Touch of the ancients
For centuries and in many early cultures, massage was an accepted and common healing treatment. As early as the 3rd century BC Chinese Taoist Priests to the 1st cent BC Indian Tantra Gurus, to the Greeks, and later the Romans, even to the more remote tribes on Pacific islands, massage with oils (often given infused with herbs and flowers) was an integral part of maintaining a healthy life. It was seen to help recovery from an ailment, calm the body and mind after a hectic day of battle, politics or sport, as a treatment for better skin condition and of course within Tao and Tantra philosophies, used to enhance the understanding and sensual communication between lovers. But most importantly, these ancients held no distinction between sensual or non sensual, believing that “if it felt good then it must be good” and that the sensual process which ultimately creates life is sacred and quite natural, and should be embraced and not feared.
Massage remained common through the first millennium then gradually, particularly in Western Cultures due to religious doctrine, the emergence of science as the only accepted healing treatment, and then the later puritanical Victorian values and right up to the present day “can’t touch” culture, touch became demonised and viewed mostly in a sexual context, unless given within relationship. This meant that for the last few hundred years right up to the late 20th century, if you were not in a functioning intimate partnership, the only means of receiving touch was either medicinal treatment (such as rubbing a remedy balm in to the chest for colds) or in polarity as a sexual service given by escorts and prostitutes, making the word massage a euphemism for sexual favours.
Touch in 21st century – The stigma of touch
Many of us are fortunate to be in a loving intimate relationship with a partner, where sensual touch is given to each other often as a prelude to sex or just to show the love for one another. However, for those not in a relationship or for those whose relationship has become non intimate and physically distant, intimate touch can be illusive, with the only means of finding it by seeking “a treatment”. Some simply go to the hairdresser or the beautician, some visit the sports or therapeutic masseur or other body therapies that are now available, and for some, the choice is a furtive sexual liaison that allows them to touch and be touched even for just a short moment. But the touch in these situations is mostly given conditionally and without feeling. The therapist will painstakingly remain clinical to avoid any impression of intimacy, the hairdresser will remain chatty lest that lovely feeling of having the scalp massaged is misunderstood and the brief sexual encounter will remain mechanical for fear that any intimacy shown may imply the desire for relationship. Many societies in the modern West are “touch-starved”. We actively discourage the kind of affection that is expressed naturally in other cultures. It’s socially unacceptable to touch. There is an unwritten rule that says the less you know someone, the further away you must be. Think about being on a train. When another passenger gets on, the last place they will choose to sit is next to an occupied seat. Only when there is no other option, will they actually sit next to someone else.
All too often, when we hear about touch, it is in the context of pornography, even abuse and violence. We go out of the way to ignore or deny the need for a caring touch, and because our bodies remain imprinted with that basic needs, we live with the consequences: reduced well being, fear, depression, insecurity, abusiveness, mental illnesses. The high levels of publicity given to sexual abuse over recent years have been a great deterrent for healthy touching. We’re afraid of touching because our actions might be misinterpreted – hence children are deprived of appropriate touch at a very early age. Our response has been analogous to that of the person who having eaten some bad food, decides that the best course of action in the future is not to eat at all, rather than ensuring that what is eaten is healthy. So too it is with touch. There’s the rotten variety, which will make us ill, but there’s also the nourishing, wholesome kind, which is the staff of life itself. Please, let’s not allow the existence of harmful touch to lead us to deprivation.
How important is touch?
The words that spring to mind are – crucial, critical and vital. Literally vital, as without appropriate touch, people cannot grow and develop. Touch is powerful . “The greatest sense in our body is our touch sense. It’s probably the chief sense in processes of sleeping and waking; it gives us our knowledge of depth or thickness and form; we feel, we love and hate, are touchy and are touched, through … our skin” (J Lionel Tayler “The Stages of Human Life” 1921) Touch is instinct. When a baby cries, the instinct is to pick up, rock, pat and soothe. When you bang your elbow, its instinctive to grab it and rub it. Touch is an unthinking part of our everyday language, we say – rub up the wrong way, out of touch/lost their grip, thick skinned or thin skinned, the personal touch when something is exactly right. We’ve “put a finger on it” maybe most telling of all, when someone’s moving away, we say “keep in touch”, even when what we mean is write or phone. Dictionary definition of “Touch” is “the action or an act of feeling something with the hand etc.” The operative word is “feeling”. Though touch is not in itself an emotion, its sensory elements induce those feelings we describe as emotions. A comforting hand on the shoulder of someone who is distressed produces a very different emotional reaction to an apprehending touch on the shoulder of a miscreant. The touch of someone’s hand, the closeness of an embrace, and the connection of personal contact signify caring and comforting. Feelings of security, safety, and easiness are amplified. Touching builds closeness, fosters communication, and nurtures intimacy. Touching gives a person a sense of being cared about and cared for. Being touched or held makes a person psychologically feel worthy and physically feel soothed.
