The Naked Truth
One of the common misconceptions about Touch Practice–and perhaps other kinds of bodywork–is that naked practice is somehow more intimate, more engaged, more exciting, more challenging or more interesting than clothed practice.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I think I believed this myself, years ago, at the very beginning of what was to become Touch Practice. I no longer do. Having explored it hundreds of times, I consider the erotic connection to be a relatively superficial level of engagement. I call it a “doorway connection.”
My experience at this point of my practice is that erotic energy can sometimes establish an initial connection to another person, but it is a doorway–a conduit–to deeper levels of connection which are not primarily erotic themselves. We can pass through eros to a deeper level of engagement, but it does not, by itself, constitute or create that deeper engagement.
This is my own point of view. Of course there can be other opinions about this; we are all different. I can only write and teach from my own experience.
There are many different ways to describe this experience in Touch Practice, but one of the clearest, I think, is to suggest to you that our deepest possible levels of engagement are child-to-child, not adult-to-adult. If I am holding someone and I happen to access the internalized child, that connection will be non-erotic, because the access is to a younger piece of themselves, the pre-sexual self, an energetic state I call “the puppy body.”
Many of you (of all orientations) know you can make erotic connections with people–even lots of erotic connections–yet feel very far away from anyone, and very lonely, at the end of the day. If you’ve ever had that experience, you already know what I’m writing here is true. One of the ways we might define the hunger that surrounds compulsive sexual behavior is “lots of erotic connection with very little intimacy.” So let me talk about the limitations of the erotic connection and why naked practice isn’t always deeper practice (and is often relatively shallow) in Touch Practice, or in life.
This part of my experience was taught to me by two different populations of men who found Touch Practice on a pathway to recovery. First are men who are traumatized in their bodies, particularly combat vets who are missing limbs or have body trauma from explosive devices. The second group of men are those who experienced sexual trauma growing up, and who get held as a practice for working their way back into their bodies safely.
While no generalizations are true for all, in general, when I practice with men who come to Touch Practice from these kinds of experiences, practice is usually clothed or mostly-clothed, and there is often not much interest in the erotic. There are bigger fish to fry.
Where to begin? First, our culture seems to confuse nakedness with intimacy or vulnerability, and the two are fairly distinct. Compare these three scenarios:
Scenario #1: 5 PM, after work, inside a support group for men (fully clothed) who have recently lost their spouses. There is weeping, sharing of deep emotion, arms around shoulders and the room is a scene of great compassion, great wounding, broken men supporting each other, pouring out their hearts to each other.
Scenario #2: 5 PM, after work, inside the saunas of many American urban sports clubs, men, some wearing towels, some naked. If you’ve been in this situation you know that men are often defended as though they are wearing armor. Towels are clutched like shields. Eye contact is avoided; there are only hostile stares forward. I bet all of you have been in a roomful of naked men where there has been no meaningful closeness whatsoever, zero intimacy. The grocery store, for many men, is a more intimate scene.
Scenario #3: 5 PM, after work, your annual physical, your doctor, an otherwise unremarkable middle-aged male, has his index finger well up inside your ass during the course of your prostate exam. You’re butt naked and he’s in close (!) physical contact with you. If you’re having a deep sense of connection and meaningful closeness there, please write me. You’re one in a million. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have a testicular exam as well.
Sorry to be graphic, but honestly, sometimes I have to use a hammer. You can see that the amount of clothing and the degree of intimacy or connection is not a straight-line relationship, right? In this case, it’s inversely proportional. The level of clothing or intensity of contact has nothing to do with the depth of connection. That, instead, comes from intentionality and from a mutual agreement to voluntarily ease certain kinds of boundaries we normally carry.
In researching this blog I asked my Touch Practice partner Sean, an amputee thanks to an IED in Iraq, whether he thought naked Touch Practice is more serious, or deeper, than clothed. He laughed, at first, and asked, “so for some guys it’s a big deal whether you touch their Johnson?” I said, “yeah, for some guys, it is.” He laughed again and said, “well, after what you’ve had your hands on, including what’s not left of my leg, I’m not sure it matters much. That’s just another piece. A piece I still have. It’s a much smaller piece than my leg. It’s just not that big a deal.”
