Touching and intimacy

How do we think about touch?

It's hard to tell whether this has always been the case, but today people are living in incredibly isolated environments. This is so, paradoxically, in spite of the increasing urbanisation and population densities we're subject to. Perhaps it might be a reaction to it: we're so surrounded by people that we feel it necessary to establish firmer personal boundaries. In any event, many people are experiencing a touch deficit. When is the last time you were touched by someone not a sexual partner? Can you remember it?

Of course there are circumstances when this is not as true. Small children still get a fair amount of touch, both from their primary carers and other relatives or friends. If you happen to live with children you probably get a lot more touch that way. You may even think this is all superfluous and that this post isn't about you, and the solution to the touch deficit is more children. I would disagree. Likewise, people living with romantic or sexual partners may think the couple (or trio, or whatever alternative comparable arrangement) is the solution. This is also debatable.

We're humans. This means we are social animals, and specifically mammals. We need to keep track of each other, and of our social ties. Without society, life is not worth living. There's a reasonable way we triage social connections: we have very few very close friends, who may also be our relatives or romantic partners; then we have a larger number of acquaintances; and finally, an even larger number of people who are somehow in our social horizon--by which I mean we track their status in some way.

Polite society does not generally speaking admit touch other than in the context of the family, or things that look like preparation for the family: either relatives, or romantic partners who are likely to become relatives by marriage, are allowed and expected to touch each other, but outside these parameters touch is considered overly intrusive and intimate.

Unfortunately this means that a lot of the people who have some form of social relation to us are out of bounds, in terms of touch. This is perhaps not so problematic with loose relations, although touch is one way of building trust and intimacy. It's more of a problem when it comes to our close or somewhat less close friends.

When touch is so socially linked to the family, a number of distortions arise:

  • Touch is perceived as childish.
  • Touch is perceived as sexual.
  • Touch is perceived as private.

Children get a pass on touching, probably because it is immediately obvious that it is necessary for their development. However, as they grow up, they begin to aspire to the status of adulthood. The family limits touch to the role of comforting children and romantic relationships, so young people on their way to being adults will begin withdrawing from touch, since they don't want to be treated as children anymore, and they generally lack a socially approved way of supplementing it until later in life when they establish long-term close relationships. I'm not going to blame all the dysfunctional aspects adolescence takes on in our society on this fact, but I would hold that the undermining of intimacy arising from the lack of touch while attempting to build an individual and separate identity may be responsible for a part of it.

Likewise, as touch in adulthood is socially limited to romantic contexts, it acquires all manner of sexual significance which interferes with many of its functions. A whole aura of suspicion is created around it. I've always been of the opinion that the bounds between friendship and romantic relations can and ought to be loosened, but this is a different point. When friends cannot comfort each other without the whole sexual dynamic interfering, a lot of unnecessary barriers are created, whether one thinks that more openness about this is desirable or not.

The most obvious damage caused by suspicion around touch is linked to the question of sexual orientation. Touch between people of the same sex, and more so between men, is understood as a sign of homosexual interest. Given heterosexuality is the social default, and there's a certain amount of policing about it, touch becomes difficult between male friends. Even when it happens, disclaimers are often used to clarify the non-sexual intent of the act. It creates the need to explain something which should require no explanation.

Since touch is relegated to childhood or sex, for adults it becomes a private matter. Of course this is not an absolute. We don't disallow kissing or hugging in public, although the existence of slang expressions such as get a room points out the tension it causes and the push towards its privatisation.

These three elements create a whole constelation of problematic associations with touch: weakness, dependence, physical attraction, sexual arousal, shame, embarrassment...

We should attempt, inasmuch as this is possible, to decouple touch from these ideas and make it more available. This is not to say that pushing touch on someone who doesn't want it is at all permissible, but simply that we need to try to relax the constraints so that it becomes acceptable for those who do.

  1. Everyone can benefit from touch, not just children. Adults should have an easier time acknowledging that they want it, and young people shouldn't be forced into the choice of presenting as childish or giving touch up.

  2. Touch can be sexual, but it need not be. There is nothing wrong with sexual intimacy, but it is not the only form in which physical intimacy and touch can manifest. Learning to negotiate this can be difficult for people acculturated into the idea that touching is an expression of desire, and creating better expectations around this is important. The notion that touch inexorably leads to sex, and may in fact require it as payment, must be combatted.

  3. Touch isn't harmful to third parties. It shouldn't be forced into the private sphere as something shameful or distasteful which adults feel compelled to do while no-one's looking. Pushing people into expressing intimacy publicly when they are uncomfortable about it is unlikely to work out well, but removing social policing around it and allowing those who do to do so in peace should improve the situation for everyone and remove much of the shame and stigma many people feel about touch.

