Imagine sending an email to about a dozen friends proposing a four-hour get-together “to do a little experimentation around human touch.” You assure your friends that nothing sexual will be involved, clothes will stay on, and the gathering will not take place in a bedroom.
Are you up for that?
Epiphany Jordan, author of Somebody Hold Me: The Single Person’s Guide to Nurturing Human Touch, hopes you are. For at least five years, she has been running a business, “Karuna Sessions,” in Austin, TX, in which clients can cuddle with two practitioners as part of a ritual of human connection. In Somebody Hold Me, Jordan wants to persuade people to take the initiative to incorporate more “nurturing human touch” into their own lives, by hosting touching get-togethers with their friends and in other ways, too.
“Nurturing human touch,” Jordan explains, is a light touch that “conveys kindness, warmth, calmness, compassion, comfort, and support” and is not erotic. She is a true believer in its power. “Touch can make you feel valued and connected to other humans,” she says, “and lack of touch can make many health problems worse.” In separate, short chapters, she spells out the most important reasons to engage in nurturing human touch (e.g., you will get off your phone, you will feel comforted, and there are potential health benefits, which she attributes largely to the release of oxytocin).
Jordan explains that we don’t even realize how much we need nurturing human touch. That’s in part because we are misled by cultural myths that discourage us from seeking touch or recognizing that we need it. In one of the early chapters, she describes 10 of those myths, such as “you’re weak if you need others,” “pets will fulfill your touch needs,” and “sex is the only way to get your touch needs met.”
The prevailing misguided ideas about touch have contributed to what Jordan believes is an epidemic of lack of touch. Too many of us are suffering from “touch hunger,” which is “an emotional response to lack of human touch after a long period without physical contact from another human.” Jordan lists 10 symptoms so you can get a sense of whether you may have that malady.
Once Jordan has established the context and the rationale for trying to incorporate more nurturing human touch into your life, she offers a step-by-step guide for hosting that gathering of your friends — or perhaps a whole series of gatherings. A chapter on the basics explains different ways of touching in a nurturing way. Another describes in detail how to create an environment that feels safe to the participants.
Perhaps the touchiest part of the whole idea of touch gatherings is approaching your friends about it. Jordan has a chapter on how to do that. She also tells you exactly how to proceed once your gathering is underway. It is all very structured. The touching exercises are organized into sets, starting with the most casual touches and building up to more. For example, the third set includes a unit on hugging while standing up. Two people face each other, and one asks the other, “Would you like a hug?” If the answer is yes, they hug for 3-5 seconds. Then the other person asks the same thing, and if the answer is yes, a timer is set for 30 seconds and they hug until it goes off.
Included with each of the exercises is a series of questions to be discussed immediately afterwards. For example: “Were you desperately waiting for the timer to go off, or did you feel like you could get lost in it [the hug]?”
Interspersed throughout the book are brief profiles of people (such as Amma, “the hugging saint,” and friends with whom Jordan has engaged in nurturing human touch) and suggested exercises. Also included is a quiz for determining how much touch is right for you.
My initial reaction to the title of the book was quite negative. Somebody Hold Me reads to me as, “somebody — anybody! — please hold me.” That sounds desperate, and if acted upon, maybe even dangerous. Compounding my concerns was the subtitle that pointed straight at single people and no one else: The Single Person’s Guide to Nurturing Human Touch. That made me wonder whether Jordan thinks that if you are part of couple, your need for touch will automatically be perfectly satisfied — you will be getting as much or as little touch as you want, in the ways you want it and at the times you want it, and your partner will, too, because as romantic partners, of course your needs and desires will mesh perfectly.
I was wrong about that. Jordan does realize that coupled people can have needs for touch that are not satisfied by their romantic partners. Still, her title puts a bulls-eye on single people. I’ve been working for more than two decades to push back against the stereotyping and stigmatizing and shaming of people who are single, so I have little tolerance for depictions of singles as particularly needy.
Jordan offers no evidence that single people are especially likely to be suffering from “touch hunger” (apart from some misleading claims — more on those later). With regard to the kind of touching she emphasizes in this book, platonic touching, I think it is quite plausible that single people — perhaps especially single women — are getting more of that in their everyday lives that people with romantic partners. We already know that single people, on average, have more friends than married people do, and they do more to nurture those friendships. Sometimes that includes the kinds of touching that go beyond the perfunctory hugs that people sometimes exchange upon greeting or leaving. I’ve seen groups of women friends sit at a meal or on a couch watching TV with their arms draped around each other’s shoulders nearly the whole time. I find it touching. That kind of spontaneous affection strikes me as far more appealing than the kinds of touch that comes with timers and instructions. I realize, though, that it is not available to everyone.
If Jordan thinks that single people are especially likely to suffer from touch hunger not just because they are supposedly deprived of platonic touch, but also because they don’t get as much sex as married people, well, she may well be wrong about that, too. Research shows that the gap between single and married people in the frequency with which they have sex is closing, and by some measures, single people are having as much or even more sex.
I was wrong in assuming from the title of the book that Jordan was proposing something potentially dangerous. Among the real strengths of the book are the ways in which the importance of consent, and of establishing and maintaining boundaries, is emphasized and explained throughout. Jordan insists that you have the right to say no and that you must respect an answer of no from other people.
Somebody Hold Me perpetuates popular claims that are consistent with the story Jordan wants to tell but are not really true. Over and over again, we hear that there is an epidemic of loneliness, but that is unlikely to be true. We are told that people in the U.S. have dramatically fewer confidants than they had in the past. That claim has gone viral. The study, though, has been debunked. Jordan worries about the loneliness of people living alone. That’s misguided, too. In fact, a study of more than 16,000 adults found that when people living alone were compared to similar people living with others, the solo dwellers were actually less lonely.
Setting aside the misleading hype about various epidemics and pinning the blame for them on single people and people who live alone, I think some of Jordan’s main messages are important, powerful, and true. First, I do not doubt that many people would appreciate having more nurturing human touch in their lives. I also believe that there are people who would greatly benefit from more of that sort of touch but don’t even realize that it is something they are missing.
Importantly, I also believe in the power of human touch. I used to teach courses in nonverbal communication. On days when I taught about touch, I would begin my lectures by telling students about studies showing that even the slightest of touches, including incidental ones, can be meaningful. For example, if a librarian grazes your hand while returning your library card, you will feel more positively about the library than if your card is returned without a touch. Of course, more deliberate, personal touches are much more significant, psychologically.
The significance of Somebody Hold Me probably will not be evident for some time. Is Epiphany Jordan at the cutting edge of a phenomenon that is likely to sweep through the nation and beyond? Cuddle parties, the version of Jordan’s get-togethers that involve strangers rather than friends, do seem to be growing in popularity. Random people offering free hugs seem to be popping up with increasing frequency, too. Alternatively, maybe the active pursuit of nurturing human touch will never break through the myths and squeamishness of contemporary Western culture and will remain a fringe phenomenon for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, for people who are craving nurturing human touch but had no idea how to go about getting it, Somebody Hold Me may be that rare and cherished gift they never even imagined they would find. With clear, compassionate, and wry prose, Jordan will take them by the hand and show them the way.
Somebody Hold Me: The Single Person’s Guide to Nurturing Human Touch
Significant Otter Publishing, January 2019
Paperback, 202 pages