One of the areas of dating advice that I have found hardest to handle is “touch shows interest”. Whether it’s the whole PUA discussion of “kino” or more feminist-oriented “how not to be creepy while dating”, the fact is, most people say that the thing that bridges the gap between feeling like a friend and feeling like you’re interested in a partner, is the way you touch your date. When I’m talking about my reactions in this post, I am picturing the touch taking place in the context of having met someone and spent some time talking with them, but no other previous contact.
When I discussed my connections with “stone” as a sexual identity, I wrote that “Body experience of violation with [certain kinds of] touch” was a strong area of resonance. From Xan West’s definition:
a visceral experience of violation with certain kinds of touch, any touch at all, being touched in certain places. This is about what it feels like to be touched, and can be separate from and sometimes the opposite of our desire for touch.
I have some very awkward associations with touching, such that when people touch me, I feel violated, I feel a physical creepiness and an instinctive and emotional “kneejerk” reaction (or even, “burnt finger” reaction) to it that may be at direct odds with what my higher-level wants might be. Unfortunately, this frame of reference cannot help but colour my expectations of others’ reactions in a way that simply saying “that’s not true” doesn’t resolve or dissipate.
Dr Nerdlove’s recent post, Leveling Up: How To Touch Her, is a classic example (and what led me to think it worth writing about the intersection of “stone” and “dating-touching” that I experience). The suggestions and examples of how to touch someone to communicate interest, intimacy, or friendship so often left me cringing and my skin crawling as I imagined someone doing that touching to me, and remembered many instances when that touch had produced those reactions. Even deeply trusted people, including those I’ve had romantic/sexual relationships with, have produced this effect by using touch the way DNL suggests. One of the most glaring examples is what DNL calls the “high-five test”:
One of my favorite ways of checking for attraction is to use the high-five test. It’s very simple: when she says something that impresses you or makes you laugh, you say “that’s awesome. You get a high-five,” then offer a high-five with your fingers spread. If she’s interested, when she make the high-five, her fingers will intertwine with yours and she’ll clasp your hand.
There has never been an occasion where someone did that “intertwine fingers and clasp hand”, and I was okay with it. It always feels creepy and I want to break contact as quickly as possible – as if I had just been scalded (see why I said “burnt finger reflex” above?). To be fair, DNL adds an aside that, “It’s also worth noting: this is very dependent both on social context and on the individual. Everyone has their own boundaries and sense of body privacy.” However, his advice is predicated on an assumed hierarchy of intimacy/okayness in touching: “If you are unsure, it’s better to keep to less-intimate forms of contact until the other person gives you the green light.” My issue is that my touch-averseness doesn’t operate on that hierarchy.
So, how can I possibly communicate uncreepy, romantic messages through touch, when touch so often has such a visceral and unpleasant association? In particular, when the types of touch that are supposed to be safest are often the ones that creep me out more?
A common appeal is to the “how you act with friends” analogy, which assumes a certain sort of “friendly” behaviour. DNL’s piece uses “how you act with friends” as an example of how touch communicates one’s feelings for other people, rather than as an example of how to approach flirting or pick-up, but it still makes the same kinds of assumptions about what “friends” do: “the more playful ways of touching our friends – fist pounds, playful body checks, nudges, back slapping and high-fives.” Except I tend to avoid people who do those sorts of things (with the exception of high-fives, I suppose), regard the people who do them as unfriendly and unsafe, and will make efforts to put physical space between me and them if they do it to me. A scowl and flinch is the only reward they get, and certainly no bonding.
Two lines of thought occur to me after this observation. Firstly, what touches are okay for me, and what makes the difference between an okay touch and a not-okay touch? Secondly, how has touch developed “in the field” with previous dating partners?
For someone who is wary of touch, it may seem surprising that I love giving and receiving hugs. But a hug is one of the most okay types of touch for me that there are. In DNL’s “touch-intimacy hierarchy”, some of the sites that he considers least intimate are also ones where touch, for me, is most unwelcome from someone I’ve just met. A hug is much more acceptable, despite seeming to involve more intimate modes of touching. (An interesting note about DNL’s hierarchy – there seems to be a loose correlation between how intimate a touch is, and how close you have to stand to the other person to touch them there – e.g. you can touch a shoulder at arm’s length, but have to stand much closer to touch their waist or lower back. Of course, to hug, you stand very close indeed!)
As mentioned already, a friendly high-five is okay (just DON’T intertwine your fingers with mine!) and the same goes for a handshake. They’re not necessarily what you’d call intimate/romantic touches, but they’re okay, and I believe relevant.
The “linked arm handhold” or just “linked arms” is definitely okay, although the level of intimacy of linking fingers/hands as well as arms is something that needs to be negotiated in the moment. Again, this is a type of touch that would, I am guessing, conventionally be considered as tending towards the intimate, and yet, it is something that doesn’t bother me even with a relatively new acquaintance.
