When is the last time somebody touched you on purpose?
Maybe it was this morning, when you and your spouse kissed each other goodbye before work. Maybe it was two weeks ago when you went to the chiropractor. Maybe you can’t remember the last time someone touched you.
Touch is probably a loaded issue for many people. We may not even realize it. But in the last generation or two, almost all forms of touch have taken on sexual connotations. Single men and women can barely risk touching each other in friendship out of fear that the other person will read too much into it. In marriage, this often translates to touch primarily being used to initiate sex.
Handle With Care, a new book by Lore Ferguson Wilbert, is about how we as a church have undervalued touch, and how Jesus’ earthly ministry often used touch in sometimes literally life-giving ways. It covers most facets of touch in broad swaths: professional touch, sexual touch; touch given and touch received; healthy touch and sinful touch—all across multiple stages of life. It’s not a how-to guide by any means, but it is an important conversation starter. If you use Covenant Eyes, and you are a Christian, you should read this book.
That’s a bold statement, I know, especially since Handle With Care barely does more than address the fact that masturbation exists and is one result of a misunderstanding of physical touch. Why should someone who struggles with porn read a book that barely mentions the word as part of their recovery?
Understanding Our Embodied Life
What this book captures well is an understanding that our bodies were made with purpose and intentionality, and that is a good thing. When it comes to fighting pornography, that is a crucial understanding. Pornography is bad because God has called it sinful, but it has physical implications. One of its effects is the way it hijacks the viewer’s brain chemistry, literally rewriting our body’s sex drive so that one person physically cannot satisfy our lusts. It’s one of the reasons erectile dysfunction is increasing among young men. These are our bodies, broken by sin.
Touch is one of the most misunderstood aspects of this enfleshed reality. Wilbert argues that modern America has a warped understanding of touch: “…most of us are too quick to ask, ‘Am I attracted to you?’ instead of ‘How do I touch you in a way that is intimate, pure, sincere, and godly?’ […] it’s obvious that we are all still stuck in the Freudian cycle of belief that all touch is erotic” (p. 136).
When all of touch is eroticized, what happens? Touch becomes sinful, or is weaponized. How this plays out depends on your own personal situation.
Touch and the Single Person
Of singles, Wilbert writes, “Don’t ever assume an unmarried person is being touched in appropriate ways somewhere else in their lives. It is more likely that they have been touched or are touching inappropriately in dating relationships or friendships, or they are using self-touch to pacify their deep need for physical touch. It is rare to find an unmarried person who isn’t using one or both of those mechanisms to offer themselves solace. When we assume wrongly that they’re being touched healthily in other places, we press them further back into sinful expressions of touch” (p. 124).
For singles, Wilbert explains, the solution is to understand this season of low physical contact and sexual abstinence as a fast that prepares them for the banquet of Heaven. For their married friends, though, she says to ask them, “When was the last time you were hugged?” (p. 124). Is getting hugged regularly going to stop a habitual porn user? Not likely. But it is an important component. If a person’s primary endorphin rush comes from masturbation, then simple, intentional acts like a hug or handshake may at least help take the edge off the cravings.
Touch and Married Couples
Many singles believe that unlimited access to sex means they’ll stop watching porn. This, of course, has been thoroughly disproven in many posts here on the Covenant Eyes blog; Wilbert herself notes that “self-control regarding sex has just a present a role in marriage as it does in singleness […] One plus one equals twice the complications” (p. 172). She cites a hypothetical couple—one that could easily have been constructed from comments here on this blog—of a husband accustomed to self-pleasuring before marriage and a wife accustomed to saying no to any form of intimate touch, sinful or otherwise, before marriage.
He is used to seeking his own physical pleasure, not serving her through touch. She is used to “both withholding pleasure and having pleasure withheld from herself” (p. 181). To her, any touch feels like he’s trying to initiate sex (and she may not be wrong). He feels like she’s constantly depriving her of pleasure, so he gives up and returns to masturbation.
Again, this is a hypothetical couple, but it mirrors numerous comments on the blog. While many women need a period of sexual abstinence as part of their recovery after discovering their husband’s porn use, it is worth considering when and how you touch your spouse. Are you only touching them to initiate sex? Are you intentionally withholding sexual touch in particular as punishment, or doling it out as a reward for good behavior? In doing this, are you seeing your spouse as a person with their own needs and desires, and as a fellow child of God?
Wilbert writes, “When we’re able to distinguish merely sexual touch from loving touch, we’re freed up to serve as Christ served his disciples. The Image of the Invisible God is serving those who bear the image of God, the One who was unashamed of calling us brothers and sisters, washing the feet of His siblings” (p. 189).
Redeeming Our Understanding of Touch
By this point, you may be thinking, “My view of touch is messed up.” Maybe you’re decades into pornography use. Maybe you were physically abused for decades. Maybe you’re worried you can never heal. This book will get you on the path to a proper understanding of touch and to healing, but it will only get you started. Even so, starting is important. As Wilbert writes, “As long as we live on in this version of earth, we will live in this version of our bodies, hosts to the Spirit of God within us. But someday all that’s perishable will pass away and these bodies that touch and are touched will be made new” (p. 227).
Handle With Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry will be released on February 2, 2020. It is available for preorder on Amazon.