What is touch?
Touch is contact, a relationship with that which lies outside our own periphery. It tells us we’re not alone. As infants, it’s primarily through touch that we explore and make sense of the world; the loving touch of our carers is essential to growth. The cuddling and stroking received in infancy helps build a healthy self image and nurtures the feeling of being accepted and loved. Psychologists have demonstrated that our perception of how much and how we are touched relates to how we value ourselves, it’s the essential nourishment for self-esteem. Touch is much more than a physical interaction. It has to do with the acknowledgement of our shared humanness and mutual recognition of the inherent vulnerability and intense wish for contact that is present in each of us. When we feel loved as a result of an abundance of appropriate touch and affection in our lives, we have an inbuilt sense of safety and inner stability that does not depend upon how other people respond to us. We wake up feeling loved, and go to sleep feeling loved – no matter what slings and arrows get hurled at us in any given day.
Touch deprivation – what happens if we’re not touched?
The 13th century historian Salimbene described an experiment made by the German Emperor Frederick II, who wanted to know what language children would speak if raised without hearing any words at all. Babies were taken from their mothers and raised in isolation. The result was that they all died. Salimbene wrote in 1248, “They could not live without petting.” Nor can anyone else. Untouched adults may not die physically, but life will not be experienced to the fullest. Touch deprivation is also harmful because it severely affects sleep, which is necessary for the conservation of energy. In all studies on separations of very young children from their mothers, sleep was always affected. The time children required to fall asleep was longer, and night waking was more frequent. In several studies, a suppressed immune response was noted following the separation of monkeys from their mothers. Less antibody production and less natural killer cell activities resulted. After reunion with their mothers, immune function returned to normal. Studies on touch deprivation among pre-school children who were separated from their mothers also noted more frequent illnesses, particularly upper respiratory infections, diarrhoea and constipation. This is the same for adults. 26 adults with migraine headaches randomly assigned to a massage therapy group, received twice-weekly 30-minute massages for 5 consecutive weeks; they reported fewer distress symptoms, less pain, more headache free days, fewer sleep disturbances, taking fewer analgesics and also increased serotonin levels.
Why do we love to be touched? Is it Primal?
The need for intimate touch is primal; for millennia man, maybe even before he had the powers of speech, more than likely used touch as a form of group communication. By nature we are a tribal species, we need each other to survive, for the first 10 or so years of our lives we are extremely vulnerable we need others to protect us, feed and care for us and it is through touch which we are reassured that we belong to the group, that we are safe. It identifies our place in the group hierarchy.
Natures example, the Bonobo monkey shares 98% of our genetic make-up and is regarded as the closest primate to the human being, and sex and intimate touch is the key to the social life of the Bonobo. For them it is is a major part of their group dynamic, therefore it is not so difficult to believe that the natural state of the human being is very similar. As studied by Frans B.M.de Wall and reported in March 1995 issue of the Scientific American. “The diversity of erotic contacts in bonobos includes sporadic oral sex, massage of another individual’s genitals and intense tongue-kissing. Lest this leave the impression of a pathologically oversexed species, I must add, based on hundreds of hours of watching bonobos, that their sexual activity is rather casual and relaxed. It appears to be a completely natural part of their group life. Like people, bonobos engage in sex only occasionally, not continuously”. Bonobo Sex and Society by Frans B. M. de Waal, [read more]
To be continued…
If you have any questions for Colin related to this subject or on any other sexual performance related issues, Colin will be delighted to answer them. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org