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6 May 2020

I am suffering from “skin hunger”: and no, I’m not talking about my non-sex life

There is no prospect of even a handshake, let alone a peck on the cheek, from man or woman, for the foreseeable future. 

By Nicholas Lezard

About three weeks into the lockdown, it occurred to me that the last woman to have touched me was Victoria Coren Mitchell, quiz show host, poker player, and wife of the comedian David Mitchell. It was a handshake, nothing more than that; besides, we were in a crowded theatre, where we’d been watching her husband play Shakespeare in Upstart Crow. 

The last time we’d met she’d been interviewing me for a film she was making about bohemians. She noticed a certain lack of domesticity. “Why don’t you find a nice lady off the internet?” she asked. I presume she meant a dating site. I was too startled to make much of a reply beyond a scowl, and I ended up on the cutting room floor.

Still, I have nothing against her, and I consider myself privileged, for she is an attractive and intelligent woman. One can be touched by many worse people. However, it then occurred to me that while I can console myself with this, like one who has been kissed by a goddess in his dreams, there is no prospect of even a handshake, let alone a peck on the cheek, from man or woman, for the foreseeable future. And then it occurred to me that this would also appear to be the case whether there was a pandemic or not. The last woman to touch me before that was Claudia, my wonderful hairdresser, but if her business survives this I will be very surprised. Delighted – but surprised.

The thing is that up until then I had been learning how, in a perverse way, to enjoy the situation. Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word. Appreciate, perhaps, is better; appreciate the intensity of it, the way our relationships are being reforged, our relationships not only in the world about us – a world now purged largely of our presence – but with our friends and family and loved ones. “You know,” I said to my friend Ben on the phone (how many phone calls!), “we’ll miss this when it’s over.”

“No we bloody won’t,” he said. “We really won’t.” Ben is considerably more active than me, and used to keep trying to get me go to his favourite gym, an old-school-style establishment called Cheetahs, or learn how to box with him. He likes hitting people, and, unless I misheard wildly, doesn’t mind being hit himself all that much when he comes to think of it. “It’s been bloody ages since I’ve hit anyone,” he complained to me, “and bloody ages since anyone’s hit me.” (He didn’t use the word “bloody”.) His wife, furthermore, came down with Covid-19 badly enough that paramedics and an ambulance had to be called, and her recovery is slow and punctuated by relapses.

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But they have each other, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so in love with his wife, so I don’t have any fears that they’ll be one of those post-pandemic divorces that are said to be on the horizon. But I have no one – and I was kind of coming to terms with that, comforting myself with the thought that at least I’m not driving someone else round the bend, and that there were many people in the same boat as me, all of a sudden.

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But then I read an article and came across the term “skin hunger”: the very real psychological condition that affects those who are deprived of human touch for long periods of time. I can hear you now. “Oh, Lezard’s going on again about not getting laid,” you say. “I’ll do the crossword while he gets it off his chest.” But no, it’s not about not getting laid: it’s about tactility. There is a sexual element to it, true, and it’s one of the reasons I walk two miles to have my hair cut by Claudia rather than 50 yards to one of the 19 different salons that exist on my street alone, but I think it’s more that sex is about touching than that touching is about sex.

Anyway, seeing the phrase, and seeing that it is recognised as a condition, floored me, as if I had been knocked over by an unexpected wave. To give the condition a name is at once a liberation and a relief; but sometimes relief can be overwhelming, and in any case, there is no relief in sight from this. One study I read said that the optimal touch is one that travels three to five centimetres per second; that seems about right, but the fact that this has been so precisely gauged is, for some reason, heartbreaking. I tried it myself on my inner forearm, but it brought no pleasure, only the memory of it; in the same way as we cannot tickle ourselves.

I read another article whose author said that this, according to a certain kind of creep involved in high-end AI, is where technology is leading us: “the touchless future” they call it, and for some reason they’re all for it. Screw them and their demented vision. And I shall never use “touchy-feely” as an insult ever again. 

This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain