A few weeks back, a video from a professional male cuddler came across my feed that prompted a ton of conversation. As always, the reactions were strong, and the comments illuminating – this is clearly something that touches a nerve (no pun intended). Many people seemed to believe that those who availed themselves of such a service were sad and pathetic, and that it’s a sign that something is wrong with both the people who seek it and a society where it would be necessary. And there were just as many people who recognized that they weren’t getting their own touch needs met, and maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
This is a topic I’ve followed closely over the past few years, and I’ve come to realize that there are two shameful secrets lurking in America’s relationship closet. It’s time to talk about this stuff.
Secret #1: A romantic relationship will not fulfill
all your touch needs.
I have a lot of single friends. Regardless of their age or gender, they are struggling with finding someone to date. Many of them can find someone to hook up with…but not all of them. Lots of people go years without connecting with another sexually.
If we are only allowed to share touch with people we are having sex with, a lot of people get left out in the cold. What about those who are physically disfigured? Clinically depressed? Painfully shy? Working two full-time jobs? Not stereotypically attractive? There are many people who will be passed over time and again for relationships by those looking for potential mates. Apparently these people need more therapy/diets/meds/social skills/friends/pets, and they will magically be desirable! (I’m sure that none of them have tried any of these things in an attempt to connect.) But instead of examining our current culture around touch, it’s easier to shame people and tell them that there’s something wrong with them.
(Ironically, platonic touch can make people feel more relaxed, happy and open. When you feel better, you’re more likely to attract a partner.)
Then there are those people who are in a romantic relationship that doesn’t meet their touch needs. Just as people have sex drives that range from insatiable to asexual, many couples have mismatched touch drives. Those couples who are fighting and don’t want to have sex, let alone cuddle with each other? That’s a lonely place to be. And what about mothers who spend their entire days being grabbed by children who need their attention, and then can’t get their own touch needs met because their husbands are exhausted from working all day? It’s not as cut-and-dry as it might appear….
There are dozens of ways we put enormous pressure on our partners to fulfill all our needs, and touch is a big one. Those couples who find themselves in relationships with partners who meet these needs are in the minority, not the majority. Just because we expect our soulmate to come along and fix everything doesn’t mean they will.
Of course, happily ever after doesn’t always happen. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. In long-term relationships partners die, leaving the surviving partner without any sort of touch; imagine sleeping in someone’s arms for 60 years and then having them gone. And while it might be perfectly acceptable to rebound from a breakup by running out to have hookup sex, it’s much harder to find comfort when you’re grieving. (Good luck being vulnerable with your Tinder date...) One of the best ways to feel cared for, supported and seen during grief is to have another person hold you when you cry, but that’s not always readily available. Which brings us to the second secret:
Secret #2: People don’t touch their friends.
If you’re horrified by the idea of people going to total strangers to be touched platonically, you’re part of the problem. Seriously. Every last person who finds paying for touch disgusting has one or more friends who aren’t getting their touch needs met. Unfortunately, people cannot turn to their friends for platonic touch: it’s awkward, embarrassing and can be easily misconstrued. Oftentimes the choice is not between being touched by someone who knows them or being touched by a stranger; the choice is being touched by a stranger or not being touched at all.
Most people in social situations touch their friends twice: a hug hello, and a hug goodbye. If a person is touch-starved, three seconds of hugging on either end isn’t gonna cut it. Embracing another person for an extended period of time gives their body an opportunity to relax and feel safe. Even something as simple as a hand or foot massage, or brushing and braiding a friend’s hair gives a person with skin hunger a chance to slow down and breathe and be connected to others. (Primates spend 10-20% of their time doing social grooming and it ain’t just for removing parasites.) In our current climate of fear, uncertainty and stress, don’t we all deserve physical connection? Or should it only be reserved for those who are lucky enough to have found their Prince/ess Charming?
Human beings are hard-wired to connect with each other physically. We started as a species sleeping in piles in caves, for both warmth and safety. To be physically disconnected from our tribe could mean certain death. And we start our lives as helpless infants, held by our parents. Denying that touch is a basic human need does so many of us a disservice. People are lonely, anxious, stressed, traumatized, depressed and angry. While platonic touch won’t solve all of these problems, it’s a simple way to get a bit of relief…or maybe a lot of relief. And right now, that’s important.
If you’re happy with the amount and type of touch you receive, fantastic. But please, stop shaming others for being human and recognizing that they are missing a vital nutrient from their lives. Would you tell someone who is starving or thirsty that they are sad and pathetic for lacking in sustenance? If not, please don’t say that to people who are paying for touch, or contemplating doing so. Instead, ask them if they'd like to cuddle up on the couch and watch a movie with you.