When we first started working together, it took several weeks before I was allowed to go anywhere near the knee that Sean is missing, and the rest of the limb below that knee which is no longer there. Strangely, he sometimes can feel the leg there, thanks to something called “phantom limb syndrome” where the sensation of the limb continues even though it is physically missing, but there’s nothing but air there. When I sit with my hands in that space, and the remaining limb leading up to that space, it’s the most intimate thing I can imagine sharing with him. It took us a lot of work together to get to that space, and there was a lot of crying involved at first.
In the hierarchy of connective energies, the erotic is a sensible place to start: it’s fast and relatively accessible to most people, easier to sense and move in than some of the other energetic planes, but because of this, it’s not terribly deep.
We live in a culture that practically worships Eros, so I am aware that my saying “eros isn’t particularly deep” is a bit like the moment Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” But I stand by my statement, hate mail or not. Erotic energy is quick, accessible, easy to work with, and not particularly profound in the hierarchy of energetic planes on which we can connect to each other.
Because my non-naked or non-erotic experiences in Touch Practice have been so intense, there are times when I have considered reconfiguring Touch Practice so that it is always non-naked, for everyone. But this would be a mistake in the other direction, a parallel overreaction.
The flip side of “don’t make such a big deal out of the penis” is: don’t make such a big deal out of the penis. Saying “ignore that pink elephant over there” makes everyone stare at the pink elephant. So there are times when the only way to get the genitals off of center stage is to take them out, look at them, hold them, and then move on with the rest of the body.
Naked practice is sometimes more comfortable, in certain positions of being held, because clothing is not pulling or tugging. Naked, erotic practice can sometimes help people who are exploring questions about sexual orientation or certain kinds of developmental/relational issues. It can often be useful for practicing grounding and mindfulness in the presence of strongly charged erotic fields.
Naked practice can sometimes help people access a more childlike, younger body, bringing us back to a time when we could “play” naked in our bodies–including our genitals–in a way that is non-sexual, pre-sexual.
Genital play and curiosity happens naturally and innocently among little kids, unless they’re shamed or sexualized by an older adult, but it’s not at all like adult genital play. It comes from a more integrated, whole-body approach. The penis is neither the center of attention, nor exiled or sequestered from the body.
Children have to be taught to treat the penis as though it is a foreign object, or “special.” We don’t do that automatically; we learn it, often by being shamed by an adult. Many less Puritanical cultures don’t think any part of the body needs to be covered up or contained in a special holder or pouch; it’s just another body part.
In Touch Practice it’s possible to make a powerful, tearful, life changing, emotional, bonding, intimate connection to another man and not remove a single item of clothing. Touch Practice is individual, partnered, custom-built bodywork. It is radically different from other systems of men’s group bodywork that emphasize group nakedness as a requirement or first step towards bonding meaningfully with each other. The approach is entirely different.
Connecting intimately to the core child energetics of another person does not require the removal of clothing and in some cases is impeded by the removal of clothing. Nakedness can be a useful modality, for some people, in some contexts, but can be a distraction in others.
So while erotic energy is one of many energies that are useful in connecting us to each other, and while naked practice is one of the modalities that can be used in Touch Practice, the truth is that the penis occupies perhaps five percent of the body’s land mass, at best. If it gets 90 percent of our attention, something is out of balance.
Lance Armstrong’s book is called “It’s Not About the Bike.” If I were to write a book about my experience of holding men, it would be called, “It’s Not About the Dick.” They’re interesting critters, to be sure. But there are many other very powerful ways to create deep connections to men, all men, regardless of your orientation, practices or beliefs.
Have thoughts you’d like to share?
Touch Practice is a sacred practice for me, and part of that is keeping confidences sacred. While a name and e-mail address are required to post a comment, feel free to use just your first name, or a pseudonym if you wish. Your e-mail address will never be seen by or shared with anyone. It is used to prevent spam and inappropriate comments from appearing in the blog. I’d really like to hear from you!