I’ve spent a significant part of the last few weeks climbing on people. Babbling incoherently, I have fallen onto bodies. I have pushed against toes as we crawled across the floor together. I have elbowed; I have kicked; I have hugged and lent a hand to pull somebody up. I have not been having sex but still spend nights grinning and exhausted, sticky with other people’s sweat. This is an important part of why I do theater, of why I go to punk shows.
I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of physical contact. Not touching as sex, but touching as closeness, a method of communication. After a rehearsal for a physical ensemble performance, a few of us wondered why this type of movement matters so much to us. We talked about physicality as expression, as intimacy, but also as a way to listen. Physical contact can be an attempt to share an experience poorly represented by words alone. It can be like gesturing but more articulate.
The body is a means of speaking, and some voices are more telling. There are infinite pitches, and some have more pull. Certain people stand well in their skin. This sort of attraction, for me, means suspecting or knowing that someone is rewarding to interact with physically. Does that pull have to be translated into a sexual attraction? Sometimes I worry that I don’t quite know how to deeply enjoy the physical in a way that is not sexual. There is undeniably a link between physical curiosity and the desire for sexual acts, but they aren’t the same. “Sexual” is such a terrifying word, its boundaries always changing. If sexual is equated with genital, what else is there? The sensual? I feel like such a tool using that word, forging dichotomies I don’t think I believe in.
A high-five and a handjob are different in approach and effects. But they are both important; they are both physical manifestations of the bonds between people. Friends who are afraid to touch each other are worse for it.
The implication that sexuality is the only context of physicality is a dangerous one. People need to be touched—when they are, the bonds between them get reinforced, elaborated on. If touching only means sex, then people get weird about it, because usually we don’t want to have sex with every single one of our friends. So barriers get put up between people out of discomfort. Walls don’t make for good relationships of any kind. And when sex is the only outlet for physical communication, sexual relationships can be burdened with excessive pressure. I see the couples whose hands never leave each other, and I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with being in love or constant lust, or if it’s a more general need to be holding someone.
I admit, sometimes when I’m among a group of people, I don’t know what to do with my hands. I can be shy with my body, hesitate to hug someone, or blush when someone brushes past. But I think the friendships that I’ve formed have helped me be more comfortable in my body. We are unafraid to wrap our arms around someone to help them up a tree. We do not hesitate to slam against each other in a mosh pit or link our legs and fall onstage. When I told a friend the subject of this column, she grinned. She gave me good advice: Tell everyone to hug each other! Yes.