About Last Night:Sharing non-sexual touch 15-04-18

April 15, 2018

Sharing non-sexual touch is a vital part of wellbeing, and is healthy when wanted

Q: I’m happily single, with my own apartment, a challenging but rewarding job, and an active social life. For my birthday, a friend gave me a voucher for a massage. That isn’t really my thing, but last week I redeemed it. I felt a bit self-conscious, but relaxed into it, and it was pleasant. When I was at the counter processing the voucher, however, I started sobbing uncontrollably. I realised that, even though I do not need a partner, I do need more gentle touch. What should I do?

A: Touch is extremely important for our wellbeing. It is the first sense to develop in the womb, and experiments show that infant monkeys would prefer to cling to a soft surface without food than to a wire frame that dispenses milk. Gentle touch also boosts the immune system, and releases endorphins.

We seem to be becoming increasingly isolated. If you look around a crowded place you will see a lot of individuals communing alone with their electronic devices rather than with each other.

This situation is exacerbated by an increasing touch aversion which has resulted from the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked many social institutions. Even infant teachers, doctors, and counsellors are instructed to follow a “no touch” policy, to avoid legal trouble. Recently, a friend took his child to a playground. He noticed a distressed child dangling from the monkey bars, and gently lifted him down. Its mother’s reaction was, “How dare you touch my child?”

Of course, as a rule, we should ask permission to touch someone, but we need to ensure that our paranoia does not cause us to confuse kind touch with unwanted touch.

Touch does not have to be sexual, but some people use sex as a way to get touch. It is better to seek out ways to get non-sexual touch. Some people do this by stroking a pet. Are you allowed to keep one in your apartment? Others benefit from having a regular massage. Even getting your hair and nails done involves neutral touch.

In recognition of our touch-deprived state, more formal groups hold “cuddle parties”. These are non-sexual events, and often offer learning opportunities for those who experience anxiety or trauma around touch. Check out Meetup, (meetup.com/en-AU/Melbourne-Cuddle-Party-Meetup/). The Human Awareness Institute also organises non-sexual “touch groups”, but these are mainly held in NSW and SA (space.org.au).

In our everyday lives, the way to make friendly, social touch acceptable has two elements. Children and adults need to be taught that nobody is allowed to touch them without their permission. Never force children to hug Grandma, or sit on Uncle John’s knee if they are reluctant. They will be more likely to get healthy touch in their lives if they believe that they are a choice. A wonderful book for children on this subject is Everyone’s Got a Bottom: We All Have Bodies and We All Want to Keep Them Safe. This book was produced by Family Planning Queensland, and is available online.

One of the problems with negotiating healthy touch is the power imbalance. A child can feel disempowered if they are forced to accept touch against their will. As a result, many adults have developed a fear of touch. It is usual to ask, “Can I have a hug?” or “Can I give you a hug?”, but this can sound pushy, or patronising. A better way to make this offer might be to say, “Would you like to share a hug?” Used sensitively and judiciously, this might be the way that teachers and other caregivers might approach someone in distress, but it is vital to honour their response, and to graciously respect their, “No”.

People can also be isolated and touch-deprived while in a relationship. A reluctance to have sex, unresolved anger or resentment can make us disinclined to touch each other. Nothing is lonelier than two people sharing a bed with an unbridgeable gap between them. Acknowledge and address this situation. Talk about ways in which you can share gentle, non-sexual touch. Simply by hugging and cuddling you might find some of your barriers dissolving.

Email: abtlastnight@gmail.com

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