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Staying in Touch

by Stanley Ducharme, Ph.D.

Touch is a vital human need from birth to death. Consider for a moment the child who is born into a family that rarely touches. Or, consider the child who is touched only when he/she does something wrong or receives a spanking. Over and over, studies have demonstrated that without touch, animals and humans grow up with peculiar and unhealthy characteristics. They isolate themselves, have difficulties in their relationships and lack the necessary skills for effective parenting.

It has only been in the last 30 years or so that Americans have become more accustomed to touching. In years past, there was a taboo against couples touching each other in front of children or when out in public. It was just not something that was seen as appropriate. It wasn’t acceptable, except in the privacy of the bedroom. In part, this is because touching and sex have always been confused with each other.

Touching is an integral part of being sexual and affectionate. However, in today’s society, we have taken that statement to the extreme. We have sexualized touching so that all but the most superficial touching (such as a handshake or a pat on the back) is assumed to be a sexual invitation. To avoid any misunderstanding or false accusations, most people simply avoid touching other people when possible. Better to be safe than falsely accused of something inappropriate.

Men vs Women

hands1In the touching arena, boys do worse than girls. Females of all ages get more touching than males. Boys are weaned from touching at an early age and learn by example that men do not touch. Boys learn that physical contact is only acceptable in sports, rough housing and in sex. For example, there is no taboo on touching if you are playing sports or being tough in some way.

In spite of the taboo, the need for touch does not disappear in boys and men. It simply goes underground and gets re-labeled. Wanting a hug or wanting to feel close to another person sounds too mushy and feminine for most guys. For a man, wanting sex is considered a masculine thing. Thus, when a man feels lonely or has emotional needs, he thinks of sex.

Sex is how men get their needs met. Whenever the man feels something that might be called “wanting a hug” the man interprets that as the desire for sex. Sex and touch just logically go together. That’s what our society has taught us. 

Men need touching as much as anyone else. Asking to be touched or seeking a hug is not an easy thing, especially for men. It’s not seen as a “guy thing” and most of us would stumble through the words of asking for a touch, kiss or a hug. Yet, it is important that we pay attention to these needs in the same way that we would to the need for food or any other physical or emotional necessity.

What about the person with a neurological disability that impacts sensation?  How important is it to be touched when you have lost sensation on most parts of your body? In reality, we just don’t have these answers. We usually don’t think about questions such as these. Touching is something we take for granted or just don’t give much thought to. It’s one of those little things that we ignore. 

Just as touching is not just for sex, it’s also not just for personal care. Unfortunately, many people with a disability only get touched when they are getting help with dressing, washing, bowel care and other physical needs. Yes, this is important but it’s not enough.

When providing personal care, touching is “part of a job” or something that happens while completing a task. Usually, it’s doesn’t convey a message to the person or offer a sign of comfort, support and affection. Touching however can be more than just doing a job. When done with care and concern, touching, even in these instances, can be soothing, playful or comforting

Touch can convey all sorts of messages. It’s one of the best sources of comfort known to human beings. When something terrible has happened, when you feel sad or defeated, a hug won’t solve the problem but it can make you feel better. Touch conveys a sense of caring, a desire to help and the message that you understand how painful something must be. Touching connects us to each other.

Sometimes people are uncomfortable with being touched. Touch may be seen as an invasion of privacy or the breaking a boundary. Some people just don’t like being touched. Unless it has already been established as OK, it’s always a good idea to ask permission before touching someone.

Many people report how important it is or how good it feels to be touched in even in non sexual ways. That touch can convey a sense of caring, support or feelings of affection. Again, asking first however prevents any misunderstanding or potential negative reaction.

Touching a person on the face, shoulders, neck or other area where sensation is intact can often convey more than words can express. Touch is an important and personal way of communicating. For many people, a touch can fill emptiness or help with feelings of loneliness. Touch is more powerful than most people realize.

In these articles, the focus is frequently about the importance of sex in our lives. When we talk of sex however, it is often assumed that we are talking about intercourse. Touching however can also be a form of sexual contact. Some people with disabilities have intercourse on occasion but in reality coitus may be difficult because of medical issues, transfers, positioning and limited mobility.

For some people with a disability, touching is the main physical thing that they do. For them, touching in different ways and on different parts of the body means a lot. For some people, touching on areas of intact sensation is an intimate exchange. It makes them feel close and keeps the loving feelings alive. It also feels good to touch someone and to be touched.

hands2What about self touching? Although we were all taught not to touch ourselves for sexual enjoyment, touching one’s self for erotic pleasure is a healthy behavior.  It can be an important step in becoming a more sensuous person and in feeling more sexual. Touching oneself is a good way to reduce anxiety, get rid of stress and to get satisfaction. Whether you have a partner or not, self touching is a healthy experience that is natural and should be free of any guilt or embarrassment. 

In conclusion, spend a little time asking yourself if you are getting as much touching, holding, kissing, cuddling and hugging as you would like. Are you getting it on the parts of your body that you would like? Ask your partner the same thing. If either of you want more, talk about how that can happen.

So, what’s the take home message from this short article? Stay in touch with the people that you care about!

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