The Ecphorizer

Haptic Sexism
Edgar de Santos

Issue #41 (January 1985)

I have become intrigued with the frequency of hand-holding in my grandchildren during their late teens and early twenties, as well as my own interest in the practice after sixty. Checking back through thirty-odd years of marriage, I find a three-year period at the beginning and a few years at the end when a palm against another palm felt good. My daughter says to let one's fingers [quoteright'/>do the talking through the mellow stages, and her further advice is to see how far beyond mellow they can get. The instruction she has provided for men toward a better relationship with women says that men are less inclined to touch than women, and women are less inclined to initiate it. These are sex differences that seem of precious little moment until one follows a touching sequence to emotional peaks; or, conversely, follows a lack of touching to vague rationalizations for divorce. We have found the untouchables, and they are us.

Dr. Beatrice Faust, a psychologist in Australia, has written that touching creates a sensual reaction called the "haptic response." She has taken the word "haptic" across the ocean, from the OED to Webster's, which defines it as "characterized by a predilection for the sense of touch." The American connotation of haptic carries a little more sensuality than the English, so it's the American version that I'll use here.

One facet of the differences in sex is the orientation that each tends to follow. The male's visual orientation explains his interest in girl-watching and pinups. That the female is predominantly oriented to touch becomes evident in her interest in cloth materials, babies' bottoms, and so forth. Many women agree that there are things that create a little thrill in touching. The French call it "frisson," and, in its extreme form, it can make an elegant lady clutch her beaded purse and jam her knees together. In its more passive form, no one would know, and this is the cue for men throughout the country. Learning the importance of touching is something that the male may pick up in courtship but forget after that odd contract is signed. The contract to which I refer is the one that ignores the national laws prohibiting any contract signed by a minor, any contract without a clear description of what is being exchanged, or any contract that has an indefinite termination date. Our "nation of laws, not of men" ignores its own dictum at the very foundation of its own society. Most men forget that living together is more difficult than courting together, so they just remember the times she doesn't want to be touched and extend it to all the time. Women, on the other hand, forget about his visual orientation. The daughter who gives the touching instruction also gave me a description of what she was wearing to a party. It sounded bizarre, and I asked if she minded being viewed as a sexual object. Her caustic reply covered two phases. One, she was brighter than most, and two, any man, her husband included, who didn't want to view her as a sexual object could damned well get lost. Furthermore, did I have any idea how many men would give their eyeteeth to be treated as a sexual object. Well, yes, I did.

Our language lets us down on occasion. The word "touch" can become "to feel something," and there is a big difference between the concrete context and the abstract. Here I'm going to be discussing only the concrete. The military, way back to WWII, has numerically catalogued IQs, MQs, and AQs. M and A are for mechanical and adaptability levels, but times are changing. A clearer view of sex differences must herald the FQ--the feeling quotient. Now, it isn't discriminatory to limit this test to women, as long as eye tests are limited to men, because it simply follows the major orientation of each. For the peaceful woman, who cannot whip up enough antagonism to tolerate what men tolerate, like combat, there is still the normal process of living to encounter. If she has financial desires that exceed her willingness to grovel, she becomes a wife, and the FQ is essential toward the acquisition of a husband.

The acquisition period is an ambivalent period. It's a tossup whether the exquisite delights outweigh the grinding trials (or the other way around); in either case, all her early training has to be jammed down out of sight. She tries to become a raunchy hellion for as long as is necessary to get a man and to train him, but if that is too difficult, a shy hellion will do. Her experience of herself, the touching and being touched, must now be used to get herself used. That's the name of the game, isn't it? The little thrill of ecstasy that comes with the fondling of a vicuna coat can now be conjured back into the neurons when it is she who is being touched. It works if the early training is jammed down far enough and her FQ can be off and running. Five or six years after the nuptials, she feels depressed more frequently, and, if she goes to an analyst about it, she gets a long explanation that boils down to the fact that her FQ is shot. Self-doubt, a feeling of powerlessness, and fear of risk are there. A lot of fears are there, including the fear of him. The SOB is big, he has muscles, and he can yell. OK, so he can't figure out what's going on with her and begins to do the egg-walking routine. But that makes it worse.

Two things are common in the fifth or sixth year of marriage. One is her decision that sex was fine when it fitted the rest of her existence, but now it keeps coming up at the wrong times. He'll smirk, and mumble something about a little intimacy when he should let his fingers do the talking. It is the fifth or sixth year that brings the word to so many husbands that there isn't going to be any more of that primate predation that he calls intimacy. The second common item is children. If her FQ signals that a hug would help, she can grab a child, and that takes care of that. It doesn't even require getting rid of the damp towel afterward. Husbands are desperately in need of the training that makes it possible to compete with the kid who gets hugged, and the routine goes like this, fellas: Count your sentences. Every half-dozen, you should extend the hand to touch. In long conversations, that means getting up to find something, anything, that will take you right past her for a touch. Where? You mean you don't know yet? Well, the shoulder is fine, the wrist is even better, and, if you can catch it when it's tipped over, the inside of it will yank her whole mind awake. Hair is perfect, especially with a compliment, and even knees will do, provided that you don't tap them. Tapping conveys, "Hey, you!", and that isn't even proper semantically. Of course, if you haven't laid a hand on her for a month, or even half that, don't overdo it at first. To do so would signal to her that something concerning her is going on in your head, and that can make her very nervous.

Recently there have been two books written by women that explain how to get touched by a husband. They also explain how to touch the recalcitrant husband, to warm him up, and that seems almost ludicrous. There's nothing sexier than a whisper. So, whisper in his ear, then immediately step back, because his genes are wired to grab at anything sexy, even before he figures out what it is. Of course this yak about a haptic response sounds like a bunch of mush. But let me tell you a story that is mostly history.

