I wanted to get more insight about how touch and gestures are being used by therapy to help with intimacy between lovers. So I contacted Martin Dragan, Clinical Sexologist in Canada who originally introduced me to the works of Ray Birdwhistell.

Interview with sexologists 1
Interview with Martin Dragan, Clinical Sexologist, September 5, 2017

B: Can you tell me more about sensate focus relating to gestures and how you code it in your practice? Context of the meaning of gesture – Birdwhistell

M: It’s interesting the cases that I usually have, because gesture is so subjective in a lot of the work that I do, so a lot of it is creating that context for the clients. And what I mean by that is the way they might communicate verbally and non-verbally doesn’t always match up. And then making sure that it is clarified in some way. So that it’s understood and everyone’s on the same page. So they can understand that ok by doing this, this is what they like and that’s not always universal because there’s different personality types, different types of ways that people communicate to get information across, so to try and create a universal standard, it’s really difficult because some people will just behave or act or do do different things.

(Says hi to Linus the labrador)

M: So a lot of it is about finding out intent or purpose. So if someone wants to communicate some form of intimacy, to make their intent say this is what they are doing and this is how they are doing it.

B: I’m trying to look at the intent of subconscious gestures and what they say, then using that as a way to express your purpose.

M: There’s a lot of subtlety involved in non-verbal communication and it depends whether the other person receiving that communication understands it to the same degree. (giving examples of wave and nod which mean different things to different people). So there are multiple layers that you have to add in that go along with emotion…at a bar, a nod can mean let’s hookup but in any other context that might not at all be what it means. So it’s really subjective and context dependent and that’s when things get really complicated. So I think when it comes to mate attraction, a lot of that is about display. So you have animals like the ballerina birds that have colorful mating displays, from the side it looks really weird but from the top you have a colorful flashing disk, which looks really intricate and beautiful. So that’s where the female bird will see it. From the side it looks totally weird but from the top down, it’s a beautiful display. It’s a totally different context. So from that, not only is the intent there but who’s looking at it, what’s their perspective, who’s seeing it, how are they seeing it, how are they understanding the message.

B: Would you say gesture could still be used keeping in mind that it can vary so much as a signifier used in communicating love and attraction? Like more subtle gestures, like someone across the room turning or looking towards you. Does that mean something?

M: I think so. What’s interesting about that kind of stuff is when synchronizing with movements, you’re also more susceptible to suggestions. Body position, when someone is sitting with the body more opened or somebody with their arms folded, same with your arms open, those are somewhat more universal and maybe not fully because people who might lean into your and join in conversation, some people might perceive that to be like o they’re into me, they are interested in me, they want to be closer to me versus somebody who might be like, o you are getting into my personal space. So there’s a fine line how close you go, but I think those subtle little signals can be important in trying to relay information about interest or level of attraction. Whether it’s a smile, a girl fixing her hair, that tends to be a strong indication of a grooming habit, to appear more attractive, usually if they have an earring, a sense of display as well like something shiny, there’s a lot in that 1 motion that subconsciously you are not totally aware of but you might do that to say hi I’m interested in you.

B: Do you think having more awareness of your body language could lead to meeting more lovers?

M: Not just meeting but approaching. So a lot of those non-verbal cues can be the starting point to go and talk to someone. Can be, but it’s also pretty intimidating for some. It can be a strong indicator or somebody can be completely oblivious to them but I think being aware and understanding what they mean, understanding that they are indeed indicators of interest could, if perceived properly by the recipient, could add to that initial display to take it to the next step.

B: (talks about the thesis ideas of the wearable that changes responding to gestures). Do you think technology like wearables or gesture tracking could be used as an extension of these gesture cues that we are subliminally sending?

M: I think so. I would even simplify it to the point that because there’s a lot of subtlety involved and that’s tough to get. If your garment is detecting interest or a gesture of interest, then it can respond by whatever you can send to the wearer or to the observer that they’ve perceived this gesture and recognized it.

Under controlled conditions, it would really be interesting to test that out. Just to see how that could influence follow up interactions. As an initial indicator.


