A Touchy Subject: Physical Affection Post-COVID-19

Sergio Marcos / Stocksy
Touch and physical sensation have been filtered from dating. How will this affect us moving forward post pandemic?
Words by Aoife Hanna.

Despite still being in the mire of the pandemic, vaccine progress means that the idea of getting out there and dating is once again within our sights. Meeting a human with whom you connect, are attracted to and have a beautiful emotional and physical bond with can only be a good thing–right? I discovered recently when I began dating again that, like a lot of things in life, it’s just not that simple. So, why has  physical intimacy been so difficult since the pandemic?

“At the moment, people are scared of spreading or catching the virus,” dating coach James Price says. “They crave human affection, but they are conflicted due to the risks. Each person has their own boundaries and comfort levels, meaning it can be hard to adjust if someone is stricter than the other. We have to get closer in order to bond, yet the same desire can cause anxiety and fear.”

Fearing an invisible, contagious enemy is bound to affect attitudes towards physical contact. “The word ‘contagion’ comes from the Latin for ‘with’ and ‘touch,’” says Paula Cocozza in the Guardian. “So it is no wonder that social touch is demonised in a pandemic.”

Unfortunately, a dearth of physical contact like kissing, hugging and even shaking hands is well documented as having negative effects on mental and physical health. “Human touch is, like food and sleep, a visceral need,” according to Neel Burton, M.D. In “Touch Hunger” via Psychology Today, he says gentle touch can help in countless positive stress busting and mood improving ways. “These effects are mediated by hormonal changes,” he says. “Not least a lowering of the stress hormone cortisol and the release of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin.” 

Many people who think they are hungry for sex are in fact hungry for skin.

Neel Burton, M.D.

I’ve always been a very hands-on partner and all about that oxytocin hit. During recent attempts at dating though, I’ve found that gentle, physical touch makes me feel anxious, claustrophobic and low key gives me the ick. When it comes to PDA, hand holding, kissing or hugging for long periods, I feel a bit uncomfortable—but weirdly, my sexual appetite is as ravenous as ever. Burton asserts that, “many people who think they are hungry for sex are in fact hungry for skin,” which shows that subconsciously, the craving for touch (thankfully) remains.

At the beginning of the crisis, the quixotic among us thought that a more slow paced version of dating might be one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic. In place of endless swiping and one night stands came carefully considered, deep online conversations and hours-long Zoom dates. Heck, I even once played Scrabble with a paramour via video link. All of this romance, and the uncertainty of if meeting IRL would ever be possible. Suddenly, the often bemoaned throwaway nature of online hook-ups became more of a contemporary love letter exchanging situation. Humanity adapted quickly to a less tactile existence.

For some, the time away from other people’s hands has been a gift. Speaking of her pre-2020 romantic life, British Indian artist Sharondeep Kaur said, “I shared my divine feminine with my ex and he dragged her through the mud by her hair.” She came into this year newly single and after a year of social distancing, Kaur has found empowerment in new boundaries. This has made her more comfortable and ready to get out there and meet someone, bolstered by this new found power. “In the past, I have let men who weren’t right for me into my life,” she tells me. “This break from physicality, the time to sit with myself, my spirituality, my dog—it’s been truly enlightening.” 

It’s easy to wonder, during all of this, are people in romantic relationships any better off? We all saw the memes, the articles about how lockdown was decimating some partnerships and repairing others. I asked Margherita Huntley, a London based designer in a long-term relationship, had intimacy with her partner born the brunt of the pandemic. “Yes definitely it has,” she told me. “It’s hard when you are using one space to work, eat, sleep and be intimate with each other. They’re also the only person you see–it’s a lot.”

Whatever happens, don’t be afraid to take things at your own pace.

James Price

So, how do we all move forward from here? Although staying safe during the pandemic has distorted our perception of touching, all hope’s not lost. We can take little steps to regain our confidence in intimacy and unlearn any subconscious fears about touch. As the world returns to a more touchy, feely place, Price advises on how to become a more receptive, affectionate partner. “There is no need to rush into anything you aren’t comfortable with,” he says.

“Communication is key, so express your concerns with your partner and work out a plan. You could start with hand holding or a quick hug until you are both ready. These simple acts will still make you feel good and draw you closer together.” Above all he adds, “whatever happens, don’t be afraid to take things at your own pace.”

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