Wide angle shots show five men in a van pressed well within six-feet of each other, high fiving and laughing jovially. They set the scene. Today, they’re helping a young man. He’s stressed out, financially unstable, has an ok job and has a really good heart. The van parks and the men open the door to a small, untidy midwestern home. The man sees the five familiar faces and breaks down in tears. In a dramatic cacophony, everyone squeezes, fist bumps, shakes hands, and hugs.
The opening scene from the show, Queer Eye, might be one Netflix watchers know well, but which recently has felt somewhat foreign. When at once the show seemed to closely resemble reality, the genre now feels amiss. The hugging and high fiving that are so integral to the atmosphere of the show, now are gone at the Coronavirus’ demand.
For months we’ve listened to pleas from designated officials calling on us to part with our routine social gestures to minimize the spread of the illness. Now, we wear masks, avoid gatherings, and stay six feet away from people not in the immediate family.
The popular Netflix show, created by David Collins, now in its fifth season, depicts exactly what we cannot have, and as fans of the show know, the heartwarming scenes depend upon the hosts’ and guests’ proximity to each other. The laughing, hugging, hair touching, and home invading is all part of the allure. The show, a self help style reality flick, poses the idea that the close bonds built between people will help drastically alter the lives of those in need of a little boost.
This past spring with only one show filmed, the crew found themselves forced to cut filming, as COVID-19 presented their crew and many other crews with new obstacles. As in the case of Queer Eye, some are insurmountable, and each scene requires serious discussions about the case for involving small gestures like handshakes.
Our struggles are remedied by the hands-on love of caring individuals.
Intimacy and closeness are in our nature. As infants, we learn to form emotional bonds with caregivers who ensure our needs are met. Before we have the ability to function autonomously, our caregivers teach us about how to keep ourselves safe.
Part of an effective caregiver relationship depends on consistent warm, loving touch. Before we have the words to express ourselves, the mobility to move away from danger, or the self awareness to lessen our fears on our own, a warm touch provides us with safety and love.
The importance of touch in development only expands and changes as we get older. Have you recently had the urge to hug someone but couldn’t? You likely felt lonely or depressed. Maybe you wrapped yourself in a blanket or resorted to social media to fill an aching void inside of you. Touch starvation, much like food starvation, contributes to increased stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which have serious health effects. To be lonely is to be vulnerable at any stage of life.
This past March, drug overdoses increased by 18 percent. In April they increased 29 percent, and by May they were at 42 percent. Without treatment programs, people struggling with drug addiction face increased susceptibility to feelings of loneliness and depression. Often the lifeline for self medication comes in the form of intimate relationships which can not be maintained under social distancing.
Centuries ago, researchers hypothesized that a lack of touch stunted childhood development. Subsequent research finds many instances in which touch lessens aggression. High-touch cultures have lower rates of violence, and low-touch cultures have extremely high rates of youth and adult violence. The importance of touch is often neglected, and especially in the United States, a lack of touch has unfortunately become more normal. Even before social distancing, a well cited study shows that adolescents in the United States touch each other less than their Parisian counterparts, and simultaneously display aggressive verbal and physical behavior.
Tactile relationships can be romantic, but often are not. Some say the touch most often missed right now is the soothing kind: a friend’s tight squeeze of the hand and a pat on the back, or a good long hug, the loving nearness and soft cuddles of those we would ordinarily be close to.
And yet, romantic relationships might be the most important relationship in anguish right now. Romance is built on neural impulses sent betw
een the body and brain to signal attachment. Much the same as how children learn to feel love through the touch of their caregivers, we feel romance in tiny chemical messengers that affect our emotions.
Dopamine, oxytocin, and epinephrine all contribute to the pleasurable sense of elation upon entering a new relationship. Many think that distant COVID-19 relationships will not withstand the test of time.
We’ve traded kisses for zoom chats and hugs for voice memos, and now more than ever we are dependent on technology to mediate our relationships.
Interestingly, watching intimate scenes portrayed on television on T.V shows like Queer Eye can make up for some of the lost touch, hence why cutting filming had many up in arms.
Viewing others’ lives on TV can trigger the release of dopamine, the same chemical released when meeting attractive people in real life. People have always loved sex scenes, especially on reality TV shows. And no, it’s not just because of the arousal associated with pornography Many people live vicariously through social relationships watched on t.v. and in the media. Under non-COVID-19 circumstances for those with anxiety who have trouble getting their intimacy and touch needs met in real life, the shows create a “safe space” where leaning into the connection becomes less stressful.
Is it possible that we’re meeting our needs without touch?
The idea that technology will take over our in-person connection doesn’t surprise some forward thinkers, although they fear it may not be a good thing.
Renowned author, E.M. Forsters’ short story, The Machine Stops depicts a science fiction reality in which all of humanity lives in underground cells. Each citizen’s home cell contains a computer that is connected to all other computers, and human touch is mediated through the pressing of buttons, much like today’s video calling. The protagonist, Vashti, spends hours talking to friends through her screen and feels immense anxiety at the thought of leaving her cell. Forster creates a reality where humans simply go on without real connection.
Forster writes, “People never touched one another. The custom became obsolete.” Perhaps an astute fortelling, Forster’s hypothesis, though published in 1909, feels resonant with the Covid-19 world we live in today. Perhaps predicting the future, Forster positions Vashti’s son as a human who craves the sensuousness of the real world. Recognizing that there is more than life inside of the Machine, he says, “Cannot you see. . . that it is we who are all dying?”, and of the Machine, “It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch. . . The Machine proceeds, but not to our goal.” Does this sound familiar?
Eventually, the Machine stops, and the citizens realize, “what had been important on earth. [was] Man, the flower of all flesh.”
A real life example can be found in the bestselling book, Alone Together where researcher and MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, identifies the plethora of ways in which online intimacies create the illusion of companionship. She argues that Facebook friends do not equate to real friendships, and that online forums change the way that people speak to one another.
Social Media makes communication easy, and incessant, and as a result, people lose the depth and fulfillment that come with in person relationships. Turkle’s argument expands upon the negative effects of touch starvation. Not only do intimate relationships suffer from a lack of touch, they also suffer from altered forms of communication. In her studies, she has found that when primarily interacting online, people succumb to solitude.
Is tech mediated connection genuine? Turkle doesn’t think so.
Those reading the news will agree that social distancing hasn’t been quite as effective as it should be. Mostly because people just can’t seem to willfully adhere to guidelines. Some reasons are more ethical than others. Over the course of the Spring, groups have corralled together for meaningful Black Lives Matters protests, religious ceremonies, and even for soccer celebrations.
Whatever the reason may be for a lack of social distancing, touch starvation has long been a silent killer. Whether technology is to blame or not, it’s time we address that without each other nearby, we are unhappy, and we might be more affected than we realize.
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