Stay in Touch, Please.
March 22, 2020 6:59 AM   Subscribe

See, I worry about a different thing. I don't worry we are going to be culturally primed to never touch others; I worry that we will become, collectively, so skin hungry that people do stupid things because they don't realize that they have a need that isn't being filled, and so they handle trying to meet that need poorly. One of the traditional ways to sate skin hunger and loneliness is sex, for example--it's a culturally sanctioned reason to touch people, and if you're going out of your mind about not being touched, why not pull up Tindr? But if you're doing that impulsively, because you're desperate and going out of your mind and you know you shouldn't but you need and you don't know why--well, you're a lot more likely to be risky about how you go about seeking to fulfil that need.

This is a big reason that I think that apartments and rentals need to be forced to allow pets on a much wider scale than they currently are, particularly for people who live alone. People need contact. People need to touch and be touched. And if humans aren't accessible, a cat or a dog or a ball python--something--can do a world of good for reducing stress and helping people maintain equilibrium. And who is most likely to live alone without a human source of touch and comfort? People who are renting in apartments.

I'm worried about the sustainability of social distancing for people who live alone in particular. Skin hunger is a thing, and it's a need that is increasing as stress levels climb and people try not to panic. You want to meet those needs as much as possible before people do shit like break quarantine rules to have risky sex because it's a culturally acceptable way to touch and be touched and they're going out of their mind. We need to think about ways to meet this need for everyone.

(I spent much of yesterday under a weighted blanket because I needed the sensory input, and I was so grateful to have it on hand I could weep. I just. I worry about folks.)
posted by sciatrix at 7:39 AM on March 22 [53 favorites]

I'm reminded, not for the first time this week, of the HIV pandemic; how a virus plays on, exploits our human need for connection, twists it like a strand of RNA.
posted by tivalasvegas at 7:41 AM on March 22 [15 favorites]

I’ve been worried about this too. For a while now, I’d sort of had the casual thought that this could be part of what drives the increased anxiety and depression today. Especially among millennials, who are more likely to be physically disconnected, live alone, and have relationship later or not at all. It’s unlikely it’s the whole story, but I do wonder how much of a component it is.

One of the first thoughts I had when social distancing started to be discussed was this exact problem. How bad it’s going to be for people and most won’t really know why.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:19 AM on March 22 [4 favorites]

Somewhat related; how the gay hookup community is dealing with COVID-19. (Or isn't, depending on where you look.) A couple of thoughtful essays on this: Phone Sex Is Safe Sex: Please postpone your hookup. Get off on Skype instead. Also How Queer People Are Getting Off While Staying In. Gay men have 30+ years of navigating having sex with each other despite the presence of life-threatening infectious diseases. The details of COVID-19 are different from AIDS in many important ways, but the general dread and specifics of avoiding or not avoiding risk feel very familiar.

One theme I've been getting is how much modern sex technologies work as a stand-in for traditional, in person sex. Grindr in particular. It's designed as a hookup tool to enable you to meet someone for sex. But for a lot of people, Grindr is the sex. Or maybe is a stand-in for sex in the time of social isolation. Same with various videocam chats, etc.

I also have an anthropologist queer activist friend who's been trying to collect people's thoughts under the Twitter hashtag #COVIDSEX. Can't say the online discussion has been that deep yet, but I think it's an important topic.
posted by Nelson at 8:24 AM on March 22 [10 favorites]

It was in the wake of the first AIDS epidemic, even before there were effective treatments, that tattooing and piercing exploded in mainstream this issue will surely manifest in other odd ways.

I can remember being in a new city at about 25, closing my eyes and throwing my pillow up towards the ceiling, just so that I'd feel it fall back and touch me in a way I wasn't expecting. I think it gets easier as you get older though. Now in my late 50s, a few years after a divorce, the lack of touch doesn't really bother me. I'm just so mother fucking glad to have a safe, peaceful space to myself.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:29 AM on March 22 [8 favorites]

Sex and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

A guide from NYC
posted by chavenet at 8:30 AM on March 22 [2 favorites]

I'm most worried about my friends and colleagues who live alone for this very reason. It is one thing to have a preference for solitude, but having it forced on you is something very different. Schedule regular video hangouts. Call people. Tell everyone you know that you love them, because normal taboos around the expression of affection do not apply now. Things are different.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:33 AM on March 22 [10 favorites]

Phone sex is to sex
what chat rooms
are to conversation?
Troll me over, troll me over.
Troll me over lay me down and do it again.
So, bring in the moderators.

