Friday, April 9, 2021

17. Humans Need Touch

Photo courtesy of MMX
It has been medically well established that babies need to be touched in order to physically and
cognitively thrive.  Throughout the early part of the 20th century there began to be more observational and clinical trials that revealed the devastating and often fatal effects of not adequately holding and nurturing infants.  Consequently, hospital programs started hiring staff and volunteers to cuddle babies for certain lengths of time if a parent or caretaker were unavailable.  My question has always been:  At what age does the need to be touched end?  

I don’t think it ever does.  And more and more research is showing that touch is a viable and necessary source of nurturence and growth throughout the lifespan.  Touch benefits us by reducing cortisol levels (reducing heart rate and blood pressure).  It increases oxytocin and dopamine levels in the brain, which generally result in a state of pleasure and happiness.  Emotionally it can increase a sense of meaning, connection, while reducing an experience of loneliness and separation. 

Conversely, the effects of touch deprivation or “starvation” in adults can be stark.  With COVID19 there is more and more research and anecdotal accounts of the impact on humans who do not have regular access to human contact.  Basically, its the opposite of above — they sometimes experience increased blood pressure, higher cortisol levels, as well as higher rates depression and loneliness. 

Gay men in particular can be impacted by touch starvation in several ways as we get older.  Often times when people are in a long-term relationships with a primary partner, they stop touching each other.  That may sound counter-intuitive, but it tends to happen when sexual desire has declined, as it usually does in most human relationships.  That is completely natural and universal.  However, it can be problematic for men who have been conditioned to exclusively associate touch and intimacy with goal-oriented sexual activity.  Intimate physical contact becomes an all-or-nothing scenario, i.e,,“If we’re not going to have sex then why touch each other at all?” I have seen many individuals and couples touch starved in scenarios where intimacy and affection are only offered in conjunction with sex and orgasms.

I see less examples of touch starvation in gay men who are not in primary relationships, as they are often more routinely engaged in actively acquiring sexual connections for pleasure and fun.  However, there still can be a lack of fulfilling human contact when these events are exclusively goal oriented, focused primarily on penetration and ejaculation, absent of any caressing of human skin.  In other words, if fucking is the only thing on your menu, you may be still not be giving and receiving an adequate and healthy amount of human touch in your life.

The other problematic issue for gay men, single or partnered, is the internalized beliefs about ageism and value that get in the way of connecting with others.  I will be writing more about self-sabotaging cycles in a future lesson, but here I want to note that there are many gay men who have been misled into thinking there is a universal standard of sexy.  As said in Lesson 37, there is no universal standard of what is sexually desirable.  But if someone believes that “young and thin” is The Standard, and they don’t perceive themselves as fitting in to those categories, then they may actively thwart their own efforts to receive touch and connection with others.   

Throughout 2019, someone I know was going through a personal crisis, and I tried to be as present and supportive as possible.  I wanted to be my there for them, aware there’s only so much one can do to care for another as they are processing trauma and grief.  I know that holding that space for others in my personal life and professional life means I must attend to my own mental and physical self-care proactively.   So I made extra certain to use my usual tools of self-care:  Exercise, pizza, work, talking about my feelings with trusted others, traveling and teaching about PrEP and U=U.   However, I also found an additional tool for taking care of myself and restoring balance during this turbulent time. 

I signed up for some Yoga / massage classes at Men's Massage Xchange (MMX) in New York City.  I had previously taught a few classes there about PrEP and U=U years earlier, but hadn’t ever taken advantage of their space as a participant.  On a Wednesday I attended an all naked yoga / massage class for queer men.  There is a portion of the program where they rotate participants so that everyone has an opportunity to give and receive sensual massage touch.  Of course my instinct was to be the giver, to be the caretaker, to help others feel good.  But when it was my turn to just lie down on my stomach and receive — I became quite emotional.  The feeling was amazing.  And it was devastating.  It was beautiful to feel several hands caring for my back.  And it was also painful for me to realize, “I don’t know how to ask for this.”  

I continued to regularly attend MMX classes so I could get more equipped and both giving massage and articulating my desire for human touch.  It seems so simple, but at age 48 I really had never had the words available to articulate this fundamental need.  I could easily communicate with sexual partners about boundaries and preferences,  but I couldn’t just say to someone, “please touch my back.”  It became more and more important for me to learn ways to communicate effectively so I could have more regular access to this element of self-care. 

And then, COVID19 hit.  New York City shut down, MMX shut down, gone was that steady flow of oxytocin and dopamine on my Wednesday afternoons.  I wrote in Lesson 34 how I found new ways to work that helped me to feel alive and meaning again during the shutdown.  And it was also important, even in those grave times, to maintain self-care and touch as well.

Around mid-April of 2020, or approximately four weeks into our statewide shut down, some of my previous sexual partners and I started having conversations and negotiations about how we may pursue touch and connection.  The questions pretty much went like this:  “Have you had any symptoms of COVID19 in that past 14 days?  Do you know if you’re been around anyone with COVID19 in the past past 14 days?  Do you live or work with anyone who is at statistically higher rates of dying from COVID19? Have you been able to get tested?” 

In some cases these questions led to a decision not to see each other, but in some instances they led to the ability to use Harm-Reduction strategies discussed in Lesson 32 . What was interesting to me is that people at this stage weren’t craving sex as much as they were needing touch.  Partners were looking for ways to feel physically connected, comforted, held in ways that would allow them to release emotional pain from the pandemic.   Because of what I had learned at MMX the year before, I was clearer how to ask for this for myself and offer it to others.  

Last week I had a conversation with a friend who said, "I don't think I ever want to go back to loud clubs and bars again after everything comes back."  My response, "Maybe this next chapter will offer more.  Maybe event producers will find touch spaces just as valuable dance spaces, maybe as we age up our community will prioritize oxytocin more than alcohol, get dressed down instead of dressed up for a fun social event."  Maybe.  

As we get older, I feel it is imperative for all people to learn ways to give and receive mutual consensual sensual touch.  As the world re-opens its doors, and as social events become safer and more accessible, I hope our communities will remember the visceral, spiritual, and emotional benefits of gentle human care, attention, and kindness.  I know I will be seeking ways to actively create and participate in these spaces in the years ahead.  

 Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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