Touch: A Language to be Learned

"Is there anything wrong with heavy petting?" "If you can't go all the way before marriage, how far can you go?" "Is there such a thing as responsible petting?" These questions have been put to us from time to time by couples preparing for marriage.

   How would you answer them?

   Over the years, Christian leaders have offered their response. Some of these answers have been evasive, some authoritarian, some impractical.

   One opinion still being voiced today is the prohibition theory. It may be summed up in two words, "Don't touch."

   If you follow the advice given by adherents of this teaching, you will not hold hands, embrace or indulge in any form of physical expression of love until you are married. The claim is made that by thus abstaining from touch, a double safeguard is provided. First, it eliminates the temptation to use touch in order to exploit another's body. Second, it prevents couples placing one foot on a fast-moving escalator, touch, which might hurtle them into behavior patterns which they would be unable to control. In other words, if you refrain from holding hands and cuddling, your sexual pace will not accelerate to kissing and petting. Self-control will therefore be easier.

   In defence of this theory I have to admit that the few couples I have met who based their relationships on it were glad that they had done so. "I'm so glad we kept our bodies for one another and our marriage."

   But is this the healthiest preparation for marriage? I personally do not believe it is. Is it reasonable to encourage people to demonstrate affection to a cat, a dog, even a pet rabbit, and to refuse that person permission to touch the

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person they love? This unhealthy view of touch generates anxiety, fear and embarrassment. Too many Christians go into marriage disturbed, even frightened by sex. This results in sexual disharmony. Surely, then, there must be a gentler introduction to sex in marriage, like running in a new car rather than immediately driving it at full throttle.

   The prohibitionist theory is frequently counterbalanced by an equally extreme viewpoint. It also may be summarized in two words, "Do anything." Any kind of sexual expression is permissible as long as the motive is genuine love. After all, kissing, fondling another's genitals and sexual intercourse are external acts, "doing what comes naturally." Why, then, curtail these demonstrations of affection? The outward expressions are not sinful. If couples are not made to feel guilty, all will be well. Remove the guilt and you erase the sin.

   I challenge this encouragement to self-indulgent sex. I have already shown in chapter 7 that this kind of thinking is inconsistent with the Bible's teaching on the true meaning of sexual enjoyment. Sex is never just an external act. Basil and Rachel Moss express the real situation with accuracy:

Any counsellor can testify that sex between human beings, even when intended to be a casual, cheerful gratification of bodily need, or an expression of "low-level" friendship, very often turns out to be nothing of the kind. Deep disturbances of the human spirit frequently manifest themselves unbidden — passion, adoration, exaltation as well as disgust, hatred, pain, and jealousy.1

As Christians we shall want neither to trivialize sex, the God-designed love union, nor persons. Love for persons includes respect; it protects their dignity and refuses to besmirch their reputation. The sexual license which grants Christians the right to exploit another's body in the name of "love," therefore, must clearly be rejected.

Responsible touch

So is there a middle course? I believe there is. It is the use of responsible touch. Touch is a language which can be learned. It is an adventure into personal awareness, the pathway

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leading to a deeper understanding of the loved one. It is the wordless language of intimacy.

   In this discussion on touch, I am using precise rather than vague language. This lays me open to criticism. Some readers may be offended by my frankness. But others will be helped because they have never heard the issues clearly and openly spelled out before. The wordless language of intimacy is not easily learned in the climate in which we live and using vague or confusing words to describe it would only add to the difficulty. And I believe this language should be learned by couples who are growing into love. It should be learned for three reasons. First, because it brings progressive closeness. Just as love draws two people together in emotional, creative and spiritual intimacy, so they should become increasingly comfortable with appropriate physical closeness. Cuddling and kissing should never become a gap-stopper, therefore, a relief from boredom. It will be one of the ways two people say "I love you."

