Can talking about sex and hugging strangers tackle the loneliness epidemic?
Intimacy is crucial for our well-being. So can a workshop on non-sexual touch be an act of self-care?
It’s hard to open up the (metaphorical) newspaper these days without a report telling us how bad loneliness is for our well-being. From shortening our lives more than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or obesity, to underpinning depression, it’s as bad for your health as having a long-term chronic illness.
The majority of solutions on offer are conversation-based; meetup groups for your favourite interests, encouragements to talk to strangers, or spaces to practise your conversation skills.
But what’s harder to alleviate is one of the most primal, and primary, needs: our biological requirement for touch.
Most of us are familiar with the experience of “skin hunger,” whether or not we have ever given it a name or were even aware it had one. It’s that deep longing and aching desire for physical contact with another person.
Of all of the senses, touch is considered the first we acquire and our skin is our largest sensory organ.
Just as seeing a beautiful sunset can move a person to inexplicable tears, or hearing beautiful music can reach into one’s soul, or tasting exquisite food can tantalize and amuse the palate as well as satisfying one’s appetite, being wrapped in the warm embrace of someone you trust can fulfill a wide range of emotional and physical needs you might not have even realized you had.
I have a particular interest in this subject: I’m researching and writing a book on the intersection of attention, love, connection and loneliness, so pursue a professional focus in this area.
I’m also super touchy-feely; I love to give hugs, to reach out and pat a stranger’s arm in Sainsburys, and prefer to sit in silence and hold someone’s hand than say some bullshit nonsense when they’re going through a lousy time.
And yet my health and lifestyle mean that I rarely have physical contact with anyone at all. I live alone, I’m predominantly housebound due to chronic illness, and I’m single.
But as David J. Linden PhD, Professor of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, points out in his TEDx talk, The Science of Touching and Feeling, ”To be human is to be emotional, to feel things .. touch is social glue”.
I’m not going to lie; the idea of going to something run by a team called “Sex Club” caused me to pause a little. But it’s less sex party, more safe space to talk about what is, for many of us, a fundamental aspect of being human.
And indeed, the first half was an all-genders sharing circle to explore, with honesty, what our relationship’s like with sex and intimacy at the moment.
The group ran the whole gamut, from the polyamorous and exploring, to those grappling with issues, to those afraid to share how good their sex-life was, to others who’d left their sexuality on the back burner in the pursuit of what seemed nobler desires.
Was it weird to sit there amidst people discussing their sex lives? Honestly, no. It just felt good to honour and witness other people’s journey through this compelling yet often challenging territory. The facilitators, Chloe and Jules, modelled such radical honesty and heart-full listening, that it felt entirely easy to both listen and share.
And then, after lunch, things got practical — and, in increments, more physical. From walking around and slowly raising our gaze to make eye contact (a miracle in itself, in London), to sitting and making prolonged eye contact with others, the emphasis was on boundaries, on finding our “yes”, our “no”, and our “maybe”, and to drop the performative aspect of any physical touch or engagement.
(For those of you who feel a cold sweat at the thought of eye-gazing; it’s true, it IS challenging for most of us. I spontaneously laughed with some people, cried with others, and felt utterly locked-out by one. All entirely normal, and all enhanced through sentence stems like “I feel vulnerable as I sit before you because…” Being able to articulate our discomfort alleviates shame — a huge barrier to intimacy in itself.)
Finally, the carefully contained and boundaried touch practises culminated in triads of touch; groups of three people, all taking turns to experience 10 minutes of touch tailored to their request (and, of course, within the givers’ comfort zones).
I ended up happily sandwiched between two beautiful souls as we spooned; it didn’t quite produce a “cuddle coma” but it felt so natural and so comfortable that we couldn’t bear to break apart to discuss the experience. The fact that they were strangers merely hours ago didn’t seem relevant.
I left feeling sleepy, happy and replete; full of oxytocin and a general appreciation for all things humanity. In a world where so much touch is either sexualised or medicalised, it felt good to inhabit a space where safety and sensuality are queen.
A few days before the event I had shared the details with a friend.
“Sounds like good research material for your book,” he replied, “Are you going?” I responded; “Yes, and I’m not going for research. I’m going for me — for once”.
It was a much-needed act of self-care, a term is so often associated with smoothies, sound-bowls or scented candles. And heck, I love a scented candle.
But I know what I want more of in the future.