September 2, 2013 by aggiesez
People are really touchy. That is, most people desire or require touch and affection on a regular basis — nonsexual as well as sexual. No kidding: touch helps keep you healthy and happy. (Don’t believe me? The National Institutes of Health says so.)
This is why in the last few years I’ve gotten very creative about how I meet my needs for affectionate touch. And I’m a much happier person because of this. You can be, too.
The catch is, we live a generally sex-negative (and thus oversexualized, but not in a good way) society. And a highly couple-centric one at that. Consequently, almost any human interaction is subject to intense scrutiny and judgment according to its potential sexual overtones — and whether those overtones are deemed socially “normal” or “good,” or “wrong” or “dangerous.”
Most of us, at some point, worry about whether casual touch or affection with someone who is not already an intimate partner might “send the wrong message” (particularly about whether we’d like to ride the relationship escalator with that person), “start a rumor,” confuse/offend the person we touch or cause anyone witnessing such gestures to negatively assess our character or judgment.
Even the vast body of research that’s been done into the physical and psychological effects of casual touch and affection mostly focuses on couples — contact that happens within the context of an established intimate partnership. That sends the unfortunately limiting message: Touch is good for you and you need it, but it’s only safe/acceptable to seek it from your partner. (And if you don’t have a partner, you need to get one first.)
This can make it awkward simply to converse or spend time one-on-one with someone who could be even slightly construed as a potential sexual partner — let alone affectionately touch other people who aren’t already established as your lover or partner. Because in this society, unless you’re talking about hugging a close relative or a child in your care, or shaking the hand of someone you’ve just met, or helping someone who needs physical assistance, or paying for a clothed chair massage, all touch is considered potentially sexual and therefore risky because of what it might “mean” or “lead to.”
In other words, touch often gets framed in terms of roles and control rather than simple human connection. Most of us at some point try (usually subconsciously) to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others by refraining from touch. It’s the ultimate in hands-off micromanagement. Yeah, I’ve done it too. I still do, sometimes. Welcome to life in the real world.
…Sure, many of us have gotten over that social crap well enough to be comfortable hugging our friends (even our attractive ones), either to say hello/goodbye, or to punctuate emotionally significant moments or exchanges. That’s some progress. But for most people, occasional, brief, friendly hugs aren’t enough to keep us happy.
One big reason why people engage in intimate relationships is to gain reliable access affection and touch. Because, under current social norms, intimate partners are the main (and perhaps only) people you’re “allowed” to be physically affectionate with. In fact, many people believe their partners “owe” them affection and touch on demand; or that it’s a scarce resource which partners must ration strictly for each other. Which screws up our relationship to casual intimacy even more, by conflating expressions of status and territoriality with the experience of comfort and affection.
(Then there’s the additional screwiness of social norms dictating limited access to honest consensual sex, an issue poly people handle differently than monogamous people, but I’ll leave that aside at the moment…)
In fact, “keeping in touch” in a physical sense is a big reason why I’ve seen so many people dive far too hastily into intimate relationships — and be far too slow to leave unhealthy or unfulfilling ones. When I talk to people who say they feel lonely, one of the most acute and painful parts of that experience is lack of easy access to affectionate touch (cuddling, caressing, nonsexual kissing, etc.).
I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve felt pretty damn lonely many times during my life — including within long-term committed relationships. It hurts. Fortunately I’ve found that loneliness is usually solvable — at least in terms of touch and affection.
When it comes to touch, most of us have lots of options — if we’re willing to reach out, ask for touch, set aside social norms, and stop caring too much about the scrutiny and judgment of others. Honestly, who and how you touch is probably not very interesting to most people, so loosen up! Having this bit of courage is the key to physically connecting with people in a positive, nurturing way.
How I get enough touch, without having a steady partner
Personally, I like living alone and I don’t have (and don’t want) a conventional primary partner. I’m open to having deeper, ongoing committed relationships — and while I’m dating two men, at the moment I don’t have a “steady partner” in any committed sense.
