Touch is a human need. It’s foundational to human communication and bonding. It is different than sex. It is powerful. And it has a big shadow.
The misuse and neglect of touch is an underlying component of loneliness, behavioral disorders, environmental degradation, and the collapse of communities. Its impact is widespread, diverse, and negative.
We live in a culture that doesn’t teach us words about touch, it doesn’t teach the value, and it usually confuses touch and sex. If you’re snuggling up during a movie, being spooned in bed, or even just holding hands on a walk, you or the other person is likely to think it’s a sexual invitation. But you and your cuddly friend are unlikely to address the question of what you really want straight on. Instead, you are likely to use innuendo, body language, assumptions, hopes, and fear.
What if you could talk about it instead? Most of us are missing a vocabulary to talk about or even imagine getting the touch we crave. We need to learn to notice what we want and ask for it. We need to notice what we don’t want and learn to set boundaries.
Communicating wants and boundaries sounds easy enough but it’s not.
It’s really hard. Why? As humans with a long dependent childhood, putting up with touch we don’t want and didn’t ask for is part of our survival skills.
The realization that we are all conditioned to endure less-than-desired touch was brought home for me during a Betty Martin workshop. One morning’s study was dedicated to exploring the questions “Why don’t we ask for the touch we want?”, “Why don’t we set boundaries?” and “What do we do instead?” It turns out we are scared to be rejected, scared to be hurt, scared we’re not enough, scared of the price we’ll have to pay. This begs the question,
If we weren’t scared, what would we ask for?
What do you want?
That exercise changed my lifeand now I use it to change my clients’. The following is a composite list from many participant responses. As you read through them, I invite you to pause and see if any of them resonate for you.
I’m not going to ASK you
- I’m afraid of disappointment, punishment, or rejection.
- I don’t know what I want. I don’t know if it’s OK to ask.
- Real men don’t have needs; it’s a sign of weakness to ask.
- I’ll owe them later and I might not want to pay.
We all have a lot of practice enduring touch we didn’t want and didn’t ask for. Sometimes that’s what feels “natural” and asking for what we want feels awkward. Especially if we’re afraid of being rejected, it can seem a lot easier to just go along with whatever the other person wants.
I’m not going to tell you NO
- I’m afraid I’ll be shamed, judged, ignored or rejected.
- I’m afraid to lose the good thing I’m getting if I ask for something even better.
- I don’t know what my boundaries are or how to speak them until it’s too late.
- There’s nothing here to protect anyway.
Fear of being shamed, rejected or hurt topped the list over and over again for both why people don’t ask for what they want and why they don’t set boundaries.
Another reason we don’t ask for what we want and don’t set boundaries, especially during sex, is because the action is happening too fast. Things progress with such intensity in speed, emotional response, or physical response that we’ve gone farther than we want to before we know it.
I think I’ll just avoid you and numb out. Thanks for asking.
- Blame, get resentful, get angry, pick a fight
- Hint, get quiet, and pull away
- Numb with food, alcohol, drugs, and crazy-busy
- Endure, be the victim, and blame myself
When I read the list of “what I do instead” I realized that was me at my worst. All the behaviors of the “me” I don’t like were printed on that list. I’ve tried to affirm, negotiate, meditate, and change all those behaviors with minimal success.
I felt bad for about a minute, but then I got really excited. If it’s setting boundaries and asking for what I want, that stops me from doing the passive-aggressive, numb, and violent actions of me at my worst, then that’s fantastic! I had been given a roadmap to freedom for myself and my clients.
I became passionate about asking for what I want, setting boundaries in my own life, and helping others learn how to do it, too.
To really learn these skills, we need to practice. We need to use our bodies and be in relationship with other bodies. Thinking about or talking about this idea is good, but not good enough. We have to engage and be in contact. We have to touch.
To Touch With Sex or Without?
If we’re going to practice touch, we need consent and agreement to create a strong container. Deciding the boundaries is very important. Touch can be sexual or non-sexual. Is nudity, genital contact, or intercourse part of the touch? You decide, but the following are some reasons why I think non-sexual, platonic touch – which I’ll refer to as cuddling – is a great practice.
Reduced Intensity: Cuddling is a way to practice the art of touch that is slower and less intense than sex. In cuddling, the action happens at a rate our communication skills can process and respond to in a timely manner. We’re less swamped by our emotions and our hormones during cuddling. That means we’re more likely to ask for what we want in the moment, helping us avoid regret and misunderstanding.
Sober Consent: In cuddling, we are able to find, understand, and nuance consent. Sexual arousal is mind-altering. Like being on drugs or alcohol, being sleep deprived, or being triggered by trauma, arousal makes consent much harder. Saying and believing “yes”, “no”, and “I changed my mind” are all easier to learn and practice during cuddling.
Less Shame: Most of us carry a lot less shame around cuddling than sex. Many of us were shamed and taught restrictive Puritanical rules around nudity, genital contact, and sex, especially as children. During a Cuddlist session, we’re not touching genitals or being nude. It’s much easier to access the communication centers of the brain when they aren’t shut down by shame or arousal.
One final reason cuddling is a great way to practice our touch skills is that what we learn during cuddling can dramatically improve our sex lives. More on that in a future blog.
Whether with friends, at an intentional cuddle gathering, or with a cuddling professional, let’s do the hard work of rewiring our brains for pleasure, owning our own desires, articulating them clearly and respectfully, and learning how to hear “no” with gratitude. Nobody (including me) said it was easy, but it’s worth it.
Kassandra loves to offer both free advice and paid cuddling sessions. She promises to shower you with attention (and do a happy dance) if you reach out to her for a free consultation.