U Can Touch This
Men's Health Australia|April 2020
As a man in Western society there’s a good chance you’re touch deprived. Not only is that bad for your physical and mental health, it could mean you’re missing out on a source of connection that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human
BEN JHOTY
IT’S AROUND the 23-second mark during a hug with a stranger that I open my eyes and wonder what the hell I’m doing. I’ve met up with Amanda Souza, a 32-yearold Brazilian cuddle therapist at a bar in Bondi. After a brief chat about her profession, Souza and I are putting theory into practice.

As we stand there, two strangers locked in a fervent embrace as the bar’s midweek patrons sip their pale ales, I’m conscious that this is probably the first hug I’ve had in a long time where I feel uninhibited. Most of the time when a friend or colleague wraps their arms around me, my natural reaction is to stiffen. My arms become lead rods, my torso armour-plated. If it’s a female, I’m conscious of not betraying any signs of genuine affection, lest I be seen as a creep. On the rare occasions that it’s a male that I’m awkwardly entangled with, I’m even more restrained. We’ll slap each other on the back as we hug, attempting perhaps to reinforce our masculinity and douse any suspicions about our sexuality.

But with Souza I don’t have to worry about how our hug will be construed. Her status as a professional hugger removes much of the social awkwardness that often accompanies this intimate act, allowing me to focus on the hug itself. I close my eyes again and feel Souza’s warm hands moving tenderly across my back. As we stand there, the noise of idle chatter and clinking glasses humming around us, it dawns on me that I don’t want this hug to end. I feel like our souls are engaged in some kind of tactile communion. I feel her hair on my earlobe, a sensation that causes my dendrites to fire, oxytocin to spike and serotonin to soar. It feels wonderful. I feel anxieties and concerns leeching out of me. I feel . . . actually that’s it. Feeling, it turns out, is an end in itself.

Reluctantly I loosen my embrace. Souza does the same. We look at each other and smile. We have shared something special, elemental even. I’m just not sure what.

“You go to a massage therapist to massage your body,” says Souza, who launched her business, About Love, two years ago. “Cuddle therapy is a massage for your heart.”

It’s a beautiful, figurative way to describe what should actually be a rather ordinary human interaction. The problem for many men is that the hug and other acts of spontaneous, platonic affection are so loaded with external baggage – #MeToo, homophobia – and internal anxieties – shyness, social awkwardness, self-consciousness – that they’ve taken on a semi-spiritual aura they may not truly deserve.

Ask yourself how often, outside of romantic relationships, you touch other people? Sure, you might shake hands with colleagues, backslap friends and even jump on your teammate when he scores a goal. But these fleeting, socially-sanctioned forms of touch are largely superficial displays of affection. Prolonged, meaningful touch with women, and certainly with fellow males, is practically taboo.

That has repercussions you may not have considered. Studies show touch can bolster your immune system, lower stress, decrease aggression and even boost athletic performance. It can also strengthen bonds, reinvigorate relationships, allay loneliness and, in some cases, transform lives. The benefits are all right there waiting for you, tantalisingly close. Close enough to well . . . you know what.

TOUCHY SUBJECT

There was a time when touch played a central role in all our day-to day lives. As an infant you couldn’t rely on words to communicate with your parents. Instead, you had to rely on primal means – crying and touching – to express your needs and navigate your world.

Sadly, growing up means becoming civilised, adhering to societal norms and acknowledging social conventions. For most men it also means, look, but don’t touch. “Usually there’s a lot of touch when we’re little,” says Ros Knight, president of the Australian Psychological Society. “We hold babies a lot, we play with them. There’s a lot of physicality that over time decreases. But touch always signifies connection. It always signifies security and reassurance.”

Just how important touch is in infancy has been documented in studies on orphans deprived of tactile affection from their care givers. Not only was their cognitive development impaired but they also developed severe psychological problems. Similarly, premature babies benefit enormously when they’re taken out of their incubators to receive skin contact with their mothers.

In adulthood touch retains an important role in our physical and mental wellbeing. It’s just that for some people it’s harder to access. “It’s a basic human need that has to be met somehow,” says Knight. “But it’s always trickier for adults who are single or if they’ve grown up in a culture where touch is less okay.”

You can count Australia and indeed, most Western countries, as societies where touch is more regulated and boundaries regarding physical contact more rigid. One of the reasons Souza was drawn to cuddle therapy was that upon arriving in Australia five years ago, she was struck by how little people here touched each other compared to her native Brazil. “If you compare it with Brazil, everyone is cold,” she says.

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