Hungry Skin

couple making eye contact and touching hands
Photo by Filipi Escudine from Pexels

I’ve always had hungry skin. When met with any person or thing that inspires my curiosity or desire, my immediate instinct is to touch. I’ve bought clothes just because I found their texture intoxicating. I’ve chased lovers just because of how they cradled my face in their hand. Touch is my primary love language, which is probably obvious. I’m sure I have my Taurus sun placement and a very affectionate mother to thank for this. And truly, I am grateful. In the U.S., where I grudgingly call home, touch is deeply taboo. 

It’s so often conflated with sexual contact, even if it’s platonic or familial. Parents can’t even kiss their young children in certain ways without attracting the ire of puritanical onlookers (not even widely beloved Britons, as it were). We police this behavior in each other under the guise of “protecting children,” which is laughable given the innumerable ways in which adults frequently abdicate this responsibility. But, I digress. 

Skin hunger is an actual, well-researched phenomenon, and it’s particularly prevalent in wealthy Western countries, due to our social conservatism. Even if physical touch isn’t your own love language, studies show that regular reception of touch has a hugely positive impact on physical and mental health. For example, it’s why newborns in the NICU heal and grow faster when trained volunteers cuddle, rock, and sing to them. But it’s not just babies who need this care.

The Hunger’s History

Most grown-ups yearn for touch to some degree, to the point of even organizing parties and businesses to meet the demand. I totally get it. More often than not, I feel the desire for touch with a ferocious intensity. I’m rarely in romantic relationships, committed or casual. I’m fine with this, usually. It’s better to be alone than in bad company, and I refuse to settle.

me at age 20 with long braids kissing a Rottweiler mix
Me with my family’s dog in 2014. His adoption was a miracle at a time when I felt particularly deprived of touch.

It does mean that I can go rather long stretches without intimate physical contact. Painfully long. When I was younger, I ran from that pain by throwing myself at anyone who gave a second glance. I can’t imagine a more dangerous combination than low self-esteem and a constant craving for touch. The synergistic effect of these traits got me into so many scary situations. 

That’s when my love language would feel like a curse. I found it impossible to discern which affection was genuine, and which was a front for sex, power, or control. Most of the major traumas I’ve survived involved non-consensual touch. A lot of the minor ones occurred when an inability to identify and articulate my boundaries led me to subject my body to situations it wanted no part in. All because I wanted to feel safe, held, and warm. 

I’m grown now, and I’ve learned to get my burning need for touch met in safer ways. The main one is introducing more physical affection into my platonic relationships. For a many people, showing love via touch is the line that separates romantic from platonic relationships. But when I consider this outside of a heteronormative context, I find little value in the distinction. 

Queering Touch

closeup of two Black mascs holding hands
Photo by Git Stephen Gitau from Pexels

When I understood myself to be straight, my friends were usually female, and my love interests usually male. Gender was the omnipresent divider between the people with whom I did and didn’t enjoy physical closeness. Now that I’ve given space for my queerness to flourish, my friends and lovers may all be of any gender. That dividing line has vanished, and with it, the baseless norms around love and sex that were never anchored in any objective truth for me.

Bringing intimate touch into my friendships feels totally revolutionary. It looks a lot of different ways, like linking arms while walking around, or cuddling while watching TV. It can be long, lingering hugs at hello and goodbye. Maybe it’s hair-playing or bed-sharing. Massage exchanges are always welcome. 

Outright sexual contact works for me too. I’m a big proponent of friends-with-benefits arrangements because I don’t know about you, but I have some pretty hot friends! A lot of the best sex I’ve ever had was of this nature, probably because doing it successfully requires lots of communication and emotional honesty, which has complex challenges with a committed partner.

Exploring my queerness was how I began to expand my consciousness around touch. However, you don’t have to be queer to imagine new relationship paradigms and bring them to life. Resisting rigid social standards of what touch is acceptable with whom radically transforms how we realize our huge potential for connection, creation, and love. We are entitled to these things by virtue of our humanity. We don’t need anyone’s permission to rebuild our communities, local and global, around them. 

Two Birds

I was reminded the other day, through a particularly potent bit of Twitter wisdom, that not asking people around you for what you need is a trauma response. It’s born of prior experiences in which others neglected to care for you, or otherwise left you believing that you don’t deserve care. I’ve battled this toxic mindset for much of my life, one which exacerbates my skin hunger. But I’m learning that I can heal both of these wounds with the same salve: building relationships where I feel safe asking for touch, and knowing that I’ll receive it. Simple, yet radical. Imagine that.