Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Being Out of Touch

Last Saturday I was at a potluck celebrating someone's 50th birthday (my first social event as a NC resident). Joe, Maria, and I all went. At one point in the evening, I sat next to Maria and spontaneously started giving her a foot massage. She hadn't asked for one, but she was grateful to receive one.

Later, on the drive home, we compared notes about the party and Joe reported being asked by a friend of all three of ours if Joe and Maria are polyamorous (open to having other lovers). Taking this in, Maria and I wondered where that question came from. Maria speculated that perhaps the friend was really asking if Joe, Maria, and Laird were a threesome. (We're not, but we could see how the question might arise: we're close friends, we have considerable affection for each other, and now we live together.)

For my part, I thought about the foot rub.

Although it was done fully clothed (well, Maria took her sandals off) in the middle of a well-lit living room, a lot of people automatically link touch with intimacy, and intimacy with sex. I think that chain of association is a societal train wreck.

It's my belief that we humans are hard-wired to crave touch from others of our species. This starts in infancy (there's solid scientific evidence on the importance of touch to the health and development of babies) and continues through adolescence, right through our senior years. Unfortunately, in a society confused about what constitutes appropriate sexual mores, we've fallen out of touch with the concept of healthy touch. 

In fact, the signals have been all over the map just in my lifetime, which spans this illuminating range of successful television comedies, all of which were contextualized in social commentary about the times in which they were produced: all the way from Father Knows Best (1954-60) to Sex in the City (1998-2004), with All in the Family (1971-79) as a wickedly ambiguous intergenerational bridge in between. 

As we've been wandering in the wilderness, touch has taken a lot of inappropriate hits—in no small part because a lot of women have been hit upon through inappropriate touch.

The problem, I maintain, is not the dangers of touch, so much as it's the taboo around talking openly about sexuality (sniggering in the locker room doesn't count) and what constitutes appropriate boundaries. Instead of an informed dialog, people have to guess what's going on, what it's OK to explore, how to discuss problems, and even how to discover their own sexual identity. It's a mess.

Further complicating this conversation is that sexual abuse is a very real and pervasive problem, though one that's far more linked to runaway power than it is to runaway touch. 

Let's be clear. Touching is a natural, integral part of lovemaking and sexual/sensual expression. But it's way more than that, including supporting, healing, relaxing, connecting, and assuring—all of which can be wholly asexual and essential to receive in regular doses. It's disastrous that we've carelessly condemned the innocent because it's sometimes associated with the questionable. 

Wouldn't it better to teach our children: a) to discern the difference; and b) that sex is a normal, healthy human function that can be misused? Wouldn't it be better if the baseline assumption is that when someone touches your arm or gives you a hug that it's simply someone trying to be caring, rather than carrying (a torch for carnal knowledge)? I'm not advocating naiveté; I'm advocating for an assumption of benign intent until a different line is crossed (such as patting someone's butt or nuzzling their neck uninvited).

Inhibiting touch of all kinds in social settings (for heaven sakes it might lead to dancing) is a spectacularly ineffective method of curbing sexual misdeeds. In effect, all it accomplishes is driving sex into dark corners (or back seats), while leaving in its wake a touch-starved society. We have to find a way to do better, or risk remaining out of touch.

Meanwhile, would you hand me your other foot? It feels like I've massaged the first one enough.

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