   Second, touch should be learned because it can be an end in itself. The intention need not be intercourse. Take the welcoming embrace two people enjoy after a day apart, for example. This touch is the language of delight and intimacy. Lust is absent. Is there anything to condemn in this act? Or take the gentle enfolding of two persons listening to music or watching a sunset. The closeness of their bodies reflects the touching of their minds, their spirits, their feelings. Is this wrong?

   And, third, the language of touch should be learned because when two people marry they promise to give their bodies to one another for a lifetime of sexual fulfillment. They therefore owe it to one another and the future of their marital relationship to venture into marriage unafraid of touch. But touch is not a language that can be learned overnight, not even on the wedding-night.

   But I do not want to suggest that learning the language of touch is without risk. It is as dangerous as lighting a cigarette on a parched prairie in summer. Awakened sexual desire is a hungry flame. It can sweep through the hidden recesses of our being, consuming the whole of us. This greedy flame

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must be guarded.

   There are three guardians capable of controlling sexual desire: the mind, the will and the indwelling Spirit of God. Sexual victories are won first in the mind. It decides, "I do not want to sin." The will collaborates, "I will not sin." The indwelling Spirit of God makes available the resources which the reluctant body then needs to co-operate. So it is possible to learn to touch responsibly. The question is, do you want to learn the art of responsible touch?

   If you do want to control the passionate longings which crouch at your door or creep up on you unawares, the subtlety of the temptation needs to be recognized.

   Before you consider the art of responsible touch, think about the impact of visual stimuli. They feed the mind. They are more powerful than many of us acknowledge. It matters, therefore, how you dress when you are together. The sight of her boyfriend in very tight jeans might so arouse a girl sexually that she finds it difficult to resist the temptation to fondle his genitals. Men are even more easily aroused by provocative dress: flimsy, see-through blouses, skin-tight tee shirts, low-cut necklines which leave little to the imagination . . . The resolve to learn the language of touch, therefore, includes the determination to dress sensitively. A person who dresses carefully chooses clothes which are an expression of his/her personality, which are pleasing to his/her partner but which convey the message, "I am an attractive person" rather than "I am a sexy person." It is worth asking one another,

   "How do you feel about the way I dress?"

   If your partner's clothes make it hard for you to say No, you owe it to your relationship to say so.

   Then touch itself is a difficult language to learn, not only for its power to destroy but because it communicates different messages to different people and, worse, different messages to the same person on various occasions. Take fondling a girl's breasts, for example. This might be a man's way of saying, "I want you." But a man may gently caress his fiancé in this way to communicate, "I love you." It satisfies his need to explore the body of the loved one and he may have no intention of stimulating her to orgasm. But breasts are an

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erogenous zone on a girl's body. When they are fondled, it sets in motion the process which results in the lubrication of the vagina. This prepares the woman to receive the partner's penis, to enjoy an orgasm. What started as an innocent, loving touch, therefore, could become a hurtful gesture. It is very hard to exercise discipline, to flip the "off switch" when you have been aroused so deeply.

   But this same woman, at a different stage in the menstrual cycle, might enjoy this same gesture and not be so quickly awakened.

   Another dimension to consider is that of the maturity of your relationship. The same gesture of love, which may be quite appropriate just before marriage, may be selfish and hurtful at an early stage of friendship or even early in a long engagement. Touch is tricky.

   This means that each partner must be willing to interpret his/her responses and to translate them into words. Where necessary, each must be willing to say, "If you really love me, don't touch me there." "If you love me, don't do that."

   This openness in communicating is one of the best preparations for healthy sexual relating in marriage. And before marriage it is a far more reliable deterrent than conscience. Most people can persuade the conscience to allow them to go too far. And alcohol anesthetizes it. That is why it is so much harder to keep within your boundaries if you have been drinking.

   Touch sometimes satisfies our insatiable need to love and be loved. More often, touch unleashes the desire in all its power. We want more. This craving is heightened by curiosity, so couples struggle, not just with sexual hunger, but with the fascination of the presence of the unknown "which weaves round the sexual act a vast superstructure of phantasy."2 It is torment.

