Sex & Sociability

Question and commentary on connections, both sexual and social

Touch: Positive, Negative and Ambiguous

Sometimes a touch can help, sometimes it hurts; occasionally both.

A soft touch. A mother’s touch. A loving touch. A friendly touch. All positive associations with touch. In our often over-populated daily lives, many lonely people are touch deprived. Aware of this, they seek connection. Unaware, lives are led with a pervasive feeling of something missing.

“Reach out and touch someone” was the theme of a very popular advertising campaign. Being “out of touch” has all sorts of negative connotations. A famous study showed that book borrowers surveyed after a trip to the library reported a far more positive experience there if the librarian briefly touched their hand when returning their card, a touch that was seldom even consciously noted but influenced positive feelings nonetheless.

Unwanted touch is something that’s discussed in dating manuals, workplace harassment lectures, and in safety instruction classes for kindergarteners. It’s something to be aware of but its occurrence is an occasional breach of conduct and customarily not a part of most people’s everyday life.

In between the extremes of a lover’s caress or a friend’s hug and the elbow in the ribs in a crowded city bus, is a great gray area I’d like to look at here.

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Do you remember a typical grade school form of bullying called “noogies?” Dictionary.com defines them as “a light blow or jab, usually to a person's head, back, or upper arm and accompanied by a twisting motion, with the extended knuckle of the curled-up second or third finger: done as a gesture of affection or painfully as a prank.”

Noogies hurt in a way that no other touch I have ever felt hurt…until I began dealing with fibromyalgia, a condition of intermittent general body pains and aches and a pervasive oversensitivity to touch. I have been known to describe a fibromyalgia flare up as feeling as if I had been knocked down, run over, and attacked by a group of wild noogiers. During such a flare up the exact pressure and duration of a touch on one arm can feel like a neutral pat while on the other arm it is perceived as a painful blow.

My situation as a person with fibromyalgia is compounded by the fact that my sweetheart is one of the most tactile individuals I have ever encountered. His sensual hands are always busy stroking, patting, smoothing. If an animal is near the creature will rejoice in all the pets and pats it could possible want. If he’s at table he unconsciously irons the table cloth with his hands or is practicing what I call napkin origami. If I am within reach I am the object of his affectionate stroking. As a non-touchy-feely person it took some getting used to but I have learned to bask in his affectionate caresses ….usually.

So here’s the gray area. As lovers, of course touch is welcomed, exchanged and enjoyed. As a former New Yorker and subway rider I certainly have had my fill of unwelcome body contact of all sorts. But as a person who suffers with heightened sensitivity, who often aches all over and perceives even the softest most well-meaning caress as a jab in already tender tissue, to what do I respond? To what my head knows to be well-intentioned comforting or affectionate pat or to what my body insists feels like a noogie? When a loving caress is neither welcomed nor wanted but still appreciated what can we call it besides ambiguous?

Isadora AlmanM.F.T., is a Board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist, lecturer, author, and syndicated advice columnist of "Ask Isadora."

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