Have you ever felt the need to be around people or just want to enjoy the company of another? Maybe you’ve been isolated for a while and long to be held. Or is it that you may suddenly feel lonely and depressed or want to withdraw from social settings? Before you assume that your issue is a mental health one, or that you need sex, first think about the last time you were touched, held or hugged in a meaningful way. It may just be that you are “touch hungry.”
What is skin hunger and why we need it
One of the topics sexologists teach about is “skin hunger.” Skin hunger (also known as touch hunger) is a need for physical human contact. Satisfying your skin hunger requires you to have meaningful physical contact with another person. Although many people satisfy their skin hunger through sex, or in fact, confuse the need for touch with the need for sex, skin hunger isn't really a sexual need.
Studies have shown that people who are significantly devoid of human contact or who resist or avoid touch, could be at a higher risk for experiencing depression and stress. They are likely to be less happy, more lonely, and in general have worse health. In other words, failing to observe your need for human touch can have profound emotional, even physical, consequences.
Neuro-chemically, human touch releases the hormone oxytocin, which is shown to be integral to human bonding and in intimacy. Showing affection physically to those closest to us, from something as simple as a pat on the shoulder or back rub, or a hug establishes trust and communicates a commitment to them, and their well being, as well as to bonding with them.
I know of one study which revealed that "high contact" cultures, in which persons overwhelmingly touched each other were less likely to exhibit symptoms of aggression. This is because there's a social and calming element to human touch, that soothes us. So skin hunger is the yearning for this which can be particularly strong in a modern life where we can be quite isolated from each other.
Healing, teasing or pleasing – the continuum of touch
Before I continue, let me first put some context here for touch.
BOLD & Prominent
ALL TOUCH MUST BE CONSENSUAL. And it is NOT CONSENT if you are made to feel afraid, ashamed or guilty for saying “No.”
With that stated clearly, let’s now learn about the touch continuum. On this continuum, you’ll learn about different kinds of touch and then you’ll be ready to choose the kind of touch that you want to engage in at any time.
The touch continuum moves from lesser to greater levels of intimacy and personal exposure (uncovering; laying bare). Imagine a line with the following words underneath going from left (lesser levels) to right (greater levels):
Healing. Affection. Sensual. Erotic. Sexual.
This is the touch continuum. Now let’s look at what kind of touch you can expect for each one.
This is the kind of touch you want when you are sick, tired, or in pain. This is the kind of touch you may pay a massage therapist to do. You may also receive a healing touch from a friend, a health care professional or even your partner, if he or she is skilled in special techniques (including non-traditional methods that channel energy with/through the hands).
This touch is playful, light, or silly. This type of touch is used to show friendship, caring and nurturance. It can even be a “happy to see you, bro” kind of gesture – a hand on the arm, back or shoulder. Picture athletes on the field patting or touching each other in ways that communicate affection, support and encouragement.
Sensual touch is touch for the pleasure it gives – luxuriating or indulging in touch for its own sake or touch to bring persons closer together. Sensual touch can lead to the next two levels of touch along the continuum, if you choose or want to take it that far.
This type of touch includes the intimate kind like caresses, cuddling and deep kissing. Erotic touch is often associated with foreplay and it’s the kind of touch that often lead to sexual intercourse.
Sexual touch involves anything two naked bodies might do together, including something as simple as kissing, and also caressing and cuddling, oral-genital contact, penile-vaginal intercourse, G-spot stimulation, anal sex, or anything else you and your partner can imagine. Using your bodies – including your genitals – for sexual pleasure is what distinguishes sexual touch from other kinds of touch.
The touch techniques you use should never harm you or your partner and I encourage you to be as imaginative and creative as possible.
Getting the touch that you need
Now that you know the different kinds or levels of touch, you and your partner can and should talk about the kind of touch you want to give and receive.
Using your new knowledge, you can feed your skin hunger in many (non-sexual) ways and it doesn’t mean you need to have a romantic relationship with someone. (If you do, then it would be great to have hugs more often as a regular part of the day.)
Satisfying your skin hunger needs can be as simple as, asking your friends and family for more hugs, getting a massage, or just be more receptive to affection from people who make you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally safe. Or perhaps you might consider having a cuddle buddy, with whom you have clearly defined boundaries and who you know you can trust and enjoy being close to without it becoming anything uncomfortable. Even if all you can tolerate is a quick and gentle stroke of your arm, do try getting a little more ‘love’ from the people you love.
Onika Henry is a Tobago-based, trained Sex Educator (M Ed Human Sexuality) and a Certified Sex Coach (CSC). She designs and implements workshops, training, and psycho-educational counselling, to address sexual health concerns.
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