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Alex Smyth

Swipe Left: Exploring touch outside of romantic relationships

Shanice's first date with Carl was unforgettable, but for reasons you wouldn't expect.

08 Jul 2021

Welcome to gal-dem’s brand new monthly dating column ‘Swipe Left’, bringing you Shanice Dover’s latest musings on love, sex and relationships.

I’ve never thought of myself as a tactile person. I’m notoriously, and maybe even slightly annoyingly, precious about my physical and emotional space. Physical contact doesn’t scare me, but it’s simply not something I’ve placed much value in throughout my life. As a result, I’ve mostly become accustomed to reserving physicality for romantic partners. 

Growing up, I can’t remember there being emphasis placed on hugging or holding hands in my family. I’m sure it was there when I was a lot younger, but as a teenager – and finally old enough to choose which habits and behaviours to take out into the wider world – expression through touch fell by the wayside. My close circles of friends constantly joke about how we’re barely affectionate with each other, and the extent of that was revealed when I went to uni, and saw how other friendship groups didn’t say goodbye without handing out a round of bear hugs, or would huddle up close watching films in our cramped single bedrooms. 

With casual dating, touch often feels loaded. There’s an unspoken knowledge that it’s either a precursor to sex or an after-effect of it – like the charged moment of a knee graze or a sweet early morning curled up with someone in bed. The satisfaction of those encounters can be great but fleeting. Or so I thought until I dated Carl.

When we first met I was overwhelmed by how immediately intimate our interactions felt compared to what I’d experienced on other first dates. It was a spontaneous meetup at his house – after a few weeks of non-committal and vague low interest texting, he invited me over on a whim and I said yes.

“With casual dating, touch often feels loaded”

I thought I’d be in for a night of pleasant chat and decent company, but within a few minutes of being there, the vibe was different. We quickly fell into a comfortability uncommon for a first meeting. Throughout the whole night, we were completely enveloped in each other – not as a means to get one-step closer to sex, but because the closeness felt good. Every movement was full of familiarity and completely devoid of the usual calculations that often come along with the nervousness of a first date. With the wrong person, it could’ve felt like way too much, too soon, but here, it felt natural.

The experience was an anomaly because I’d never been this tactile with a stranger. In my previous relationship to Carl, I was with someone who was even more awkward with touch than I was. Our sexual chemistry was never lacking, but it became clear that youth-fuelled zeal didn’t necessarily equate to intimacy. Outside of sex, or the moments leading to or following it, we’d barely make contact. I honestly thought I didn’t mind, but after my experience with Carl, I know for certain that I can’t be in a relationship where softer displays of intimacy aren’t more central. 

It was the small and subtle movements and expressions for me. We couldn’t be near each other without touching in some way – whether it was a hand on the leg while watching TV, or tiny sporadic kisses being planted on my shoulder or forehead. There was little sexual intention behind the actions, but they were still communicating a gentle warmth and appreciation. 

Being more aware of my evolving physical needs is obviously great, but after Carl and I stopped dating, my time with him hung over me in ways that weren’t always positive. When I’m lonely, I usually have him planted firmly in my mind as I’m scrolling through potentials on dating apps in a frantic hunt to rediscover the same feeling of closeness. While it’s fine to admit that that’s something I want and to be intentional in seeking it out, being driven by that need of intimate touch and feeling like romantic partners are the only ones who can provide that is a slippery slope. Dating is already stressful enough, but when it’s fuelled by desperation, it’s far too easy to start settling for people and situations that aren’t fulfilling or healthy.

“We were completely enveloped in each other – not as a means to get one-step closer to sex, but because the closeness felt good”

If I interrogate what it was that keeps pulling my mind back to that night, more than the closeness or the unexpectedness of it or anything else, it’s simply how liberating it was to express myself in ways I haven’t allowed myself to before. It was being able to rely on my body to communicate what words couldn’t. 

What I realise now, is that none of this is specific to romantic or sexual expression. While yes, I hope to one day meet a partner who’s able to meet all my needs, sitting and waiting for that to happen will only result in needlessly depriving myself of touch. All I need is to surround myself with people I’m comfortable sharing the softer sides of myself with. Whether it manifests physically or verbally, it’s on me to give myself permission to be more open with them.

Throughout lockdown, my flatmate and I gradually started leaning on each other for more of the contact we’d usually experience out in the world. Just being able to reach out for her hand when we’re watching TV has been a subtle comfort in an emotionally taxing time. 

The process of reassessing my aversion to being skin to skin with others and gently shifting my habits to accommodate new boundaries, is gradual and sometimes slightly awkward work. However, acknowledging a new emotional need and being able to honour it regardless of my dating or relationship status, feels like a step in the right direction.