In the early 1980s, a porn film called “Cafe Flesh” was released. It was weird and artsy, with great lighting, funky costumes and sharp dialogue. The producers had ended up making it as a porno because that was the only way they could get funding for it.
The premise was simple: after World War 3 destroys most of civilization, people are so heartbroken that touching another person makes them physically ill. Only 10% of the population can still have sex, and the other 90% goes to clubs like Cafe Flesh to watch them. The patrons’ longing and envy are palpable as they recall their memories of engaging in carnal pleasures.
Bet the producers had no idea that their avant-garde fuck film would become a documentary in the year 2020.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials in Austin, Texas, has left parks open so folks can exercise, and I walk daily by the river. Sometimes I see couples walking hand in hand. I’m sure the look on my face echoes the looks of Cafe Flesh patrons committed to celluloid 40 years ago. Will I spend the next few months or even years envying those who can still hold hands?
The story of human touch is the story of humanity.
For the past seven years, I’ve been researching this small aspect of our shared existence as it meanders through biology, neurology, culture, religion, gender, economics, child development, sexuality, health, anthropology, communication and sociology. I’ve written a book that teaches single people how to get their touch needs met, been running a hands-on nurturing human touch business, and speaking about solving loneliness with human touch.
2020 was shaping up to be an excellent year: I was pitching a TEDx talk on the future of human touch and planning another book. I also had been chatting with two different organizations about providing hands-on work for their clients.
COVID-19 was a plot twist I never saw coming. Billions of mundane physical interactions became potentially deadly ― and off-limits ― within weeks. As humanity struggles to cope with uncertainty, fear and trauma, one of the best tools for comfort and connection has disappeared for the single and physically isolated when we need it most.
In addition to our overarching narrative, each of us has our own personal touch story. Part of mine has been full of frustration and loneliness after ending a relationship three years ago. Before physical distancing, I was getting my touch needs met through a patchwork of humans and relationships. What follows are a few chapters from my life as I adjust to not having the pleasure and healing of human touch.
My friend Barbara is a bona fide hermit. She lives in a decrepit yurt at the top of a steep hill in Northern California. While someone else also lives on the property, they rarely interact. She can go days without talking to or seeing another person.
When I see Barbara, I load her up with hugs and cuddles, though it takes her time to reacclimate herself to touch. The last time I visited, she was struggling: It was the anniversary of her daughter’s death, and one of her dearest friends had recently committed suicide.
At bedtime, we crawl under a pile of blankets, spooning in the dark. I feel her 95-pound, 72-year-old body behind mine, her left arm around my waist. I drift off to sleep with the sound of the rain and our synchronized breath as my soundtrack.
When we talked on the phone last week, she told me, again, how the memories of our hugs sustain her when she’s feeling lonely. I thought I understood before, but now I grok it.
Every morning when I start work, my cat, Stormy, muscles her way onto my lap, displacing my laptop. I take her out of my lap and place her next to me on the couch as she protests loudly. Sometimes she stays put, but usually she crawls back, my laptop relocated off to one side on a pillow, arms stretched over at weird, un-ergonomic angles. She insists on laying on me, consent be damned.
Stormy is a sweetheart, loving and co-dependent. She’s the most doglike cat I’ve ever owned. But if I were to ask her to give me a hug, she’d look at me with her slightly crossed eyes when I said her name, and go back to licking her paw.
I will always remember the last person I touched before we began quarantine. Our city had not yet gone into lockdown, and we were hanging out for the second time that week. Both times, he greeted me with a long, warm hug. Social distancing was something other people in faraway countries were doing. We thought we were okay, as both of us lived alone and were in decent health.
The night before, I pondered propositioning him. My body craved sex and the skin-to-skin contact I hadn’t had in 2+ years of celibacy. My heart was a bit more reticent after a recent romantic disappointment. Rounding out the “Very Bad Idea” column was my disillusionment with hookup sex, and this man’s lack of attraction toward me. Cuddling seemed like an excellent compromise. When he arrived, I proposed that we snuggle, and he accepted.
He put his arms on the top of the couch, and I nestled my neck under his left armpit, throwing my arm over his chest and putting my head on his heart. He pulled his left arm around my shoulders, and stroked my upper arm. My breathing slowed as I relaxed into his embrace. It felt good to be held, albeit strange to be held by this person. It felt even better to replace the physical imprint of the last person who had held me on that couch.
I got nervous, drank too much and began nodding off. He disentangled himself from me and said goodbye. I crawled into bed after he left and woke up in the early evening with a hangover.
If I had a do-over, I would have foregone the booze so I could create a vivid memory ― chatting and cuddling long into the evening. I wish I could recall what he smelled like and if his hands were rough or smooth. And I wonder, if we get a break from lockdown between waves of infection, will I seek out a pandemic fuck buddy? Or will I ask a friend to be my pandemic cuddle buddy? Both options feel risky.
