspring can do it for themselves. Those who cannot clean themselves are groomed by others, but this is often the kind of work we pay people to do in the context of care homes. We don’t mind paying for grooming, for haircuts and washes, for the treatments of beauty parlour and spa – if we can afford it, that is.
It’s interesting to speculate what human relationships would be like if we routinely groomed each other, with no sexual connotation, and no financial aspect. We know from other mammals, that connections are reinforced by this. I’m prepared to bet, based on how modern humans respond to hairdressers and spa days, that there are some considerable feel good factors attached to being groomed. In monkeys, grooming can also be part of the expression and reinforcement of social hierarchy, which is complicated for a creature like me, but I think it’s likely a better way of handling it than many of the alternatives. It certainly users fewer resources.
I think this is all part and parcel of the way we’ve tended to sexualise all forms of contact. We tend to see touch as sexual, and thus only accept it in the context of certain kinds of relationship – sexual, familial or paid for. The word ‘grooming’ is increasingly used to suggest preparing someone for inappropriate sexual contact. There are comforts we aren’t allowed to provide for each other, but are fine if you stump up the cash. Other ways of being are clearly possible.