It’s Touch, Not Sex

It’s time to confront our anxieties around physical touch


My new app Cuddlr is all about the power of touch, though some folks are confusing “touch” with “sex”. Oddly enough, the hubbub shows exactly why the app and the discussion it is creating are necessary in the first place.

Coming this week, Cuddlr connects you with new people in your immediate area who are up for a cuddle. (It’s sort of like Tinder or Grindr, but for public cuddling instead of hookups.) Once you and the other party agree to cuddle, the app helps you find each other, and the rest is up to preference and communication. For each user, the app shows a tally of how many successful cuddles they have had already: the more someone has been vetted by other users, the more likely they are to be good at cuddling, communication, and respecting boundaries.

As word spreads, people find the idea exciting, think the app has potential to be “amazing” and say it’s “exactly the app I’ve been waiting for”. We’ve also heard some reservations, which helps us refine parts of the app.

The biggest challenge may be understanding app-enabled cuddling gives the same power-of-choice found in app-enabled dating, and even with sex in general: You don’t say yes to everyone. Not every request will be worth replying to, some cuddles will be better than others, some will be amazing and you’ll want to cuddle with that person again and again, others will be fine but nothing special. And some will be absolute creeps who you’ll want to block. This is just the inevitable result of the distribution of human personalities. But from some folks, there also seems to be a visceral reaction against the idea of casual platonic cuddling.

Why this edginess around touch? It can’t be just that people are reluctant to enter intimate situations with near-strangers (the popularity of Tinder and Grindr demonstrates we obviously love doing that). Trends show many of us have slept with someone we’ve met through the web or an app. And yet: while app-enabled sex has their (presumed) blessing, this middle ground of nonsexual intimacy makes them queasy. Why could this be? Why would someone be more willing to pursue sexual intimacy than platonic closeness? When people use a hookup/dating app, they are generally looking for sex or dates (or both), often-though-not-always with the goal of finding and vetting potential long-term partners. We enter into these situations willing to put up with the bad-to-mediocre dates, the disappointing hookups, in pursuit of two huge, overriding genetic imperatives: procreation (or rather its simulacrum: orgasm) and experiencing a protective, nurturing closeness.

While we seem wired to pursue both sex and closeness, we aren’t necessarily wired to expect them to come packaged together into one experience. Before the birth of the modern egalitarian relationship, no one would have expected a romantic partner to also be a friend, a confidante, to share one’s taste in music or books. Now, if and when we find a partner we’d like to marry, or have children with, or buy a house with or just stay together with for a long, long time, there’s a presumption that we no longer need close touch to come from anywhere else.

But we are born needing, even craving touch. As children, we revel in the closeness we get from snuggling with parents and close family members. As teenagers or young adults, we discover sex, and generally speaking we try to do as much of it as we think we can get away with. By the time we form a stable adult peer group, we’ve effectively trained ourselves not to cuddle except for with people we’re sleeping with: not because it wouldn’t be pleasant or fulfilling, but because of inherited social rules left over from our ancient pregnancy anxiety. These include: don’t get pregnant outside of a permanent relationship, don’t get STDs, and be careful about what else you are seen to be doing, in case you should fall into disrepute. But also, in particular: physical intimacy means sex, and so being physically close with another adult is in a sense asking for sex, if not outright consenting to it. And doing this in public is a way of advertising your status, of saying “I am having sex with this person, or at the very least I am considering doing so in the near future”. The thing is, very little of this is true anymore: women can and do decide to have children alone, STDs remain best avoided but are more often manageable or curable than ever before, and only people in small closed groups (high school, high society) lack the ability to escape a tarnished reputation. We can bring about the same evolutionary change for nonsexual intimacy as well, and as a culture we seem finally ready to make that step.

In many parts of the Arab world, for example, it is common for two men or boys to show physical affection by holding hands. This can be a source of confusion for visitors who presume this gesture to only mean people are sexually or romantically involved.

And in the West, physical touch becomes important when people are grieving. When there has been a death or other tragedy, our need for comfort becomes so strong that it overrides our unspoken cultural ban on physical affection. We hug strangers and acquaintances, we take people’s hands and hold them, we sit next to each other and cry. Sadly, this can create a link between affection and sadness when someone’s only experiences of this kind of affection come at times of deep grief. Surely if we cultivate the ability to have these experiences at other times, the association can be one of happiness and joy, of strength and community, which will serve us even better in times of grief and sadness.

