“This video is dedicated to touching – May 18, 2020,” reads the opening frame for Harry Styles’ ‘Watermelon Sugar’. In it, Styles caresses watermelon slices on a sun-drenched beach, frolics in the waves, and poses for pictures with a posse of models. But the tribute to touch is striking – in just three minutes, Styles gets more skin-on-skin contact than most of us have had in the nearly three months since lockdown began in late March 2020. With people around the world practising social distancing and self-isolation to curb the spread of COVID-19, having sex, hugging friends, and shaking hands is a distant memory for many.
Positive touch is an essential part of communication between humans. Physical contact is a big part of how we show concern and strengthen both platonic and romantic relationships. It also strengthens the immune system, fights depression, and reduces pain and stress hormones. 
And with 40% of Americans saying they miss physical intimacy even more than emotional, spiritual, or mental intimacy, this longing for physical connection or ‘skin hunger’ is not without its consequences.  Indeed, 26% of Americans feel very deprived of touch and 16% moderately deprived as a result of COVID-19.  In its absence, people have been experimenting with safe DIY solutions – Canadian Carolyn Ellis made a ‘hug glove’ from plastic tarpaulins with four sleeves so she could embrace her mother, while one big-hearted elementary school teacher created a ‘Quarantine Hugs’ booth for her pupils.
While temporarily unable to touch IRL, people are revelling in watching it on-screen. Part of lockdown smash-hit Normal People’s success was its true-to-life sex scenes and honest portrayal of a blossoming relationship – visual catnip for a touch-deprived audience. And, unsurprisingly, consumption of online porn in the UK has leapt since lockdown began – jumping by 292% from late March to late May 2020.  Yet it’s not just pandemics that have historically forbidden physical touch. Serious illnesses and long-distance relationships have precipitated innovation around touch simulation. Whether it’s Tjacket’s hug technology, a bidirectional snog through the Kissenger app, or the hey bracelet’s haptic tech, substitutions for touch are multiplying. So how will people navigate a low-contact society as restrictions lift? And what’s the future of intimacy in a post-COVID-19 world? To understand, Canvas8 spoke to Dominnique Karetsos, co-founder of the Healthy Pleasure Collective, Dr. Kory Floyd, professor of communication and psychology at the University of Arizona, and Dr. Carey Jewitt, professor of learning and technology at the UCL Institute of Education.
Dominnique Karetsos specialises in growth for sex-, fem-, and medtech start-ups, with nearly two decades of experience delivering results in multisector business transformation. She co-founded the Healthy Pleasure Collective, the first integrated agency for sextech start-ups, and the Intimology Institute, a sexual wellness school.
For those privileged enough to be at home, working, or furloughed, never before have we been given the social permission to drop gears and incorporate self-care and sex-care. Healthy Pleasure Lab did a survey of around 200 people and we found that there has been a surge in intimacy and sex in couples that are already together or an increase in having affairs through chat to explore other people and other sexualities. There’s been an incredible rise in toys and sexual dysfunction solutions, too. You’ve also got a different mental state – for those in healthy relationships, there’s an opportunity to bring back desire, touch, and eroticism. You’re not coming in at the end of the day and giving your partner the last of what’s left of you. You’re brushing past each other, bringing each other coffee in the morning – so now there’s the opportunity for desire and eroticism in the safety of your own home.
Lockdown has freed up space to do things differently and people are entering their own personal playgrounds. Sexuality is not linear, it’s dynamic, as are sexual preferences. People may come out of this completely different. You may never have considered sex parties, but now some of the sex parties have gone virtual. If you felt safe doing it virtually, you might now consider doing it in real life. Zoom has cracked open this world of exploration, with safety and a lot of it is free. Before, if you were having this conversation alcoholically induced, at a bar, you’d normally be just a hookup, or if with your partner, it goes wrong and you part ways. People now have the social permission to explore and discover a different realm using this type of technology. By no means will it ever substitute the power of a hug, holding a hand, skin-on-skin contact, but it’s the process of navigating and how we get there that’s changed.
People are going to be scared when approaching touch after lockdown ends but that’s why it’s so important to deliver a narrative and solutions that enable safe exploration and discoveryDominnique Karetsos, co-founder of the Healthy Pleasure Collective
Dating apps have seen an incredible rise in usage following COVID-19, both in the freemium and premium forms. Tinder saw three billion swipes on one day in March 2020. There’s going to be a huge amount of innovation in the dating app space as a result of COVID-19. In order to serve a younger generation – whose social life is integrated within their digital life – dating apps need to incorporate video and social to be less of a dating app and more of a hangout. Irrespective of generation, there’s some key messaging about connectivity, communication, and consent emerging from the pandemic. Before, consent was never a topic in conversation, not even in sex ed. But now, you have to be able to set those boundaries with someone, whether it’s a virtual sexy date or you’re in a relationship and physically separated. Once lockdowns are lifted, people may choose to go through video before they meet face-to-face. People need all the same reassurance as before – that they’re protected and that their data is encrypted.
