Massage is intimate. Right out of the gate, let’s get that one thing clear. Human touch is an intimate experience. You simply cannot change that. Whether it’s Thai massage with clothes on or Swedish massage, with clothes off. The thing is, intimacy is mostly [and incorrectly] confused with sexuality. This is a far-reaching issue that goes beyond massage alone and relates to our overall lack of touch vocabulary as a disconnected society.
I also want to establish from the beginning that I strongly dislike articles that use yoga and massage as sexual gateways [and click-bait]. Therefore this may be the only blog I ever publish related in any way to the discussion on sex. So it’s a thorough post, and it opens a number of different discussions.
The Middle Issue:
You don’t understand intimacy.
If you finish reading this article right here, I want you to walk away thinking about this. It’s not designed to be a hurtful statement, but it’s the truth. No dancing around it, or softening the choice of words. If I asked you to share an intimate touch with another person, your mind likely defaults to some degree of sexual contact. If not sexual, you’d probably at least think to touch someone in an area of the body you view as “intimate”. And you’d be part of the vast majority.
And yes, this is the middle issue – it’s not the outwards appearance, and nor is it the deeper underlying issue. We’ll get to that, so strap yourself in and read on.
The Surface Issue:
Many forums exist where massage practitioners of all kinds gather to complain about the client that crossed the line. Without the touch vocabulary to interpret intimacy as something different from sexual contact, some clients venture into the realms of inappropriate touch.
This issue exists on many levels throughout the rest of our culture and our many varied work-places, where inappropriate touch is becoming more common. On the surface we see a lack of understanding of intimacy expressed as unwanted contact. Make no mistake that on a deeper level, this diminished understanding of intimacy feeds into more the serious realms of rape culture. [Note: It goes without saying that many more factors contribute to rape culture; a lack of understanding of intimacy is one part of a huge surface issue].
Unsolicited touch has become such a problem that companies legislate against physical contact with colleagues. Even Massage Therapists, who are obviously trained to touch, are trained to do so with the most possible distance, only making contact where absolutely necessary to release soft tissue. This is a huge problem, and by no means does it do anything to solve the issue of, or decrease the incidence of, inappropriate and unwanted contact from occurring.
For the most part it is our responsibility to communicate when the line has been crossed. In no way does this imply that it is the fault of the person who has been the recipient of unwanted touch. The thing is, someone needs to step up and talk about it, and we know that the person crossing the line isn’t going to do it. How else are we to expect different behaviours in the future (with us or with others)? Learning by diffusion is difficult, especially when part of the problem arises from the inability to understand the intentions of touch. It’s like being told to read a foreign language when you haven’t been taught how to read at all. By no means am I condoning the action, I’m simply explaining why getting angry about it, legislating against it and NOT talking about it will do nothing to change it.
Confounding the issue:
Legislating against closeness is not only akin to telling someone not to press the red button, it does absolutely nothing to prevent inappropriate touch from occurring. Here’s an analogy to show you how ridiculous anti-touch legislation is:
If I come from the jungle [or any long-term isolation outside of society] and I’ve arrived in the city and I need to eat, yet I’ve never eaten anything other than what my parents fed me, being told not to eat in the city does nothing to explain to me why I shouldn’t be eating here. Nor does it tell me how I am to find the right food. On top of that, it also entirely misses telling me about the most appropriate ways to eat for nourishment. So basically if all you tell me is to not eat in the city, I’m either going to starve or I’m going to eat the wrong food.
This analogy is purposefully referencing nourishment and food, not only to emphasize how ridiculous anti-touch legislation is, but also to help us begin to understand where inappropriate touch comes from. You literally need touch to survive/live/thrive. It’s very much like food in that way. The deep biological need, without an informed/refined touch vocabulary leads to either starvation or further undesired contact. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and negative feedback loop packed into one. (read more about our biological requirements for touch here: “You Cannot Live Without Touch“).
