What do you think of when you think of the word intimacy? This was the question posed by the instructor of one of the most transformative sex education classes I took as part of my sex ed certificate program. The class was called The Joy of Intimacy, and I was taking it at a time when intimacy was the thing I least wanted to think about. Fresh on the heels of the end of the first relationship where I felt I had finally experienced intimate, pleasurable sex, I didn’t want to think about the intimacy that I felt I had lost.
Unsurprisingly, most of my classmates, as well as myself, replied that sex was the first thing that came to mind when we thought of intimacy. Sexual intimacy, however, isn’t the only way we express intimacy. Nor is it even the most important, though culturally, it certainly is treated as the most valid and recognizable form of intimacy. From the time we are born, we need to be touched, held. In the language of birth care, doulas and doctors both recognize the importance of skin-to-skin contact – the practice of a newborn baby being held on the chest of their parents (usually the birthing parent) to feel their skin uninterrupted for an hour – right after birth. While often framed as a “precious moment” between parent and child, it’s about more than just an opportunity to take some memorable and moving photos: there are important health implications to skin-to-skin contact, for both parents and children, including aiding with breastfeeding, improving milk production, and assisting in weight gain and growth in the baby, helping parent and child bond, and encouraging emotional and social development in an infant’s only hours-old brain. (Outrageously, skin-to-skin contact is also something that has been included on a hospital bill to the tune of $40.)
We don’t ever grow out of our need for touch, though as we mature, that kind of intimacy tends to only be expressed sexually. But sexual intimacy isn’t the only type of intimacy there is. In an article for Wear Your Voice Mag, Nik Moreno describes platonic intimacy. Moreno writes that platonic intimacy “involves love and trust, it’s all about enjoying the person’s companionship and their company. Often times, platonic relationships go beyond words, or thoughts. They transcend the physical aspects of other types of relationships, you can almost feel them on a spiritual level…Intimacy needn’t be sexual. You can love and care about someone, passionately, without wanting sex — or a sexual relationship — with each other.”
In general, this is how I experience some of my deepest friendships: my bonds with my roommates, folks who I have known over the course of years, or even new friends who are somehow on an uncannily similar wavelength as me, often friends who feel called to the same type of work that I do, who lead with their values, who care about helping others, who are courageous in their vulnerability, and ferocious in their beliefs.
Yet my experience of platonic intimacy so far has left out touch, at times leaving me hungry for closeness and contact (a phenomenon known as skin hunger) that I thought I could only fill by dating or having casual sex. The problem is that, for me, casual sex tends to be distinctly devoid of intimacy, and usually leaves me feeling at best unsatisfied, if not genuinely anxious and sad, and at worst, as though I’ve harmed myself in some way. Quite a conundrum, though perhaps not a unique one. Recently, as I began to talk about this more openly with my friends, it became clear to me that this pattern – seeking intimacy through casual sex, and coming up mostly unfulfilled – was a lot more common than I had thought. For some, intentionally cultivating platonic intimacy is how they ameliorate their skin hunger while also liberating themselves from the idea that the only true intimacy is sexual.
“For me, platonic intimacy is about weaving in intention, romance, and communication with my friendloves,” sex educator C. Kai told me. “It means showing up equally in my platonic relationships as I do in my romantic ones. I want my friends to feel supported by me and to build relationships that are sustainable and have longevity. I don’t see myself ever letting go of friendships simply because I enter into more long-term romantic relationship(s).” And for Kai, it seems, practicing platonic intimacy is also a way of resisting heteronormative social conditioning that even the queer community is not immune to: the idea that one’s partner should be their primacy – or even only – source of intimacy, vulnerability and emotional and physical connection. By practicing platonic intimacy, Kai explains, they are able to act from a place of intentionality in their romantic life as well, thus interrupting the pattern that I have so often found myself mired in: “I think our society typically views intimacy as a connection that comes from sex, when in fact it’s about the intention and energy you create with the loves in your life. It’s also incredibly helpful for me to have platonic intimacy because then I feel like I’m not seeking romantic connections out of skin hunger or filling a void. My romantic connections are an additive that I consciously choose, not something I seek because I’m missing intimacy in my life,” Kai says.