Martin mentioned Kate Moyle, a Psychosexual Therapist in London who I had met at the talk about technology in love and sex. I interviewed her about her work as well as her thoughts on technology used for love.

Interview with sexologists 2

Kate Moyle, Psychosexual Therapist, interview Sep 14, 2017

B: Do you use techniques such as sensate focus and gesture-based techniques in your practice?

K: I probably don’t use sensate focus in as strict of a way as other therapists in terms of it doesn’t seem to work that well for my clients when I prescribe. It has to be for a set period of time, I work with an incredibly busy client group, lots who are professionals who travel a lot, who get home from work at 11pm. So I use lots of the sensate focus ideas but I might say to the clients like, don’t have sex, but what I want you to do is to then make sure that you are kissing a lot and cuddling, engaging in touching, there’s a kind of firm rule there, there’s a boundary that you can’t cross. We might set that for a period of time, say 2 weeks, a month whatever feels comfortable for them dependant on where they are at and what’s going on for them. But taking sex off the table immediately, penetrative sex this is, tends to give people a sense of relief. A lot of it is I don’t have this idea of performance anxiety kind of stuck in my head.

B: It is a way of using solely gestures and other senses to trigger intimacy rather than going to directly to penetrative sex.

K: For so many couples, by the time that they get to therapy, or even if it’s individuals, there tends to be a lot of rejection that goes on between partners. So 1 partner might try to initiate sex, the other one pushes them away or moves the hands or just says, o I’m too tired or I’m not in the mood, and that inevitably is rejection, it kind of tends to build up negative feelings. So what happens is then 1 partner stops trying because they feel so rejected. And if it’s just 1 partner that typically tends to initiate contact, and they are the one that stops trying, that then creates a bigger and bigger distance between the last time they even attempted contact. If that’s about sex, cutting sex out immediately means that they kind of cut out the source of the anxiety.

B: So this is more for couples that have been together for a while, would you say that similarly, when you 1st meet somebody, your gestures could also be a main signifier of attraction?

K: I can always remember, when I met my husband, I remember being at a party with him for 1 of the first times when we hadn’t seen each other for a while, it was like the 2nd time we’ve really met, and I remember there being a point at which he kind of put his hand on the small of my back. And I was like, ok! That’s interest. And how quite often when you’re having conversations with couples, they might say things like, you used to put your hands on my face when we kiss or you used to touch my hair, or you used to hold my hand in public. Things like that, so there’s small gestures of intimacy or interest that might have different levels of meaning for each partner, quite interesting to decipher. So that’s something that I do in my therapy a lot. I might say to couples, could you show each other, obviously with their clothes on, it’s not intimate touch, where you’d like your partner to put their hands when you kiss. Lots of people will say for example, the neck or the face. There’s something that that person feels is intimate and exciting about that touch. At first that it’s something more than just a peck on the cheek, hello, or goodbye.

B: It’s interesting sometimes you can remember the first initial touch of attraction, being so memorable of a gesture.

K: When you talk about eye contact, Pillow app is quite relevant to what you’re talking about, a lot of it is gestures, eye contact, it’s about hugging, it’s about sensual touch. We get people to sit opposite each other so that eye contact is direct a lot of the times. All of those things that infer interest and appreciation, admiration, and attraction, eye contact being one of the most important.  The tube in London is the perfect example, nobody ever looks at anyone, but you can always tell if someone finds someone attractive cause they’re constantly kind of checking or looking. Eye contact is a real way that we primarily signify interest, and that can be quite a big gesture. I suppose in the context of therapy, I quite often think of that in terms of trust because quite often in 1st sessions, people might not have as much eye contact, they might be more nervous, they might feel as settled, but that’s something that tends to change the further into the process they get. Not for all people, but typically for people that feel nervous, they might not want to look at you as much or if they feel embarrassed about what they’re discussing, that eye contact is something that even throughout our first session, might become more and more and more rather than at the start then kind of feeling that it’s more exposing to be looking at someone talking about what they’re finding vulnerable.

