My cousin Michael and I were born into a large, affectionate Italian American family, two months apart and living in the same house. We started school together. We played with Barbies (and Ninja Turtles) together. We even once tried to run away together. And all of this—aside from the running-away episode—made us the darlings of our family. As such, whenever it was time for us to say goodbye, our mothers would simultaneously coo, “Michael, give Melissa a kiss.” It’s an innocent enough gesture: Teaching children social mores, including kisses goodbye in cultural contexts where that’s appropriate, is parental duty. But I fucking hated it. My cousin’s bottom lip stuck out in a perpetual pout, glistening with drool, and his kisses were wet and slobbering. Even as a very young child, the sensation disgusted me, and I tried as hard as possible to avoid these interactions. But as a 4-year-old with adults watching over me, pressuring me into these salutations (“Come on, Melissa, you’re making Michael sad!”), I rarely escaped.
I find myself constantly thinking back on this childhood memory, one year after sexual harassment and assault allegations in Hollywood and beyond exploded into news media via the #MeToo movement. It wasn’t until I was much, much older—as well as a feminist and a sex educator trained in sexual-assault support services—that I found the language to describe my long-lasting visceral reaction to these memories: Being coaxed into kissing my cousin when I clearly didn’t want to was a violation of my bodily autonomy, and it taught me that consent can be coerced when someone with more power demands that you perform in a way contrary to your desires. I get that this might seem like a harsh explanation for my feelings about these encounters—it might sound overreactive, even. But I’ve come to learn, through my work as a sex researcher who studies sensuality, that it might sound that way because we don’t take nonsexual touch seriously. Even within social-justice circles where we regularly espouse the necessity of consent and the importance of teaching it, we rarely talk about touch separate from its relationship to sex—both our desire for it, and the ways others violate our boundaries around it.
They’re related, but sexuality and sensuality are different. According to Advocates for Youth, a sexual-health organization based in Washington, D.C., sensuality is defined as the “awareness and feeling about your own body and other people’s bodies.” Sensuality is about the physical sensations that humans experience and share; those sensations can encompass sexual behavior, but they exist apart from it. Sensual pleasure through touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing come to us through our surroundings and via contact with other people; it might be the smell of the air just before a storm, the sound of a crackling fire, the feeling of a kitten purring against your chest; it might also be hugging, cuddling, and holding hands with another person.
Each of us navigates our sense of touch almost constantly: At what temperature do you set your thermostat? Do you prefer light, medium, or deep pressure during a massage? Where on your body can you be tickled pleasantly, as opposed to excruciatingly? Touch involves a wide variety of experiences ruled by the somatosensory system in the brain. The many sensations that our bodies perpetually experience and regulate flow from our skin to our nerves to our brains in a complex latticework. Each nerve receptor galvanizes a different part of the brain, letting us know whether we’re feeling pain or pleasure—and priming us to emotionally react to that sensation. The nervous system interprets and responds to tactile stimuli in a variety of ways, which also vary person to person. Even something as simple as your preference for personal space, which is both psychological and sociocultural, is enmeshed in this system and can shift depending on context. (Someone sitting very close to you on a crowded bus, for instance, feels different from someone sitting very close to you on an empty one.) Our experiences with touch are tied not just to the physical sensations themselves, but also to the emotional reactions they generate.
Touch, generally speaking, has long been understood as integral to social, emotional, physical, and cognitive health and development. In her 2015 New Yorker article “The Power of Touch,” journalist Maria Konnikova wrote that touch “is the first of the senses to develop in the human infant, and it remains perhaps the most emotionally central throughout our lives.” But our human need for touch doesn’t fade away as we emerge into adulthood, and the desire for sexual touch doesn’t cancel out a craving for other kinds. With a few exceptions, each of us still seeks out touch for emotional and social safety.
Oxytocin—the hormone involved in interpersonal bonding, reproduction, orgasm, childbirth, and breast/chestfeeding—is associated with social attachment through its ability to reduce feelings of fear and anxiety in the presence of loved ones. Oxytocin is a multitasker: It can generate trust, generosity, empathy, and bonding. As such, it plays a key role in some of the deepest relationships that we can form. In fact, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar in his 1996 book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, how people interact with one another through touch and how primates groom one another is related: The frequency with which primates engage in grooming behaviors is related to how big—and how close—their social groups are, similar to the way that ease with physical touch among humans can indicate strong social networks.
