Do you sometimes find yourself craving physical contact? You’re not alone. Louise Flannagan investigates the concept of skin hunger.
A woman rests her head on the lap of a total stranger that she has hired to come to her home. The stranger plays with her hair and gently strokes her arm. They talk a little and listen to some music and continue sitting like this for almost an hour. The stranger is a professional cuddler, a bit like a sex worker but without the act itself. Their job is to satisfy someone’s need for touch in a non-sexual, consensual way.
This might sound strange. Why would someone pay a complete stranger to touch them and how could that be considered a “need”?
It nearly all comes down to a phenomenon called skin hunger. Aside from sounding like the title of a porn film, skin hunger, (also known as touch starvation), is a term to describe our body’s craving for physical contact with other people. When we are touch starved, we lack this physical closeness. This can be detrimental to our general well-being.
Touch is important. When we touch, a hormone called oxytocin is released in our bodies. It reduces our stress and anxiety levels and helps us to feel calm and relaxed, as well as more confident and sociable. It also helps prevent cardiovascular disease. When we are deprived of touch, the reverse occurs. We become stressed, anxious, and tend to feel lonely and isolated. Many of us don’t even realise that skin hunger may be the cause of these feelings because we weren’t aware of its existence in the first place.
The need for touch really is a need. Newborns who don’t have much physical contact with their parents or carers tend to have stunted emotional and physical growth, and in extreme cases, may even die. We can sense different emotions through touch alone and it is crucial to our bonding with other people.
No two people have the same needs though and the amount of physical contact people engage in can differ for loads of reasons, like upbringing, social or cultural background, personal comfort, and innate nervous system needs. Some cultures see touch as part of the normal fabric of their daily life, while others have ignored or even demonised it.
One particular study tried to measure these differences by looking at the number of times couples in cafés in different countries touched each other over the course of an hour. Couples in Puerto Rico averaged 100 times, couples in the US averaged twice, while couples in England averaged zero. This research falls in line with other studies, which suggest that people in warmer countries tend to touch more than those in colder countries.
Skin hunger can also be linked to modern urban living where it is getting easier and easier to live in almost complete seclusion. People who feel touch-starved often turn to a range of outlets to have their touch needs met, even though they may not be consciously aware that this is what they are looking to do.
Some turn to drugs, prostitution, or online hook-ups. Other (potentially less destructive) ways can include getting a pet, (stroking a dog or cat releases oxytocin too), hiring your own professional cuddler, being more affectionate with friends and family, or alternatively, attending a cuddle party, which is like a group therapy cuddle session where people can hold hands, tickle feet or spoon other people who also want to be spooned. ‘Cause you know, sometimes all you need is a spoon.