Wordsmithing for Nonsexual Touch

A post about finding, creating, and compiling words for various (nonsexual) forms of physical intimacy.

Going through some of my old bookmarks, I came across this old post on the Asexual Underground, which lamented a lack of adequate vocabulary for different types of cuddling and the consequences thereof.  It’s a short post, but I’ll excerpt the most relevant portion here:

My point is that, as the Ace community, we should really get on this.

I started doing an exercise during my talks where I ask people to come up with as many words as they can for distinct forms of cuddling. I get about three: spooning, hugging, and nuzzling. I ask them to compare that to the number of words that they know for different types of sex.

Three words. There are a few more if you really dig for them, but not many. Without more words, how are we supposed to talk about the kind of touch we want? How are we supposed to know what kind of touch is POSSIBLE for us to want? How are we supposed to have meaningful discussions about consent?

Fair point, right?  And maybe this call has already been answered, but if so, I missed the memo (somebody want to fill me in?) but regardless, there’s always room for more.

I wish I could ask all the people who’ve come up with all sorts of new terms for orientations and gender identities to lend me a hand with this, but for now, I’m going to try and make a small list myself.  To make the task a little easier, though, I’m expanding the objective such that the words don’t have to describe a form of cuddling, per se.  Here are the guidelines I’ll be using: the words must refer to an activity that is 1) physical, 2) nonsexual, and 3) potentially affectionate.  The limits of all of these criteria are somewhat subjective, so something that you don’t think qualifies may end up on this list, but hey, you’re welcome and encouraged to make a list of your own.

So, other than “spooning”, “hugging”, “nuzzling”, “snuggling”, and “cuddling”, here is the list of words that I know (or in some cases, that I’m coining/repurposing) for nonsexual affectionate touch, with some thoughts, definitions, and pros/cons of each.

caress/stroke.  These can be done in a sexual manner, but they can just as easily be done nonsexually as well.  The downside to these two is that they’re very broad terms (like snuggle and cuddle are), but they do refer to a specific type of motion, at least.

draping.  A term for softly laying against someone, ex. draping your arms over them, laying your head against them, etc.  This action is differentiated from hugs and the like in that it does not involve active pressure; the only source of pressure is gravity.

clinging (to arms/legs).  Like a shy child or a person who’s scared of what’s about to happen in a horror movie.

massages.  These can be nonsexual and nonromantic without necessarily having a paid professional involved.  There are significant cultural obstacles to getting other people to recognize that, though.

(hair) brushing.  Can be done with fingers.  Experiment combining this with a scalp and upper neck massage.

nose rubs.  I need another name for these (nose bumps?), because for the most part, “[body part] + rub” terms refer to applying a hand to that body part on the recipient, but what I’m trying to get at here is a mutual nose-to-nose interaction (also known as “Eskimo kisses”, though that’s an even less ideal term).

cradle/clasp/encircle/embrace.  More words for hugging, each with a slightly different connotation.  To cradle someone in your arms sounds parental and gentle; clasp implies a bit more physical intensity, holding someone tight; encircle sounds looser than embrace, but maybe that’s just me.

repositioning.  While the recipient lays still, someone gently makes small adjustments to their pose.  Think of a barber/hairdresser/face painter making a small change to the angle of your head, that sort of thing.  Not something most people enjoy in and of itself, but I could use a word for it.

tracing.  When I was a kid, I always liked it when adults would pretend to read my palm (not to imply this happened often), and part of that was because of the sensation itself — so my first thought was to call this palmline tracing, but really, there’s no reason you can’t apply the same idea to other areas/patterns as well.

cheek/neck/eye/ear kisses.  Some of these may seem erotic to some, but I don’t think most people in my culture would consider them sexual activity in their own right.

dogpile/mush.  A term for lots of people squished together, as on a couch or some other limited spacial area.  A dogpile necessitates a group of three or more, overlapping with each other to some extent, whereas you can mush against just one person if you like — pressure is implied but overlap not necessary.  This one’s comparable with a hip check, but the pressure is sustained and not necessarily located just at the hips (but is not produced solely from the arms, either, as it would be in a hug).

nestle.  Somewhere between accepting a hug and letting someone drape themselves on you, to nestle is to cuddle up within a small, confined space — say, the space between someone’s torso and arm.  Can be seen as the recipient counterpart to draping.

So there’s all I can think of for now.  What would you add?  What are some types of touch that you don’t have a specific word for, but would like to have?

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20 responses to “Wordsmithing for Nonsexual Touch

  • onlyfragments

    I’d add “bunting” which is when you push your head against someone, more or less. I know it’s something animals do more than people, but apparently I do it a lot to my girlfriend as a way to show affection… (Probably because I’m 60% cat).

  • PurplesShade

    I have one I don’t have a word for… When I first got together with my husband I was really put off by kissing, but I like the sensation or close-mouthed rubbing my lips against his closed lips. There isn’t exactly a word for it, because most people like kissing enough that why would they just lip rub? (Because it feels awesome! And even though I’m now good with kissing, I still really like lip rubbing)

  • tsuchi

    There’s a thing I tend to do with friends where a person sort of strokes/pets the other’s hair? It’s kind of somewhere in between, like smoothing down someone’s hair. It’s different from brushing in that you don’t really cord your fingers through their hair, but sort of smooth the surface. I don’t know if that’s useful as a separate term or not, but for what it’s worth one of my friends really hates to have her hair messed up so she accepts the smoothing thing but not brushing.