To Her:
But, yes. If I am quarantined, let it be with you. I believe in the endorphic cloud that rises between us, the warmth of your body touching mine. Nights are bearable, your breath at my shoulder.
I knew it all along.
posted by mule98J at 9:04 AM on March 22 [8 favorites]

I'm reasonably introverted and am happy with some alone time, but being forced to be this solitary (with my partner far away for the duration, no going to the office, no going to a cafe or bar) is being really hard, honestly. And I'm in a safe, comfortable place, with easy access to walking trails and other ways to be outdoors (i.e., many other people have far more difficult situations); it is the lack of ordinary person-to-person contact that is being particularly hard.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:07 AM on March 22 [11 favorites]

Honestly, I think my only reasonable option is to "suck it up and deal with it" (as someone who lives alone in an apartment). As someone who is permanently single, it's not like I got the option to touch people 95% of the time anyway except for certain huggy friends. You get used to it. I don't like it, and this whole thing really bothers me, but we will have to get used to it. It's life or death. It may kill you to touch another person. We will have to deal with it, no matter how much harm it does to us, because it's worse harm if you try to get that need met. You may not be able to make any good choices, but you can certainly choose bad choices that will make it worse on you.

As for getting a pet: I don't have one because under normal circumstances I'm pretty much only home to sleep. However, I also can't help but think things like, "I'm going to have to shell out $500 for pet deposit," and "what happens if I can't get cat food and litter?" and "what happens if the cat gets sick and I can't take it to the vet?" I suspect getting a cat may also add factors to my life that may weaken my ability to survive in other ways, in the "bottom of the Maslow pyramid" sort of way, such as adding reasons to have to leave the house to buy stuff that may no longer even be out there to buy.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:20 AM on March 22 [11 favorites]

It is one thing to have a preference for solitude, but having it forced on you is something very different.

The difference between fasting and starving. Choice is everything.
posted by mhoye at 9:25 AM on March 22 [21 favorites]

I've been thinking about this a lot. Something I wish people were talking about more is how physical distancing is also going to kill people. Both in terms of increased suicides from mental health struggles and also just in the reduction of physical wellness that comes from isolation/not touching anyone.

I know, on balance, that it is worth it for us to be doing this.

And also I think it would be smart for us to talk more about this as a society, partially for the very risks that sciatrix describes. Like, I've been having a bit of a mind cartoon of like, if this is still going on in six months, people having illicit hugging parties. But actually the risky hook-up scenario sounds a lot more likely because it's following an already established cultural groove.
posted by overglow at 9:45 AM on March 22 [6 favorites]

Dip Flash, I feel the same. Generally an introvert, but have places and situations to be near people. I feel like I often prefer to get my fill of personal interaction just being among people as opposed to directly seeing friends (I do that too! Just not as frequently as the extroverts in my life.)

The article does a good job of pointing to the passive touch we’re missing out on too; the brushes by people, the bumps, etc... i don’t think people fully appreciate the extent of how much that matters. My part time job was in an office of mostly women (until work from home starting Tuesday last week) and it was a touchy-feely bunch in a good way! Hands on shoulders, solidarity hugs, squeezing arm to offer comfort. The week and a half leading up to the work from home change had the whole office feeling different by everyone making sure to stand at least 6 ft apart when we did gather, and most people tried to stay sequestered to office or cubical. Even then, the different felt noticeable.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:46 AM on March 22 [5 favorites]

I'm most worried about my friends and colleagues who live alone for this very reason.

My work BFF is older and lives alone in an affected Bay Area county. She left for another job recently, so our communication has tapered off a bit. But as the virus news gets worse every week, I've made more of an effort to email her, send little texts and photos throughout the day, and even ship tiny care packages to her. I'm actually much more worried about her than my parents.
posted by phatkitten at 9:49 AM on March 22 [6 favorites]

The recommendations for Skype bring to mind an acquaintance who got too chummy with someone he was regularly video “chatting” with and wound up being blackmailed through his Facebook be careful out there kids.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:59 AM on March 22

it is the lack of ordinary person-to-person contact that is being particularly hard.

