Sometimes it’s not all about sex, even in the online world. Intimacy might be just a euphemism for sex for some people, but in reality it’s a lot deeper than just physical satiation.
In my last article I talked about my views on what makes good and bad sex, and right up there in the domain of ‘ídeal’ is that feeling of connection, when someone ‘gets you’, perhaps understands you or at least is willing to try.
Connection can be purely physical too – pheromones that sing when you are together, kissing that melts your tight little corners of fear or apathy, or that oozy feeling of togetherness even in silence, skin to skin.
Perhaps there is no easy way to define human connection – whether it be emotional, cerebral, horndog lustful or sublimely spiritual. Maybe these are all part of the same wonder that is life?
The search for connection, whether or not it is clearly articulated, is common to most people online dating. It’s a sad and depressing fact of modern life that many people simply do not have regular touch in their lives, or the touch they experience has become perfunctory or superficial. It no longer lights their fire, makes them feel alive or desired.
There is a popular view that singles enjoy incredible sex with a variety of partners. “The reality is that many [single] people go for long stretches of time without having sex,” Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth says.
When I first separated from my ex, I had a year as a newly single person trying to get my head around my altered life and make it work as a revised family of three with my two children, who live with me full time. I didn’t give a second thought to meeting someone new and my days were full of the distractions of a busy life, satisfying intellectual work through my writing projects, the day job (also enjoyable) and the pleasures of friendship – as well as those indescribable joys of my ex-husband being wonderfully absent.
With only the (welcome) touch of my friends and children to soothe me, I soon realised how touch starved I was. This certainly affected my early liaisons with men I met online. Like a purring kitten, my unashamed and vocal reactions to being touched and to touching were partly amusing to me and my mate, and partly embarrassing. In this story, and this one, I mention my reactions to being touched again by a new man, after two decades of being monogamous
Give me touch
Not long after I met my last long-term partner, we shared Freya Watson’s article, The Power of Touch, and he wholeheartedly agreed. He recognised the value that I brought to him in my touch and the intimacy between us that was not purely sexual, but included elements of kindness, tolerance, acceptance, sensuality and gratitude. It was a very special time, that first year, when I lowered my defences and rediscovered intimacy with a new partner who was half my age and of a different generation. It speaks volumes about the power of touch, intimacy and connection to build bridges and bring people together.
I learned, partly through him and also through other strong heart connections, that touch is healing; it is nourishing to our souls in the same way that food is to our bodies – and it is deeply human.
“Touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship,” writes Rick Chillot in Psychology Today (March 2013). He quotes DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein in his article, who says, “This is a touch-phobic society. We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”
Chillot says that during childhood we learn about touch and its ability to soothe – sadly, childhood is the peak time for touch in most of our lives. Our comfort level with being touched also develops then, and our instincts to touch or our desire to be touched are thought to be largely determined by our environment (the nurture argument).
“By the time we’re adults, most of us have learned that touching tends to raise the stakes, particularly when it comes to a sense of connectivity,” writes Chillot. Touch can be a bonding opportunity between parent and child, between friends or lovers. Oxytocin levels rise, heart rates go down – and best of all, the benefits are mutual. Hertenstein says, “You can’t touch without being touched. A lot of those same beneficial physiological consequences happen to…the person doing the touching.”
It goes both ways
Perhaps because of this very beneficial nature, touch is a fundamental way that we foster and communicate intimacy in romantic relationships.
“One paper proposed a sequence of 12 behaviors of increasing intimacy that couples generally follow,” says Chillot. “After the first three (eye-to-body contact, eye-to-eye contact, and speaking), the remaining nine involve touching (starting with holding hands, then kissing, and eventually sexual intimacy).”
Touch does not typically continue to escalate, though, with research showing that the amount of touching between couples rises at the beginning of a relationship, peaks somewhere early in a partnership, and then tapers off.
“While couples who are satisfied with each other do tend to touch more, the true indicator of a healthy long-term bond is not how often your partner touches you but how often he or she touches you in response to your touch,” Chillot explains.
“The stronger the reciprocity, the more likely someone is to report emotional intimacy and satisfaction with the relationship. As with many things in relationships, satisfaction is as much about what we do for our partner as about what we’re getting.”
In Why a Lover’s Touch Is So Powerful Aaron Ben-Zeev says that touch plays a crucial role in generating and enhancing love. “Touch is critical for children’s growth, development, and health, as well as for adults’ physical and mental wellbeing,” he writes. The ‘touch hunger’ in many western societies like Australia, America and Britain is fast becoming the norm.
Freya Watson writes “It was two in the morning and I was awake again, tossing and turning under the quilt with a restless yearning. My body has been used to being held, loved, stroked and pleasured, and it was suffering withdrawal symptoms…It wasn’t sex I was after – it was loving touch.” (Elephant Journal April 2013)
The search for intimacy is not always about sex, whether or not people allow themselves to realise it. The search for sex, however, can also be plain and simple – the search for newness, for novelty, for exploratory, primal or risky sex. The desire to ‘ramp up’ our sex lives may be behind a lot of infidelity. More on the hot topic of infidelity in a later article.
One interesting statistic is that in 2014, 68% of single men and 57% of single women said they wanted more sex. They would like sex two or three times a week. (Match.com Presents The 4th Annual Singles In America Study: Sex And Singles)
Betina Arndt is an Australian writer who has explored on many occasions how differences in sexual drive or desire can influence the success (or otherwise) of a partnership. (See ‘High Fidelity’ Inquirer The Australian January 2015, http://www.bettinaarndt.com.au/wp-content/uploads/The-Weekend-Australian.pdf )
Neil Bartlett, who writes for The Guardian, says in Your Sexual Fantasies: The Results Are In, “a lot of people complain that work leaves them too little time for sex. Others are very specifically angry about the influence of porn on young men. Disappointment, frustration and confusion are universal and multi-gendered…
“My own advice to my younger self… would be simple: when we have sex, we’re not looking for plumbing – but for meaning.”
For me, intimacy as opposed to this new technology-enabled ‘false intimacy,’ is fundamental to my search for a partner or partners. Intimacy or meaningful connection, is a key theme in every experience I write about on this journey.
I don’t just desire intimacy through sex, although sex as a spectrum of romantic intimacy is pretty damn special, if not the ultimate expression of sensation, lust and emotion.
I also value intimacy generated through simple, everyday touch – the brush of a hand, a stroking of my face, a hand on my knee or the back of my neck, a sensual massage, a hug or a long embrace.
I’d love to read your thoughts on the value of intimacy versus sex in your life, and if one or the other is missing, how that makes you feel. It’s worth remembering that we’re not weak for needing touch and intimacy – we are only human.