What Is Skin Hunger? And How Can We Deal With It During COVID 19?

It's becoming a bigger issue for your sex life the longer the pandemic goes on

Remember precedented times? When you could spend a night on the town knocking back fishbowls of gin with the girls, and end it by wearing the face off a stranger on a dancefloor while Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’ blasts from a speaker nearby, not a care in the world? It feels like so long ago now that for many people knowing what it feels like to touch another human’s skin is foreign to them. We know well by now how to stop the spread of the deadly virus that has changed our world – wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay the f away from other people.

It was easy at first, comedically bumping elbows to say hello and goodbye to your friend on a socially distanced walk, sending *virtual hugs* to your boyfriend who you don’t live with, but it’s been a year now we’ve been starved of touch, and it’s starting to take its toll. 

Skin hunger, or touch starvation happens when a person experiences little to no touch from other living beings, we as humans are hardwired to touch, from the moment we enter the world until the time we leave it we experience embraces from all those around us, making our natural desire for it strong. “As adults, we need touch and tactile stimulation to feel well, loved and connected to others and ourselves,” sex and relationship therapist Natalya Price tells me.

Just how someone would experience hunger if they were deprived of food, or tiredness from a lack of sleep, there is a knock-on effect from not experiencing touch for an extended period of time, it just isn’t something a lot of us had to endure up until 2020 reared its ugly little head. “Through touch we receive information, stimulation, affection, and it is one of the significant sources of our nervous system regulation,” says Natalya. Feeling touch from others releases Oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘cuddle hormone’, releasing this can reduce our stress levels, benefiting not only our moods but our immune systems too. So, without this, our overall well beings can take a severe nosedive. 

34-year-old Ester who has been single for the last 2 years has been dating intermittently throughout the pandemic, and admits that unprecedented times is not the easiest terrain to find The One, “Dating as someone in their mid-thirties is difficult at the best of times, but dating in your mid-thirties during a pandemic is impossible,” Ester begins. “I met one or two people that I clicked with last year, we agreed to meet up when restrictions were light and I enjoyed some nice dates.”

Continuing on to explain the difficulties that come with pandemic dating, Ester said: “I live at home with my Mam who, because of her age, is in the high-risk category. Obviously, because I’m home I don’t bring dates back anyway, but usually, during pre-pandemic times I had the option to go back to their place. Now, because I don’t want to put my Mam at any kind of risk I keep my physical distance from people I’m on a date with which makes it hard to connect with them.” 

Connection, however, isn’t only difficult to obtain while dating during this mess we’re in. Many couples who were forced to stay apart due to lockdown restrictions reported feeling a detachment from one another. “We face-timed pretty much every day, but it wasn’t the same as physically being together,” Grace tells me. 27-year-old Grace and her boyfriend, who she has been in a relationship with for 3 years, live on opposite sides of Dublin, spending months apart at the height of lockdown restrictions. Their relationship has continually been put to the test throughout the last year, with Grace admitting that their lack of physical touch and intimacy is something she has hugely struggled with, “I’m a very tactile person, which I didn’t actually realise before the virus,” she says. “Suddenly going long-distance with my boyfriend was hard and the part I struggled most with was not being able to be intimate. I know now that I need to be physically close to someone to be emotionally close to them too.”

This longing for touch and intimacy was only exasperated by TV shows released in the last year. Heavy in their intimate content, shows like Normal People and Bridgerton helped to fill the gap when real-life closeness was sparse. In these shows, sultry, powerful, and consensual acts of intimacy were shown on screen, and for so many of us this was the closest we could get to sex. “Watching Normal People made me only long for my boyfriend’s touch even more. He’s the person I feel closest to, and seeing characters on screen be so close made me frustrated and satisfied at the same time,” Grace explains. We could live vicariously through the likes of Connell and Marianne, and many would argue that the timing of these shows landing on our screens aided in their success. Being stuck indoors with months of social distancing behind us, seeing people be close on-screen set a fire alight in all of us, emotionally impacting us in ways it never would have if life were how it always was pre-pandemic. 

But, other than binging Normal People to get your sex-fix, Natalya explains that there are ways to combat your skin hunger, although there is no direct replacement for a longing for skin-to-skin contact, there are ways to support ourselves as we continue to navigate social distancing. “Think about all sorts of ways you can feel with your skin and your body. The idea is that you intentionally provide as much stimulation to yourself as possible,” she explains.

Natalya says that if you are someone who is longing for touch the best thing you can do is slow down at moments throughout the day and focus on anything that brings you pleasure. This could be taking a bath, applying skincare, grabbing the gua sha and giving yourself a facial, or most obviously, masturbating, “Loving yourself and giving pleasure to yourself is the best gift you can give yourself. Sexual pleasure sends some powerful positive signals to your brain.”

If you’ve tried out all of the above and are still struggling with a lack of touch, Natalya says that it might be time to turn your attention to other methods. Consider the clothes you wear and fabrics you surround yourself with, things like silk pyjamas and fluffy blankets can provide tactile delight, while investing in something such as a weighted blanket can provide you with immediate calming relief, giving the sensation of an all-over body hug while you relax, “See these difficult times as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your body,” Natalya says. So maybe investing in ourselves is what we need to do right now, cultivate our minds and bodies, and know that each day we go without touch brings us another day closer to embracing one another again.