Grieving the Intangible Pain of Lost Touch

I am jealous of people who can touch each other comfortably.

It’s not fair! I g-chatted a friend the other day. Pete’s an asshole who treats his girlfriends like shit, but he can touch anyone he likes. And I’m so nice, but I’ve had to go for years without the comfort of physical contact.

It’s not fair, my friend agreed with me, but I wouldn’t envy Pete. He’s not a happy person overall, he just has this one thing you don’t have.

It was a reasonable reminder, because I am happy. I am the happiest I’ve ever been. And yet, I can’t receive touch. It’s ok if I get touched. Nothing terrible happens, I tense up and bear it until it stops. But it’s usually not enjoyable for me.

However, I desperately long to receive touch. I’m going through hospice volunteer training right now, and after talking about therapeutic touch for hospice patients, I realized touch is this ancient language. It came before humanity, and for every person, it came before all other communication. It makes up a very deep part of our psyche. Babies who are young enough die without touch (as they found out in early orphanages.)

I don’t think it’s really possible to extinguish the need for something this primitive, and yet I have so much tension around it that I cannot usually endure it for long. It’s hard to describe the layers of longing and fear. I keep thinking of this passage from Ayaan Hirisi Ali’s book Infidel where she talks about female circumcision.

Excision [female circumcision] doesn’t remove your desire or ability to enjoy sexual pleasure. The excision of women is cruel on many levels. It is physically cruel and painful; it sets girls up for a lifetime of suffering. And it is not even effective in its intent to remove their desire.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel

I remember reading that passage, and imagining what it would be like to be one of those women. Imagine having a young body capable of intense lust and desire, but also having a vagina was so scarred that any attempt to physically sate that desire would cause intense pain. It reminds me of the punishments in Hades of ancient Greek mythology. I hope there is a solution for women who have had this done to them (like, some kind of vibrator if penetration is painful?) but I assume for most women in those cultures creative brainstorming methods of female sexual pleasure is discouraged.

It’s also relevant that Ali points out that intention to remove sexual desire in women is the motivation behind circumcision. I think a similar intention, in a far more oblique way, is also responsible for the conditions which led my own touch aversion. While a sexual assault I experienced a few years ago really intensified my touch-phobia, the cultural influences that amplified the impact of that night started long before. By the time I was sexually assaulted, the feeling and the pain of being touched in the sexual areas of my body without consent (breasts and butt, mostly) was so familiar that I didn’t register being touched in my vagina against my will as an unusual thing.

Which raises the question — why was I so often touched in these areas? I’m sure many (possibly most) young women in the US are sexually touched against their will, but I think for me an additional relevance was that I was a fairly sexual teenager. I convinced an older friend to buy me my first vibrator when I was 14, I was open about discussing masturbation and desire. My friends and I would jokingly grab each other’s breasts sometimes. I had a strong sexual energy.

And, this felt wrong to people. I remember reading this great piece about how men spanking women used to be a popular troupe in movies in the 30s — 50s. Movie-goers wanted to se women spanked.

As the bottom listing indicates, the idea of spanking a woman was so popular that some studios would release publicity photos of spankings even when no such activity occurred in the movie — even when the characters barely interacted. When the spanking did occur, it frequently appeared on ads.

Andrew Heisel, 'I Don't Know Whether to Kiss You or Spank You': A Half Century of Fear of an Unspanked Woman

The general public got a satisfaction out of seeing a man spank the woman who was (or was soon to be) his love interest. As one woman’s daughter said in one of the mentioned films, daddies spank mamas because they love them. Usually it was some sort of modern, sassy woman who was spanked back into a more traditional role. Viewers wanted to see this happen. Paradoxically, viewers would have wanted young uppity women in their movies, simply so that they could see them spanked into submission.

This dynamic felt highly familiar to me. I think people, boys, were attracted to my highly sexual teenage self because it gave them a thrill to crush it out of me. Why should me talking about masturbation, or who I found attractive, or whatever, trigger boys to touch me without my consent? The usual explanation is “you got them horny, and they couldn’t help themselves!” but it’s not that. They knew what they were doing was hurting me.

Even if there was any ambiguity with touching (which I’m pretty sure there wasn’t) many of them said cruel things to me. They would tell me I was flat chested, or ugly. They would mock me loudly in front of each other. These were all behaviors designed to get me to reign in my sexuality. Because my sexuality was threatening to them. It was threatening to society.

