Around the world, social distancing restrictions are starting to ease and friends and family are able to meet once again—thank goodness! But there may be a certain uneasiness lurking beneath the joy of reunion: what are our new boundaries? Is it okay to hug? How do we cope with our skin hunger or touch aversion?
We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.
— Virginia Satir, family therapist
For many people, quarantine meant an extended period of little to zero touch. For some, this may have been mild or barely noticeable. Some people found ways to self-soothe, wrapping themselves in fluffy blankets, cuddling soft toys, enjoying sensual solo activities such as baths, self-massage, and masturbation. Nonetheless, for a tactile person, especially one whose love language is physical touch, this skin hunger may have been an extraordinarily difficult experience.
We are poly. One of our partners came to visit over the weekend for the first time in what felt like years. It was actually about 4 months. She’s a professional cuddler, so touch is very much part of her every day. She lives alone, so touch has practically evaporated for her. At the beginning of the quarantine it was difficult, but she shared that at one point it was like a switch flipped and she became touch-averse. As excited as she was to visit and reconnect with us, she was equally nervous about the physical aspects of our relationship — would she be able to share and enjoy hugs and cuddles? We are happy to report that after some initial awkwardness, we soon found ourselves in a delicious puppy pile (group cuddle) and everyone enjoyed themselves. Our girlfriend is thrilled to be reconnected with us, and especially with her own body!
Social vs Physical Distancing: Which Leads to More Skin Hunger?
The pain of separation can be alleviated somewhat by other forms of communication, such as video chat, phone calls, and texting. However, it appears that the separation of social distancing and quarantine is different than being separated by geographical distance. When one lives far away from loved ones and cannot travel to visit on a regular basis for whatever reason, one experiences missing their loved one, but also adapts to the situation.
I live across the world from my family. Although I have my own family here, husband and children, I miss my parents, siblings, cousins, and friends “back home.” We are affectionate but mostly my missing them is about missing shared experiences: birthdays, trips to the beach, just hanging out. The quarantine separated me from my Dom, my BDSM partner. We live across town from each other but had to keep apart because of government regulations. It was terribly difficult to manage that degree of discipline and not race over just to hug him, breathe his scent, and feel his hands on my body. When we talked, my skin could almost feel his fingertips grazing my arms and neck as he often does. I fantasized about it. A lot. It was a distracting, distressing, painful experience and one I hope we don’t have to repeat!
Being denied touch and separated from one’s partner not by distance but by social distancing regulations had a different quality:
I’m a very tactile person, I love touch and hugging. Being alone with no human contact was awful. When I could eventually meet with and hold my girlfriend, it was at once wonderful and, because self-preservation mode had kicked in, somehow unfamiliar and upsetting. I didn’t know if and when I would be able to hold her again and had tried to distance myself from wanting touch. Not being able to hug friends in welcome has made me insular and reclusive. While I long since got over the fumbling rediscovery with my partner, I have lost the desire for any contact, physical or otherwise, with unfamiliar contacts.
Whereas many couples who were forced to be apart found ways to connect virtually, there may be awkwardness and anxiety in reuniting, as seen in these two cases. In both situations, tactile people found themselves becoming touch-averse in the absence of regular contact. Fortunately for both, they were able to reconnect and find pleasure in touch again.
New Rules & Boundaries Around Touching
— Janet, Rocky Horror Picture Show
Even among friends, people are unsure about where the new boundaries lie in terms of touch. People wonder how safe it is to meet their loved ones. Those who are accustomed to greeting one another with hugs and cheek kisses now stand at a distance and ask: are we hugging? High five? Elbow bump?
Fortunately, this discomfort seems short-lived and friends adapt to boundaries that feel safe or revert to their previous kiss-kiss habits, accepting the potential hazard as secondary to their desire for physical contact.
So, what does this tell us as sex coaches?
Are Our Clients Touched Out or Touch Starved?
First, we can anticipate that our clients may be experiencing some distress related to touch. They may be touched-out if they are living with young children with no chance of taking a break. They could be touch-starved or even touch-averse if they’ve adapted to a touchless lifestyle, even temporarily. They could be touched-out and touch-starved at the same time if they’ve had too much of one kind of contact but not enough of another.
Whatever the case may be, we need to be aware of the importance of touch as it relates not only to physical pleasure, but also to the quality of relationships, as a means to alleviate stress and pain, and a stimulus of oxytocin, our favorite “love hormone.” We need to be prepared to address touch-related concerns for our clients—and ourselves—as we navigate the “new normal.”
How to Help Your Clients Navigate Skin Hunger and Touch Aversion
When talking with your clients, check in about how the pandemic has impacted them in terms of relationship, sex, and touch deprivation. It is possible that some might be experiencing distress due to skin hunger but not be aware of the connection between physical contact and anxiety.
Another area to investigate may be safety concerns related to sex—both STIs and Covid-19 transmission. Support your client in assessing potential risks in broadening their quarantine pods or venturing out into the world of dating and increased social and sexual contact. You are probably better prepared for this than you might think: the same skills needed for communicating and negotiating boundaries around sex apply to creating boundaries and agreements around Corona pods and social distancing!
Ask your client: what feels safe now? The answer is going to vary by individual, but knowing one’s own limits is an essential component of communicating about them. Some behaviors to consider: massage, holding hands, hugging, meeting with or without masks, kissing, different forms of sex, breathing heavily, sitting close to each other on a bench or couch, etc.
For clients without a partner, and no desire (or perhaps opportunity) to start a physical relationship with a new person, you may want to help them explore options for coping with social distance and lack of touch. How are they accessing pleasure? What is their self-care routine? Is self-care a priority? Engaging the senses, exploring tactile experiences (e.g. feeling the sun or air on their skin, attuning to the texture of clothing), fantasy, and even self-massage are all potential strategies. It’s just a matter of figuring out what makes them tick.
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