“I’m not sure how to say this. I guess what I want you to do more of is…this.”
My friend Mark takes a step towards me and gingerly places his hand between my shoulder blades. A light touch followed by the slightest movement. A small rub. He immediately steps back.
“I mean, it doesn’t have to be a lot. Maybe just a little palm on the shoulder or touching my arm. That kind of thing.”
I was surprised. I wasn’t surprised because Mark had asked but because Mark was the fourth friend that week — male and female — who had answered my question of “How can I be a better friend?” by expressing their need to be touched. I was also surprised because Mark knew that I was a huge proponent of touch between friends and because our conversations in the past had included things that were far more risque than a gentle brush of the shoulders. Yet, he hadn’t asked me for it until I had prompted him.
Mark had been single since the beginning of the pandemic. Though he had a healthy sex drive, what he really wanted was to hold someone and be held. He wanted to sit on a couch and have someone gently rub his head. Sure, he wanted sex too. But he wanted that more. He then admitted that he found it much harder to ask for that simple act than to ask for sex. What’s more, he didn’t even know what the kind of touch he wanted was called. He had no words to describe it — hence, the awkward demonstration.
It immediately piqued my interest in the subject. I began asking everyone I felt comfortably asking what kind of touch they craved. I asked couples, single people, people with families, people with pets. I discovered two things. One — every person I knew was craving more sensual, non-sexual touch. Two — almost universally, no one had the language to ask for it. It mostly came out as a description of specific acts:
“Sometimes, I just want him to play with my hair for hours.”
“After a long day, I don’t always want sex but I do want to be touched. I wish we could sit in a bath and she would rub my feet.”
“I really want her to gently runs her fingers down my back until I fall asleep.”
When I asked why that they didn’t tell their partners or friends what they wanted, this was a typical response:
“I just don’t want to have to ask for it, you know? It’s kinda awkward.”
Something is definitely wrong with our society when we find it harder and more abnormal to ask the people we are closest to for gentle touching than to ask to penetrate a stranger. Or when most of the people I asked about it admitted to craving more of it but not feeling comfortable asking for it — even from their partner.
Unsurprisingly, men have it worse. They stop receiving sensual touch from a much younger age and our culture encourages them to fulfill their need for physical contact by aggressively pursuing sexual conquests. Predictably, men are also the ones who crave it the most — often seeking out shallow sexual experiences hoping to at least partially satisfy their desire for sensual touch.
Why is it that sensuality is inextricably linked to sex? Why is it that we touch each other sensually only as a means to sex or as a consequence of sex? And why is it that such a healing form of touch is reserved almost exclusively for lovers?
Though the need for non-sexual touch has always been there, I can definitely understand why it has heightened during the pandemic. People who used to have this irreplaceable need for human touch fulfilled by their massage therapists, chiropractors, and hairdressers experienced a sense of loss that they couldn’t describe. For many elderly, single, or otherwise isolated people — these were their only avenues for being touch.
The need for us to give and receive sensual touch to our lovers and friends in our acceptable quarantine pods is more important now than it has ever been. And yes, it is a need — a physical and emotional need. If you think that all you require in life are food, shelter, and sex — you would be wrong. Here’s what science has to say about how critical sensual touch is to our bodies functioning normally.
What does science say about the importance of sensual touch? Is “skin hunger” a real thing?
Maybe you’ve had this inexplicable craving for human touch but you’ve brushed it aside as horniness or maybe even boredom. You’ve turned to masturbation, long baths, or fluffy blankets to soothe your body instead.
Yet, in the age where we attempt to create substitutes for everything in life, perhaps the most important takeaway from the science on touch is this — sensual touch from another human is irreplaceable. Trust me, people have tried.
A Japanese lap pillow for touch-deprived men. Photo source : Wikimedia commons
Long-term deprivation of touch — sometimes referred to as “skin hunger” — is most definitely a real thing and is highly detrimental to us because touch is crucial in the regulation of so many functions in our body.
Sensual touch regulates hormones critical to relaxation, heart health, and muscle growth
It is widely known that sensual touch such as cuddling, increases levels of oxytocin. This hormone has earned the nickname “the love hormone” as it creates feelings of relaxation, trust, intimacy, and arousal while downregulating negative stress responses such as anxiety and aggression. Less commonly known is that oxytocin is also indispensable for healthy muscle growth and repair and is cardioprotective. While oxytocin is the most well-studied hormone relating to touch, sensual touch also regulates the function of other hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine — which are also important for healthy stress and arousal management.
Sensual touch soothes multiple systems in your body — improving sleep and immune function
As anyone who has cohabited with a partner can tell you, cuddling dramatically improves sleep. Studies have shown that this is likely because non-sexual touch has the ability to soothe the autonomic nervous system as measured by heart rate, cardiac vagal tone, blood pressure, cardiac sensitivity to baroreflex, and breathing activity. An added bonus is that sensual touch also improves immune function.