Some four thousand years ago, on the island of Crete, the women dreamed up an odd garment. Just a few years ago (well, at the turn of the century), they called them hourglass corsets, but in Crete they called them something that could loosely be translated as "middle-shrinkers." They consulted the oracle on the subject of odd garments, and although the history books are silent about the oracle's response, I think she uttered two cryptic words, "Dolly Parton." If so, it was received as a welcome augury, and the custom expanded the shrinkage, or shrank the expansion--never mind. What it did was to start a custom that kept popping up for four thousand years because there were some bonus factors. When Shakespeare put Cleopatra on the Globe stage, she was laced into one of those things. Today, we glue a jewel in her navel instead, but that's show business. The bonuses they were willing to talk about were posture, propriety, and comfort. No, I'm not joking. That's what they claimed at the time, and I'm old enough to remember. The bonuses they never discussed in mixed company were the bedroom hours. I learned a little about those on a trip with my mother and two schoolteachers when I was ten. We were in a tourist cabin made of real logs chinked with oakum, real smelly stuff, and I couldn't sleep. The women were outside on a tiny porch, and their conversation was turning into a verbal brawl.

The first point of contention was hairdos. Though this was the late twenties, one woman was still wearing the WWI style. The other two had doughnuts in back, but all the younger women were now wearing bobbed hair. Terrible situation for all. That started the ball rolling, and the next stroke was on corsets, because the WWI hairstyle also wore one of those. The poor woman was getting chewed to bits out there. However, schoolteacher number two came to her rescue. Her oil on troubled waters ran like this: "Oh, dear, I still keep two corsets in my bureau. When Charlie died two years ago, I couldn't bear to throw them away, because he loved to lace me into one on Saturday nights. You know why. Of course, the tighter he got it, the more I enjoyed it, because it did something to my inner workings that made it real special when we got to bed."

A long silence followed that speech, and the next subject matter was as far from wearing apparel as they could get. I wasn't sure what happened to inner workings, but I filed it away with the rest of the puzzles. These women were discussing haptic enjoyments just as they had been discussed for thousands of years. The four-inch heels that are worn today are not quite as unhealthful as corsets, but they aren't healthful either. Again, it's the haptic response that directs it, and, again, the old refrain about posture, propriety, and comfort are dusted off and put to use for whoever will buy it, but it doesn't stand any closer inspection today than it did in the twenties. Many women will wear whatever will turn them on, however slightly, and health is not enough to dissuade them. The haptic response is more important.

For that reason, I've had to do some editing along the way, but the haptic benefits of having hands and fingers require only minor editing from the standpoint of propriety. In Europe, America is called "the land of the prudes," and not entirely without reason. They don't openly discuss haptic subjects over there, but they know, grin, and sometimes wink. Here, they don't know, and become quite upset. We need to know. Awareness should include more than the how factor--it should include the why factor too. Women have not clung to corsets, girdles, cinchers, and other instruments of discomfort for thousands of years without being very much interested in more than appearance or the feeling of constraint. Those who are honest enough will chuckle and admit that they are more aware of themselves when they use them. Nor have they insisted for hundreds of years in doing some inhibiting things to their feet just for fashion. At a party one evening, a woman finally took off her four-inch spikes with a grimace of pain and asked me why women wore high heels. We know each other well enough for me to take a chance on telling her, so I did. She looked bewildered, and asked what else I knew. After a few moments of response, she exploded, "You son of a bitch! You know too much!" Yes, the subject of haptic response in brief can elicit curiosity, but in detail it stirs a few molecules of anger.

This seems like a far cry from whether a husband should take the trouble to touch his wife, but a little meditating on the subject will put it all together. Just as sex orientation differs, so do sensual reactions. Men react to whatever they can see that looks sexy, and women react to whatever feels sexy--or comforting or unnerving. Men don't understand it because few of them experience it, but that is no excuse for forgetting. A man may not understand what is in a television set, but he'll still turn it on. It's high time he paid attention to that other household component, the wife. Turn her on as often as the TV, and she'll switch some of your channels for you.

This is no complete cure for the fifth or sixth year letdown. She must still ward off the self-doubts. What does she furnish that takes brains, imagination, and creativity? Well, tell her! And don't forget to touch her when you tell her. Yes, it's sexist, this touching business. You're a male chauvinist pig for even considering it--double standard, and all that stuff--but we are all male chauvinist pigs, or female chauvinist sows, and have been since the age of one. Only eunuchs (male or female) can manage a nonsexist view.

Freud exploded on "What do women want?" Why he limited it to women makes no sense today. We all want freedom--and constraint. We all want independence--and a relationship. The list of incompatibilities that we continually slide over goes on. The word "dichotomy" is now passe, and it faded out some years ago simply because we don't want to admit that all the conditions we long for don't fit each other. A feminist leader who had lived with several men over the years grumbled that in every heterosexual relationship she felt as though she were sacrificing some of her independence. Well, she had good reason, but what she did not grumble about was the clear fact that each man was sacrificing some of his independence too. What we want won't fit in the manner we want it, and some balm of alleviation has to be applied to the chafed areas. Touching is a major ingredient in that balm, and the message it conveys is, "Yes, it's not always comfortable and we're stuck with it, but the alternatives are even less enticing."

Most women are aware that they like to touch and like to be touched, and that is where the title of this snarl comes in. Very few women touch their men because they know its effect, and they withhold it. They are withholding themselves, and that comes under the definition of sexism. Their reasons are the proliferation of self-doubts, the feeling of being second-class citizens, and the impregnability of male dominance. But that doesn't fit the word reason, it fits the word excuse. The double standard marches on. So let's hold onto our IQs, our MQs, and our AQs, but let's start to build that FQ--with a vengeance.

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Edgar de Santos

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