I wondered what other factors might contribute to someone’s urge to cultivate more platonic intimacy in their life, and reached out to interview other people for whom the term was familiar. One respondent, Ariel, a stripper, had this to say about it: “Platonic intimacy to me is really necessary. I am a hugely tactile person and I’m also a very intimate person so platonic intimacy with my friends and my family is a huge part of my life. It shows up in a variety of different ways: there’s lots of cuddling, sleeping in the same bed, spooning, hair stroking, hand holding that kind of thing.” She told me that platonic intimacy showed up most often in her life in her friendships other women, because any kind of intimacy with cis male friends seemed to contain, to them, the automatic suggestion of the possibility of sex that Ariel then needed to confront. Ariel wasn’t the only person who I spoke to who specified that platonic intimacy was something that existed most often between female friends: other folks I spoke to painted a similar picture, even queer folks for whom relationships with people of the same gender could also hold the potentiality for romance and sex.
Another sex worker, Natalie, describes platonic intimacy as containing, “a certain amount of trust, I think because it’s non-sexual and because I never feel like people are objectifying me or valuing me only for what I bring sexually.” She went on to describe the types of relationships that for her are the most fruitful places to cultivate platonic intimacy. “It shows up in my life with a lot of women of color because that’s who I feel the most intimacy with.” For Natalie, it was less about cuddling, and more about a celebration of embodiment, and the joy that she and her friends find and reflect to each other in their bodies. “I don’t think I have a lot of platonic relationships where we cuddle,” she said, “but we groom each others’ bodies and braid each others’ hair, and we dance together and are affirming of each other’s bodies and ability to take up space. It involves a lot of laughing.”
Both Ariel and Natalie connect their practice of platonic intimacy to both their personal relationships as well as their work. The practice of platonic intimacy for both seems to have involved a certain amount of unlearning of gender roles and gendered expectations that are a part of growing up socialized feminine. “Eighty percent of my relationships have been cis men, and most of my emotional triggers are around cis men,” Natalie says. “I don’t have many friendship spaces with cis men, I have them as clients or lovers, so I think I don’t know how to create intimate spaces with cis men without relating to them sexually,” Natalie explained. Ariel, too, stated somewhat bashfully that she also doesn’t have very many friendships with cis men. “I don’t have very many male friends at all, and I think platonic intimacy with friends is really interesting because for me it’s not really negotiated in the same way that intimacy with a partner is. I’ve never needed to discuss boundaries, I’ve never needed to sit down and have a conversation.” By contrast, she says, “I always do that with a partner, because I consider it really important to keep reviewing what works in a romantic relationship and what doesn’t. But I’ve never found with friends that I’ve needed to have the same kind of discussions about it. I don’t know if that’s because there’s less pressure or maybe because I find it less threatening.”
Of course, others navigate platonic intimacy via many conversations about shifting boundaries and what consent might look like as needs and desires change. Because we don’t have a blueprint for what intimacy looks like outside of the context of a committed romantic and sexual relationship, attempting to experience intimacy outside of that framework can be confusing. Another person I interviewed, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “I honestly don’t know if I can define [platonic intimacy] clearly for myself. Physical intimacy with friends blurs lines for me and I have recently realized that it can confuse me and make me feel unsettled or anxious in friend relationships, so I tend to shy away from it entirely now. I think because I’m pansexual and attracted to, like, everyone it’s easy for me to misread or misinterpret physical closeness and it can complicate my relationships with friends. In the past that was something I was comfortable with, but now as I am actively working on exploring, untangling, and healing a lifetime of sexual trauma, and also working hard on having and enforcing boundaries, I realize I can no longer tolerate confusion or lack of definition in my friendships.”
Many of us experience sexual and relationship trauma over the course of our lives, and determining for yourself what kinds of touch you want can be challenging in light of that. The dismal state of sex education in the United States almost ensures this: We are taught, to varying degrees, the pragmatic concerns about sexual activity (like how to prevent STIs and pregnancy), though if you identify as queer or gender non-conforming, mainstream sex education makes even this bare minimum mostly inaccessible. We are not taught, however, how to navigate the many nuances of consent, how to communicate empathetically and effectively, or how to learn about and prioritize our own pleasure. It’s no wonder that casual sex has such a bad rep when it comes to meeting our intimacy needs, and that seeking intimacy within our friendships can also become confusing.
The process of unlearning a reliance on romantic and sexual intimacy can be a complex one, too, and one in which there are not many readily accessible guides or representations. Dana, another sex worker, compared platonic intimacy to their experiences of romantic intimacy, and found that platonic intimacy came up short in the way that it felt healing to them. “That’s something that I’m trying to unpack and address because even though that’s my reality, I can’t limit all of my physical interactions to romantic situations. When we’re not in a relationship we deserve to be touched just as much as when we are partnered to someone.” But as a sex worker, they also noted their observations as to how their services did provide opportunities for healing for their clients, though they were often not mutually romantic connections in the way that Dana’s personal romantic connections were. “Civilians [sex workers’ term for people who don’t having experience working in the sex industry] perceive sex work as degrading, dehumanizing and somehow ‘taking something from you,’” Dana said. But by contrast, they noted, “I am an empath, and I tend to care deeply for the people around me, regardless of how long they’ve been in my life. I think one of the reasons that my relationship with intimacy has not changed is because I treat my clients with the same kind of love and care as I do when I’m in bed with a lover. The point of sex work, for me, is to simulate the experience of love. I don’t have two modes of existing, and I don’t compartmentalize my work – maybe that’s the reason I feel like my understanding of intimacy has not changed.”