I’m fine with that — in part because I still get enough touch to keep me happy. Here’s how I do that. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)
1. I can take no for an answer, gracefully. I’m listing this point first because it really is the most important part. Touch can only be affectionate and nurturing when it is 100% mutually consensual! And you can only really hear, and enjoy, a yes when you can accept a no.
It doesn’t matter if you really believe that someone “needs a hug.” Always ask first, especially if you don’t have a prior history of sharing physical affection with that person.
Don’t proceed until you have a clear and positive visual or verbal response. When it comes to touch, a “maybe” or no noticeable response should be taken as a “no” — since so many of us are socialized to avoid rejecting others.
There are gray areas, sure — like casually touching someone’s shoulder when you’re both laughing at a joke. Or maybe a friend who usually likes hugs doesn’t want one at that particular moment. None of us are 100% perfect about asking for consent before all casual touch. Just do your best: pay attention to, and honor, the feedback you get. People will show or tell you when they’re not comfortable with you touching them.
Here’s the rough part: It is totally okay for someone to not want to touch you — you, personally! — even if they are currently touching other people around you. This is when you really need to evaluate whether you just want touch, or whether you’re trying to initiate or deepen a connection with that specific person. If you want to connect, for whatever reason, with a person who’s pulling back from you, pushing their boundaries definitely won’t help matters. Give it a rest.
If in a given situation you really just want affectionate touch, go find it from someone who clearly wants to share it with you. And if you’re really honest about wanting touch and affection — rather than sex, romance, or jumping on the relationship escalator — be willing to get touch from someone to whom you’re not sexually attracted. (Yes, that means straight guys can cuddle other guys, or anyone they wouldn’t like to have sex with, and that’s OK!)
2. I have good friends, and I trust them. Developing a robust network of friends — especially local friends — can be a great source of emotional and physical comfort. I often hug my friends who are comfortable with it, and ask them about their comfort level with hugging or other touch if I’m not sure. I’m also honest and comfortable enough with my friends to tell them I like and need cuddling, and to ask if they are too. Consequently, when I need cuddles and touch, I can usually get it. It’s not always immediate, and sometimes I have to do without, but more often than not I can get the touch and affection I need.
Best of all, this does NOT “weird out” my friends, or cause sexual tension. I do have some cuddle-friends who I also sometimes have sex with, but many more who I don’t. I talk with my friends honestly about sexual tension where it exists, and we figure out what would/would not work for us.
For instance, one of my closest local friends is a poly-leaning guy in a monogamous marriage. He’s told me in the past he finds me attractive, and he’s naturally very flirty. I love him dearly, but I’ve never been sexually attracted to him. We even went out on a “date date” (with his wife’s consent) one time a few years ago, and kissed — and he said after that he realized that yeah, the chemistry isn’t really there for him either.
When we get together now, we often cuddle — and I cuddle sometimes with his wife as well, she’s a good friend too.
I’m not cuddly with all of my friends, however. For instance, one of my dearest friends is a woman who is both very body-modest (we live in different states and visit once or twice a year, and I’ve never seen her nude) and only cuddly with her partners and kids. But she is one of the people I’m most emotionally intimate with. We hug, and we’ve even slept in the same bed, but we don’t cuddle, and that’s comfortable for us both.
Every relationship finds its own level. I trust my friends enough that we can explore and find our mutual comfort level without making things weird between us.
3. I take advantage of “socially acceptable” opportunities for touch. In particular, I am a total massage junkie, so I get a professional massage once or twice a month. Nobody — not even my most socially and sexually conservative acquaintances, bats an eye at this. And while some of this is to relieve muscle tension (yeah, I write a lot, and my shoulders show it!) it’s also an important form of nurturing.
In fact, I started getting massages many years before I realized that polyamory and cuddling with friends are valid, healthy options. So even if you’re totally monogamous and straitlaced, you can probably loosen up enough to get a massage. If you’re needing touch, this helps. As long as you’re not expecting a massage therapist to provide sexual release or emotional comforting, it’s fine with everyone.