  • queenieofaces

    Adding some:

    – snug: it’s like a cross between a hug and a snuggle. You go in for the hug and then it somehow turns into a snuggle and you never really exit the hug.

    – squidding: where you wrap all your limbs around the other person for maximum hugosity. I’ve also heard it called “octopus hug” and “full-body hug.”

    – hair petting/stroking (you can’t do the finger brushing with my hair, as it is Hair, Consumer of Worlds, but you can sort of smooth it down)

    – face touching

    – poking: My girlfriend and I poke each other all the time, mostly as a way of teasing or trying to get the other person’s attention. (My little brother and I also used to have poke wars.)

    – similar to bonking/bunting, there’s a thing I’ll do with close friends where we’ll bump into each other intentionally when we’re walking (when I was a teenager, we would do it with increasing force until someone got pushed off the sidewalk)

    Also, there are a bunch of things I could add to the list that seem to be accepted as casual touch among acquaintances, but because of my touch preferences I tend to not like unless I really trust the person. Examples: putting your hand on the small of someone’s back, either to offer support or to guide them; holding hands; taking someone’s arm; sitting really close together so that your side is smooshed against their side; etc.

    • Breakingthewordcage

      I refer to “squidding” as a “koala hug”.

      Also, non-sexual ear kisses are definitely something I want in my life.

      • queenieofaces

        “Koala hug” makes me think of when one person is standing and you wrap your entire body around them; I mostly only hear it applied to small children, ’cause it’s logistically difficult if you’re roughly the same size. Squidding, in my experience, is done while lying down. :D

  • Calum P Cameron

    I know for a fact there is at least one book out there that gives names to a variety of different types of hug and details the mechanism and cultural implications of each. Cannot for the life of me remember what it was called, though, or where I read it or anything else about it.

    My quasi-sister ex-almost-roommate and I refer to the nose-rubbing thing as “puffining”, because puffins do exactly the same things with their beaks as a display of recognition and affection.

  • Calum P Cameron

    Oh, also, there’s glomping, which is like half-way between a hug and a rugby tackle. And I guess you could count it under either hair brushing or massaging, but I know of several people (including myself) with a weird thing for being “scratched behind the ears” like a dog.

  • Klaraa

    Thank you for “dogpile”. I assume this post is mostly about nonsexual touch you would share with one individual who is a very close friend or a romantic but not sexual partner. But this word very much reminds me of something I did a few times, years ago, with my mother and aunt and my Cousin who was a little kid at the time, where we all laid down together on the carpet and each put the back of her head on someone else’s upper abdomen, in a circle. Then when someone would start laughing, even a little, the next person would have her head shaken up, and as that is funny and will make you laugh in turn, shake, and also hilarity and ticklishness, will just go around the circle until someone gets too tired to laugh…
    And this is just incredibly fun and somehow we always associatad it with puppies. Would be nice if there were a word for it, even if its just in English, so that if there ever was an opportunity to do that again, one could request/propose it in shorter words than “that Thing we did last Christmas, where we put our heads on each others stomachs…”

    • acetheist

      Oh man, I recognize that game! Some kids at my high school played it once. Wish I could remember what it was called…

      *tries to google it*

      Apparently some people call it “the Ha Ha Game”. Very creative.

  • Seth

    Cuddle puddle: Similar to a dogpile, but more spread out, on the ground or floor rather than a piece of furniture. This one was popular at my high school.

  • R

    This is really helpful! There might be some useful words from other languages as well? I’ve seen the Portuguese word “cafuné” which means ‘fondly running your fingers through someone’s hair”. And my friend taught me a Serbian word that sounds like “mazzi” (with an “ah” sound). It means something like holding someone and rubbing their back or their head, but has a really specific connotation of the movement being comforting/calming in a motherly sort of way.

  • Elizabeth

    Sorry for nitpicking, but since this word is already widely used…

    “draping. A term for softly laying against someone, ex. draping your arms over them, laying your head against them, etc. This action is differentiated from hugs and the like in that it does not involve active pressure; the only source of pressure is gravity.”

    This is a bit off. Draping means “to loosely place or hang” or “to cover.” It strongly suggests something (softly) hanging down from a point. Draping your arms or hair over someone would be correct, but it sounds weird to say “She draped her head against him.” Hair yes, head no. So, the way I would define it would be softly letting a part of your body or clothes hang around someone else’s body. Laying your head against someone (without having your hair hanging down around them) should have a different word to describe it, although to be honest I think it’s already well described just by saying that.

    I haven’t seen butterfly kisses mentioned yet.

    Other than that, the only other thing I can think of is “butt hugs,” which is a joke term my partner and I use to describe how when she is standing next to me while I am sitting, and I hug her, my arms end up at the level of her butt. Not quite what you’re looking for, I think, lol. But hopefully amusing nevertheless.

  • RM

    I found the Cuddle Sutra nice for expanding this kind of vocabulary, but I don’t think most of these terms are widespread (and I haven’t memorized all of them myself). http://www.scribd.com/doc/35078612/The-Cuddle-Sutra

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