Like eating and bleeding, touching is a fundamental part of being human. And yet, within prudish Western culture, physical intimacy can get sidelined. Us Brits in particular are known for our devotion to personal space and hatred of public displays of affection. But having our skin brush against another human’s (in both sexual and non-sexual ways) is tantamount to survival and wellbeing.
There are other types of intimacy, of course. But touch “is the most immediate way to feel closeness to someone,” Dr. Anik Debrot of the University of Lausanne's Institute of Psychology tells me. “We have nerves that are especially receptive to the intensity and velocity of caressing – humans are wired for being touched, cuddled and caressed.”
The positive effects of touching are well documented: after-sex affection improves relationship satisfaction, regular touching of other people promotes emotional wellbeing in everyone from kids to OAPs, and hugging can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. But in our increasingly digitised world – where we are connecting online more but touching each other less often – the effects of a lack of physical contact are everywhere. Without this healing practice, Debrot says, we feel more alone, experience a drop in mood, have more difficulty unwinding and maintain higher levels of stress.
Not everybody consciously enjoys touching, of course – many are unable to touch or are actively averse to touch, be it for self-preservation or through a fear of intimacy, a trauma, sensory disorder or asexuality. I, on the other hand, am guilty of being instinctively hungry for skin, maintaining an aching desire for physical touch night and day.
In order to fully experience the physical and mental impacts of an isolated body in the internet age, I tested the limits of my skin hunger and abstained from my favourite sense for a week. Here's what happened.
Day One: Monday
When the test begins at midnight I’m on my way back from the pub, battling with my housemate Sam over whether to start the experiment on Tuesday instead – I’m regretting ever acting on this idea now that the klaxon’s sounded. I think back to reading that, of all the senses, touch is considered the first we acquire. Given that our skin is our largest sensory organ, avoiding embrace for the next week terrifies me. While prosecco flows on this bank holiday eve, whenever I accidentally go to touch anyone, everyone around gasps as if someone just said the C word in front of a grandparent. I sleep next to my boyfriend Caolan with a barricade of pillows between us and, surprisingly, it works – we wake up, skin still untouched. Full points to me so far.
At around midday I’m pathetic and hungover, which isn’t helped by the fact Caolan is tormenting me; whenever anything regarding the experiment happens he sarcastically asks, “Is this going in the article?” while I roll my eyes with frustration and self-pity. He blows on me and wraps me up like a burrito in the duvet at around 3pm, 15 hours in. Post-burrito, we’re lying down and his trousers unzip. Still not touching, we’re talking about how horrible it is we can’t have sex, which makes us both want to do it even more. (They say you’re either really anti-sensuality, or hornier than ever when you’re hungover. I’m in the latter category.) I really try not to touch him, but my lust speaks louder than my discipline... My self-control is skipping into the horizon, but my senses are satisfied. I’ll try harder tomorrow.
Day Two: Tuesday
Back to work and I unwittingly brushed the arm of the dude in the coffee shop, only the tiny hairs on our hands coming into contact. In between dodging my colleagues in meetings and people in the street (which is really hard in London), I’m rejecting handshakes and hugs and explaining to people that I can’t touch anyone, which is actually really awkward and embarrassing. My driving instructor looks highly puzzled but respects my wishes and takes the rejection pretty well. I’m doing a whole lot better today at forgoing skin-to-skin and am impressed at my self-control. However, I’m still skin hungry.
Day Three: Wednesday
I’ve been busy as hell at work, so haven’t had many chances to smother people with my hands. And yet I nearly touched my work babe, Trudy twice during lunch. Feeling more stressed than usual, I think I’d ordinarily be able to transfer the stress into productivity, but today it just isn’t happening.
Debrot’s recent research on sex and touch reveals that post-coital affection is the reason we feel better about ourselves after sex – not the lovin’ itself. And this physical closeness can dictate life satisfaction and positive emotions.
I’m definitely deficient in both things right now.
Day Four: Thursday
I’ve been so tired today. Careful not to change any factors of my life other than touch, just in case anything else interfered, it’s proving mega hard to be aware of every thought and feeling I have for accurate self-analysis. Even harder is surveilling my body’s every move when it’s needy.
Even after a bloody amazing night’s sleep, I am genuinely finding it hard not to yawn every 30 seconds. Does skin starvation = all-round debilitation for the skin hungry? I'm now completely avoiding situations where anyone would expect to touch me. This sucks.
Day Five: Friday
Today I'm feeling quite melancholy despite getting a fat night's sleep. Had some fucked-up dreams about Caolan cheating, which has engulfed me in anxiety. My lack of touch is invading my dreams now? I think back to what Debrot told me days before beginning the test – am I exhibiting early symptoms of loneliness?
Fundamentally, it is so hard to not touch anyone. I have to consciously watch my arms to make sure they don’t slither over to my co-workers like little snakes with hands on the end. It’s especially hard not to touch Trudy as today she’s hungover and we’re being silly and it feels natural to go for a little cuddle during lunch. I accidentally poke her on the butt-cheek, not realising I’ve done it ‘til afterwards. Thank god it’s Friday: only two days left of this perverse experiment I’ve forced on myself.
Day Six: Saturday
I’m at the Tate with Caolan and he's resorted to blowing on my neck to get my attention and show affection. His mum and stepdad are visiting and approach me with caution, respecting my experiment after prior warning from Caolan. They definitely think it’s weird when we air-hug.
We see this really intense dystopian play in the evening. I’m finding it hard to breathe and honestly I feel like I'm having an anxiety attack in the crowd and have to calm myself down with deep breaths. I haven’t been this anxious in years. Is this the climax of stroke-starvation? I start to feel as dark as the play, feeling totally exhausted afterwards. I'm well up for this pointless pain to end now and I know some snugs would save my mental state.
I’m only six days in but I give up. I just can’t endure any more touch-free minutes. If it’s because I’ve been hyper-aware of my limbs’ movements all week or because I’m a fully fledged contact junkie, squeezing Caolan’s face and wrapping my arms and legs around him is all I want to do. So I do, forfeiting the last 24 hours of the damn study for the sake of my own sanity.
It’s actually ridiculous how much better I feel being back to my normal self, touching whoever I want to touch – within reason, of course. Lying in bed looking back at the last week, I see with clarity what just happened.
I don’t know if being a touch addict is diagnosable, but maybe I am one. The last time I felt this distant from myself was when I was cliché angsty teen Lydia who felt misunderstood by everyone. Perhaps this dissociation was spurred on by the fact I was rejecting the natural reflexes of my body and mind, while simultaneously hushing this segment of my identity. I also had to be constantly concerned about touching anyone, thus ensuring I always had something to be vaguely anxious about. But this just inspired further anxieties. If it’s possible to remove your personality (or at least part of it) by rejecting your own needs, I think I just did it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this vexing test it’s that, for better or for worse, we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of our physical or psychological identities. Whether you’re a toucher or not, a hermit or a socialite, an intimacy addict or a nun, forcing ourselves into situations we’re uncomfortable with is regressive. Unless hurting people is your forte, you should be free to act out your every desire and affirm your needs day in, day out. There’s already too much to think about in life – too many little worries. Why make more?