Let’s say someone has been on a dating site, explored something visual and virtual, and now lockdown has lifted – they’re ready to meet this person IRL. But COVID-19 has been added to a list of things you need to worry about catching from a sexual partner. The taboo around sexual health testing and health testing will start to dissolve as a result of COVID-19. Sexual health has always sat in the corner – yet another thing to do. The coronavirus has definitely brought the importance of sexual health to a head, as people look at their health through a different lens. The platform Iplaysafe empowers the regular testing and tracking of STIs and enables you to share results, moving from virtual play to IRL play. The new normal will incorporate a sexual health test that includes the coronavirus. Finding a solution that’s both patient- and consumer-focused is key. It needs to be proactive, not reactive.
People are going to be scared when approaching touch after lockdown ends but that’s why it’s so important to deliver a narrative and solutions that enable safe exploration and discovery. They’re going to be looking for solutions, not ‘I told you sos’. There will be people who revert back to the ‘before’ ways, and the journey to intimacy might take a little longer than before, using tech in different ways. Ethically, and morally, it’s important for channels and digital brands to provide safe spaces, so for example providing video chat where people might be naked on that screen, the consumer’s safety is number-one. We already know that Gen Zers are already far more demanding when it comes to innovation and intimacy, from biodegradable products and medical-grade silicone to tech integration and brands that really walk the walk.
Normal People (2020) ©
Dr. Kory Floyd is a professor of communication and psychology at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on the communication of affection in close relationships and its effects on stress and physiological functioning. He has written 16 books and over 100 scientific papers and book chapters on the topics of affection, emotion, family communication, non-verbal behavior, and health. His book ‘The Loneliness Cure’ examines affection deprivation and identifies strategies for increasing affection and intimacy in close relationships.
Like we don’t all need the same amount of sleep, we don’t all need the same amount of touch to feel fulfilled emotionally or relationally. People vary in how much they need to feel fulfilled and to operate at an optimal level in their lives and relationships. The people most impacted by the pandemic and the sense of isolation are those with high touch needs. It’s not as much of a detriment to people with moderate to low touch needs. The most at-risk are single people or those living with a romantic partner who doesn’t necessarily meet their needs. And those who are missing touch from those who are not present for them right now. But the effects of that touch deprivation aren’t going to be especially long-lasting. The reason I’m optimistic is that there’s every indication that this period of self-isolation will be temporary. I think there will be a slow re-entry into normal patterns of social behaviour, but we will go back to the touch behaviours we’re used to. Humans have been through periods of quarantine and isolation before, and none resulted in the elimination of shaking hands or hugging or kissing.
It’s positive to see how people have been using technology to connect in new ways – virtual happy hours, board games, movie-watching parties. It’s not that we couldn’t do those things before but we didn’t have the need to. People are noticing that they lack that social interaction and are using the tools available to them to approximate that social connection as best they can. My hope is that we will come out of this period of isolation with some skill sets that will carry over and allow us to connect virtually with people more often. We may not take for granted that we can see those people whenever we want to. That we may say, ‘Hey!’ let’s set up a virtual time to check in with each other’. I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are turning back to writing letters and postcards. All of which are imperfect substitutes for face-to-face interaction but they’re better than nothing. Our engagement with these new (or old) forms reflects how vital social interaction is to us as humans. Social psychologists refer to it as our need to belong, which is among our fundamental human needs.
People are noticing that they lack that social interaction and are using the tools available to them to approximate that social connection as best they canDr. Kory Floyd, communication and psychology professor
The conditions of the pandemic itself – the quarantine and self-isolation – have prompted new conversations. My spouse and I talked about how many people we know who will not survive this pandemic. Even if we’re not losing people we know, we’re almost certainly going to know people who have lost people they know. That the circumstances have prompted conversations that are both higher-order, like health, wellness, and mortality, but also very instrumental such as thinking about what we’re going to do if we run out of toilet paper or food. For couples who are in a good place relationally, those conversations – whether higher-order or mundane – can have some positive effects on the common conversational and relational patterns. That’s not to say that those spouses and partners aren’t missing wider social networks and aren’t looking forward to reconnecting with friends, coworkers, and family members. Couples can fall into the trap of thinking that if our relationship is good, if our marriage is good, my spouse/partner should be able to meet all my needs and vice versa. That’s an unreasonable expectation of anybody.
