Tag Archives: touch

Buying your needful things

So much of what we need is for sale. If you want someone to touch you kindly and be affirming, there’s always the hairdresser, or the nail technician, or a paid-for massage. If you need to talk to someone sympathetic, there are counsellors, therapists and life coaches. Any human need you have, you can pay some other human to answer. Some of the options of course being more legal than others…

I’ve been thinking for a while about the way in which commerce and human relationships intersect. Money is our primary expression of valuing people, so when we don’t pay for services rendered, we don’t always value what’s done for us. But, when we put a price tag on things sometimes we lose that sense of duty to each other. Natural and non-financial modes of caring and sharing may become distorted by the dynamics of seller and client.

With loneliness known to be on the rise, there must be increasing numbers of people who could only hope to meet their basic needs for human contact, by paying for it. And with poverty on the rise, paying to meet your basic needs becomes ever less feasible for many people.

I have no simple ‘we should be doing this’ answers to this area of experience. It bothers me that if you can’t afford to pay someone to meet your emotional needs, you may struggle to have those needs met in other ways. It bothers me that we are often so isolated from each other that some of us have to pay to have people touch us kindly or listen to us carefully. At the same time I’m deeply grateful that there are people who have taken these areas on professionally and can bring training and experience to bear when we need them.

What do we give? What do we assume others should do for us? What do we willingly pay for? What do we think should be done for free? What worth do we ascribe and how does that connect with what we pay? Answers to such questions are of course always going to be personal. I am certain they are questions we need to ask ourselves.

Advertisements

Honesty and touch

My whole adult life there has been a steady supply of men who put their hands on me without my consent. I’ve had one round of successfully persuading a chap who was rather too hands on with me to stop because it wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve gone a lot of rounds being told that it means nothing, they do this to everyone and that they weren’t prepared to make the effort to remember not to do it to me. There has repeatedly been pressure to accept this contact passively. I also note that the vast majority of ‘I do it to everyone’ guys do not in fact treat guys this way.

There’s a lot of entitlement underpinning the idea that your right to touch someone is more important than their right to say ‘no’ to being touched. There’s also something very weird (I think) about touching someone and claiming it means nothing. I’ve been the recipient of kisses on these terms as well. I do not want to be kissed by people who mean nothing by it. I find it immensely disturbing.

My suspicion is that the men who do this get something out of it that they aren’t willing to be honest about  – be that the pleasure of touch, or the pleasure of making a female-presenting person like myself accept them doing this – it could be a power trip. If you can touch someone and make them accept that, you have all the power in a situation. If you can touch someone you desire and then tell them you don’t find them attractive so they aren’t allowed to make anything of it, there’s all kinds of power-over going on.

Why haven’t I resisted more strenuously? To avoid awkward escalation. Because I’ve felt that if I protested I might be entirely rejected – a perfectly reasonable fear. Because I am easily persuaded that of course no one finds me attractive so it can’t be coming from there. I also find touch emotionally affecting, so if someone touches me as though they love me, or desire me, that can have a really big impact on me, and can do so quickly. To then hear that it meant nothing and I should make nothing of it is unsettling to say the least.

I have learned over multiple rounds of this that I am not supposed to respond at all. The ideal response from the perspective of those dishing it out, is to passively accept whatever is done to me. If I question it, there can be backlash. If I respond to it with affection, or Gods help me, with anything that could be read as desire, the slapbacks can be nasty. In these situations, it is not my place to do anything active and that, frankly, makes me very cross and very unhappy. Every time I’ve tried to talk about this I’ve found that the men doing it feel it is fair for them to touch me, and not fair for me to respond. It’s a line of thought I am pretty sure is held together by our wider culture – that male access to female bodies is a right, and that active female sexuality is unpleasant. We are to be appealing and quietly manhandled and make no comment.

If you want to touch someone purely on your own terms, with no reference to what they do, or do not want, you shouldn’t be touching them at all. If touching people means nothing to you, then you should not be touching them. If you desire someone and want to touch them on those terms, you should have the decency to own it, and not gaslight them by telling them it is something else entirely.


Mammal communications

On Sunday, a heavy horse pressed his nose against the palm of my hand, and snuffled a bit. It was a moment that I found both affecting and affirming. Mammals do a lot of communicating through touch, and use touch as a part of social bonding. Most mammals are willing to touch and be touched as part of encountering and interacting with each other. Non-human mammals cheerfully extend this courtesy to humans, but we often aren’t very good at it. As mammals who have decided that we are separate from the animals, we don’t really do much touching in the normal scheme of things. Not by other mammal standards.

