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?