A friend asks what we might have done had we known that lockdown was imminent. I would have gone to visit my mother. I’m fortunate that she’s in good health and had been physically isolated for the month of February due to minor foot surgery, but I miss her and have no idea when I’ll be able to see or touch her again.
My mother hasn’t seen her granddaughter in almost two months. She is missing the touch of the munchkin throwing her rapidly-growing body into Nana’s arms. My mother and I are also physically close, and when we’re together we play word games on a tablet, me leaning into her side on the couch. Her body and mine were once one, and that bond has lasted.
I’m hopeful that my mother will remain healthy, and I won’t have to give a eulogy over video. I can only imagine going through her death on the other side of the country, grieving as my shocked body is tossed about in an ocean of pain, never reaching the safe harbor of another person’s embrace.
My female ancestors would have seen living alone as a decadent luxury. For generation after generation, they lived in small spaces filled with human bodies. Their arms encircled their siblings, their children, their nieces and nephews, and finally, their grandchildren. Family was ever-present and privacy was a foreign concept. During the cold Austrian winters, they crammed into single beds to keep from freezing to death. Some days, when I’m feeling particularly lonely, I imagine myself lying on a rug in front of a fire, surrounded by short, squat women who embrace me, stroke my forehead and tell me I’m not alone.
I have been sleeping surprisingly well the past couple of weeks, easing into slumber while counting my privileged sheep: home, job, health, spiritual foundation, friends and family. Thursday around 5 a.m. I wake up screaming, startled out of sleep by a bad dream I can’t remember. I gently stroke my neck, coaxing my nervous system back to calmness until I doze off again.
My social media feed is filled with “I need a hug!” posts from frightened folks. One friend who has been sick for a month is unable to sleep in the same bed as her husband of 22 years. Another friend tells me about his friend who lives alone and is feeling traumatized and touch-deprived, and struggles with eating or sleeping.
I could use a hug, as well. Hell, I could use several of them.
I meet up with friends for masked, physically distanced walks. We stopped doing elbow bumps weeks back, as that violates the 6’ rule. It feels like a hiccup in our relationships.
My AC system breaks and the same workman comes three times. As we are settling up, he spots my bracelet with C43 H66 N12 O12 S2, the chemical name for oxytocin (the bonding hormone that mammals produce via touch, aka my favorite legal intoxicant), and asks me what it says. He reaches out his hand to point to it at the same time I’m raising my arm to give him a better look at it, and his fingers graze the back of my hand. I’m startled by the contact and jump back.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this chapter in my story of touch. I wonder what toll my solitary confinement will have on my body and psyche. Will I develop eczema, hives, psoriasis or rosacea as my skin registers its displeasure? Will my ears inch up toward my shoulders as my stress levels increase?
When a friend calls me, sobbing and saying she needs a hug, will I mouth platitudes instead of driving across town to wrap my arms around her? Will I be able to keep this up for the next few months or even years, or will I find myself in situations where two lonely people do a quick mental contact trace, trying to balance the danger of infection against the human instinct to draw each other close?
Will I be too scared to touch another person again, knowing that it might mean illness or death? Will I write the sequel to ”Cafe Flesh” every day, looking longingly at those who were (un)lucky enough to shelter in place with others?
COVID-19 has turned human touch into a villain, but it’s not a one-dimensional character with a predictable story arc. After years of research, I know that it’s always had ― and has ― the power to harm or heal. And I know that when we want it but don’t have it, its absence can make us feel more isolated and less human.
In the meantime, we can practice self-soothing touch on ourselves, move and feed our bodies in gentle, loving ways, and make it a priority to connect to other hearts, minds and spirits. It’s obviously not an adequate substitute for physical contact, but hey, it’s something ― and the alternative is grim.
People have recommended that we use The Great Pause to rethink how we live. I know, personally and professionally, that our current paradigm of equating touch with sex isn’t working for plenty of people, single and partnered alike.
We would be happier and healthier if we recognized human touch as an integral part of wellness and re-evaluated who, when, how and why we touch. If we are able to make this shift, perhaps fewer of us will suffer alone the next time a pandemic hits.
We have always needed human touch to survive. During the coming months or years, our survival depends on avoiding it, but what will we do when we can again touch friends, family, clients and coworkers? That story has yet to be written.
Epiphany Jordan is on a mission to redesign human touch for better health and relationships. She is the founder of the Austin, Texas-based Karuna Sessions and the author of Somebody Hold Me: The Single Person’s Guide to Nurturing Human Touch. You can visit her online at www.nurturinghumantouch.com.
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