   When these tantalizing external stimuli coincide with internal fears and bodies, new blockages to wholesome touch are erected.

   Take the masochistic streak which characterizes many of us. "I enjoy touch, so it must be wrong." And worse, "I enjoy it so much God couldn't possibly want it this way."

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   The God we worship is not a sadist and we should beware of torturing ourselves or condemning ourselves with untruths. The truth is that God is the author of our sexuality. It is therefore good. But, like all good things, sex and touch must be kept in context. Touch is to sexual fusion what learning the Greek alphabet is to writing Greek: the essential preliminary but not the full expression.

   To some people, even the alphabet of touch is frightening. Deprived of closeness, denied the warmth of touch in childhood, they fear touch. They run from it.

   How do you feel about caresses, tenderness, demonstrating affection with your partner?

   Can you give and receive love in this way?

   If this is a problem for you, make it a matter for discussion and prayer. Seek help. This is vital, because in the absence of rules prescribed by others, you two must write your own.

Some rules for responsible touch

Before you write your rules there are two things you should do. First, respond to these questions.

   In exploring this language of touch, what do we want from each other?

   What do I personally hope to receive from you?

   What do I hope to give to you?

   What will the language of touch add to our relationship?

   How could inappropriate touch harm our existing oneness?

   Do I touch because I want to convey love or because I am searching for a quick gratification of my sexual needs?

   If our relationship came to an end would I look back with shame and embarrassment at what we are now doing?

   And would I have hurt you?

   Second, weigh carefully the biological factors which might tip the scales, which might persuade you to change the label "permissible" to "unwise."

   What does touch do? Touch is to sex what the smell of grilled bacon is to the salivary glands: a powerful stimulant. Holding hands leads quickly to cuddling and kissing. Kissing becomes prolonged kissing. Then the sexual drive gathers force and pushes you into greater intimacies of love-play.

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There is nothing wrong with this love-play of itself, but you should recognize that it is the prelude to intercourse. This touch heightens sexual desire. Tactile stimulation of hypersensitive areas of the body now produces a very strong reaction. As we have seen, fondling of the breasts and kissing the nipples produce a strong reflex contraction of the womb. This prepares the female to receive the penis, to enjoy the crescendo of orgasm. The female body does not easily tolerate an interruption of this exciting adventure into sexual fulfillment.

   The male finds it just as hard to stop short of sexual completion. So if touch has caused the normally limp penis to enlarge, stiffen and become erect, excitement is high. This sexual tension is explosive, almost impossible to control.

   If you understand this biological process before you write your rules, love demands that you give the progression of touch careful thought. You must fix firm rules and help one another to keep them. These rules make more sense if you write them before you have started to play the risky game of touch. Back-pedalling is never easy.

   Ron and Jill had established their boundaries. They decided that they wanted to reserve intercourse for marriage. That was God's plan. But they faced a four-year engagement and had already indulged in heavy petting, fondling one another's sex organs over and under their clothes. Mutual manual masturbation to orgasm seemed natural and right. But is it?

   This common practice whereby each partner stimulates the other to orgasm manually, is, to borrow Walker's phrase, a "mischievous compromise" which may easily produce harmful results.

   If you are determined to indulge in this heavy form of petting, which prolongs sexual excitement but separates these physical intimacies from the sexual communion which is their intended goal, you should be aware of the dangers. This practice places healthy sex within marriage in jeopardy for two reasons. After he is married, the man sometimes finds that he suffers from premature ejaculation. The erect penis ejaculates sperm uncontrollably before the penis enters the wife, or immediately on entry. The full pleasure of orgasm is

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then denied the wife, causing her distress.