Many sex workers describe the services they offer to clients has containing some type of therapeutic element, and to be sure, clients who visit sex workers often go seeking validation, the experience of being desired, adoring attention from professionally beautiful people, as well as touch, pleasure, and sex. But conversations within the sex work community are also quick to note that sex work as an industry is primarily one of entertainment, not therapy – and critique the idea of sex workers as “naked therapists” as a characterization rooted more in respectability politics than anything else. After all, the services a sex worker offers don’t have to be a form of healing or therapy in order for their work to be respected, or for sex workers to be worthy of the same dignity as non-sex workers. Rather, we should question why sex work is the only industry where intimate exchanges between providers and clients are put forth as a means of “cleaning up” the nature of the industry. Hairstylists provide conversation, attention, and even touch (who doesn’t find a long scalp massage while getting their hair washed as pleasurable and at least a little bit intimate?). Massage therapists focus on relieving pain and creating a healing experience for their clients. And psychotherapists, for whom the topic of touch with regard to clients is often contentious, and in practice needs to be examined extremely critically and deliberately, provide acutely intimate, sometimes quite long-term, and highly vulnerable spaces for their clients to do deep and healing self-work, often beginning in the middle of client’s very darkest moments.
Yet though all of these industries combine (to varying degrees) vulnerability, emotional intimacy, pleasure, and touch, sex work is the only one that is widely stigmatized. Redirecting attention to the potential for therapeutic benefits of sex work is used as a means of justifying the work and making respectable the workers – a well-meaning aim the ultimately does more harm that good, and doesn’t help to destigmatize sex work. In fact, it says more about our attitudes toward sex and pleasure (and money!) than it does about the nature of the sex industry itself.
Stripper @karli_marxxx tweeted, “Y’all ever get customers so touch-starved they cry when you touch them? It’s super flattering to me that they chose me but it also makes me feel horrible about our society that people are so socially isolated.” Sex workers have an incredibly unique take on intimacy and how it is located more generally in our culture, but sex workers – and their clients – aren’t the only ones who experience skin hunger, and the relative dearth of information on platonic intimacy (and it’s total absence from mainstream sex education) seems to imply that that problem isn’t going away any time soon. Sex therapist and educator Rachel Klechevsky, one of the co-hosts of @sexistential.u podcast, described herself to me as the “massage therapist” of her friends and family, and that massage is one way that she engages in platonic intimacy with her loved ones. In determining how that plays out in her relationships, she said, “I listen to my own body and I test it out with the person I’m talking to. I wont ask someone if they’d like a massage unless I feel comfortable touching them and feeling their body so intimately. The first time is always a bit weird, but I know when it’s an absolute no for me.”
When I began to consider platonic intimacy as a practice that might be healing for me, I also had to get quiet, ask myself a lot of questions, and listen to my body. What kind of touch did I want to experience, and in what circumstances? Did I want to cuddle? Nap together? Give massages? Hug or hold hands? Did I want to dance? How well would I have to know the person I wanted to experience this kind of intimacy with? What would it mean to me if my request for touch from a friend was rebuffed? And how would I know what my limits are, or whether I would feel comfortable verbalizing them?
My own exploration of platonic intimacy, so far, has mostly remained in the questioning phase. My roommate and I watch TV together in their room, on their bed, with their cat snuggling comfortably in-between us, and even sitting on the bed of someone who I’m not sleeping with feels profoundly intimate for me. I also recently took a wrestling class at a queer gym in my neighborhood, which was a shock to my system in terms of skin hunger – maybe it should seem obvious, but if you didn’t know, wrestling involves full body contact with the people you’re sparring with, and if you hold back, you’re not doing yourself any favors in terms of not getting your ass handed to you. I may not be ready to take the leap yet with intimacy and touch – platonic, or otherwise – but these conversations feel expansive to me, and tender, and new, with the possibility of different, more authentic (and perhaps more vulnerable) way of being in relationship with others, of being seen, of being held, elements at the core of all forms of intimacy itself.