Even within social-justice circles where we regularly espouse the necessity of consent and the importance of teaching it, we rarely talk about touch separate from its relationship to sex.
Placing your hand on someone’s back to indicate that you’re squeezing by them in a crowd, lightly drawing circles on your partner’s palm with your fingertip, kissing your cousin goodbye upon departure—everyday sensual touch encompasses its own set of desires and boundaries. And we would do well to consciously explore the extent of sensuality’s separation from sexuality. In the study that I ran for my doctoral research, I was seeking to understand how women with anorexia nervosa, a population that often asserts disinterest in sex, think about their relationship to nonsexual touch. I asked my participants to discuss “skin hunger,” a psychological term used to describe our need for human contact. The phrase is so evocative that it has been frustrating to find so little about its origins. But skin hunger is essentially the depth of deprivation we can feel without affectionate physical contact from another being. If sex drive is the extent to which we crave sexual activity, skin hunger is the extent to which we crave sensual touch.
I explained skin hunger to the study participants using a very scientific method: talking about my cats. My older cat, Halley, spends most of his day asleep in my bed. If and when he needs to be petted, he’ll walk straight up to me and meow loudly. My other cat, Astra, needs to be touched continually; as soon as I sit down, she’ll jump into my lap and happily stay there until I move her. Astra has very high skin hunger; Halley has moderate skin hunger. This type of skin hunger was news to my participants, and many of them were stunned, vocalizing that they had never considered skin hunger outside the context of sex drive. But, for the most part, once they sat with this conceptual shift for a bit, they began to talk my ear off about it, like the floodgates had burst. They had a lot of opinions—and a lot of commonality within those opinions.
Overall, what I learned from these women is that trust and autonomy are the greatest measures of whether they see themselves as subjects or objects in their sensual interactions with others. When they were engaging with people with whom they had a trusting relationship, who respected their boundaries, and who adjusted their own expectations accordingly, my participants felt that they had more control over who touched them and how. When that choice was explicitly present—when they felt open to accepting, rejecting, or initiating touch on their own terms—they were more likely to express touch as positive. But when others made assumptions about these women’s comfort levels—standing too close to them or hugging them without permission—they felt fear and anxiety about the interaction. This can be true across contexts: Someone who doesn’t want to be touched by a partner, for instance, may also feel uncomfortable with clinical touch from a doctor. Sensual touch can be pleasurable—but it can also be violating.
Our social norms around touch can make this concept hard to grasp. It has taken a lot of practice for me, for instance, to remember to ask before hugging a friend when we meet for lunch. For many of us, this touch is an expected—and joyful—display of affection, something that’s harmless even if uninvited. But that’s not always how it’s received by others. Unwanted touch is always a violation—and respecting others’ autonomy is a value we need to go all in on.
When we talk about enthusiastic consent, we sometimes suggest that each new step of a sexual encounter should be marked verbally: “Can I kiss you? Can I touch you here? Can I take your shirt off?” And we often feel frustrated when folks scoff at the idea and suggest that such a process strips sex of its excitement and spontaneity. But how can we expect a less eye-rolling reaction in a world where we don’t teach people that they need to ask before they hug someone, before they smoosh up against them on the subway, before they shake their hand at a business meeting? How can we expect anything else when even we, as feminists, often don’t include seemingly innocuous touch in our conversations about consent? Yes, our social norms make all of the aforementioned forms of touch arguably appropriate. But rape culture is also the social norm. And if we are going to interrupt rape culture—if we want to make consent central to our interactions, if we want to center the experience of pleasure—then we need to start with sensual touch.
As always, it may take a long time for society as a whole to get on board with so unfortunately radical a concept. But I think that this work starts with us. If we are people who believe in the transformative power of recognizing our bodily autonomy, we need to incorporate the foundational idea of consensual touch into our conversations, especially moving forward from #MeToo. We cannot truly excavate the power of our own pleasure without it.