A minute with Oriana
Touch starvation by Oriana Ng
The term “touch starvation” emerged this year to describe our bodies’ deprivation from physical contact with other human beings. As several European countries are headed for another lockdown, let’s examine the role of touch in society and why it’s so important to us.
First, touch defines our relationships to the world. Language clearly exemplifies this: the expressions “within one’s reach” and “in the palm of one’s hand” show how touch is associated with the idea of control. The modern metaphor of this are touch-screens that give us immediate access to everything we please. On the contrary, “to lose touch” means to become disconnected or alienated from people, places and objects. Touch binds us to our surroundings as it enables us to experience the world in three dimensions.
However, in recent history, there’s been an emphasis on physical sensation rather than touch. Touch implies that the person or object creating the physical contact, as well as the place, time and context, are all relevant to the experience. Physical sensation however only refers to the effect that touch triggers on our bodies: pain, pleasure and the million in-betweens. Technology, science and marketing keep designing new products, fabrics and materials that heighten physical sensations. Rollercoasters, massage chairs – even virtual reality is working on a feeling of touch. This tends to make our physical interactions more straightforward and, granted, oftentimes less messy. A radical example would be the use of sex toys as a substitute for sexual partners.
The importance of human touch was reasserted in 2013 by Dr Kory Floyd, professor in communication at Arizona State University, who wrote about “skin hunger” in Psychology Today. This specifically refers to a desire of touch that has an underlying craving for affection. Dr Floyd uses Juan Mann’s “Free Hugs” initiative (which became a huge cultural phenomenon in the US) to illustrate this. Hugging creates a feel good hormone called oxytocin that helps alleviate stress and depression. In this case, human touch is essential to the equation.
In the early 2000s, psychotherapists began soothing skin hunger with professional cuddlers. Initially used on PTSD and sexual assault survivors and autist patients, it’s now become popular amongst high-achieving single professionals. The Guardian reports that one-on-one cuddle sessions cost between $80 and $100 per hour. During the pandemic, some cuddlers even began conducting online cuddle sessions. These usually involve prolonged eye contact and physical memory exercises similar to meditation.
French philosopher Levinas considers caressing another person’s face to be a transcendental and moral experience as the human face is a window to the infinite. Caressing a face, holding a hand, giving a hug – unlike pleasure-seeking forms of touch, these gestures nurture us because they are completely gratuitous. This is why it’s only valid to question whether the transactional nature of cuddle therapy gets in the way of the intimacy it aims to provide. The point of “free hugs” was that they were free, wasn’t it?
Have you ever experienced touch starvation? How do you plan on coping with it?