“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I am experiencing what feels like a crushing need for physical touch and intimacy right now. I’m single, live alone and haven’t slept with anyone in nine months. I am trying to be extra loving to my body in order to compensate, though it doesn’t feel like enough. I’d like to find safe ways to be intimate with others, however, in addition to not knowing a lot of people and not meeting many new people, I rarely trust or like others enough to become physically intimate. I feel that my distrust is an accurate perception and I can’t change who I like. So I feel stuck without options. Any thoughts?
Thank you for all your work,
I can’t help but feel that your words reach deep into the heart of not only our current, pandemic-afflicted condition, but also the profound ambivalence that dwells alongside our human need to touch and be touched by others. Even in the best of times, the allure of intimacy is always shadowed by the lurking possibility that those we get close to are liable to harm us—and this, unfortunately, is not the best of times.
Skin hunger, sometimes called “touch starvation,” is a real, scientifically observable phenomenon that describes the negative physical and mental health effects caused by a lack of access to positive experiences of affectionate touch, whether sexual or platonic. In the early months of COVID-19, skin hunger received a flurry of media attention as people struggled to adjust to sudden, intense touch deprivation when family gatherings and hook-ups became verboten and massage parlors, sex work businesses, hair salons and other touch-based industries shut down overnight. The onset of the pandemic threw into sharp relief a social problem that many of us have always known about: That regular access to compassionate, loving touch is both a universal need and a restricted privilege. Despite the importance of physical contact, we also live within the confines of a society that routinely relegates older, fat, disabled, and other non-normative bodies to the realm of the untouchable.
Yet the pandemic has also brought to the surface another deep and archetypal fear within the dominant culture—the fear of being intimately known, of being touched and thereby rendered vulnerable to the threats posed by the Other. Human bodies, like human desire and human diseases, are unpredictable and treacherous. They leak and overflow their boundaries, exposing others to their germs, bacteria and viruses. They also force us to reckon with the reality that we are flawed and mortal, that proximity and pleasure can be dangerous as well as fulfilling.
COVID-19 is only the latest spectre to haunt human (and especially queer) intimacy; the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other sexually transmitted infections were, of course, already around. The possibilities of sexual and physical violence, too, are another age-old fear, particularly for our community in the wake of horrifying acts, like those of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who preyed upon men who have sex with men. Beyond those mortal dangers, there is also the possibility of rejection and heartbreak, the traumatizing notion that all queers harbour as a result of centuries of stigma and oppression: That we are fundamentally unlovable because of who we are, and therefore are doomed to suffer in intimacy and in love.
So, Lonely, I hear you and feel you when you speak of being caught between your need for touch and your struggle to trust. The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wrote that “it is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found,” and it is in this aching paradox that you—and many others—now find yourself trapped.
In a previous column, I’ve written about how to navigate situations where our fundamental needs come into conflict with the needs of those we love. But what do we do when our conflict is with ourselves? When our need for safety clashes with our need for connection?
There are two ways to try and answer this question, Lonely: The first is to come up with workarounds that attempt to satisfy the longing for connection without exposure to the risks that come with taking other human beings into our lives and bodies. For example, articles like The Good Trade’s “5 Soothing Practices To Help You Cope With Touch Deprivation” and Allure’s “COVID-19 is Causing ‘Skin Hunger’ for Many of Us” provide some good examples of strategies such as self-massage and creative masturbation that can be helpful for some.
Certainly these are rich and worthwhile options. While most people practice masturbation to some extent, many aren’t aware that practices such as orgasmic yoga and meditation can take self-pleasure to an entirely new level. If this sort of exploration calls to you, now might be a good time to get into edging or to master orgasm control. New sex toys, new types of porn and other kinds of solo play might take you where you need to go, at least for now. On a non-sexual note, there’s some anecdotal evidence that pets (especially ones you can cuddle), body pillows and weighted blankets can be soothing and beneficial to mental health.
Yet you’ve written in your letter that you’ve already tried to be extra loving to your body, and it doesn’t feel like enough. If you’ve already tried one or more of the options above, then it might be time to consider: How can you protect your body and your heart while also opening up enough to receive the intimacy you long for? These are questions that many grappling with, as we struggle to find the right balance in the midst of the pandemic, yet they are also questions that we will continue to deal with even when COVID-19 is finally over.
“Safe enough” is a complex yet potentially transformative concept when it comes to navigating internal conflicts between our fundamental needs: What would make it safe enough to pursue intimacy with someone? And what are you hoping to gain that would make it worth the risk?
When we start to think in practical terms of harm reduction and meaningful risk, we can start to break free of binary thinking. When it comes to intimacy and safety, we tend to revert to all-or-nothing thinking: Either I share intimacy with someone and open myself up to mortal danger, or I share intimacy with no one and remain in painful isolation. Yet there are levels of intimacy and risk that we can choose and combine, Lonely—always remaining mindful of our limits and our responsibility to the public, of course.
For example, you might consider an ongoing, consensual exchange of sensual photos with someone—maybe a new partner you meet online through an app or a former partner, if they are open to and excited about it. Or, if you are looking for a very boundaried type of intimacy, you might try engaging the services of an online sex worker for photo exchange or sensual video chatting (remember to pay appropriately and tip well!). Indeed, people have engaged sex workers throughout history for this very purpose: In the hands of a skilled provider, sex work can be a deep dive into real intimacy without any requirement of ongoing expectation on either side.
Then there is the possibility of meeting in person. While I can’t necessarily recommend this right now given the risk of COVID-19 transmission, I have heard of folks who have decided to enter a friends-with-benefits type of arrangement with the understanding that they are “bubbling” together to reduce risk.
Whatever you decide to do, Lonely, I think it’s worth breaking down this question of trust. What does trust mean to you, and what would a prospective partner need to do in order to show you that they are trustworthy? How could your need for trustworthiness be broken down into small, tangible steps or requests that you could reasonably ask for over time, as a relationship progresses? And what would you need to do in order to feel resilient—to feel safe enough—to deal with the possibility of being hurt, in exchange for the possibility of great reward?
These are big questions, and I do recommend pursuing them with the help of a trusted professional if it feels overwhelming. Deep and powerful work can be done here, but the key is to go slowly and at your own pace.
Good luck on your journey, Lonely. We are living in a moment when the world is wide, and the challenges of our present seem endless—and all the while, intimacy remains as mysterious and potentially frightening as it has always been. Fear and desire, fear and love, have always walked hand in hand. At some point, we have to go through one to get to the other. At some point, we learn to have faith that there is something better and brighter waiting on the other side.