Long before sexual attraction exists as anything more than natural curiosity about anatomical differences, most little boys and girls sense that the mysterious feelings drawing them into the adventure of mutual exploration are wrong. They have absorbed from the adult world the idea that touching the human body is somehow indecent.
‘Don’t touch!’ is a childhood litany. Many parents set clear examples. Apart from an occasional perfunctory embrace, they do not so much as hold hands. The father will decide that his little son or daughter is too old to nestle in his lap or be kissed. The mother will stop giving baths to a still young child. Such parents cannot permit the spontaneous physical expression of feelings - the stroking, snuggling and enfolding movements with which almost all living creatures seek the warmth and reassurance that is virtually indistinguishable from life itself. Thus, while still too young to understand why, children learn to restrain the impulse to reach out to someone else. As they grow older, the impulse to touch is expressed by teasing. This leads to scuffling, and wrestling, which, although ostensibly in conflict, give boys and girls a chance to experience close physical contact. By adolescence they realise that parental prohibitions are merely temporary restraining orders. Most begin experimenting with kissing games, which escalate into necking and petting.Now the girls become the ones who say, ‘Don’t touch,’ echoing the lesson deeply ingrained in childhood: that sex is dirty, and touching means sex - so it’s hands off. Reaching out, which has already been sharply limited as a spontaneous way of expressing affection and solidarity, is usually stripped of all significance except that of sexual provocation. Thus the use of touch as a natural, uncomplicated way to express goodwill or friendship is forfeited.
Later, at the age of sexual experimentation, girls are more inclined to let themselves be touched than to do the touching. This again is partly a result of cultural conditioning - passivity as the proper female role, and the deeply embedded feeling that sexual activity for her may be dishonourable. With the rationalisation that the boy is the initiator, the aggressor, who must bear full responsibility for what takes place between them, she struggles to free herself from feelings of guilt or discomfort, to free herself from the tight, involuntary tensions of her body and to free herself to enjoy her natural, physical response to being touched.
In time, some young men and women find at least partial answers to their questions. But even for them, success is usually flawed by continuing inability to grasp the true function of touch. Many still think of it exclusively as a means to an end; touching for the purpose of having intercourse, a functional, wordless way to communicate a willingness, a wish or a demand to make love.
Meanwhile, for other couples, who also consider touching to be just a means to the same end, it becomes a means they enjoy almost as much as the end itself.
They have advanced past the adolescent notion of touch-as-trigger to the more sophisticated notion of touch-as-technique. In essence, they have adopted the philosophy, of the how-to-do-it sex manuals. Sex becomes a skill that can be learnt and then applied wherever desired. Men and women are taught not how to touch another human being but how to manipulate another body. This is a dead-end approach to the sexual relationship. Preoccupation with manipulative technique turns people into objects and touching is turned into the science of stimulation. Instead of a sharing of private emotions, sex then comes perilously close to being an exchange of impersonal services.
For the man and woman who value each other as individuals and who want the satisfaction of a sustained relationship, it is important to avoid the fundamental error of believing that touch serves only as a means to an end. In fact it is a primary form of communication, a silent voice that avoids the pitfalls of words while expressing the feelings of the moment. It bridges the physical separateness from which no one is spared, literally establishing a sense of solidarity between two individuals.
Touch most often carries its own message. It can be asexual, used to represent personal attitudes or emotions, to give comfort to reassure. It can be a sensual thing, exploring the texture of the skin, the suppleness of a muscle, the contours of the body, with no further goal than enjoyment of tactile perceptions. And yet such is the nature of the sense of touch, which can simultaneously give and receive impressions, that the very pleasure one experiences in stroking your partner’s face is relayed back through your finger-tips, giving your partner the pleasure of awareness of your pleasure in them.
Relational harmony: This is the well-spring of emotion from which sexuality flows. In reaching out spontaneously to communicate by touch, partners reaffirm their trust in each other and renew commitment. They draw on this emotional reservoir when one turns to the other with physical desire. Because their touching has continuity, and is part of an intimate dialogue that does not begin and end in bed, they feel secure. Whoever makes an overture knows the other will understand and respond, and the partner is secure in the knowledge that his response will be accepted, no matter how limited the degree of erotic arousal may naturally be at that moment.
Where no such security exists, two individuals in a sexual encounter may touch physically but still remain out of touch emotionally. When touch or submitting to touch takes place solely for the purpose of intercourse, it can express neither warmth nor closeness. It is a signal without subtlety, a demand for service or a yielding to such a demand. And over the years the service deteriorates, until finally one of the partners can no longer, or will no longer, perform. In a sad and ironic echo of their childhood, the partners live out their later lives in married celibacy and ‘do not touch.’
Today’s young couples seem to be freer to express themselves, in words and physically. Perhaps they will succeed in incorporating into their sexual lives a new philosophy of touch. Perhaps they do understand that touching - like seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling - nourishes the pleasure of being alive. That touching another human being satisfies the profound creature-need not to feel alone; that being touched by another human being satisfies the need to be desired as a physical presence; and that in touching and being touched, one can experience not only the pleasure of being alive but also the joy of being a sexual creature. It is a joy that ultimately and inevitably, as a natural extension of life itself, expresses itself, in the sexual embrace.