The public backlash around people behaving in a ‘normal’ manner [gathering in large groups, being tactile, etc] in the middle of a pandemic shows that a large percentage of the population are going to be cautious. Seeing those scenes of public shaming, it becomes clear how much people are missing touch and social interaction. Such that at their first opportunity, some people will throw caution to the wind and go back to normative behaviours. Emerging behaviours, like fist-bumping or bumping elbows, that allow even the slightest modicum of touch, show desire for some form of social interaction. But these are a product of their time and out of necessity. My speculation is that this period in our history is not going to fundamentally change the way we show affection – it’s curtailing it and causing us to adapt, but won’t last. Those forms of behaviour will fall by the wayside once we feel it’s safe to kiss, hold hands, and hug. People are not elbow-bumping because they want to.
Bondtouch | Instagram (2020) ©
Dr. Carey Jewitt is a professor of learning and technology at the UCL Institute of Education and works with the UCL Knowledge Lab. Her research interests include digitally-mediated communication, with a focus on touch, multimodal theory, and innovative interdisciplinary research methods. She researches digital touch communication at @IN_TOUCH_UCL.
One of the interesting things about people’s experiences of having less touch than they’re used to is that it’s brought touch to the fore. Through its absence, it’s become valuable. We have been pushed back into a very audio-visual experience, and a different sensory environment that makes us consider what touch does do for us. It’s a neglected sense in terms of how people think and talk about it. We have a very limited vocabulary for touch. The kinds of touches that people are missing are obvious ones like intimacy with friends and family. But there’s also incidental touches; when people go out in the world, the knowledge that they can’t incidentally touch somebody is stressful – avoiding touch is stressful. The incidental, ordinary everyday touches – people are very much missing them as well as meaningful connection with their environments. When we understand what touch can and does do for us, the question of how it gets replaced becomes more specified. We’re thinking about what work touch does for us in our everyday life, all the intimacy of being together – and that can just be the shared experience of being on a bus.
One of the disappointments with Skype and Zoom is that it requires us to have something to say to one another. The technology requires our interactions to be more or less based only on talking to each other. Really, you just want to be with each other. There’s this idea of ambient presence – you might put Skype on on Sunday and you might all watch a movie, cook, or just hang out together. Touch is really about being together in a crowd, one-to-one, or in the context of family – how to create that sense of presence without having to talk about anything is not well-supported by technology. Both the pornography and military industries have a lot of investment in technology development, and touch for communication is no different. For the military, a key area is creating meaningful ‘silent’ communication through touch that’s undetectable. In the pornography industry, teledildonics – a way of having sex remotely with one or many people via a range of internet-enabled devices – is a key area of development, along with the promise of sex robots that feel ‘real’ to touch.
When people go out in the world, the knowledge that they can’t incidentally touch somebody is stressful – avoiding touch is stressfulDr. Carey Jewitt, learning and technology professor
We’re looking at digital touch communication in our work at In-Touch, including how touch is being brought into VR environments, used for social or industrial robotics, and people’s desires and imaginations in relation to touch. Some technologies are commercially available, such as the Hey Bracelet and the Bond, that enable people to have touch experiences together to just say, ‘Hi, I’m here. Are you there? I’m thinking about you’. At In-Touch, we work with a lot of collaborators including artists. We’ve devised performances that have created tactile environments to explore how people think about touch. We’ve also worked with computer scientists and human computer designers to make a device called ‘Tactile Emoticon’ to explore remote touching. Two people use the device at a distance and you can send and receive different pressure, temperature, and different kinds of vibration. To study how people used this device to send and receive touch messages, we gave people a set of scenarios designed around emotional states including love, sadness, and happiness. We asked people to send one another tactile messages to convey each of these emotions. People could do that.
When people don’t know one another well, there's a lot of ambiguity around what’s being said. They think that they can communicate via touch – they believe they’re sending ‘comfort’. When people knew one another – close friends, partners, work colleagues, parents, and children – they could interpret people’s touch messages more effectively. Not always 100% accurately, but there was a sense that they would develop a way of doing that and that they found remote touch valuable. Moving touch online does present challenges, particularly in how to create trust and establish the context for touch communications; around privacy and authenticity: how do you know the person who says they’re touching you is that person? And also issues about ownership: you’ve managed to send a touch to your partner, then you split up. What would happen then if they could sit and play the touch they’ve recorded?
In terms of exciting innovations, there are tactile telebots that have sensors – these are robotic dexterous hands – and they have touch sensors on the fingertips so that the robot can feel an object and it can send that feeling back to you. It’s a way of being telepresent and interacting with objects physically but remotely. When you’re operating it, you wear a haptic glove and then the hand accurately mimics the user’s hand movements. In terms of pushing touch technology forward, that’s an exciting development. It’s designed for environments where a human touch is needed but it’s impossible to have – nuclear decommissioning or bomb disposal or space exploration. Robotic touch addresses the four Ds: distant touch, dirty touch, dull touch, and dangerous touch. A key question is where does it make both financial and social sense for touch to be developed, and the degree of nuance, and ambiguity that is appropriate for digital touch in different use contexts.
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