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Communication Through Touch

As the infant takes its first breath, it reaches out to learn what this new world is all about. Sensory receptors located in the skin start picking up enormous quantities of information and sending them to the brain. Pressure, temperature, pain - each stimulation carries a message about the environment. Each one adds another dimension to the infant's accumulating experience.

As the largest organ of the body, the skin comprises almost one-fifth of the total body weight and engages a major percentage of the operation of the brain. The skin is constantly growing and changing in sensitivity as it performs its many functions: protection, sensation, regulation of temperature, excretion, respiration, and the metabolism and storage of fat.

The sense of touch communicates without the need for words. Gently stroking a child will induce sleep, soothe pain, and quiet rage. Physical contact informs the other of our presence, our caring, and our support. We hold the person who is grieving. We touch to say Hello," "Good-bye," and "It's OK." A pat on the back signals approval, a slap on the hand says the opposite. And we rely upon the chemistry of touch in our sexual interactions.

Limiting ourselves to verbal expression cuts us off from the full range of communication. Since touching means closeness, it can help to bridge the distances that separate us from one another. Thus connected, you can communicate better. As you approach the other with your defenses down and your hand extended in a gesture of acceptance, you stand a better chance of reaching a mutual understanding.

In sexual relationships, touching becomes a special form of communication. Among the complaints most frequently voiced by women about sex is that their male partners do not use enough stroking and caressing prior to, during, and after intercourse. What these women are really asking for is the communication of presence, of acceptance, of tenderness, throughout. Sex therapists who work with couples encourage them to explore meaningful and pleasurable ways to touch each other, besides strictly genital involvement.* Experimenting with touch in sex sensitizes you to an awareness of the nonverbal messages that the body is expressing and opens up new options for intimacy.

* Exercises for getting in touch with the skin, called "sensate focus," are recommended and explained in the S.A.R. [Sexual Attitudes Restructuring] Programs. For information, contact the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality

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