B: Such a small gesture like eye contact can make such a big impact in intimacy.

K: When we think about it, it’s so basic, you know it goes back to mother baby connections where a baby has to feel that they are connected to an adult for survival.

B: Do you feel like there’s certain gestures that has been coded in your practice to trigger more intimacy keeping in mind all the differences in individuals?

K: Quite often we do the 5 love languages by Gary Chapman as a good introduction to how they might not be just physical gestures, but they might be an act of service, or words of affirmation. I often ask then to do the quiz to find out how they are communicating cause if 1 of them is saying I really want touch and the other one is saying I just want you to do the watching, they are on completely different levels. We then open up conversation about what’s important about those things. When it comes particularly to touch, we break it down, so like if your partner touches you here, what does that mean. If they kiss you like that, what does that mean, and that’s if both couples don’t really understand what the other one thinks the other one is doing.

B: So sort of putting meaning to the touch.

K: Yea, so she might say, I know if you come up behind me and hug me, that means that you are horny. And he might say, actually, I was just doing that because I wanted to give you a hug. But she’s translating that as his usual initiation of we should have sex later.

B: So you are helping them to understand each other better?

K: Sometimes, I think it’s a bit like translating gestures. Or typically what happens is that partner A might say, when you touch me in bed, it’s just because you want sex. Partner B says, it’s not, I actually want intimacy or I just want to cuddle or I just want to kiss, if it goes to sex, great, if it doesn’t, I wouldn’t be disappointed. But because partner translates it that way, it means that they constantly push away, so they cut out all of the other gestures but actually there’s a misunderstanding. I was taught that if you view every single couple as cross-cultural, every couple as having their own language, background, experiences, that it’s impossible for everyone to completely understand each other perfectly. So I’m translating some of that between them.

B: By using technology, do you feel like that translation is going to be more needed?

K: I don’t think at the moment technology can do all the things that emotionally we need it to do. One of the biggest things I see, is I’m working with a lot of couples who say, you’re  not interested in me because you sit on your phone all night. One very simple gesture, when you have your phone in your hands, you’re not paying any attention, therefore you’re not interested in me. And that’s a really interesting understanding dynamic, because they might say, no I’m just really busy and what their partner reads it as is, there’s a barrier between you and me and what that means is that I don’t matter, or you can’t see me, or you’re not interested.

B: My thesis is about how gestures could mean different things, how it’s being used in technology and then going back to say what if we didn’t use apps to meet people anymore. The application becomes part of your body, you’re wearing it and it responds to people responding to you. If somebody is gesture in a way where they clearly like you, that you’re wearable actually responds before you do. What do you feel about using wearables as an interface for the extension of your own gestural cues?

K: To be honest, I don’t know that much about the wearable space. I don’t see why it couldn’t but then part of me thinks are we then trusting the technology more than trusting our own instincts? Sometimes our reactions are so innate, sometimes you just see someone who creeps you out but you can’t say why or there’s something about the way that someone looks at you that feels threatening or dangerous or someone you just you don’t want to be near or someone you want to sit near. The perfect example is watching people on the underground choosing the person the person they want to sit next to if there’s more than 1 seat available. There’s something very instinct about that, that I’m not sure technology can understand.

B: Do you feel like it would be better that we are more aware of our gestures? Could it lead to more likelihood of meeting lovers?

K: I suppose if we understood the way we reacted more, it could lead to more meetings because if I know that for example, if I put my hand on my chest when I’m around someone I’m attracted to. Or I knew that I play with my hair when I’m around someone I’m attracted to. If I then notice I’m doing it, I would think I must be attracted to this person.

B: I’m still trying to figure out whether knowing more is beneficial.

K: In some ways, when I look at these dating apps, yes you can match with someone based on physically thinking they are attractive, but realistically you can’t know what it will be like to meet in person.

B: So it would be more like a conversation starter for what could happen

K: It’s a root to meeting a potential partner, but what it means is physically you find that person attractive, but there might not be anything tangible there. Interaction is something that we struggle to understand.