Intimacy exists along a full spectrum of connection:
In our culture we’ve come to equate intimacy with sex when they should be considered two separate phenomenon. I would suggest that this is also why we have so many unsuccessful relationships – because we seek intimacy and all we’re getting is sex. We search for deeper relationships and we think that sex is going to give us that.I’m not going to tell you how important sex is within a relationship; far too many people have told us how often we should be “doing it” to have a successful marriage/relationship. Huge amount of good that’s done…
What I am going to tell you is how intimacy is like any language: it has many words and it has different forms. We learn all our language/s from our parents and our school teachers. (Not from diffusion, or from being told what NOT to do…). We model our behaviour based on what these people DO. How they act. But what happens if our parents and our teachers only have a small degree of knowledge and practice in the language of touch. What if they have a poor touch vocabulary? How can they model good practices for us?
Having many words and forms, there are numerous ways that we can communicate through the language of physical contact. Sex is one. But only one “word” of a vastly more diverse set of possibilities. Imagine a hand placed meaningfully on your shoulder to convey comfort and support. It’s likely happened before, but did you recognize it as a type of intimacy? What about the last time you sat next to someone and allowed your knee to rest touching theirs? When was the last time you walked hand-in-hand with a friend?
Whilst the touches described above are clearly platonic, and wouldn’t be considered “intimate regions of the body” by most people, we often avoid such contact. Why? It’s probably because it makes a lot of people feel “weird”. Interestingly enough, most of the time this “weird” feeling is actually intimacy. True connection! Yet, we’re so unfamiliar with it that we don’t recognize the sensation, and therefore we feel uncomfortable with it. It’s like juggling for the first time: awkward because it’s a completely unfamiliar to us, not because juggling is inherently awkward. Another one of our surface issues then, is the inability to discern between the different words of intimacy.
[NOTE: Intimacy is communicated through more methods than touch alone. For example, looking into someone’s eyes is a very intimate practice that we also commonly run from. Why do we run, when it’s something we’re actually looking for? Because we don’t recognize intimacy – even when it’s literally staring us in the face. If we don’t understand what it feels like to be intimate, how can we replicate something we don’t know?]
The Deepest Issue:
Lack of Informed & Open Discussion
The hardest part about reading this is that it’s not even really your fault – or their fault. With the blame out of the way, we each carry an individual responsibility to educate ourselves on a range of different life-skills and life-lessons. The biggest problem is that the training of touch is not only something we don’t do, it’s something we don’t even talk about. So whilst this partially lets you off the hook, it also places the responsibility back in your hands very clearly.
Somewhere along the lines, our language of touch dissolved. We’ve seen this throughout history with many of the indigenous languages that have gradually diminished over the years; many of which are now lost forever.
In A Nutshell:
As generations pass, we’ve lost our touch vocabulary little by little, until we’ve become a deeply malnourished society. Without the ability to express intimacy and develop real, deep connections with one another, we’ve created legislation that prohibits touch, putting us in a situation where we either starve or reach out inappropriately. Not only have we lost the ability to outwardly communicate clearly through physical contact, we’ve also lost the ability to “listen” with our sense of touch, confounding the problem by layering on even greater levels of discomfort that arise from our unfamiliarity with compassionate touch.
Touch Education. The only way for us to fix the surface issues and to learn about the full spectrum of intimacy is to be taught and to study. Our practice should begin with extensive and balanced discussion on permission. Understanding how to request permission and how to respect someone’s desires to not be touched, is an important foundation to establish.
Our touch-education should then venture deeply into the topics of discerning touch intent by practicing the ability to be touched through a spectrum of different situations. When we understand how positive, compassionate touch should feel compared to other forms of contact, we start to recalibrate our sense of touch. Recalibrating our interpretation of physical contact begins to expand our touch vocabulary and feeds directly into the third component of touch education: the practice of offering compassionate touch.
When we offer touch to another person, it’s important to understand that touch is our most primal language and that it is very difficult to lie with. Without the ability to “fake it ’til you make it”, our practice becomes even more diligent and focused. Expanding our touch vocabulary is therefore heavily centred in mental and emotional clarity.
One More Thing: Patience Is Important
Languages take time to learn. Expanding our touch vocabulary needs to be given adequate time and practice in order to be successful. The good thing is, we’re hardwired for touch, so the process of learning is also deeply nourishing and healing as we reconnect with an essential component of our biology.