DNL writes that:
Touching somebody with the back of your hand, for example is considerably less intimate and more innocuous than the fingertips. Touching somebody lightly with your fingertips is going to be slightly more intimate – and flirtier – than with the back of your hand. Your full palm implies a much greater degree of familiarity and intimacy and – depending on the location – an expectation of compliance.
This does not accord with how I experience touch. The back of the hand even lightly touching, is to me a very hierarchical gesture, asserting the toucher as superior to the person they touch, and sometimes even carrying a veiled threat of violence (a touch with the back of the hand tends to involve the fingers curling slightly; I read, “This could easily be a fist”).
A light touch of the fingertips, on the other hand, feels somehow dishonest and not at all flirty to me. Dishonesty does not lead to a flirty feeling. It feels creepy, in a way not dissimilar to how DNL says one should not approach touch:
(Note very carefully that this isn’t about the frog in the boiling water. You’re not trying to push boundaries or see what she “lets you get away with”; it’s a form of communicating. Trying to work social pressure so that somebody is ok with you touching their neck is not the same as building mutual attraction.)
Light fingertip touches feel very much like someone is trying to “push my boundaries”.
Conversely, touching with a palm, or more often, full-lengths-of-fingers, feels honest and purposeful. Context is significant, as DNL says, and sometimes the significance he mentions applies for me, too. But when placed in an appropriate conversational/flirting context, it’s easily the most comfortable for me.
I used the words “honest” and “purposeful” there, and that’s where my thinking on this topic has been leading me. Touching where the person’s intention is clear is much more acceptable to me than touching that either does not have an intention, or where the intention seems veiled or insincere. A “light fingertip touch”, by its lightness and diffuse nature, feels dishonest. Use the weight of the whole fingers, however, and I know that you meant it (I might still not know what you meant by it, but I know it’s not hiding anything). If your words and expressions are showing me what you expect, it will work even better.
The other words I think of when I look at the types of touch, are “negotiated” and “reciprocal”.
When I say “negotiated”, I mean in particular, that you can see it coming and either reject or accept it – or that it’s verbalised and agreed (as one commenter @ DNL’s post pointed out). You can offer a high-five, but you can’t force a person to match it if they don’t want to (although there’s the social pressure of, “don’t leave me hanging, man!”) Likewise, a handshake can be offered but can also be declined (although again, there’s a social message sent in declining a handshake). And most hugs are telegraphed (that being said, one of my favourite scenes in The West Wing is where Josh thinks Leo wants a hug, only to be told, “Boy, did you read that one wrong!”) If you don’t want to be hugged, you have a chance to object (see, again, Josh and Leo). And linking arms requires one person to offer their arm to be linked so the other can put their arm through it. All of these involve non-verbal but clear communication and negotiation of the type of touch intended.
It is, of course, possible to negotiate any kind of touch. Either by asking verbally, or by gesturing the intention before carrying it out. Anything that gives the person you want to touch the chance to decline consent before it happens. DNL discusses consent only after the event:
In the event that you’ve pushed too far or have accidentally tripped up on an area that she’s not comfortable with, then you simply disengage calmly (again: not like you’ve just put your hand on a hot stove) and say “that seemed to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry about that.”
As a general rule of thumb: it’s better to be the one who disengages first if you notice that she’s showing signs of discomfort.
Of course, the motion has to have clear intent and also clear option to reject that intent if necessary – “honest” and “purposeful” so that the person knows what is being suggested.
The other aspect, reciprocity, can be shown by the difference between a handshake and touching someone with your fingers. A handshake is reciprocal because both people use the same part of their body to touch the other. But if you touch someone, say on the arm, with your fingertips, then they do not have control over that touch, and they do not touch back. They might make a similar touch in response afterwards, but in that moment, you’re in charge and they are receiving but not giving. “He touched her arm with his fingers,” does not imply, “She touched his fingers with her arm,” only that, “She felt his fingers touch her arm.” Most of the touch that DNL discusses is the non-reciprocal kind. BishUK uses handshakes as an analogy for sex, but the description is exactly why I like reciprocal touching.
Hugs are very much reciprocal: although a hug can have a more active and a more passive participant, the basic touch is more or less the same by both partners: similar body-body contact and similar arm-to-body contact. (Wandering hands, not a good idea!) This is also reciprocal vulnerability, trust and honesty involved. The experience of a good hug is easily the best way for me to feel comfortable with someone and it will decrease the barriers I feel towards other kinds of touching.
So what I want from social/flirty touching is honest, clear intent that is negotiated, and preferably reciprocal in nature.
How has this played out in dating scenarios for me?