I love the experience of touch, and I think we don’t get enough of it. Growing up, I’ve experienced the gradual dropping away of physical affection from same-sex friends as homophobia and awkwardness sets in, and as that same energy is refocused toward dating and relationships. This is something I’ve previously tried to chip away at, for instance by getting my male friends to start hugging each other, but that’s too easily turned into an ironic, faux-macho gesture. We need to delve deeper, to go beyond rejecting cliché and start actually challenging the ways we interact (or the ways we don’t feel we are allowed to interact).

One of the reasons I’m so ecstatic about my partner is that she and I have pretty successfully moved past the jealousy that plagued many of the relationships of my twenties. We don’t pretend to be all things to each other, and the thought of cuddling someone else is more something to consider rationally instead of a knee-jerk reaction or shutting down discussion. It’s so valuable for me to feel like either of us could say anything — not that anything would be enthusiastically received or that nothing would require serious further discussion — but that there aren’t any topics that have been blacklisted; nothing where we need to toe the party line in order to keep from arguing.

It’s not just me: a friend who had moved away to teach at a private high school came back for a visit, and when I gave her a “welcome back” hug she was momentarily overcome with emotion. It took us both a moment to realize why this was happening. Then she said, “I just realized that I haven’t actually made contact with another human being for three months.” There she had been, unaware of the sort of contactless confinement she’d fallen into even as she was surrounded by people all day long. When people relocate, we rarely acknowledge how it will also radically affect our day to day intimacy needs, nor do we have any systems in place to accommodate. I think future civilizations would find her lack of opportunity for benign touch disturbing. We find it normal. That’s not something we should let continue; it’s something we should work to change.

That is my intention with Cuddlr. Aside from finding like-minded cuddlers, it’s also a way of contributing to a larger discussion about closeness, intimacy, and sexuality. Imagine how it can broaden the scope of acceptable behavior: someone might date only men, or only women, but be open to cuddles from both. Someone might generally date people who look a certain way, but cuddle people who look lots of different ways. Sometimes this might even realign their views on who they’d be happy dating; other times it will just get them more cuddles. Furthermore, there’s no script for cuddling: every pair of people has to decide what’s going to happen next. Will there be a big spoon and a little spoon? If so, who will be which? Will you cuddle sitting up, or lying down? How long will the cuddle last? How much talking will there be?

Aside from it being just an app for single people, I see Cuddlr as a tool for communication in couples, too: When the options for what to do with another person are “sex” and “nothing”, that sharp divide makes it easier for members of a couple to assume all of the rules, rather than explicitly discussing them. That divide is an illusion, and bringing platonic cuddling into the public discussion of commitment and monogamy-and-its-variants will help couples negotiate what they are and aren’t comfortable with (and even start to explore why). People may not be willing to indulge other sex partners, but may see the appeal in the occasional bit of casual cuddling. This, of course, takes trust. But if you can’t trust someone to be honest and self-controlled about cuddling, how can you trust them to be honest and self-controlled about sex, or for that matter parenting, cohabitation, feelings, or desires?

Will some people cuddle, and then decide they want more? Absolutely. Just like everything else people do together: rugby, pizza delivery, surgery, graduate degrees — some of the participants in these activities will decide they need to get it on together. So long as everyone stays communicative and respectful, this is great. Will a few people try to ‘upgrade’ their cuddle mid-flight? As much as we might wish it were otherwise: yes, they probably will. For this reason, it’s possible to report someone who cuddles inappropriately, and we encourage first-time pairs to do their cuddling in a public place. While there are potential risks in any activity, cuddling should be safer and more manageable than many things we do every day. The practice of actually deciding and communicating what you want and don’t want is one that will benefit us not just in our romantic relationships, but also outside them, in jobs, friendships, and everyday interactions.

So, when is your next cuddle?

Cuddlr is now available on the App Store for iOS (bit.ly/Cuddlr). An Android version is coming eventually, too, settle down. Sign up at http://cuddlrapp.com to hear when the Android version arrives.

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