Dear New Romantics,
It’s officially October.
I’m sure, by now, you’re craving stereotypically fall things: warm beverages, new ankle boots, the satisfying crunch of a fallen leaf underfoot.
And as you drift into autumnal bliss, you may also find your mind floating toward the desire for someone to hold hands and cuddle with, the dream of someone to make hot chocolate for on an imminent snow day — even if the romance fizzles out by spring.
If you’re craving physical intimacy along with apple cider doughnuts right now, you’re not alone.
Cuffing season is so called because it describes the desire to be “tied down” (or “cuffed”) that often arises in the colder months.
According to Urban Dictionary, where the term first popped up in 2011, “[t]he cold weather and prolonged indoor activity causes [you] to become lonely.” Even if commitment isn’t usually your cup of tea, you might feel a yearning for romantic connection this time of year.
“It makes sense that we would actively seek out intimacy and connection during these times,” says Jamie J. LeClaire, a sex educator who specializes in touch. “Studies have even consistently revealed that during colder months, people experience a significant rise in testosterone levels, making them more likely to desire the company of a sexual or romantic partner.”
Yep, cuffing a partner to get us through winter is evolutionary! Wanting physical contact is a built-in survival instinct, and winter is a notoriously dangerous time as far as survival goes.
It’s freezing — to the point that people can and do die from exposure. It’s dark, which is not optimal for sight, joy, or socialization. Food is scarce, which becomes evident in December when you can’t even look at squash anymore. And it’s lonely, as we pull back from social engagements to hole up in our introversion.
So of course what we crave this time of year is someone to cuddle with under blankets, sharing takeout while marathoning the latest true crime series on Netflix.
By providing the warmth of a body next to (or under or on top of) us, the safety we feel in being nurtured through touch, and the consistent socializing that commitment offers, cuffing literally helps us survive winter.
But this can still be confusing for folks who generally prefer to stay single or to have casual sex partners. Does the inclination to cuff mean you suddenly want a forever boo? Maybe not, because for you, this season might be less about commitment and more about getting consistent sensual contact.
Like our sex drives, our levels of skin hunger vary. Some of us need a lot of sensual touch, like hugging, massaging, and holding hands, and some of us prefer very little.
I often joke that my two cats — one of whom needs to sit in your lap all day while the other is much more independent — are the perfect representation of the skin hunger spectrum and the way needs vary from person to person and moment to moment.
And my favorite thing about the phrase “skin hunger” is that it allows us to view our desire for sensual touch as a separate, unique experience.
Skin hunger, defined
“Skin hunger” describes the extent to which you crave sensual touch. In the fall, as your body is biologically preparing for the cold, you may be more drawn to cuddling than usual.
This phrase has played a huge role in my life, both because I wrote my doctoral dissertation on it and because it gives language to an experience that previously went unnamed for me.
LeClaire explains, “Humans aren’t the best at being able to identify the sources of our feelings and desires. It’s easy to confuse our need for nurturing touch with an explicit desire for sexual or romantic touch.”
That is, maybe sometimes when you think you want a BJ, what you really need is a f*cking hug.
Understanding the distinction between skin hunger (our desire for touch nurturance) and sex drive (our desire for sexual activity) is important — and can help us unpack how cuffing season sneaks up on us. Especially if you’ve ever found yourself unsatisfied even when your sexuality needs are met.
Touch nurturance, the safety and security you build from consistent positive physical interaction, is often connected to infants: Duh, babies need to be snuggled to thrive. Entire developmental theories are built on this basic understanding.
“Once we reach a certain age, and we’re no longer getting consistent touch nurturance from a parent or caregiver,” LeClaire says, “non-sexual touch often becomes deprioritized.”
But as an adult, you need touch nurturance to feel safe too!
When a friend rubs your back as you’re crying, don’t you feel soothed? That’s because touch lowers cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) and triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone involved in physiological processes like reproduction and orgasm, childbirth and breastfeeding, and — yes — interpersonal bonding.
And while the myth that the release of oxytocin during sex turns women obsessively clingy is sexist nonsense, it is true that oxytocin plays a lead role in feelings of trust and emotional closeness.
An oxytocin experience brings people closer together, both emotionally and neurobiologically. And these feelings of trust, devotion, and comfort in vulnerability are directly related to our ability to survive, both as individuals and as a species.
When I used to go to the zoo, my favorite animals to watch were the monkeys. Whether they’re gorillas, chimpanzees, or orangutans, I’ve always been stunned by how human-like their behavior is (uh, or how monkey-like ours is) and how much they demonstrate constant touch.
We may not have fur for our loved ones to regularly pick through in search of vermin, but how do you think we developed a fondness for having our hair played with?
Touch means closeness. And closeness means safety.
If you find yourself obsessively swiping right and left (and up, I guess, but who actually uses super likes?), scrambling to find a cold-weather cuddle buddy, you’re not alone.
But it is worth sitting with what you’re looking for, exactly, and figuring out how to make sure everyone’s needs are met.
So ask yourself:
- Is your body craving sensual touch or sexual activity (or both)? Give yourself time to marinate in the fact that these two needs are separate. Consider how each can be met and which one you’re more drawn to.
- How will you communicate your needs to a potential partner? How might you compromise to make sure they’re happy too? As always, keep in mind that you’re not the only person in this equation — and it’s unlikely that a perfect, perfect match is out there. What are your non-negotiables? Where is there wiggle room?
- Are you prepared to reevaluate the relationship when spring blossoms into view? If you go into your search knowing you want a short-term relationship, that’s fine! But you should also go in with the expectation that you’ll have conversations about the longevity of the relationship as time goes on.
- And if you’re unable to secure a cuffing partner before the first blizzard strikes, how else can you get your needs met? For example, cuddling animal companions also releases oxytocin. And LeClaire notes that booking yourself a massage — or even attending a cuddle party — can also help.
Touch, plain and simple, is a human need — and one we may feel more intensely as our bodies prepare for the brutality of winter. So your sudden desire to cuff and be cuffed? Totally legit.
But we still owe it to our partners — and ourselves — to form thoughtful, respectful, accountable relationships, even if they’ll be over in 6 months.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.