When it comes to humans, the question of who is allowed to touch who, and when, is complicated, rule-laden and tends us towards non-contact. Unlike other mammals we don’t touch to communicate with each other, most of the time. And yet, there’s a great deal of information to be gleaned from whether, or how a person touches you. Touch can express kindness and affection. It can also be an expression of control, or power over. It can be withheld as a form of punishment, or as an expression of unacceptability.

Professional humans who work with animals use touch to soothe and reassure. Professional humans who work with humans do not use touch beyond what the role demands and we are collectively pretty clear that on the whole, touching in a professional context is inappropriate. Even if the other person is crying and obviously in great distress.

Most mammals seem able to embody what they’re feeling and act upon it. I have an animal body, but I have no real idea how to embody anything. I can use words, which create a distance between what I feel and whoever I might be offering it to. I can and will talk calmly about how I feel, but I find it unspeakably difficult to rock up as a mammal and let my body speak for me. I am always surprised when anyone, any other living mammal, chooses to touch me. Be that a horse, or a person. I find it easier to know what to do with the creatures, because I don’t think they judge me on the same terms. So long as I am not afraid of them and move gently, they are likely to accept me. I’ve never really worked out what the rules are for people.

Maybe it is simply that, as I am more inherently afraid of humans than most other creatures that the mammal response to fearfulness plays out just the same as it would with a dog or cat. Is it my own fear that causes other people’s hackles to rise sometimes?

I’ve been round this line of thought before, always coming back to Mary Oliver’s lines about letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and wondering how that could be so simple and so painfully difficult all at the same time.


Bodies in close proximity

I’m odd about matters of touch. The majority of people I prefer to have a good four feet away from me, and I hate being touched by strangers or touched unexpectedly. Where I have deep bonds with people, I am a very tactile person.

I don’t like fleeting contact with strangers. I find it emotionally disturbing and disorientating and generally not worth it. If I’m going to invest in touching someone, and dropping my defences to do that, I want it to be moving towards deeper, soulful connection. I tend to find that my first physical encounters with other people are awkward and weird. It probably means I am awkward and weird to deal with initially.

I find it takes time. I need to learn how my body relates to the other person’s. There’s simple physical components here – height differences, and establishing what feels right and appropriate and what doesn’t. I may need to talk about it. There’s also the unpredictable body responses – sometimes my body reaction is to want to hug close and tight, and those people are usually really important to me.

There seems to be an assumption out there that we just magically know how to make contact with each other. This is especially true in romantic encounters. So, I’m going to put a hand up and say I really have no idea how to do this, not the first time. Give me a dozen times, a hundred, a thousand, and I will be able to move through your personal space with more grace and poise and touch in ways that work for both parties. For each person I encounter, it’ a process, and usually a slow one. I wish it was normal to talk more about these things, but many people shy away from it. I’m going to change that where I need to.


The untouchable Druid

I’m really not good with social hugging. I had thought this was all very straightforward. My childhood was definitely a non-contact sport, as an adult I have been physically abused, and I suffer a lot of pain. Why would I want anyone to touch me? Unexpected kisses can give me panic attacks. However, in the last year or so, I’ve had a lot more very tactile people in my life, lots more scope to find out what I want. I think it would also be fair to say that in the context of my marriage, I am not an untouchable ice queen. Whatever my issues are, it’s not as simple as an absolute unwillingness to make contact.

It’s worth pausing to note here that it is very easy indeed to be doing things and not know why. If something has become normal, if you grew up with it, if it’s part of your culture then going along unquestioningly is very easy. Who we are is somewhat malleable and we are easily persuaded by our environments into being someone who fits. But if that’s not who you are, there’s an accompanying unease, a chaffing sense that something is out of kilter. So here I am, doing a thing, and not knowing why. Hating being pounced on and resenting casual, unmeant contact, and assuming it was because I’m not a very tactile person.

In the last year I’ve had three very important sets of exchanges around the issue of reduced physical contact. Three different people who, for different reasons are not able to make physical contact with me on the level I would have gone for. There have been conversations to understand why and to figure out what would work, and how to honour boundaries. These are three people I really like, and in the space where contact does not occur, I’ve been seeing a thing. A great welling up of joy and affection that seeks expression. I find it mildly frustrating that I cannot pour that emotion out in the most obvious ways, but at the same time to inflict unwelcome contact is, as I know from grim experience, a pretty disgusting thing. There is no way I would do that to someone I care about.