Wife and I have been going on walks everyday to get out of the home. We're being smart and avoiding people we do encounter on park trails and the link (giving a wide birth and plenty of social distance). That being said, we have noticed that people are saying "Hi." or "Hello." "How are you?" etc. during our walks and it's nice. I can see how this has caused people to reach out and be a bit friendly because those day to day contacts have been cut off and are magnified during this quarantine.
posted by Fizz at 10:00 AM on March 22 [4 favorites]

I live with, among others, a five-month-old baby. Having her around really drives home just how fundamental the need for touch is for so many of us. This baby will squeak louder and louder until somebody comes and holds her hand or rests a hand on her tummy, and that touch is enough to help her drop off to sleep. I'm sitting here right now holding her little hand and watching her eyelids droop. You don't have to talk to her or hold her or look at her, but she absolutely needs that little bit of physical contact to relax.

So many friends live alone, so many not by choice. I really wonder what unexpected ways this period is going to shape us.
posted by potrzebie at 10:43 AM on March 22 [8 favorites]

When I go out of my way to avoid someone on the sidewalk or in a store aisle, my instinct so far has been to look away, not say hello or smile or nod. I think I'll have to fight to be both friendly and distant.

That said, never accidentally bumping or brushing up against someone ever again sounds awesome. That's not "good" contact, even if you're desperate.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:44 AM on March 22 [2 favorites]

Something I wish people were talking about more is how physical distancing is also going to kill people. Both in terms of increased suicides from mental health struggles and also just in the reduction of physical wellness that comes from isolation/not touching anyone.

Yeah, but (a) we don't have a good choice about it, and (b) those are the risks everyone's going to have to run. Same as everyone else who needs frequent medical care for other issues and now can't get it. There will be a lot of deaths from not-technically-coronavirus as well. Is there anything at all we can do about that? Probably not.

God knows I could talk about it, but it's going to boil down to the same answer of "no, you can't." We can hope people won't make dumb choices to run out and fuck someone on a dating app because they'd rather die of coronavirus and kill others too because they're so goddamned lonely for skin touch that's how they'd rather die, but how are you going to stop that? (Well, probably when the government quarantines everyone here a la Italy.) I don't think anyone can just go out and buy a weighted blanket if they didn't have one already at this point., and I can't speak to the ease of pet shopping at this point either.

If you want to live at all, you will have to live without. I don't think we're going to be able to solve, fix, or even ameliorate this problem much. We already were talking about this on Ask Metafilter, I think. There's just not much you can do but learn to live without. And I'm saying this knowing it applies to me too.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:59 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Please don't make fun of me (or do...that's cool) but I find yoga and pilates to be extremely healing during times of isolation. I have a chronic lung disease and am immune compromised so I've spent weeks in similar situations (only touch was a nurse who wasn't supposed to touch me other than to change IV). I would do small exercises when I was under almost complete bed rest. More when I could. Being in touch with my own body helped.
posted by lextex at 12:06 PM on March 22 [9 favorites]

Skin hunger is a thing

i greatly sympathize but please realize how badly you have made me want fried chicken right now
posted by poffin boffin at 12:24 PM on March 22 [34 favorites]

Dip Flash said everything I would've wanted to say, so just here to co-sign. This is hard.
posted by Nieshka at 1:15 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

I remember reading about how one way to stimulate newborns was to stroke their backs with a clean, soft paintbrush to simulate touch. Now we just need paintbrushes with six foot handles....
posted by emjaybee at 2:17 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

please realize how badly you have made me want fried chicken right now

Well, at least I went to KFC a few weeks ago.

I like this paintbrush idea (giant brooms), but then do we have to worry about disinfecting them?
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:05 PM on March 22

+1 to what Dip Flash said. I'm introverted and really don't like being touched very much, with the exception of my boyfriend who I'm still head-over-heels for almost a year in. I don't know when I'll be able to see him again - his mom, who he lives with, is high-risk, and my industry is critical so I'm still working outside of the house. It's really lonely and painful. I'd give up a lot just to be able to hug and smell him up close, but that doesn't include risking his mom's, his, or my life over. So, we wait and video chat, and it's not nearly the same.