Because we use access to sex with women as a way to reward men for behaving as “productive members of society,” we have to ensure that women will be willing to have sex with the “correct” men. This involves women not acting on their own desires to instead act on societal desire. This involves crushing women so far that they are unaware of their own desires.

On an individual level, specific young men often feel entitled to sex if they have done the things they’re “supposed” to do. It reminds me of a quote from the Virgin Suicides, where the author laments “we realized that our fathers, brothers and uncles had been lying, and that no one was ever going to love us for our good grades.” This idea that you, as a teenage boy, can devote all this time and energy into being “successful” (at school, at sports, whatever) and then have women not be into you simply because you are not attractive is scary. When young boys see this, when young boys see young girls expressing an unfettered sexuality, they smack it down by causing them sexual pain.

And it works, kind of. I have modified my behavior. I have reigned in my sexuality, and my openness, and my lovingness. But, the desire — for touch, for sex, for whatever — is all still there. It’s just I think if I express these desires then I will feel pain. So I’ve stopped expressing them

But I am so lonely. I haven’t shared a bed with anyone in about two years, and I tried to the other night but I freaked out. I felt — I’m not even sure. I described it as “scared” but that’s not quite right. Maybe “in pain” would be another way. However, as soon as I got out of bed and went to the couch, the pain went away. And, God, I miss sleeping with people — not sex, just sleep. I miss being able to be close to someone in the night. But I was so anxious, and heartbroken, and worried that I had to leave.

Which brings me to a point of very deep sadness. One of the things that’s so hard about healing from sexual assault (and, all the crap that came before) is that by its nature I have to do it alone. Because I couldn’t stand to be touched, I had to go for years without the comforts that it seems like everyone around me is enjoying all the time. Some of the lowest moments of my life have had to have been navigated without even a comforting hug from a friend because that hug might have hurt, and I was too afraid to ask for it.

And people read me as cold, you know. Or un-touchy. Or un-sexual. I remember, one of the most painful things for me to hear was when my ex was telling me about the new girl she was dating. “We’re both very sexual people, so sometimes we just end up having sex even if we shouldn’t.”

My inability to receive touch was pretty terrible for my relationship, big surprise, so I ended things but I still think my ex is a terrific person. What was so painful when she told me about her new highly sexual girl was the shadow implication. That I had not been a very sexual person.

Most people don’t see me as a sexual being anymore, or an affectionate being, and that hurts. What looks on the outside as an absence is experienced on the inside as a war. When someone touches me on my arm, it probably looks like I’m completely ignoring them, which is read as coldness. What it feels like on the inside, however, is usually anxiety over a desire for more. Instead of true neutrality, I have two pulls in opposite directions. So I do nothing.

Anyway. How do I go forward from here? Sometimes I have to do things that make me anxious. And, sometimes I try things that lead to my sleeping on the couch. Which is fine. However, I’ve also noticed this deep, bitter energy I have towards people who don’t have these aversions, but is highly disruptive for me. So, what can I do with that?

The answer was pretty obvious, actually, as someone currently in hospice training. I need to grieve. I have lost out on some legitimately wonderful things, like love and touch, and that is sad. It’s ok that that’s sad. It should be sad. I may have lost some things permanently, and that is definitely sad. I don’t know if I will ever be completely comfortable with touch again.

But, I also know there’s a way forward that isn’t here. There’s some path toward not being isolated and alone, even if I’m not quite sure what it is. Grief is really a process of allowing yourself to change. When you allow yourself to experience the pain that an event caused you, you will land somewhere that is not the place of pain you are currently in.

Ritual is an ancient, yet still applicable, way of dealing with grief. People who create rituals around their grief end up getting through it more quickly which I think is another way of saying “ritual facilitates the change that grief necessitates.” I found a PDF I liked explaining a ritual for rape survivors, and decided to start doing that myself. It involves lighting one candle and thinking about the trauma you’ve experienced, followed by lighting another candle and thinking of all the good things in your life. This is part of my ritual right now — I wrote this sitting next to my lit trauma candle.

However, I lit the other candle to write the conclusion. Sometimes, I have trouble with this part — the good things part. I mean, sure I have good friends and good community and I think of them, but there’s an intricacy and complexity to examining my trauma that is not there when I think of the good things in my life. Part of it, I think, is that I have good feelings about the future but I don’t know what that future will be. Who will I be when I can touch people again? Who will I date when I can date people again?

I don’t know. But, I think it’s going to be good.

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