Skilful Touch: The direction of the gift (Winter 2016)

This blogpost will look at consensual touch, and how to make it better, both as a giver and as a receiver. We’ll discover that giving and receiving is not as simple as it seems. We’ll also learn about the difference between agreement and intention – and why agreement is much more reliable.

Some of us can pinpoint when we’ve experienced skilful touch, but it may be difficult to articulate exactly why it felt so good.

The Cambridge English Dictionary describes skilful as ‘good at doing something, especially because you have practised doing it’. Yet, how many of us ‘practise’ touch? Or could even imagine being taught how to touch? Many of us have fumbled along, doing our best, wanting to please our lovers, perhaps following a script of touch we’ve somehow received by osmosis.

Simply, there are four keys to skilful touch:

1.     Being present

2.     Being connected

3.     Being clear about who the touch is for

4.     Having agreements

1.     How to be present

How can we be really present, here in the present moment? Many people practise meditation and other forms of mindfulness precisely because it can otherwise be very difficult to be present in the here and now. We are often distracted by ruminations about the past or concerns about the future.

This can show up in our sexual lives too, where we might think ahead while in a sexual interaction, hoping that it will go a certain way, or worrying that we might not ‘perform’ as we want to. Or we might think about what happened another time, in the past. These kinds of concerns wrench us out of the joy of the present moment, and can even make our fears more likely to happen.

When we become aware of being somewhere other than the present, we can simply notice that, let it be, and take a breath that’s a little deeper and slower than usual. Bringing attention to the breath is a good way to bring awareness to our bodies and to the present moment. Depending on the circumstances, we might also be able to verbalise it, to say that we checked out – but we’re back now. Once we’ve taken a breath or two, consciously, and returned our attention to the present moment, it’s important to let go of any frustration about the mind drifting. It does that! Returning to the present moment and letting go of judgement about it is the trick, otherwise we’re off again, this time in lamenting having gone!

2.     How to be connected in our touch

Connecting with a lover

Connected touch requires communication and joy in what we’re doing. It can be difficult to engage in connected touch with a lover if there is unresolved conflict. Ensure that any issues that are relevant ‘in the now’ are addressed. Otherwise, they will be a barrier to connected touch.

Eye contact offers us the potential to really allow ourselves to be seen, but also to see the other person. We can be informed by eye contact about what’s working for the other person. Though, some people like to keep their eyes closed during touch to focus on the sensation. So eye contact isn’t a rule, but it is one of many ways we might gently build connection. Do as much or as little as works for you.

Slowing down the breath can be another wonderful way to sink in to erotic touch, whether giving or receiving. Sharing slow, deep breath, in time with a lover can also be a helpful way of connecting. It can also help us connect to our own bodies and our own desires. 

Connecting with ourselves

Notice your own hands and skin. Stroke your arms, hold objects and feel them. Notice how touch feels on your own skin as you’re doing it. Connected touch is not just about being in connection with your lover – it’s also about being in connection and joy with your own senses.

How much of myself can I put in to my hands? Can I touch with utter attention on the person I’m touching, where I’m touching, and how? Can I pay particular attention to the warmth of their skin? …whether they incline towards me? …where their body seems to will me to go now (or their words tell me)?

3.     How to be clear about who the touch is for

When we think about who touch is for, the common shorthand is that the person doing the touch is giving and the person being touched is receiving.

But, most of us are aware that it can be much more complicated than that. Who is giving and who is receiving in these interactions?

  • Someone puts their hand on a stranger’s bum on a packed train
  • A shoulder massage is given with the hope that it might lead to sex
  • Someone who loves breasts asks to touch their lover’s breasts, aware they are asking to touch for their own pleasure. They touch in ways that feel good to them, while also seeking to make sure their lover is enjoying it too

In the first example, it clearly isn’t for the person being touched! The toucher is taking touch without permission – in other words, they’re stealing.

In the second example, the touch might be exactly what the person being touched has asked for or said yes to – but it’s touch with an agenda. Whom is the touch for, then?

In the third example, the person touching is exploring a part of their lover’s body that they adore, mindful that their touch is enjoyable for their lover. In their request, they made their desire to touch clear and they are taking pleasure from doing it.

I learned about this – the ‘direction of the gift’ – in my sexological bodywork training and from intensive training with Betty Martin. Learning to differentiate between 'giving touch' to another person and 'taking touch' for yourself, and learning to negotiate these consensually, are foundational to skilful touch.

I regularly teach a game that I learned in my trainings, called the ‘three-minute game’. After a question is asked (either “How would you like me to touch you?” or “How would you like to touch me?”), the person being asked is silent while they think about the question and notice what they want. Then they answer with a request.

The key to appreciate here is that both of those questions are from the ‘giving’ role. The person responding to the questions is in the ‘receiving’ role. Who the touch is for gives us the clarity. If I offer touch and the request is for a foot rub, then I am giving the foot rub. Similarly, if I’m asking the question, “How would you like to touch me?”, I’m also making an offer. But in this case, the other person is being offered the gift of access. This can be unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable territory. Can I really let someone touch me – for them? What if they go too far? How will I say? Or on the other side of the exchange: Is it really ok to ask to touch for me? How will I know they’re happy and don’t start feeling used? Can I really ask for what I want?

The answer is a resounding yes! That’s why consideration and consent is crucial. To ask for what we really want, ie the touch we really want to feel on our skin, or the way we really want to touch another person, we must seek their consent and be able to trust their answer. When in the role of giver (of touch or of access to our bodies to be touched), all of us have a responsibility to our lovers – and we give them a huge gift – when we look after our boundaries and express our limits. With practice it can become more direct, less awkward and more kind. It takes time to practise, and it’s an ongoing opportunity for awareness as we navigate social interactions.

An exercise

Try taking turns asking the question, “How would you like me to touch you?” In each case, set a timer and do what’s agreed for three minutes. Then take turns on the question, “How would you like to touch me?” and again set a timer and do what’s agreed. Practicing the three-minute game with a friend or lover is a great way to explore how we notice what we want, what we’re happy to do, how we communicate it, and what we do if things change. It’s also a wonderful way to notice our habits and desires, e.g. do you have a habit of always giving touch for the other person? Does taking touch feel very arousing? Does allowing another person to touch for their pleasure really turn you on?

The three-minute game can be done clothed, semi-clothed, or naked (or a combination). It can be erotic in intention, or not.

It’s so rich to explore this – have fun!

4.     How to create agreements

Agreements are inherent in the structure of an exercise like the three-minute game. But, how can we create agreements about touch in our sexual interactions without it feeling laborious or scripted?

We might rely on our own and others’ intentions. But, how reliable are intentions when they require so much interpretation? Even with the best of intentions, touch without agreement may not be consensual. So, here are some ways to create agreements that can serve us and our lovers well:

  • Agree the right level of detail for agreements. For some people, careful negotiation of details, before and during may be very important. For others, agreements about very significant activities mixed with ‘tuning in’ for much of the time will feel right. And for some, a ‘go with the flow’ approach may feel best, with an agreement to be honest with each other if something doesn’t feel good.
  • Be prepared to change, even if you had an agreement. Something that seemed a great idea earlier may not feel right now, and an agreement is not a contract!
  • Agree to be as honest as possible about what’s working and what isn’t. 

Being present and connected can make even the simplest touch exquisite. Being clear about who the touch is for and creating agreements that liberate are skills worth developing. Altogether, these keys can bring richness, a greater sense of safety, and much deeper pleasure in touch.

For support in learning ‘the direction of the gift’, or to find out more about somatic sex education, check out the rest of my website, and do get in touch if you would like to discuss sessions.