Last weekend my husband and I went to a wellness retreat in the mountains. As part of it, we participated in a consensual touch workshop. It was an enjoyable experience that ended in a wonderful cuddle puddle. Little did I know what would come next… But let me start from the beginning.
We made it just in time for that workshop when we got to the retreat center. After we settled on some pillows in a giant dome, I looked around and noticed that everyone there was quite attractive. “I wouldn’t mind cuddling with any of you,” I thought.
Anne, the facilitator, kicked us off with an intro and a general discussion of consent. Everyone in the room seemed well aware of the concept, so we didn’t spend too much time on it. Then she told those of us with a partner that we needed to discuss our boundaries about touch. “Ask your partner if it would be okay with them if you touched someone else,” she instructed. “Then clarify what kind of touch would be okay with them and what kind of touch would make them uncomfortable. Ask lots of questions!” Folks that came alone were instructed to think about what kind of touch they would be comfortable with.
We were given a few minutes to discuss it/think about where our comfort zone ended. I asked Daniel if there was any way I could touch someone or be touched by someone else that he wouldn’t be okay with.
He said, “You can do anything you want! Go enjoy yourself!” “You don’t mind even if I kiss someone?” I asked. “Nope,” he confirmed. “And if they touch me with their tongue?” “Yep — as long as you enjoy it!” “Okay,” I said, “Your turn.”
“Is there anything I could do that would make you uncomfortable?” Daniel asked. I thought about it. I imagined seeing him kiss someone else. That thought made me uncomfortable. I thought about him holding hands with someone else. That felt okay. Hugs felt okay too. Would I feel okay if he touched someone in an obviously sexual way?.. We were instructed not to touch the breast and areas below the waist at the workshop. Still, there are so many ways to touch another human being that limiting those areas didn’t prevent us from having sexual-in-other-ways interactions at all.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you mean you don’t know,” asked Daniel. “I just don’t know how I will react when I see you touch someone else,” I said. “I want to say “go for it,” and I want to be able to guarantee that I will feel okay, but I just can’t because I really don’t know.” “I see,” he said.
We sat there silent for a moment.
I raised my hand for Anne to come over.
“We have a question,” I said when she approached. “What if I don’t know how I will feel when I see my husband touch someone else?” “Excellent question,” she said, “My partner and I have this agreement that we will only do what the other one is comfortable with. And we trust each other to strive to open up to other possibilities if that’s what they want. And it’s okay if we cannot meet them there just yet. We know that we will make an effort to move in that direction if that’s what they want. Is this helpful?” “Sort of,” I said. “Remember, we are not going to be touching breasts and below the waist areas today,” Anne said, “And in any case, if you don’t feel comfortable, you can choose to only play with each other in this workshop.” Then someone else had a question, and she left.
“Well,” I said, “I certainly don’t want to limit us to play only with each other. I know I can tolerate some touch for sure. Like hugs, for example. Hugs are okay!” “Okay,” Daniel said, “What else?” “I don’t know if I can handle you touching someone else with your lips,” I said. “Fair,” Daniel said, “I won’t touch anyone with my lips. Anything else?” “I think that’s it… Let’s try it,” I said.
Then Anne instructed everyone to get up from their pillows and to walk around the room slowly. “Whenever I say “stop” just stop where you are and see who’s the closest — that will be your first partner,” she said.
Easy enough, I thought and started walking.
My first stop was next to a shy-looking guy wearing a black t-shirt. Anne told us the first exercise was to look at each other. In complete silence. We did. It felt incredibly awkward to stare at a complete stranger without even saying hi. But we had to keep looking. “Notice everything about the person in front of you,” Anne said, “Really see them. Appreciate their humanness!”
So I did. He had beautiful eyes and a warm smile. His face looked flushed, which I thought totally made sense, given the circumstance. He must have been a few years younger than me. Broad shoulders, slightly slouched, dark clothes. It seemed to me he wanted not to be seen. Yet there he was, standing there, being studied by me. He smiled awkwardly.
“Okay,” Anne said, “Continue walking until I say “stop” again.”
We walked on.
