Feeling "off" and wondering what to do about it? You could just be touch-starved. If so, solo sex may may not heal the feeling that something...isn't right.
Turns out that sexual needs aren't just orgasm needs. Sexual needs are also intimacy needs. For tribal, pair bonders like humans, affectionate touch and close, trusted companionship are "mood meds." That is, our brains are set up to reward us for engaging in them by producing neurochemicals that offer balanced feelings of well-being.
To state this differently, the prime directives of our brain's primitive reward circuitry are food, water, bonding and mating. Now that modern life isn't meeting our needs for close contact and bonding very well, our reward circuitry is "looking around" to fill the void in good feelings however it can. Like junk food, Internet porn is such a stimulating substitute that it fools us into thinking we've found a really valuable activity. As one guy explained, "There is no woman in actuality who is into you, but you feel like there is. You are getting a reward for staring at a glowing rectangle, which motivates you to stay there instead of going out."
Sadly, solo orgasms don't offer the same soothing neurochemical cocktail as real contact—and their pursuit can easily become compulsive thanks to today's hyperstimulating porn or superhuman vibrators. As we engineer more orgasms with stronger stimuli, overall feelings of anxiety can, paradoxically, outweigh feelings of satisfaction.
It's great when all our sex/touch/companionship needs are met in one magnificent, convenient package: a lover. But most of us also have to cross some deserts in our romantic lives. What do desert travelers traditionally do? Head for an oasis. Here are four twenty-somethings who found their oases by snuggling buddies.
First person (male):
I have a female friend with benefits, but the benefits are that she likes to come over once a week and just cuddle as we watch a movie. She's a virgin, and it's probably a good idea for us to never have sex given her history. It's so liberating for me to let go of the NEED to have sex. In the past if a woman who was romantically interested in me was at my place, I would single-mindedly pursue sex. But now I can just relax and be.
Second person (male):
After a long explanation to my friend about how I thought I was touch-starved, she very promptly took off her coat and snuggled with me in my bed. I was pretty shocked at how readily she took to it. We cuddled for about 2 hours, sitting up against my headboard with my arm around her and her head in my chest. We talked most of the time, with periods of silence here and there. The conversation was so open. We revealed secrets and it felt so natural. I'm positive this wouldn't have happened had we not been snuggling.
My god, the feelings of safety were incredible. Just soooo, I don't know, RIGHT. I think now to myself: This is how man and woman should relate to one another. In a very non-erotic way, I just felt so manly tucking this girl into my chest and sheltering her. I could see it in her face too. She just looked so relaxed, ready to fall asleep. I've never deliberately tried to cuddle for sustained periods before, so these feelings are quite new. I must admit that some of the touching was arousing—again, I'm not used to non-goal oriented contact—and I did have some blue ball sensation in the evening but it wasn't bad at all.
After she left, I meditated for a bit and guess what? Very few thoughts. It was amazing! I'm definitely going to ask her to do this again.
Third person (female):
We both knew it wasn't going to lead to sex. It wasn't even going to lead to kissing. It was just snuggling, cuddling and possibly caressing if we felt like it. It did involve almost complete nudity, however. And do you know what? That was fine.
We didn't set boundaries before we started, but he never crossed any of my internal ones. He was slightly turned on when we got into bed together, which he was completely matter of fact about. He said it was nigh on impossible for a guy not to get slightly turned on when getting into bed with an attractive, nearly naked girl—and that he would probably also get morning wood. But that 'being physically turned on' and 'mentally wanting sex' are different.
He was careful to keep his genitals away from me when erect, and I never felt at all uncomfortable. It was gloriously asexual. It was also bonding. We'll probably always be friends now, and we had an amazingly long, honest conversation about relationships and sex and all sorts of things. Breaking the taboo about being naked together made it easier to break taboos about what is acceptable to talk about. It was a beautiful, trusting experience being able to safely lie naked with a guy who could both honestly say that I was attractive and yet not abuse his position even slightly.
Now I'll hug anyone. I'll cuddle anyone, of any sex, for as long as they like—so long as they are clean and they make me feel comfortable. It isn't hurting anyone. It makes me, and whoever I am cuddling, happier.
Fourth person (female):
[A month after this woman swore off men for a time to study for professional exams she developed severe, uncharacteristic insomnia, which wouldn't respond to any remedies.]
One day, while talking with a friend, I wondered aloud, "When was the last time I was touched?" It had been so long since I'd been touched, that even a hug from a friend felt foreign. I realized that I yearned to be held; I felt empty and depleted inside.
I also realized that my energy had been fluctuating in an uncharacteristic way, leaving me less able to give as much love and energy to my friends and family. A female friend, with whom I discussed this, said that she noticed that when she is not cuddled for a month, she becomes angry and resentful towards men, decreasing her future chances of being intimate with them.
Just after this conversation, an opportunity arose for a guy friend to come over. The space was clear for us to comfort each other with no other agendas. We snuggled for an hour, just chatting about our day. I thought, "I'm going to sleep well tonight!" and voilà. For the first time in three months, I fell asleep the moment I lay down and awoke refreshed. The next evening, we watched a movie and cuddled. I felt fantastic for weeks. (He traveled to South America shortly afterward.)
Speaking to a new friend, I learned that he had an agreement with a woman he was dating. They both knew that they weren't ultimately "right" for each other. Yet their regular, sensual contact let them avoid going out in the world as needy, single people. He explained, "I think men get off their game if they haven't dated in a while." His energy was balanced; he was able to focus on fulfilling his life's purpose, and enjoy life. Meeting new women was effortless for him, as he was an altogether healthy and easy-going man. When he did meet a new woman with mate-potential, he didn't feel the need to rush into bed and trash the opportunity to develop deeper intimacy. Read more of her experiences in "Are You Skin Hungry?"
How viable is sexual self-sufficiency?
The modern push to make us all sexually self-sufficient via masturbation underrates our fundamental needs for touch and trusted companionship. Consequently, many of us are ignorant of how evolution has molded us. For example, it has only been a matter of decades since scientists discovered (to their astonishment) that orphaned monkey infants prefer soothing terrycloth "mothers" without milk to "mothers" of chicken-wire with milk. (Listen to a fascinating radio show about this experiment.)
The benefits of generous touch arise in part from the fact that oxytocin, a hormone produced in response to affectionate touch, counters the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone). Oxytocin can also reduce pain (i.e., increase pain thresholds) by triggering the release of endorphins, thus increasing feelings of well-being and even performance. (More on the science behind touch's benefits.) Above all, safe touch activates and comforts our primitive reward circuitry, so we aren't as likely to fall for synthetic substitutes.
So, who is your next oasis? Know anyone with whom you could you cultivate a cuddle-buddy connection? Here are some tips:
- Not sure how to broach the subject? Share an article about the concept and find out what your buddy thinks.
- Friends who have gone through massage therapy school, or training in other hands-on healing, usually welcome exchanging healing touch and have training in healthy boundaries.
- Attend a cuddle party, or plan one of your own with friends.
Keep in mind that cuddling is a service to everyone. Your touch benefits your buddy as much as it does you, and glowing people make the planet a happier place.
Warning: If you try this idea, you may soon conclude that the modern, Western assumption that 'humans can thrive on a narrow diet of intermittent casual sex plus masturbation' is...well...damned peculiar.