I don’t get touched enough! I silently proclaimed, as I felt for the first time the lightning that occurs when a massage therapist’s hands settle firmly on your back. And if I don’t get touched enough, I thought, bumping around with two wives, five kids, four cats, and an occasional gerbil, then nobody does! I vowed the instant the lightning struck that from that point forward I’d make touching and being touched a central part of my life. That was years ago. Rarely has a week gone by since when I haven’t sought a massage or provided one for somebody else.
Human touch, I’ve come to realize, is a rare commodity indeed, especially in a culture that equates touch with sex.
Think back on your first nine months of life when human touch was reality 24/7. Pretty sweet, right? Once out in the world it wasn’t quite the same, but we still had nursing, being bathed, and sleeping throughout the day cuddled next to mom. Then suddenly we were expected to feed and bathe ourselves—and worse—sleep most of the time alone! We still got our hair tousled once in a while, along with occasional noogies and hugs. But it wasn’t as good—wasn’t the same. Still, we were willing to take what we could get. Then our bodies started changing and our parents retreated some more, hugs tapering off, kisses moving to foreheads. Thank goodness girlfriends and boyfriends were waiting in the wings to touch us and touch us and touch us some more. With the earlier touch depleted, any sort of touch was urgently desired. Friends would sustain us at least for a while, until the days returned when we were alone again—between relationships, after deaths and divorces, and finally when old, wondering if anyone would ever want to touch us again.
If babies aren’t touched, they’re subject to grave emotional disturbances as Harry Harlow showed in his studies of maternal deprivation. Rhesus monkeys raised in isolation absent the comfort of their mother’s touch exhibited numerous traits that were pathological in nature. In follow up, Harlow’s team fashioned surrogate mothers out of wire mesh and cloth, adding them to the monkeys’ cages. They found that the monkeys clung to the “mothers,” yet in receiving no touch back, they became damaged too, to a lesser degree. Clearly, touch is an essential ingredient for normal development to occur. When it’s absent, insufficient, or suddenly removed, emotional problems are quick to arise.
You might ask: If none of us gets touched enough, why do some people push touch away? Unwanted and unwelcomed touch doesn’t mean that a person is touched too much. It’s instead about how, where, and by whom the person is touched, and whether or not permission is requested and granted. A person can crave touch and still recoil if the touch that’s received is inappropriate and uncomfortable. Not all varieties of touch are good. But a lack of nurturing touch is nearly always harmful.
In response to our culture of touch deprivation, Reid Mihalko, a friend from New York, co-created Cuddle Parties, a national phenomenon that provides safe havens in which people give and receive touch. Attendees at cuddle parties are instructed to set boundaries and ask for the kind of touch (if any) they want. Similarly, they practice requesting permission before touching others with the understanding that: “No” means no, and “maybe” means no, and that people reserve the right to turn “no’s” into “yes’s” if they wish to do so at any time during the party. Cuddle parties have been particularly helpful to returning veterans who seek to reclaim healthy and healthful touch in safe and nurturing surroundings.
Listen up entrepreneurs. Here’s a freebie for you. Building on what Reid has done, and on my commitment to encourage more touch for all, I invite you to design an app called “Sleepovers” to help people find people to snuggle with overnight. Just as cuddle parties are clothed, non-sexual events, Sleepovers would afford snuggling without sexual involvement. Millions of people spend every night alone, in worlds of isolation, not knowing how to connect with others desiring the same. Many have given up trying. Most aren’t looking for full-time relationships but crave human touch and short-term companionship. Sleepovers would come with built-in agreements, such as: establishing personal boundaries, asking for permission, respecting “no means no,” and leaving quietly in the morning. If friendships develop—what could be nicer? But Sleepovers themselves would be all about touch—human, respectful, and mutually desired.