And damn. I want fried chicken now too. I just got done eating overpriced DoorDash pizza and salad, which was supposed to be the last delivery I get until Friday.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 4:02 PM on March 22 [3 favorites]

Also, "Skyping" sounds like something pirates get up to when they think you're not looking.
posted by sneebler at 4:34 PM on March 22 [4 favorites]

Scratch someone's back today!

Get a 3 foot long back scratcher. Greet friend from safe 12 foot distance. Friend then turns. Fully extend your arm and move forward until scratcher makes contact. You should now have the required distance. Scratcher and scratchee will never make skin-to-skin physical contact. All coughing, sneezing, interjections, and exhalations are avoided. At the conclusion of the scratch, scratcher will step back three steps. Scratchee will step forward six steps and turn around, expressing gratitude. Scratcher can respond with verbal acknowledgment or raise instrument in formal salute.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:15 PM on March 22

Something I wish people were talking about more is how physical distancing is also going to kill people. Both in terms of increased suicides from mental health struggles and also just in the reduction of physical wellness that comes from isolation/not touching anyone.

Physical isolation within isolated spaces is also going to kill people. My communities' child abuse cases are up 100% from last year in one week.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:27 AM on March 23 [8 favorites]

Get a 3 foot long back scratcher

Imagine that but over the Internet. Now, imagine that but it's not exactly a back scratcher.

Is the time finally right for teledildonics??
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:30 AM on March 23 [2 favorites]

I live with no humans, just cats (it's so much better than living with my ex...) and without the cats I would be losing my mind. I'm also supposed to move apartments on Saturday and am absolutely terrified about the risks involved. I went to pick up a mask for the move from a friend who is also immunocompromised and even more of a germophobe than I am, and we decided to risk a hug because he is the last person I had contact with before going into isolation and that I have to go to huge lengths to justify HUGGING MY FRIEND is not quite the actual worst, but it's up there. We had zero skin contact, I went home and washed up, and now I am super sad because I don't know when I will next touch a human.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:12 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]

This was the main thing I was worried about when I heard I had to go into mandatory quarantine (solely because I'd just been overseas; even though I've now been confirmed negative, I can't end my quarantine early), which is more restrictive than social distancing. My trip was for the most part traumatic - the main reason I went there was great, if cut short, but everything around it has been utter garbage. I was looking forward to getting home and getting a healing hug, but hugs are now effectively illegal - at least for 14 days, possibly more. I live alone, I'm allergic to common pets, I'm single. The most I can do to manage my skin hunger is hugging my fuzzy blanket and that is nowhere near the same.

I don't really buy that the deaths sans social distancing would be more than with social distancing. Sure, we may save more people from the virus itself, but we are likely to lose those same people to all the factors associated with social isolation and quarantine. Suicides, domestic abuse, deprioritised or undiagnosed health needs, poor nutrition/health, police brutality, militarization, poverty, homelessness (especially if you can't afford rent or mortgage), lack of resources. Maybe those deaths aren't immediate, but they will be there, and will continue to be there for the long term.

It really frustrates me that there hasn't been a comprehensive study to the level of Imperial College's study around COVID19 that models for all of that. Maybe it's impossible. But it just seems like all the reports think social distancing measures exist in some sort of a vacuum and does not have any other consequences. Everything is about "flattening the curve" and "keeping the beds free" (which now has had the effect of people second-guessing themselves around their needs - one person I saw wondered if they shouldn't bother calling an ambulance in case their family member succumbs to another stroke). Hell it was a bit of a puzzle for me to get tested because GPs are antsy about seeing anyone who may or may not have COVID19 even if they need help for something else.

It seems like too many Governments are taking that "18 months isolation is best" report at face value and are just enforcing it wholesale, without adequate support to help people mitigate the effects of isolation. Hell in some places helping others is going to be criminalised because you're "not staying home" or you're going to a "COVID19 red zone" (what the hell Australia). And the best they can do is send you a 2 week care package for food and make you jump through hoops for money.
posted by divabat at 5:37 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

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