Casual Intimacy & Physical Touch As A Love Letter Between Friends
At fourteen, I befriended a lesbian — her name was Emma, and she was older, wearing her sexuality more comfortably and close to the skin. At her best friend’s birthday party, after Homecoming, I crawled into bed with her. This was not my first time sleeping next to a girl, but it was the first time I did anything about it. My attraction to women, at this stage, was still a loose and indefinable thing. Occasionally I would catch it in my hand and study it, turning it this way and that under the light before releasing it back into the wilds of my subconscious, among all the other things I couldn’t name yet.
That night, curled up against Emma’s back, I pressed my mouth to the skin of her neck, just below the hairline. I kissed her there once, twice, three times. My arm wrapped around her, her hand softly cupping mine. She shifted to look back at me and smiled. I grinned helplessly back, finally feeling the giddy nausea my friends always claimed they felt in the company of boys.
Emma’s smile was a rejection, albeit a very gentle one. She did not kiss me back. We never fell into a whirlwind romance. Not every teenager will experience some grand high school love story, and that’s okay.
After Emma I realized that, while there were certain types of intimacy and affection I could exchange with girls — sleeping together, cuddling, braiding and bleaching one another’s hair — romance and what came with it was not allowed. While Emma didn’t shun me after that night by any means, our friendship never quite recovered. I wasn’t willing to risk losing the closeness I had with my other girl friends, so when it came to dating, boys were simply the easier option.
There was another girl my sophomore year of high school. She liked to hold my hand during lunch, and I liked to let her. She wrote me a love letter which I kept hidden in a nearly-empty tissue box in my room for several months. One day, I came home to find the letter taped to the apartment door. A message from my mother, letting me know that she had found and read it, and that I was in trouble.
Being in trouble with my mother was nothing new for me, but the thought of her reading this letter, of her knowing what it meant when I couldn’t even admit its meaning to myself, was unbearable. I panicked. When she demanded an explanation, I told her the girl had a crush on me and I wasn’t sure how to let her down. I stopped eating lunch with her after that.
Now I was faced with a dilemma; holding hands with girls and kissing girls was alright — more than alright, even. But those fragile, tender, easily bruised feelings — those I could not allow. So I turned my attraction to girls into a joke, another tool in my attention-grabbing utility belt. Friends teased me about it good naturedly. “Tierney went through a lesbian phase once,” they all laughed, and I laughed with them. At parties, boys would beg their girlfriends to kiss me, and I would oblige. I was very agreeable. I was cool. I was easygoing. Why not? I always asked myself. I never waited for the answer.
Like many groups of teenagers wading through a swamp of hormones, the boundary between sexual and platonic became somewhat amorphous. We were all friends, and we had all been more than friends at some point or another. Rarely were there any hurt feelings over friends dating past lovers. We were all hungry for affection in whatever form we could get.
One of the boys in this group was my best friend. We’d also dated, as a sort of brief experimentation, before deciding we worked best as friends. And we did, for another two years, until he began to date a new girl. Even knowing we were only friends, she was uncomfortable with our closeness. Unsure how to juggle his newfound relationship and his friendship with me, he lashed out. The dissolution of our friendship was the great heartbreak of my adolescence, and so another lesson was learned; physical and emotional intimacy were only for couples.
It can be dangerous, to believe that only sex or romance can safely afford you the physical intimacy you crave.
As an adult finally beginning to come to terms with my own wants and needs, I learned how to pour the foundation for my own boundaries. I no longer viewed my body as something separate from myself, something with which to please other people in return for the intimacy I’d been convinced was pivotal to my happiness. As a teenager during the sexual liberation movement of the early 2010s, I was taught by girls my age and older that in order to find true comfort with our own bodies, we needed to let those bodies be touched and fucked by others. Sex with strangers and friends with benefits were heralded as the ultimate expression of bodily autonomy and sexual freedom. It took me several years to unlearn that, and even longer to become comfortable with the idea of sexual intimacy on my own terms.
While maneuvering through this new understanding of sexual intimacy, I grew more and more confident in my relationship with casual intimacy. I became even more physically affectionate with the people I loved. A greeting in the form of hugging my roommate from behind. Tossing my feet in a friend’s lap as we watch a movie. Reaching over to play with their hair in the car. Of course, I know that not everyone likes to be touched so casually, and I respect that wish for distance. Instead, for that friend I might hand them a wedge from my orange, or play them a favorite song.
There are so many ways to show someone you care, and only one of them is touch.
In this overwhelmingly digital age, physical touch is becoming less and less possible. Friends and relatives move across the country. Confidants are found and maintained online. Dating apps have replaced meet-cutes at the grocery store. My longest and most serious relationship was a long distance one. My closest friends live in different states, or continents. Some of them I have never met face to face. I would hug them if I could, but I can’t, and so inevitably it feels like something’s missing, a hole I’d like to fill.
Thanks to the pandemic, now even those people we are physically close to, we are separated from. We distance ourselves from our loved ones because we care for them, but that doesn’t make it easy. Touch has never felt more like a rare commodity, and it has never been so missed.
Recently, a close friend told me that I’m the only person who hugs him for no reason. In our early days of friendship, this would mostly happen when we’d been drinking, and he admitted that he would pretend to be drunker than he actually was, so he wouldn’t have to feel embarrassed for leaning into that affection. He explained that his experience as an adolescent navigating physical intimacy was the opposite of mine; he and his friends were never soft or warm with one another. What tenderness he did receive was always from a sexual or romantic partner. Because of this, well into adulthood he still feels awkward accepting platonic physical affection casually, with no catalyst in the form of condolences or alcohol.
Now more than ever, people are struggling with the inability to touch or be touched. Studies have shown that we need eight minutes of touch a day, or we begin to suffer psychological damage. In his book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman describes physical touch as “quality time, but amplified.” Even small touches can help curb the lonesomeness that bites at our heels like a starving dog.
On the plane today I spoke to a nurse who was flying to Dallas to care for her elderly parents. She had a ten month old Papillon in her lap who licked at my hand in delight when I, just as delighted, reached out to pet him.
“He needed that,” she told me. “He doesn’t do well stashed away like this. He needs to be held.”
“Don’t we all,” I said, only half joking.
My roommate doesn’t like hugs, but he knows I do. Earlier this month, I mentioned a therapist that claimed people need four hugs a day to feel sustained. Every day since, he has tried to hug me, with varying degrees of success. It isn’t the romance I was taught as a little girl to hope for above all else. But it is love, and so it sustains me.