Boston Women’s Journal - June/July 2003

The Power of Touch

When I was a child there was a popular Marvin Gaye song called “Sexual Healing.” When it came on the radio we would dissolve into gales of laughter and sing along with exaggerated motions and funny faces “when I get that feeling … I need … sexual healing.” We were very amused at the idea that he was singing about a “sexual (read forbidden)” act as one of healing and important for his emotional and physical well being. Come on, was any self respecting girl going to fall for that line? Sex was a commodity. Sex was about strange urges, groping in cars, feelings we had to control, or at the very least channel and tame. If we didn’t learn our lesson early we would have dire results, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and shame. There were “bad girls, and bad boys” morality tales abounded, and for that matter still do. The bogey man may have altered slightly from pregnancy and family shame, to AIDS and other STDs, but it still lurks there, dark and confusing.

Later, as a young adult, sexual feelings were about popularity, and exploring ones sense of self, how we fit in the world, what kind of mate was appropriate for us; in other words, where did we belong? Sexual feelings were to be channeled, controlled and focused into the complex process of finding a mate in life. Yeah, sex was exciting and all the ads used it to sell cars and deodorant, but lets get real, we were talking about powerful stuff here. Who we were going to end up with was a big part of our fate in life, and how we handled our sexuality and expressed it in our dress and demeanor were going to affect us for life. Who we chose became an issue ultimately about procreation. What kind of children, what socio-economic status they would have, what educational opportunities, how much could we help direct the process of evolution and natural selection? Who we chose to sleep with might mean kids at Harvard, or working blue collar jobs. Healing?

Later on, sex in a long term relationship was somehow less exciting. Once the kids came along it became, at best, a luxury, and at worst, a perfunctory act wedged between the needs of financial survival and housekeeping and child rearing. After the kids got older, perhaps sex would be more of a routine activity, assumed to diminish, and probably discontinue with the end of the childbearing years. Touch, hey, life is so busy I’d like a bubble bath. Healing, come on, Marvin, that’s a great line but we weren’t buying it.

I titled this article as one about touch. Sex is the ultimate intimate expression we have as adults to receive contact, love and yes, touching. Touch is he most essential human need we have after food and water and sleep.

We have all heard about the studies of “Russian” babies in orphanages where the kids who are held regularly thrive, and the ones who are simply touched to change diapers and be fed are less healthy, and may even not survive. It is a profound and real truth.

The needs we have as a baby and a young child do not go away after we reach maturity. Our need for comfort and physical contact, relaxed, and gentle stroking and patting does not disappear with puberty, and magically turn into erotic urges. We need to be held. At times of great pain and frustration don’t we all at heart want the unconditional hugs and enveloping hold of a mother, father, or beloved grandparent? I am almost 50, and can tell you that when my life feels overwhelming, and it often does, what I really want is a familiar smell, touch and comfort of enfolding arms surrounding me.

How does this all tie in to Marvin and his famous, or in some cases infamous song? Am I saying we should strive to remain sexual in our lives? Yes. Am I saying we should re-examine how we view sex as a way of communication? Yes. Am I saying that the spectrum of touch should be accessible to all of us throughout all the stages of our life? Yes. But you might say, what if there is no mate? What if we are alone? What if we are busy, and shy? I am saying that regardless of ones age or life situation touch, and often sexually touch, is the most healing thing we can do for ourselves as human beings.

There are many types of touch available to us. Unfortunately the only one that may seem socially available to us as adults is through sexual contact. Cuddling, hugging and just plain old holding seems a luxury of time and energy that we don’t schedule into our busy lives. I would propose that we are all swirling around in a busy and frantic, and often frightening world. Without the comfort and peace of touch and holding we become less human, less happy, less able to understand our fellow travelers, and less at peace.

Touch is always available if we just reach out. Lovers, friends, even strangers can be approached to hug and share a moment. If life has put us in circumstances where we are not in a position to easily get regular touch, then massage is a very viable alternative.

Recently a client of 88 came to me about a problem in her life. She had been in a long term relationship and having difficulty seeing herself as a alone, and confided to me that after losing her spouse of many years she missed the touch of him by her side in bed at night, the sexual expression of their love, the holding of each other through moments of happiness and pain, and felt for the first time truly alone. We spoke about children, regretfully far away, and grandchildren off pursuing their lives, and how she could reconnect and receive the life giving touch she longed for. It was a difficult discussion, and over several weeks we came up with solutions including finding peers that were in the same situation, and finding appropriate ways to interact with them, and just learning to name and acknowledge the physical and emotional need. She is doing just fine, and plans a long trip this summer to connect more directly with family. She will share her lessons of loss and connection and perhaps help the members of her family in their various life stages to increase their understanding of the need for physical and emotional contact and about the process of the growth of human warmth in all its various forms.

As for me, I have come to look at ole Marvin in a different light, and admit there are times that “when I get that feeling …“