Touch changes lives
This is a transcript of the speech delivered as part of the Sex Lectures series organized by Sex School for Grown Ups at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester on 6th December 2018.
Sian is a conscious sexuality body worker who brings her experience of tantra and sexology into supporting people facing challenges in the bedroom. She believes that by getting to know, communicate with and trust our body we can move towards expanding and confidently expressing our sexual needs and relationship wants.
Tonight Sian will talk about positive touch and how we can each explore this as a foundational tool that brings with it the potential to enrich the relationship we have with ourselves and with those around us.
Touch changes lives
Like many of us in my line of work we come to it through our own experience and stories, this is a small part of my story. 8 years ago, at the end of a sexually dysfunctional relationship, I didn’t know it but I was afraid to touch or be touched by anyone. I was having sex, fine, but I never allowed it to ‘touch’ me. I didn’t know that there was a fear hangover from that previous relationship. Until a Turkish massage. I was excited to go and I relaxed pretty quickly. The woman’s touch was so present, so genuine and so heartfelt that it touched into feelings of loneliness, hurt and isolation that until then, I wasn’t even aware was stored in my body. I cried tears of anger, grief and sorrow.
Fast forward to 2018 and things are very different for me. I am in touch with my body, I am more aware in the moment of the emotions moving through me and I’m no longer afraid to touch, to be touched and to feel.
A turning point in that long journey from fear to feeling came during a transformative tantra retreat where, through structured touch exercises and the strong container provided by the workshop, I was able to learn more about myself in one week than I did in years of talking therapy. Since then I’ve gone on to train in tantra, kink, consent, and Sexological Bodywork. And as Roger said in the introduction I am a now a conscious sexuality bodyworker. Essentially what that means is that I work with people through a combination of talking, coaching and through the medium of touch.
What I find the most significant about this work, that I want to share with you tonight is that with all of the bells and whistles of the ‘how to have better orgasms’ and ‘how to last longer in bed’, it is easy to forget how fundamentally important touch is to all of this, to all of us, in all of our lives. How we touch, why we touch and the recognition that, more often than not, for most of us, our touch is either an expression of love, or a call for love.
Let me introduce 2 ideas Touch Deprivation and Skin Hunger
Touch deprivation is a condition that involves little or no stimulation by way of physical contact with other people.
And the term ‘skin hunger’ relates to touch deprivation and is a recognition that as humans become more “connected” through technology, the lack of physical touch is making us more and more lonely.
The Benefits of positive touch include
Releasing of the feel good hormone, oxytocin.
Increases levels of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin that help us regulate our mood
Touch is shown to reduce anxiety and stress, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, inspire positive thinking and expand trust
Waitresses who touch customers lightly on the shoulder, hand, or arm receive higher tips.
Touch is so powerful, that studies have shown that premature babies in intensive care units who have regular skin to skin contact will thrive more than babies who do not.
And our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, the Bonobo Monkeys; use play, laughter and touch to reduce aggression and create peace. Bonobos have more harmonious communities than any other ape tribe, including humans.
Nurturing, positive and loving touch is essential in babies for the growth of physical abilities, language and cognitive skills, and social-emotional competency. And infants who experience more physical contact with caregivers have increased mental development in the first six months of life compared to young children who receive limited physical interaction.
Indeed touch deprivation during early childhood is often associated with increased aggression during childhood development and into adulthood.
In Western Culture
Puberty, hormones and the need for bonding outside of the caregiver relationship during teenage years compels some of us, most of us, with a sense of urgency into exploring sex. And it is at this point; certainly in Western Culture that touch becomes almost exclusively associated with sex.
And this association continues for most of our lives with touch and sex remaining synonymous for many people.
And yet motivated by an unconscious or undeclared need for nurturing touch and our longing for connection we often get into having sex. And many of us initiate or partake in sex when what we really need is to offer and receive touch
Sex is so conflated with touch that I’m no longer surprised when I hear of female clients who say ‘I don’t let him touch me anymore because it’ll turn into sex’. And the corresponding ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’.
