The Physical Touch Spectrum

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Ace, at The Thinking Asexual has a great post up discussing a concept which Ace calls “the physical touch escalator”

The physical touch escalator is based on the premise that each form or level of touch on the spectrum automatically and undoubtedly implies a progression to the next form or level, usually beginning somewhere after “nonromantic/casual hugs.” Therefore, if you enthusiastically engage in one type of nonsexual, affectionate touch with someone, you are expected to eventually engage in whatever physical act comes after it on the spectrum—and keep going until you eventually reach penetrative sex.

If you don’t want to share Touch C with a person, then you better not agree to share Touch B, and if you go through with Touch C, you’re implying that you’re interested in Touch D, etc. The nonsexual forms of physical affection are only means to a sexual end, their main value the potential for sex that they carry by default.

It’s a fantastic post, and an important idea. I don’t really have anything to add to it. It reminded me, however, of a different concept. Ace began the post by saying:

I look at physical touch between two people via a spectrum model: on one end of the spectrum (of positive touch only) is the handshake and on the other end is full-blown penetrative sex. What falls in between progresses from that most casual and non-intimate/nonsensual type of touch to more intimate, more sensual, and ultimately sexual.

The nonsexual/nongenital forms of touch include: unemotional hugs, emotional hugs, holding hands, nonromantic kissing, romantic/erotic kissing (that breaks down further into “on the mouth, close-lipped,” “on the mouth, with tongue,” “on the body, close mouthed”, “on the body, open-mouthed”), cuddling (clothed or partially unclothed), caressing or petting the body affectionately, intimate paired dancing.

The erotic and/or sexual forms of touch include: mutual masturbation, sexual groping of the body with particular attention to the breasts or buttocks, dry humping, oral sex, anal sex, sex with toys, and penile-vaginal sex.

The “sexuality as a spectrum” model is very ingrained in our culture. The “correct” progression of a sexual relationships starts at one end of the spectrum, goes through each intermediate step, and ends at penetrative sex. This is why baseball is such a common metaphor to describe sex acts. You can’t go straight to second base without tagging first! It’s against the rules! Even if you hit a home run, you have to take a ceremonial lap around the bases or it doesn’t count.

I do not look at physical touch as a spectrum in that way, where there are “levels,” and each “step” progresses to a more intimate/sensual/sexual (hereafter abbreviated as “intimate”) level. In fact, I actively resist this model.

I resist it because I do not believe that any physical act is inherently more intimate or “more sexual” than any other. Certainly, there are acts which will mean more to us as individuals (for instance, cuddling tends to be more intimate to me than groping), more stimulating (genital touching is more stimulating to me than touching elsewhere), or more dangerous – and thus, requiring a higher level of trust (intercourse vs. outercourse), but these things are not universal. Some people consider kissing more intimate than sex, and some don’t. Some people consider anal sex to be more intimate than vaginal sex, and some don’t. Some people think oral sex “doesn’t count” as sex, and some emphatically argue that it does. This is, of course, not even getting into the endless variety and ranking of activities within the BDSM community. There is a world of variety is what is considered intimate to someone and meaningless to someone else. The dominant narrative encourages people to feel shameful or broken if certain steps don’t fit in to their proper place on the escalator. It’s uncool, and we should encourage people to experiment and make their own choices about what is intimate and what is not.

The other reason why I resist the spectrum model is that I don’t see anything wrong with consensually skipping steps if you don’t like them. Each physical touch is a completely different thing to me. Some people are very compatible kissers with me, but not compatible in terms of sexual groping. Sometimes, it’s the exact opposite. What if I’d like to engage in sexual groping (or something “higher” in the spectrum) with someone, but not kiss? I feel as though our society doesn’t have a narrative for that, and I wouldn’t know how to bring it up in a way that doesn’t result in offense and hurt feelings.

Another side effect of this view is that it encourages people to judge their compatibility on “higher level” activities by their compatibility on “lower level” activities. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a few friends whereby they all agreed that an incompatible kisser would almost certainly be incompatible sexually. I reject this view, mostly from experience than anything else. While I think that the emotional component of physical intimacy tends to remain largely unchanged from activity to activity, a person’s physical compatibility can be much different. Even changes as small as what part of my body a person is touching can result in vastly different amounts of pleasure.

The physical touch spectrum, though widely accepted, seems to be yet another socially-created norm that shortchanges everyone who doesn’t conform. Your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “The Physical Touch Spectrum

  1. In a discussion-cum-rabid flame war on the importance of verbal consent, I pointed out ‘How can you know your partner consents without asking first? You cannot assume that making out is consent for intercourse.’ And I was promptly met with the response, “I don’t make out with anyone I don’t intend to have sex with, and neither does any adult over 25.” Which I logically know is false, but it rather hurts to be told that I am essentially a freak of nature for ever wanting to enjoy kissing, cuddling, or groping independent of intercourse-intent. I find all these activities immensely enjoyable in and of themselves and feel they are cheapened when viewed as only a means to an end. I try to reassure myself that everyone else is missing out on the pleasures of touch outside the escalator framework.

  2. I believe that the physical touch spectrum is just another way to try and normalize people’s behavior. It can be used as a guideline with a new partner until they communicate something different.
    For example, I have a boyfriend/friend with benefits that doesn’t like kissing. I discovered that by following “normal protocol”. I kissed him and he let me know that he wasn’t into that. So I moved on to the next “step”.

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