And that may be the critical point in all of this. Unmeant social affection, I realise, troubles me because it is unmeant. On occasions when I’ve expressed discomfort with being kissed, it’s tended to be the case that the person doing the kissing kisses everyone and considers it to be no big deal. I am really uneasy about doing that casually precisely because it’s not an empty gesture when I do it. I don’t like hugging people where nothing is felt or meant.

I’ve put in some serious contemplating time around this issue over the last few days. I realise I am not a cold and standoffish person, and that all my issues with contact come from somewhere else entirely. I’m an intense, emotional, passionate sort of person and (when I’m not hurting bodily, which is a different issue altogether) my inclination is to express surges of joy and adoration by throwing my arms around people, and in more serious cases, kissing them on the cheek. When I mean it, I hug tight, close and serious and I stop there for as long as I think it acceptable to the other person. In learning to accommodate people whose wants are different to mine, I’ve become more able to understand who I am and what I want, which is an interesting moral to the story. When everything is the same, when we don’t allow difference, we are less able to find out about our own authentic selves. Who I think I am has just shifted dramatically. It probably won’t change what I do, but it changes things within me.


Intimacy and freedom

Depending on how you know me, I’m either quite a standoffish sort of person, or a very physically affectionate sort of person. I’m not keen on making any kind of bodily contact with people I don’t know well. This is partly because I don’t do much casually or lightly, and I don’t make gestures that are not meant.

I’ve commented before that I am uneasy about the culture of physical contact in the Pagan community. Being a fellow Pagan does not mean that I welcome your hands on my body, or your lips on any part of my face. We need to respect each other’s boundaries, not assume we’re all equally loved up and available, and not create a culture in which body contact becomes necessary social currency. There are few things I find more abhorrent around physical contact than people doing it because they feel like they have to, in order to fit in.

I’m not offended by physical contact, if it is meant. By this, I mean contact inspired by care, affection or desire. There is something very real and human about reaching out to someone from that sort of emotion. We don’t always judge perfectly how the other person will take it. I don’t measure people at all by the mistakes they make. I measure people by what they do when they find out they’ve got it wrong. The person who genuinely likes me, cares for me or finds me attractive, will respect my boundaries if I need to gently assert them. I’ve had rounds of that along the way. There may be some awkwardness, some embarrassment, but desire, affection and attraction are all underpinned by care, and that always wins through. I’m an odd and damaged person, the people who care about me care enough to work around that and to find out what I need.

Then there’s that other thing. People who put hands and lips on, not out of love or desire, but for some other reason. For power and control. To assert themselves over my body, space and mind. To demonstrate that they are flamboyant, exuberant types. Because they think the culture requires it of them. I am unsure, but these are my best guesses. That contact isn’t meant, and it feels very different.

A while ago, there was someone in my life in the habit of pouncing on me and kissing my cheeks. I don’t kiss unless I mean it and very few people kiss me, and I prefer it that way. I found this habit of cheek kissing unsettling, and I eventually found the confidence to say so. The response was to be told that it meant nothing, and said person kisses everyone. That was actually worse. Not just an invasion into my space, but a misuse of an intimacy. The person in question could not understand what was so unsettling to me, and I have come to realise what an impoverished emotional experience that represents.

Kissing is an intimacy. When you turn it into common currency, you devalue it. Like anything else, if you do it carelessly, meaninglessly, you make it that bit harder to have the depth when it is intended. If you say ‘I love’ over the slightest trivia that amuses you, what do you have left when you find your soul-mate?

Boundaries are not just about keeping people out. They are also about what you hold on the inside. The line between intimacy and casual acquaintance holds so much inside of it. Within the boundary, there is trust and openness, emotional honesty, there is meaningful affection. Your body, your kisses, your embraces are far more meaningful gifts if they are only given carefully and deliberately. That which is not given with care tends not to elicit care, either. The better I get at asserting my boundaries, the more able I am to see the treasures that can be kept on the inside of those lines. There is incredible power in deliberate limitation, in the consciousness that goes with choosing a limit. All too often we mistake freedom for being without boundaries, but I think increasingly that freedom is more readily found on the inside of the most carefully drawn lines.