If this is the status quo for many people, its hardly a surprise that longer term relationships stagnate
But when we look at positive touch and are able to separate it from sex, it can become a way to build bridges between us, it can reclaim an intimacy that can bring comfort and understanding in our relationships
Types of touch
As well as Sensual and Erotic touch, Barbara Carellas talks about healing touch and nurturing touch.
I’d like to introduce another, which is affection: touches on the shoulder, cuddles, and a stroke of the cheek.
And then probably the most important type of touch I like to talk about is presence:
Remember or imagine a conversation with a friend when they have switched off the TV and put their phone on silent and they listen to you with their full attention. Compare this to a conversation where your friend is looking at their phone, the kids are interrupting and the radio is on full blast. The first conversation is a friend in presence and the second is not. Which conversation would you prefer?
It’s the same principle with presence in touch - would you rather be touched by someone running the shopping list through their head or by someone with an open heart?
So how can we get better touch in our lives: well I’m sure it will come as no surprise to hear that it starts with us. How can we up our own touch game?
Here’s a solo exercise that I developed with a client who, at the time we began working together, described himself as numb; cut off. He had a fear of connecting with his body where so much hurt and pain was stored and fear of being overwhelmed by his own feelings. However, using this technique has enabled him to touch himself and to be touched in a way he has never experienced before.
I invite you to have a go, and just notice without any judgment, any feelings or sensations that come up for you.
My invitation is to place your hands together palm to palm. And rub them together vigorously for about 20 seconds
And close your eyes
And take a long slow deep breath
Now place one of your hands somewhere on your body, through a thin layer of clothes or under them
And just breathe
And the invitation is to notice:
Can your hand can feel the aliveness of your body?
Can your body feel the aliveness of your hand?
When you are ready take a breath and return to the room
Doing this simple exercise can really help bring us home to our bodies and the power of self touch.
And we can simply connect with our bodies everyday, maybe in the shower, or sleepily laying in bed or standing at the cream cake counter. See if you can say hello to your body; ask your body what it needs in this moment, is it a cream cake or is it a nutritious juicy peach? (or is it both?)
And then there’s self pleasure, which for many of us can be very functional or goal orientated. One man told me that his self pleasuring would start with a foot massage to relieve pain before he touched the rest of his body. So is it possible for us to take time to say hello to other areas of our body with connecting loving touch and breathe a little longer before reaching for our genitals?
An authentic Tantric massage can help bring any one closer to the living and breathing experience of our bodies. tantralink.com lists trusted touch professionals. Always talk with the practitioner about what you want to experience before booking a session
Touch in the wider world
George Monbiot writes that, “…contact reduces physical pain…affection is a powerful analgesic.”
So how can we share touch with others, without being locked up!
Seriously it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to create understanding and seek consent before touching anyone. For anyone looking to explore what we really mean by consent then bettymartin.org has the most excellent free resources and many practitioners like me can help you navigate this vitally important area. It’s a lot more fun than the word Consent may imply!
The average UK hug lasts just 2-3 seconds; so how about sharing a melting hug that lasts 20 seconds or more and enables the release of oxytocin.
Connect with your partner in another way – without any intention to seduce them – approach them in an intense physical way or perhaps offer them sweet and simple demonstrations of your care for them, eye gazing and gentle holding. And if you have the words, you could speak truths about how their intelligence inspires you, their humour warms you or their smile lights up the room. Ahh bliss!
And then there are cuddle workshops. These are non sexual, fully clothed spaces where safe and platonic boundaried touch is shared between adults. These are facilitated by experienced leaders in London, Manchester and around Yorkshire
And for the really adventurous there is the free hugs campaign - a social movement which combats isolation and other social issues through random acts of kindness: could you stand in the street with a sign offering and receiving free hugs with strangers?
And so as I leave you this evening, I return to my experience of how touch changes lives. Touch helped me to unlock the stalemate in my life. Touch enables my clients to journey into healing for themselves. Embracing the power of positive touch can help us access our own wisdom, learning and growth. I have seen touch as the catalyst for a light that can radiate out from us and touch the lives of others.
And so, my invitation is to positively touch yourself, allow yourself to be touched, touch others. And in so doing help infuse the world with more love; one body, one heart and one soul at a time.