So far, every date I have been on has been through internet dating, specifically on BDSM websites. This changes the sample somewhat from the concept of pick-up or social/flirting encounters. The closest I have managed is speed-dating, where there is not much time and the seating arrangements often interfere with touching as there is usually a table between you. Certainly, this interferes with the types of touch I said I prefer. Touching in a romantic/flirting/dating scenario has therefore taken place after verbal communication online.
This communication would in all previous instances include relatively detailed discussions of boundaries and expectations of behaviour on the date. This changed the game somewhat in terms of comfort levels and intimacy. Things are shifted even more when online sexual roleplay (cybersex) plays a part in these negotiations. While not everything that happens in the virtual world can or should take place in meatspace, it still includes genuine expressions of consent and preference that can form a basis for understanding meatspace boundaries; it also involves sharing intimate and emotional responses to one another that builds comfort. Of course, the real-world meeting may reveal differences that are significant, but in my experience this has not been an issue. The date is then a chance to test how well the virtual representation matches the reality, and fortunately my dates have given good representations.
All of which goes to say that my comfort levels in such situations are not likely to be the same as they would be in a pick-up/flirting scenario. All the same, it’s good reference point for what my natural inclination is for touch.
There are three partners it is worth mentioning in this context. In each case, it seems most relevant to talk about how touching progressed on our first dates.
With Partner 1, we had negotiated a very formal D/s context, and it was understood that if things went well we would move quickly to BDSM and sexual activities (which as it happened, we did). In that context, touch was mostly initiated by me, my recollection is that what happened is I used touch to communicate instructions for the most part. Her touching me was mostly light fingertips to the lower arm or back of the hand, but with verbal and visual communication letting me know that this was part of a permission-asking set of behaviours (so, “purposeful”).
Partner 2 was actually a date set up by partner 1 after she had moved on. Here, again, we spent some time chatting online including roleplay etc, before meeting in person. There was no understanding or expectation of sexual activities on this date, but touch progressed from a hug to greet, to sitting side-by-side while talking, with hips touching. P2 had mentioned that she liked being touched on the insides of her thigh and I recall exploiting this as the connection seemed to develop, with positive results. Again, I was in control of the touching here, with her responding to my approaches rather than initiating new levels (I hasten to add that at no point did P2 indicate discomfort with my approaches). The evening closed with a passionate embrace and kiss in the carpark.
Although I went with no expectation of sex with Partner 3, she had made up her mind about it early in the date! We met an arranged spot, and my recollection is that we shook hands first (I don’t recall hugging, although we might have done). After greeting, as we had arranged in our month of internet chatting beforehand, I offered her my arm for her to link arms. My recollection is that this felt at once safe and intimate as we made our way to a bar for a drink and sandwich. I recall lots of touching of each other’s hands after that, before progressing to an art exhibition. Here, my arm was around her waist and holding her hand so our bodies moved side-by-side through the gallery. Afterwards, we sat outdoors on a bench, hugged and kissed. In general, whenever she went to touch me, I could see what she was doing (negotiated) and what her reasons were for doing it (purposeful), and that made all the difference for me.
While imperfect, all these examples show at some point, negotiation, purposeful touching, honest and open movements to touch. The best have also involved some level of reciprocal touching. When these carried through the relationship, things felt more intimate and I felt more confident.
I don’t know where these needs come from, but my trust issues are surely a part of it. Some of the needs I mentioned seem clearly to be about being nervous or wary of another person, and wanting signals that give me confidence. I am, in general, a private and introverted person and that also means my personal space is important to me.. Mutual or reciprocal touching allows for personal space to be encroached upon in a way that is not an incursion but an overlapping of personal space.
I raised the question earlier of just how I am meant to touch someone else in a non-creepy way, when most kinds of touch (at least, prior to established intimacy) make me feel creepy. Is there a way to navigate the interface between my comfort zones and the comfort zones of more conventionally aligned people?
I go back to the principles of purposeful, honest, negotiated and wherever possible, reciprocal touch. If I can find a way to incorporate that into a way of touching someone else, where the purpose is intrinsic to the interaction (that is to say, what happens in the conversation means I have a reason and basis for my touch, rather than the touch being for its own sake, or “intimacy), then I think it could work. This is, in essence, what I understand when DNL says, “this isn’t about the frog in the boiling water.” It also reminds me of his example of Captain Jack Harkness as “how to do it”:
He’s utterly comfortable with what he wants. He doesn’t try to hide it or couch it in euphemisms or excuses.
“Respect” is Jack’s watchword. He doesn’t push boundaries. He doesn’t try to get people to go one inch further than they’d be comfortable with. Even when he’s being sexually forward, he’s quick to pull back – gracefully and without reproach – when he senses that he’s not wanted.