For her 2017 book, American Hookup, sociologist Lisa Wade interviewed college students about hookup culture and dating on campus. She found that students who engaged in casual sex “had so long conditioned themselves to be cold and dismissive towards their sexual partners that for them handholding and sharing emotions was more difficult – and more intimate – than the act of having sex.”
Much of Gen Z feels that holding hands is now more intimate than sex. So, is there some truth to it and, if so, has handholding just become rarer – or has sex gotten cheaper?
Handholding Versus Hookups
Yes, in principle it sounds quite silly, but even Nadia Bokody, YouTuber and sex-positive journalist, believes that holding hands is “more intimate” than sex. As someone open about engaging in a lot of sex, Nadia admits, as a lot of people in today’s generation may also be able to relate to, that she has held hands far fewer times than she has engaged in sexual intercourse. She further describes the act of holding hands as “more daring and illicit than taking all our clothes off after having just exchanged numbers.”
She’s not the only one. One student named Farah whom Wade followed up with after graduation described how learning “to not be so afraid of holding hands” was part of her “still trying to melt down the cold shell that she’d built around herself to survive hookup culture.” Farah was happy to discover that holding hands was “not scary and it actually feels wonderful.”
Holding hands is “more daring and illicit than taking all our clothes off after having just exchanged numbers.”
Of course, in theory, how could holding hands not be more intimate than sex in today’s hookup culture? People rarely go out on boozy nights hoping to find a stranger to engage in some wholesome handholding. People have sex all the time, and with much more people. Casual sex is obviously not as taboo as it once was, but when sex is so easily acquired, how many of love’s simple acts have been left to fall into the shadows? And when did handholding suddenly become so scary?
What Handholding Does to the Human Body
Don’t worry, this isn’t an article on how “high-fiving is more intimate than sex,” but there is one significant reason why handholding feels so powerful. The physical touch associated with handholding releases oxytocin, more commonly known as the “cuddle hormone,” stimulating feelings of trust and bonding. Oxytocin and the desire for it are so strong that it can even reduce pain, as seen in a 2009 study by the University of California, which found that those subjected to moderately painful heat stimuli experienced less discomfort when holding hands with their significant other.
Fascinatingly, since oxytocin is so strong, it can often increase sexual receptiveness and intimacy (to the point where it has even been used as a libido treatment), leading to those with heightened levels wanting to be touched further – this is seen more especially in the traditional ways of courting, especially when sex occurs farther into a relationship.
So oxytocin is released during handholding, and oxytocin is a bonding hormone. But oxytocin is also released during sex, so that alone doesn’t answer why handholding is considered more intimate than sex to Gen Z.
Gen Z and the Dreaded Act of Handholding
A New York Times article on student hookups found that “several men said that they found holding hands more intimate than getting a hand job,” further pointing out that holding hands is something people do in times of romance, whereas “a handjob can simply happen during a hookup,” and it’s true, but how astounding is it that sexual acts are now deemed more intimate than merely interlocking fingers?
In another recent article from Mic, a woman in her twenties also opened about how it takes her “two to three weeks of dating before she’ll hold hands, even if they’ve already kissed or had sex.” She further states that “it’s a sign of affection, a sign of me wanting to be close to you and close with you. There’s a certain energy exchange that you can feel from holding hands with someone, especially if you have feelings for them.”
Gen Z has become more fearful of showing their hearts than showing their skin.
We can gather from both men and women that for those who engage in sexual acts as a more casual thing, actions such as handholding soon become much deeper gestures of romantic affection. Handholding, a seemingly simple gesture, can also be thought of as a public, outward sign of connection, affection, and relationship – all of which have connotations of commitment and permanence. You can hookup with a guy you just met, and tomorrow, no one will ever know. But holding hands with someone as you walk down the street? Everyone who can see you will know what that means.
So maybe the sense of intimacy that comes with handholding isn’t so much about the physical, especially as our culture has become so desensitized to the physical intimacy of sex. Maybe it’s more about emotional intimacy and allowing yourself to enter into a real relationship, of which holding hands is a visible symbol.
Considering the state Western society stands in with sex and hookup culture, it’s only natural much of Gen Z feels more intimacy in acts like handholding or cuddling. Such simple ways of bonding have become futile as a means to attaining sex – which is what so many today solely strive for. Gen Z has become more fearful of showing their hearts than showing their skin, and can we really blame them?
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