What does it mean to be touched? As I have gotten older I have become more aware of the ways that I have denied myself the need to be touched. When I am talking about being touched, I am not making reference to sexual desire. I am talking about loving touch. Being touched in a tender loving way that does not serve to pornographically objectify, exploit or arouse the body. As a child I remember always wanting to cuddle up with my parents. Up until the age of nine I used to find any reason to crawl into their bed sleep and between them, but the older to got the more unacceptable it became. I remember the sadness I felt when I was denied space in their bed, and the loneliness/abandonment of being forced to sleep alone. Whenever my mother used to sit on the couch to watch TV I would settle myself in the bend of her legs and rest my head on her upper thigh and the older I got, still longing for this space of touch, I distinctly remember her telling me "You're too heavy for that now!" For me, cuddling with them was a space of comfort. The feel of their warmth and their flesh was a form of physical bonding- an expression of love. It was a source of pleasure that felt good. After the age of 10 I don't recall of any distinct form of physical bonding with my parents or anyone else. I became estranged from and deprived of touch.
In her book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, author Bell Hooks talks about how the deprivation of emotional nurturance (including touch) at a young age can make it difficult for black women to distinguish the longing for nurturance from sexual desires. Hooks outlines that this deprivation does not exist in a vacuum. Living in a racist, male dominated, capitalist north American society, black women's bodies have been used as breeding machines and made into sites of objective pornographic desire. This manifest negatively in our psyche: being embarrassed of public displays of affection, masking our desires, or expressing destructive expressions of sexuality.
Before coming across this book I remember telling a friend of mine that I longed to be touched. For so long I had become disinterested in having sex and I had recently been diagnosed with Herpes and felt too grossed out with myself to have sex. I came to the genuinely surprising realization that sex was the only space in my life where I would allow myself to experience touch. My immediate family had become estranged to physical bonding and that estrangement was persistent in all my other relationships. I did not hug often, caress, or cuddle and I felt a sense of embarrassment in doing so. It felt unnatural and awkward. Furthermore, the only parts of my body that ever received touch were the parts of my body that have been sexualized and deemed desirable - booty, breasts/chest, and genitals. Being deprived of touch out of estrangement, disinterest and disgust, still I desired intimate skin-to-skin contact and to be caressed in a non-sexual way by another persons warmth and flesh. In our discussion I posed the question whether or not it was possible to have consensual non-sexual cuddle buddies. To find someone I felt close enough with to share my physical self with and could make myself vulnerable to experience pleasure with.
Some months later when the opportunity finally presented it's self I couldn't get over an over-sexed notion of skin-to-skin contact or the idea that physical contact could only exist in a sexual-romantic partnered way. The fear that touch would lead to sex scared me out of the possibility of allowing myself to experience touch, suppressing and denying myself my desires. I had learned to love and understand my body through the same racist, male dominated lens that told me my body didn't deserve tender love and care free of a voyeuristic gaze. I had internalized my afroblack female body as sexual object that is supposed to assume a sexual role despite my desire not to.
Unlearning and healing from both external and internalized racist and patriarchal realities that shape how we understand our bodies and, moving towards encounters that do not diminish or degrade our happiness or well-being is hard and requires a lot of dedication. Approaching what Hooks calls sexual healing calls for redirecting our energies from the place where we have been wounded, used or abused to write ourselves a recipe - ideas that enable us to heal, then follow it. When we are experiencing pain she affirms that having these ideas day by day and moment by moment are reminders to bring us back in touch with our bodies. For me the first step was acknowledging that I needed touch. Having someone I could openly and honestly share that with, helped in being able to name my desires and their boundaries. The second was taking the time to realize where I did and didn't receive touch. This helped be to be able to identify where I could give and receive reciprocal care. In my life, hugs have become a site for intimate contact, they are a place of safety and comfort. The third is crochet. Learning to be still and focus my attention through crochet encourages me to be mindful of my thoughts and feelings. My black sisters and cisters, we deserve joy of the flesh that makes us feel good, is awakening, heals us, is dignified, respectful, gentle and caring.