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Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.
Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.

To Touch and Be Touched

There's something about touch we can't do without.

Last weekend, a friend mentioned that one of my long-time favorite yoga teachers had returned to teaching. Although I've been happily taking classes at another studio for the past couple of years since my former teacher took a break from teaching to be with her children, I was excited to hear that she'd started holding classes again. A few evenings later, I found my way to her new space and we greeted each other warmly and caught up while waiting for class to begin.

Thousands of crows flew and caw cawed in the sky, visible through the huge windows in the new space, and I peeked sideways at times to watch the blues of the evening sky turn darker. When it was still light enough that the crows were clear and crisp against the sky, I could see how intensely they powered their wings when, with only a quick glance, it looked rather effortless.

I also spent some time pondering a bunch of different things as I like to do during yoga when I'm not doing the whole "be here now" thing. I remembered that one reason I like practicing yoga with this particular teacher - one I'm almost embarrassed to write for all to see - is that she touches her students during class (at least those students who are comfortable being touched). I am one of those students who craves touch. I've always been flexible and consequently getting in and out of a number of yoga positions is pretty easy. Yet it also means that it's tough for me to go very deep into a pose because it's too easy to simply arrive without much effort. Like a previous now-retired yoga teacher used to do with me, this particular teacher pushes me further into poses. She lifts my hips back and presses down on my lower back in downward dog (how I love that). And she pulls my hips up during a side angle pose in ways that are slightly uncomfortable but mostly heaven. With each adjustment she asks "is that too much?" and it never, ever is.

The yoga teachers at my other studio almost never touch us. Granted, those classes are hot yoga classes which means that we all sweat profusely during them and so I can understand why they wouldn't want to touch us. I wouldn't want to touch a bunch of people who were dripping with sweat either.

But there's something about touch that I can't do without.

Of course, most of us are familiar with research about the importance of touch for infants, the elderly and the isolated. I think, too, of the way pet therapy has been used to help people challenged by a variety of physical and mental health issues. And of the way I would go out of the way to touch my grandparents and my father when they seemed to need it most. But I have to wonder sometimes when we talk about "the isolated" as if they are other people: aren't many of us more isolated from touch than we'd like to be? Don't so many of us crave more closeness and connection?

A recent study by a colleague at The Kinsey Institute found that, for men in long term relationships and marriages, their sexual satisfaction was linked to the amount of touching and cuddling they experienced with their partner. Touch is also important in developing a relationship in the first place. If you touch someone and they let your hand linger, it feels like you could go further. You get a sense that they like you. If they don't respond, or don't ever come close to you, you get a sense that they're not so much into you at all. And fair or not, for male-female couples (or friends who could be more), the burden is often on the man to try and touch through holding hands, hugging, kissing, and so on.

After my yoga class, I started thinking more about my own comfort levels with touch. The thing is: I don't actually want to touch most people. If we don't know each other well, I probably don't want to touch you or be touched by you. It's too intimate. And yet there seems to be this threshold of emotional intimacy that, once crossed, all I want is to touch and be touched. I like hugging, kissing, holding hands, cuddling up, and anyone I've dated or been in a relationship with can tell you that. I can be a bundle of love and affection. In her own way, my dog could also tell you this, with the way I smother her with kisses or occasionally rest my head on her back like a pillow. And sometimes in the evenings, when I am relishing in the long quiet solitude of evening work on my laptop, she jumps up on the sofa and brushes her paw against me or my keyboard, asking in her own way for undivided attention. Tonight was one of those nights, and it meant something to me to put my laptop aside and cuddle with her before taking her on a walk.

This morning I came across something that said "enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things." Some people may think this is a cheesy line or sentiment but I know of little else as true. Someone once told me, a month or two before he died, that he wished he had spent more time with his children than at his office. And an old boyfriend, when I was leaving him, once told me that he wished he had taken me up on my offers to dance even when there was no music playing, or at least not the kind anyone else could hear. And I know that one day my dog won't be around, so I stop my work to cuddle her. Perhaps it's no surprise then that I come alive when a hand is brushed against my hand - or even when it's pressed against my back in downward dog. And no surprise, perhaps, that I'm looking for more ways to touch and be touched, and to figure out a number of the other things that matter in life, love, and sex.

Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva, and The I Love You More Book. Her newest book is Great in Bed. Follow her on Twitter @mysexprofessor

About the Author
Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Research Scientist and Associate Director at The Center for Sexual Health Promotion and a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute.

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