You don’t have to be nude or in a private room to get a great professional massage. Chair massage opportunities abound, and they’re often in public or semi-public spaces, like natural food stores and airports. If you’re body-shy or nervous about touch from strangers, this is a good way to start. Request a gentle or relaxing massage if you know you need basic touch more than relief from, say, neck pain.
Other people I know get some of their touch needs met through dance: especially salsa, improv, and contra dancing. There are also “ecstatic dance” events (freeform and not couple-centric) in many cities, and often these involve a lot of casual touch. And at any dance club, you can usually find partners who you can touch casually during the dance. As far as your parasympathetic nervous system is concerned, it all counts as reassuring human contact. I’ve been to dance events and enjoy them, but I’m not much of a dancer so it’s never my first choice for getting touch. But if you like dancing and want touch, it’s worth a shot.
4. I attend cuddle/snuggle parties. This is an organized, nonsexual event where people get together to explore nonsexual, nurturing touch in a safe, consensual environment. Yeah, it sounds woo-woo, and being from NJ I’m allergic to woo-woo, but this is actually a simple and awesome experience. You can learn more about cuddle parties at Cuddleparty.com, or find less formally organized cuddle and snuggle groups locally through Meetup.com or Facebook. Usually all alcohol and drugs are prohibited, to promote full awareness and consent.
Just yesterday I attended an amazing cuddle party with a new group of people in Denver. There were about a dozen attendees — one was a friend, there were three people I’d met before briefly, and the rest were strangers. There was about a half hour of orientation and exercises about consent and tuning into your needs and preferences, followed by a couple hours of nonsexual, clothed cuddling on the floor in a clean, open room with lots of blankets and pillows.
I got a fantastic massage from my friend, and cuddled with several people — men and women I did not know. Everyone was respectful, and the one person whose personality annoyed me slightly I did not need to interact with in any way. I left there feeling incredibly nurtured, practically high on it. Good thing I wasn’t driving! And I slept very, very well last night.
Yeah, this kind of gathering might weird some people out. That’s fine, they don’t have to attend, it’s totally voluntary. I get weirded out by how people act at football games, board meetings and most religious ceremonies, so we’re even.
If you attend, no one is ever required to cuddle at all. I’ve seen people just sit back and politely observe and converse at cuddle parties, without cuddling. That’s totally fine. That’s one way of exploring and expanding your comfort zone. But still: don’t knock the concept until you’ve tried it. You may surprise yourself in a very good way, that might help you be a much happier person.
5. I host informal friends-only cuddle parties. I have a circle of cuddly local friends, and we’ve been doing monthly “Movies + Snuggles” parties since June. This is by invitation only, with people who I’m certain are comfortable with casual snuggling and who mostly already know each other. I arrange the space to be conducive to cuddling (pillows and blankets help), serve some light refreshments (I usually offer wine and beer along with soda and snacks/light appetizers). Then we watch one or two movies or several TV show episodes — usually comedy or cult classics, chosen by popular demand from the guests. (Apple TV and Netflix are very useful for this.)
…And we snuggle. At my house, it’s usually just mellow, clothed cuddling and massage. Maybe some exploratory kissing or light erotic touch. When some other friends have hosted, sometimes these gatherings have shaded into more of a sexual play party (they have more space and privacy from neighbors than I do) — but not an orgy by any means. The emphasis is cuddling, fun, and friendship. It rocks.
ANYWAY, when I put all this together, I manage to give and receive lots of nurturing, affectionate touch on a regular basis even without having a steady boyfriend. And this offers an additional benefit: It encourages me to keep my personal standards for intimate relationships very high. And I very rarely feel lonely, unwanted, or unloved.
Oh, and of course — when you have lots of ways to meet your needs for touch, whether or not you have some kind of steady lover or partner, it’s much easier find ways to meet your needs for sex, too. Although that’s a separate issue, worthy of a future post.
How well are you needs for touch and affection being met? What are you doing — and what can you do — to make that happen? What opportunities and obstacles do you encounter? Please comment below.