3 min

Transforming touch

Getting past the ugh factor

Guys are sure getting touchy-feely on TV these days. In a recent string of commercials one man follows a couple to the altar, another guy follows a couple onto a dancefloor and a third follows some guys onto a golf course. In all these cases the lone man has his hand in the other guy’s pants’ pocket. You got that? He’s got his hand on the other guy’s ass and it stays there, kinda like it’s glued.

If you’ve been following Prison Break, where the sadistic paedophile keeps his young lovers attached to him by forcing them to hold onto the inside of his pants pockets, this might give you a serious case of the creeps.

In fact, you’re supposed to laugh. A plug for Capital One credit cards, the commercial is a punning play on the idea that bankers always have their hands in your pocket, diddling you for more dollars.

In related touchy-feely news, Vaseline Intensive Care plugs its soft-skin products with a series spotlighting some butch boys making friendly. In one, several rugby players are so busy hugging each other that they ignore the referee. “Can you give us a minute?” says one of the players from the midst of a group hug.

In another episode of the same series, a man sitting on a park bench hesitantly sidles up to another older guy and puts his arm around him. They sit there for a minute looking uncomfortable.

Go to the related website ( and you’ll find a list of suggestions on incorporating more touch into your life, including the very Oprah admonition: “Share your present needs and feelings about touch. Do this with someone nonjudgmental who will not be threatened by your needs.” No word on whether a glory hole would do.

The two sets of commercials have opposite intentions. One wants to convince you that touch is a bad thing (as in the English expression, “He touched me for a couple of quid”), the other that it’s quite nice, provided you ease your way into it with a little lubrication. What’s interesting, though, is that both commercials ride the same social ambivalence. Not only do they mine our deep-seated fear of male-male contact, they tap into our more general fear of physical contact.

For all the air kisses and bear hugs and general social bonhomie that clog the social whirl, we remain a touch-leery society. A phone company once urged us to “reach out and touch someone” as though touch were the simplest and most innocent of pleasures, incapable of double meanings and self-interested attitudes. But touch, as Oscar Wilde once said of the truth, is “rarely pure and never simple.”

Anyone who has ever observed a bar pickup and watched as hands touch arms and alight on shoulders and push ever so gently on lower backs knows that touch can be one of the most pointed prods in the human social arsenal. Our nerv-ousness around touch betrays a knowledge of our not-so-hidden agendas. Too expert in our own desires, we know full well that physical affection can easily tip over into either sex or violence. Not for nothing is unwanted touch legally defined as assault. Even casual contact can cause alarm. Brush up against someone on the subway and super-polite Torontonians will invariably say they’re sorry. Children learn by touching but they’re constantly being told, “Don’t touch.”

As one of a long line of repressed WASPs, I fully understand the ugh factor behind touch. Were it up to me, hugs and kisses would be confined to close friends and lovers. This business of groping every creature who passes within hailing distance in a frenzy of faked affection just strikes me as a needless waste of saliva.

Still, one can’t help wondering if the other more physical societies rumoured to exist beyond our WASP-pale world know something we don’t. And not just about simple social comfort but maybe transcendence as well.

The popularity of reiki, shiatsu and other forms of therapeutic touch suggests more and more people are looking for answers in the mute corridors of the body. Some even find them.

Many years ago the novelist EM Forster ascribed a burst of creativity to a laying on of hands. It happened while Forster was visiting the early gay activist Edward Carpenter and his lover George Merrill. Merrill liked touching people on their backsides and he gave Forster a touch of his magic. For the dowdy little novelist, the simple touch was little short of an epiphany.

“The sensation,” wrote Forster years later, “was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.” That single touch gave Forster the idea for his only gay novel, Maurice.

Not everyone will do as well. The success of the connection depends very much on the power of the participants. But it’s worth a touch.