On Cuddle Party(tm)

From my previous views, people may reach the conclusion that I would support something like Cuddle Parties. They are saying fairly similar things to those I'm saying:

We humans need touch that is not about sex.
Wait - IS THERE such a thing?
Of course there is!
Cuddle Party is a movement to reclaim this option in our lives.

When I found out about it, it struck me as a potentially good idea, yet there was also something slightly disturbing which I found hard to articulate. At first I thought it might be an issue with my own preconceptions about touch; after all no-one is free from social influence. In the end, though, I think it's about something else.

I had a few arguments about this with people, in which I called Cuddle Party all manner of things. The one that stuck in my head was play dates for adults. Some took it up and said there was nothing wrong with organising play dates for adults, if that's what people want.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that Cuddle Party is utilising intimacy, but in such a decontextualised way that it is hard to see how it can still be intimate anymore. It's not that I object to the notion of non-sexual touch, that should be clear by now; but touch between people who are complete strangers to each other seems somewhat lacking. The functions of touch are, in large part, linked to the establishing of intimate relationships (not in the sense of sexual intimacy, but close friendship). Touch is a technology for tight, not loose, links.

Using touch like this presents problems in two ways. As a symptom, it exposes how deprived of meaningful human contact we are, that we think of commodified mechanisms to get it entirely cleaved from the context of social relations. In itself, it is attempting to fulfil the need for social connection by offering an emulation of it. Granted, genuine social bonds may arise from such events, but chances are no organic connections will remain afterwards. Thus it becomes a temporary symptomatic treatment for a systemic failure.

The other fundamental issue I take with Cuddle Party is the economic model. Like a lot of the business ideas in late capitalism, Cuddle Party works on the basis of finding a human need subject to coordination problems, intermediating it, and sucking out value from it. In this case, Cuddle Party realises surplus from the training of facilitators, who have to get certification in order to use the brand, keeping a schedule of perpetual payments. I'm sceptical that commodifying touch can go anywhere good whatsoever. It's just going to make it another scarce, possibly positional, good we have to pay for.

Cuddle Party is also poised in a difficult place. On the one hand, they advertise their events as being about non-sexual touch, and I entirely believe this is their ethos. However, in the society we live in, non-sexual touch is hard to take seriously. The whole social framing of the issue interferes with it, so that for example two men cuddling will be rarely entertained at such events. While not strictly related to Cuddle Party, this article treats the difficulties involved in setting the boundaries of non-sexual touch.

Some may argue that my objections to non-social touch, so to speak, are similar to society's objections to non-sexual touch. Touch is touch. Why do we need to make it mean something? Why do we need to make it sexual, or social, or relational? It is just bodies doing things, or, in other terms, bodies performing physicality.

In all honesty this is an argument I find difficult to pick apart. A lot of the intuitions I have around this can sound similar to the type of intuitions that I reject in other cases. For example, the idea that meaningless touch (like bad money) drives out good. I guess that, thinking more carefully about it, the problem is not the existence of meaningless touch, but the ideas that meaningful touch is unnecessary or that it can be substituted by non-social touch.

What about friendly cuddling?

What can I say? Yes, please. While play dates for adults, especially when they are paid play dates, seem less than satisfying, there is nothing wrong and much that is right with friends deciding to cuddle, whether spontaneously or on a more organised basis. Friends are, in my opinion, best equipped also to negotiate the difficulties with sexual tension around touch, albeit expectation mismatches are still possible and have to be dealt with.

I've had plenty of experiences involving touch with friends, of my own gender or otherwise, and I don't remember ever regretting it. For the most, they were entirely non-sexual experiences, which is perfectly fine. On occasion, they weren't, which is also fine. All I can say about this is to bear in mind two principles that are, sometimes, in tension, and which Cuddle Party does well in pointing out: clarity and kindness.

Lack of clarity, especially for those of us who may not be adept at accurately reading social cues, can cause a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. Touch ought to be a form of relaxation, and trying to work out what it all means can make things worse rather than better. Of course there are limits to clarity when people don't know themselves what they want, or what something means to them; but these limits can also be stated clearly ("I don't know if this is sexual"). However clear we try to be, we should remember to be kind, and that other people may have different desires and hopes. Kindness doesn't require us to fulfil them, but we should try to be careful and avoid causing shame, embarrasment or humiliation.

All this may not be always easy, but social life is complicated. Modelling ourselves and others is a difficult problem, and mistakes are bound to occur; but we shouldn't give up on friendship, or touch, just because of it. We are not disembodied intelligences, but social animals with biological and social adaptations which require us to connect with each other. Let there be touch!