   Another possible side-effect troubles the husband. It sometimes happens that a woman who has grown accustomed to being aroused in this way prefers manual stimulation instead of the rhythmical movement of the penis, or the insertion of the penis at all. The wife may develop an aversion to intercourse which becomes self-perpetuating as the husband senses her reluctance. The husband's penis may not become sufficiently aroused and erect, leading to an inability to perform intercourse. Normal sex becomes distasteful for the wife and this is upsetting for the husband. Spouses begin to blame each other and disappointment ensues.

   In addition to these long-term hazards, the frustration and nervous tension which many couples experience must be considered. The mind is persuasive. It informs us that the further we go, as long as we do not go "all the way," the more satisfied we shall be. This is not true. The truth is that sexual stimulation, unrelieved by gratification, causes extreme tension.

   I shall not easily forget the self-condemnation, shame and embarrassment of couples who have unexpectedly conceived a baby through this kind of body closeness. They had definitely refused to indulge in full intercourse but they had been lying so close that sperm had spilled into the entrance of the vagina. An ovum had been fertilized and conception had taken place. You should be aware that, with this kind of closeness, great care is needed to avoid such an accident. And in those circumstances of heightened arousal you would find it very difficult to be careful.

   You should also be aware of the effect of this emotional intertwining of your lives. Just as when two people have intercourse, something irrevocable and deep takes place between them, so this sexual intimacy penetrates the inner self. The dependency and longing for one another increases. It does not make separation easier; in fact it becomes less bearable.

   And isn't this a cover-up, a deceit? Can couples who practice this amount of sexual activity really convince themselves or God that they are not sexually one? This kind of heavy petting without intercourse preserves a girl's technical virginity, but is it really keeping the rules? If so, whose rules? Certainly not God's. It may be keeping to the letter, but certainly not

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the spirit of God's requirements. It reminds me of the fiction that you can scoot a bicycle along the pavement legally, but you may not sit on the saddle or you'll break the law.

   You must decide for yourselves, but if you are seeking my advice, mutual manual masturbation to orgasm lies outside the enclosure, not inside.

How far can you go?

I have attempted in this chapter to make it more possible for you to answer the three questions at the beginning. In my view, there is such a thing as responsible petting. It is using touch — embracing, caressing, kissing — in a non-exploitative way to communicate non-verbally, "I love you." Wherever that expression of affection exploits your partner's body or your own body, or places your relationship in jeopardy, you are indulging in inappropriate petting. Therefore heavy petting can be wrong. And if you really want my advice about how far you should go in expressing love physically before marriage, I would underline five things:

   1. Concentrate on the touch which is an end in itself rather than the touch which is the love-play designed to result in sexual intercourse.

   2. Avoid provocative states of undress, lying together and over-stimulation of erogenous zones.

   3. Learn to defuse the tension by talking to one another about your individual responses to all kinds of sexual stimuli.

   4. Avoid being alone together too much and reduce the opportunities for prolonged petting.

   5. Beware of allowing physical contact to replace other means of communication.

   Sexual intimacy is fascinating. Its joys are worth waiting for. Therefore concentrate on sexuality, the differences you bring to your relationship because of the "otherness" of the male and female. This enriches companionship. Leave the delights of genitality, the fondling of breasts, extreme sexual excitation, until you are married. This gives your mind, your will and the Spirit of God a chance to keep you "within the boundaries where God's love can reach and bless you" (Jude 21 LB).

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   I am well aware that this advice is easier to give than to follow. In Galatians 5:13ff Paul describes how Christians may so live by the Spirit that they have no need to gratify the desires of the flesh. If you are serious about learning this language of touch, read that chapter.

   What does it say to you about the problems you face with touch?

   How does it make you feel about the discipline you are exercising at the moment?

   How do you feel about controlling your sexual desires when with your partner?

   Where will you draw the line?

Chapter 10  ||  Table of Contents

1. Basil and Rachel Moss, Humanity and Sexuality, Church Information Office, 1978, pp.14f.

2. Kenneth Walker, The Physiology of Sex, Pelican, 1952, p.93.