Sensual touch is essential for social adaptation and intimacy
While it is widely known that touch increases intimacy, perhaps the most telling research relating to the importance of non-sexual touch comes from the studies of young children and their parents. Researchers who studied both children and adults found that children who did not receive positive touch from their parents were more prone to depression and social maladaptation. These people were also unable to form intimate connections with romantic partners later in life.
A key point to note is that all the research in the links above relate to sensual touch and not sexual touch.
Sensual touch and sexual touch — what’s the difference?
Sexual interactions generally relate to arousal, penetration, and orgasming while sensual touch is associated with relaxation, stroking, and caressing.
If sexual touch is an act with a defined start, middle, and finish — then sensual touch is a conversation — it’s slow, luxurious, with no outcome in mind. If sex ignites, excites, and explodes — then sensuality nurtures, heals, and comforts. If sex is forceful and vigorous — then sensuality is gentle and light. Sensuality is the Yin to the Yang of sexuality.
Sensual touch isn’t about an outcome. It’s an offering of pleasure and comfort. A pure act of giving. You are saying with your touch, “Let me help your body let it’s guard down, let me help your body feel safe, let me help your body feel pleasure again.”
In the space where there is no expectation, no time limit, and no agenda — is the space for intimacy.
“Maybe you’ve had skin next to your skin, but when was the last time you let yourself be touched?”― Tom Spanbauer
How do I touch someone sensually?
Anyone who has had instant goosebumps when their hairdresser has lightly combed their hair has experienced a taste of sensual touch. It’s a delicious feeling of pleasure. Here are some ways in which you can give that pleasure to someone else:
- Caressing — you can caress someone by using your whole hand to stroke them slowly.
- Tracing with your fingertips — there are a variety of motions you can do with your fingertips. You can move them in a circular fashion or pretend you are drawing waves, you can cycle between closing your fingers and spreading them, or you can use your index and middle finger to simulate two legs running.
- Light scratching — you can replicate many of the same movements above but using your nails instead of fingertips.
- Brushing — props can be great fun. Experiment with brushing your recipient with a feather, brush, or a piece of smooth satin cloth.
- Playing with their hair — comb your fingers through their hair or tug gently at their hair.
- Feathery kisses — kiss them lightly all over their body.
- Lightly patting — my mother used to pat my back repeatedly and lightly to help me fall asleep as a child. To this day, I find it instantly soothing.
- Kneading — similar to the motion you get during a massage or kneading though.
- Gentle nibbling — some people greatly enjoy having their ear lightly nibbled at.
- Sucking or licking — suck on fingers or lick their spine (or anywhere else really!)
Mastering sensual touch
It’s important to remember that everyone likes to be touched differently. Here are some variables you can play with. Finding the winning combo should be your aim!
- Pressure — vary the range of pressure that you apply through your touch from light caressing to more forceful massaging and see what feels the best for your recipient at that time.
- Temperature — applying a hot or cold pad to your recipient or taking a warm bath with them can be very sensually pleasing.
- Speed — generally, sensual touch should be slow. Apparently, 3cm/sec is an ideal speed for pleasure as measured through self-reports and deceleration of heart rate of subjects of a study.
- Body part — everyone has a different erogenous zone. Some popular ones are scalp/hair, forearm, palm, thighs, shoulders, and feet.
- Texture — Using something other than your hands can create some wonderful sensations for your receiver. Some ideas for varying the texture are by using feathers, brushes, or massage tools.
- Communication and perceptiveness — As we all know, the same touch from the wrong person is called assault. Some of the acts in the section above are clearly more appropriate for lovers than friends. The secret sauce that takes touch from a feeling of physical pleasure to a state of emotional bliss is attunement to the person you are touching. Are you sure they want you to touch them? Are you touching them in the right way? Do they want you to stop? Like sex, just remember that active consent is always a must.
A couple of months ago, many of my friends — especially those that were single — began experiencing a type of “flatness” or low-level anxiety that they had not felt before. It was a combination of restlessness, an inability to feel joy about things, and a lack of motivation. They frequently expressed that their usual self-care — exercising, seeing a therapist, and meditation — were not working. Mark was one of these people.
Then one day, I got this text from him: “I touched another human for longer than 2 seconds today! It feels like a dam breaking. Feeling so so so relieved.”
I realized that then that what the world really really needs more of right now is healing and a sense of safety. I hope you realize that you can be the one to provide it to those closest to you. If you’re someone who needs it, I hope you’re brave enough to ask for it from the people you trust.
Something magical happens when you create the time and space to soothe someone else’s body. You not only change their mood, but their hormones and nerves, as well. You literally slow their heartbeat down. This is why touch can bring the kind of intimacy that words cannot. You are not just creating emotional safety, but physical safety as well.
So, master the art of sensual touch and go forth and create some much-needed healing in the world!
“The most important innovation in medicine is the human hand.” — Abraham Verghese