At the next stop, I ended up next to a girl. She was a few inches shorter than me.
“Ask your new partner if it’s okay with them if you put your hand on their heart,” Anne instructed, “The partner with shorter hair asks first.” I had longer hair, so she asked me, “Would it be okay with you if I put my hand on your heart?” “Okay,” I said.
She put my hand on her heart and looked at me.
We were instructed to look at each other for a few moments.
It felt strange to have someone else’s hand on my chest. Her eyes were so beautiful. Unexpectedly, I felt loved by this girl.
Then we switched —with her consent, I put my hand on her heart. Suddenly, I felt her heartbeat. It made sense — my hand was on her heart, but for some reason, it took me by surprise. I felt that she was human. I felt that she had worries and anxieties, and I felt a lot of love for her just for her humanness.
Then we were told to continue our slow walks around the room.
At the next stop, we were instructed to lie next to our new partner and ask them to touch us in a way we wanted to be touched at that moment.
I ended up lying down next to a tall guy with brown eyes.
“It would be lovely if you could touch my hair,” I said. “Okay,” he said after a short pause, “How would you like to be touched on your hair?” “Like a mother consoling her crying child would,” I said. He looked at me, puzzled. “Okay,” he said and started petting my head, “Is this okay?” “Yes! Exactly what I had in mind,” I said.
He continued petting me on the head for a while. I realized I needed to feel that kind of caring, calming touch in this weird new place among all those strangers. It felt amazing. Then it was time to switch.
“Can you hold my hand?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, “How would you like me to hold your hand?” “Like when two friends meet and say hello,” he said. “Okay,” I said and took his hand into mine. “A little firmer,” he asked.
We lay there holding hands. I squeezed his hand a bit more. I tried different grips and stuck with the one that felt the most comfortable for me.
Then we shared what that felt like. My partner said that by the end, we got to the exact hand position he was hoping for, but he couldn’t explain it sooner. “Yes, it’s difficult to explain how we want to be touched — it’s a new language we don’t normally speak,” I said.
After that, Anne told us to get into cuddle puddles with the five-six people closest to where we were lying. I ended up next to a cute girl with blue eyes wearing a white fur coat. She asked me if it was okay to hug me. I said sure.
We spent some time in the cuddle puddles, then went around the room sharing our experiences. Generally, most people initially felt awkward but became more comfortable throughout the exercises. Many noticed that asking for what we needed felt unnatural. We are not used to that. Overall, the workshop was interesting and enlightening to most participants, myself included.
After the workshop, Daniel and I shared our observations. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about him cuddling with others, but I was curious about the kind of touch he went for and whose chest he placed his hand on.
I could do this again, I thought.
The night continued with a meditation, a silent disco, and other events. We kept meeting new people and making new connections. I started talking to a girl who was very curious about my startup experience. We decided to go for a walk.
“Daniel, I’ll be right back,” I said, “I’m going for a walk with Layla.” “Cool,” he said, “I’ll be here.”
And off we went.
Layla and I immediately found many synchronicities in our lives. We both had kids, she did something for work that I could help with, and we knew the same people. By the time we got back, it felt like I had made a new friend.
When we returned, Daniel was nowhere to be found.
I walked around the retreat center looking for him but couldn’t spot him. Eventually, I came across a large tent with the doors zipped up. There was a woman in front of it putting her shoes on.
“Do you know what’s happening inside this tent?” I asked. “Yes, they are doing a massage workshop,” she answered. “Thanks,” I said.
Daniel loves massage. He loves being massaged, and he loves massaging other people. He even talked about getting a masseuse certificate at some point. “He must be in there,” I thought.
And the moment I unzipped that tent door, I saw him.
There were about twenty people in the tent. Half were splayed over the floor, and the other half massaged them. Most were dressed or at least partially clothed, except the one girl Daniel was massaging. His oiled hands were on her naked back — the only completely naked back in the room, mind you.
“Hello,” I said and sat next to Daniel and the naked back girl. “Oh, hi!” he said and continued to massage her.
I noticed that he wouldn’t take off his hands off her, even when switching positions. I felt something rise in my belly.
