There is so much research about how vital touch is.
In fact, researchers are telling us that touch is fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.
When infants are not held and touched enough, they fail to thrive and suffer from low-weight gain, poor mental and emotional development, impaired social skills, and lower immunity.
Similar symptoms are also showing up in aging adults. Holding, hugging, eye gazing, listening, and other expressions of human connection alleviate many symptoms for both the young and old.
When I work with parents, I help them see how important it is to hold their children—not only when they are upset, but for other bonding times like reading stories together, wrestling and playing, and falling asleep. Children learn to regulate their own bodies and emotions when they are held and in close proximity to the calm nervous system of their parents.
With all touch has going for it, you’d think we’d all be touching each other all the time. We’d be cuddling, snuggling, holding hands, and sharing long hugs. We’d be touching our friends, our children, and even our co-workers.
So why aren’t we?
Because touch has a big shadow.
Our biggest wounds often involve touch. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 1 in 5 women in the Unites States and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. Rape often goes unreported, making the real numbers even higher. According to Childhelp, 28 percent of adults report being physically abused as a child, and 20 percent report being sexually abused as a child.
Abusive touch teaches us that touch is dangerous. We still need touch, but we’ve learned that it’s not safe. Our relationship to touch gets very complicated and may involve numbing and choices that lead us into cycles of unsafe touch and abuse.
Even if you were lucky enough to avoid sexual or physical violence, you’ve still learned how to tolerate touch you didn’t want or ask for. Did you have a creepy aunt or uncle that insisted on giving you hugs and kisses while your parents stood silently by or told you to “just hug them; it’s no big deal”? You tolerated that and learned to doubt your own boundaries.
Or maybe it was the sibling that held you down for “tickle torture” and wouldn’t let you up until you couldn’t breathe? You endured that and vowed never to let yourself be that vulnerable again.
Perhaps you also had some awkward teenage sex you agreed to, but you were so nervous it hurt. You got through that, but decided that pleasurable touch was something for other people.
Did your parents jerk you out of the way of an oncoming car, change your diapers, or hold you down to brush your teeth? You gave in to their touch to survive.
Through all this and more, every one of us has learned how to tolerate and endure touch we don’t want in order to get social approval and avoid pain and rejection. As nearly helpless infants with a long, dependent childhood, avoiding rejection is a matter of survival for humans. Congratulations. You did it! You survived.
But we all long for more than survival. We long for a sense of safety, belonging, connection, compassion, and love. All of that can come via touch.
However, when we associate touch with danger, enduring, tolerating, putting up with, and just getting through, it’s hard to reach out for it. It’s hard to initiate. It’s really hard to ask for what we want. It’s even hard to notice we’re missing it because, unless we’ve had quality, safe touch in the past and unless we believe we need it in the present, we won’t notice that our depression, anxiety, low immune function, addictive behaviors, and irritability might all be sourced from a lack of touch.
So we need touch, we fail to thrive without it, we’ve been hurt by it, and we’re suffering. What can we do?
We can choose to step into something new. We can learn new habits of touch. When we develop our touch vocabulary, we learn to trust our bodies, we create relationships of safety and consent, and we start to enjoy ourselves.
We need to experience safe, consensual touch to know it exists and to feel how it calms the nervous system. I help people experience consensual, safe, non-sexual touch one-on-one and in groups.
As a professional Cuddlist, I offer my clients an experience of safety and belonging. I help them find their desire for touch and the nuance of how they want to be touched. I teach them through examples that yes, no, and “I changed my mind” are all completely valid responses. Their bodies show them in every session that there are ways to share touch that have nothing to do with tolerating or enduring; it’s all about pleasure and what feels good right now. And we do it while being safe and staying within our boundaries.
To make sure that safe, quality touch stays accessible to everyone, I started to bring together people of different socio-economic-political-sexual orientations in a shared, consensual touch experience. We follow Cuddle Party rules, practice exercises for consent and empowerment, and leave time for open cuddling. We emphasize that no one has to touch anyone ever at our Cuddle events, and we practice saying “no.”
In any of these organized activities, you learn a new language for touch. You create different biological patterns in your body. You learn that it’s okay to ask for what you want, it’s okay to say no, it’s okay to ask for touch, and it’s okay to turn down someone who wants to touch you.
Then suddenly your experience of touch changes and you get to experience all the benefits, while reducing the risks, and knowing how to handle any mistakes.
Then you can say firmly, without a doubt that, yes, touch is great!
Author: Kassandra Brown
Image: Unsplash/Caroline Hernandez
Editor: Travis May