I didn’t know what it was yet, but I felt it. It was a mix of ice and fire, something very uncomfortable. “It’s just a massage workshop,” I kept telling myself, “He is learning how to do massage.” Repeating it like a mantra, I waited for it to end. I didn’t like watching Daniel touch another woman with his oiled hands, yet I couldn’t leave. I felt glued to the spot where I was sitting. At that moment, I hated it all — the retreat, the workshop, Daniel, the girl, the massage workshop instructor, the tent, and myself — for not being open-minded enough. Finally, it was time to switch. Daniel asked if I wanted to massage him. I said yes. Looking back, I wonder if I said yes because I really wanted to massage him or because I couldn’t bear the thought of watching the naked girl massage him… After the girl dressed and left, it was my turn to learn massage.
The instructor was pretty good. I focused on the technical aspects of the workshop and bottled my emotions until later. I massaged Daniel’s beautiful back with all the focus I could muster at the moment.
Then the workshop ended.
Daniel and I decided to go for a walk.
At first, we walked in silence.
Daniel looked at me.
“What’s up?” he said.
I tried to find the words. It was hard. I didn’t want to hurt him, and I didn’t want to pretend I didn’t feel all the things I felt in that tent.
Finally, I said, “Daniel, you know how a couple of hours ago we talked about me not knowing how I would react if I saw you touch someone?” “Yes,” he said. “Well, I know now that I wouldn’t react well,” I said. “What do you mean,” he asked. “I couldn’t find you when I returned from the walk with Layla. I looked everywhere. Then I finally found you — in that tent, massaging the only half-naked person in the room. It hurt,” I explained. “Why did it hurt,” he asked. “Maybe because she was the only naked person there, and you wouldn’t take your hands off her even when I got there, even for a moment???” I almost yelled.
I noticed that I tend to raise my voice when I am in pain. I must have been in a lot of pain then because even Daniel noticed that…
“You know, we were told it’s best to do a massage on a naked body,” he calmly explained, “And we were told that our subjects would feel safer if we had our hand on them at all times.” “Oh,” I said.
This new information slowly made its way into my brain. It was a massage workshop, and it made sense she was half-naked. And yes, I remembered the “keep your hand on them at all times” rule from my previous massage workshops.
Was I overreacting?..
Something still didn’t sit well with me. It was the complete disregard for the concern I shared earlier — that I didn’t know how I would react if Daniel touched someone else.
“Couldn’t you just check in with me first?” I said. I knew the answer before he spoke. I wasn’t there for him to ask before it started.
“I’m sorry I didn’t check in with you first. I didn’t think it would be a big deal,” Daniel said. “I’m sorry that it was,” I said, “I wish I didn’t have all these annoying negative emotions when you were touching other people.”
I wanted to be the open-minded non-monogamous progressive woman who felt compersion all the time and had no jealousy whatsoever. Yet, over and over, my traumas and insecurities kept showing up at random times.
“I promise I will continue working on it,” I said, “I am just not as enlightened as you are when it comes to seeing you touch others. Maybe one day I’ll get there. I’m just not there yet,” I said. “I know, and I appreciate it,” Daniel smiled, “Want a massage?” I stared at him, jokingly pretending I was offended. “You know what,” I said, “I actually do!”
We laughed and went back to our tent.
Relationships are hard. That day I learned that Daniel and I were at very different levels of comfort about how we interact with others. I learned that even when we try to discuss everything in advance, there will be times when we are not there to ask. And that the decision we make at that moment might affect the other in an unexpected way.
What helped me process that day was remembering that Daniel had the best intentions in mind when he made the decision to attend the massage workshop. All he wanted to do was to learn massage techniques.
There will be times when our partners are not around, and we are faced with an ethical choice that might affect them. If I trust myself and my partner, it will be easier to come to terms with those decisions that turn out to be unpopular.
I learned that asking for precisely what I needed could lead to much joy. And that not being explicit enough about what I didn’t need could lead to a great deal of pain. And I learned that I would rather not see Daniel touch other women’s naked bodies. At least not yet…