Haphephobia describes the fear of touching, or of being touched. Whether it's by strangers, close friends, or even a romantic partner, people with haphephobia find touching extremely uncomfortable and in some cases unbearable. It's usually not about a fear of germs or contamination—known as mysophobia—but rather an obsession with protecting personal space.
For day-to-day insight on what it's like living with this phobia, we spoke to a 23-year-old graphic designer, AJ. He talked about how he first noticed it, how it affects his romantic life, and how he frequently offends people by refusing to touch them.
When someone touches me, it hurts. I can't explain it much better than that. Until recently, I could remember every single time a person touched me in my life: where they touched me, and what I should have done to prevent it. Whenever someone gets too close, I become anxious. If they do touch me, it almost burns, and I can feel their hand for a long time afterward. I just feel violated until I focus on something else. A friend once pointed out that it's funny to watch me move through a group of people because I casually contort myself around everyone to make sure we don't touch.
I've felt this way my whole life, but it wasn't until my freshman year of high school when that damn Free Hugs video came out that I realized I had a problem. Back then, when I was doing research for a psychology paper, I came across the term "haphephobia." When I saw it, I wanted to show everyone and say, "See! It's a real thing!" So I did exactly that.
My parents scoffed. They told me that "human beings need touch," although they weren't very physical with their affection either. Interestingly, my maternal great-grandmother was called "the great untouchable" behind her back. Like her, I think my parents have only hugged me a few dozen times in my entire life; we've never kissed, not even on the cheek. In fact, when I was little, I once overheard my mom on the phone talking about how disgusting it is that families kiss their children. I've never doubted they loved me. It's just that touching wasn't their thing.
Haphephobia has affected all my relationships, but actually, I think women respond to me much more positively than other guys. I think it's because they can tell that I have no interest in sex with them. A lot of them also assume I'm gay. I don't know what it's like to be a woman, but it seems like they have to walk through life feeling like every guy wants to grope them, and that sounds like hell.
But just because I don't like being touched doesn't mean that I don't have a sex drive. It's just that I'm not going to act on it unless I'm incredibly comfortable. One time, my friends talked me into taking a drunk girl home from the bar because she couldn't drive. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were trying to get me laid. Just for those kinds of moments, I wore a protective ring on my wedding finger. I told the girl I was married, and she could sleep on the couch. I didn't sleep that night because I was afraid she'd come into my room and try to have sex with me anyway.
Continued below. For a little something related:
There have been a few close friends that I was romantically interested in. When I would attempt to have sex with them, my heart would race, and I'd end up getting absolutely no pleasure out of the experience. Of course, this made the women I slept with very self-conscious about themselves, so I started self-medicating with alcohol to calm down. Then I could also blame my inability to ejaculate on the beer.
This is one of the reasons I fell into alcoholism, which is how I met a nurse who helped me through my anxiety surrounding physical contact. She would hold out her hand and tell me it was OK to touch it and it wouldn't hurt. Then she had me touch her arm, or she'd touch my face and tell me that it wasn't bad. It was uncomfortable, but she found a way to make it funny. We ended up getting married. I couldn't have done it without her. Also, my wife has two children. I've lived with them for about two years, and I have never touched them. Not even an accidental hand graze.
One time at a bar, I saw my friend put his hand on someone's shoulder as he walked passed them. I remember thinking, That was suave, I wish I could do that. But I can't. When I'm going to a crowded place, I usually get drunk, or if that's not an option, I end up whispering to a dog who isn't there. I don't bend over and pet something imaginary; I just start whispering to myself. I don't know why that makes me feel better, but it does. I've been caught talking to an imaginary dog a lot, and I just tell people that I'm singing. I have yet to be asked what the name of the song is. My arms are almost always crossed, but I try my best to have a friendly smile and laugh at a joke, but I feel like the two mannerisms contradict each other and make me look like a psychopath.
I've gotten pretty good at avoiding touch, so I don't have bad experiences anymore. I'm a graphic artist, but I'm currently transitioning into computer programming because the customer interaction is limited. I've learned to purposefully pay for things with a card instead of cash. If I'm dealing with change, I just drop it into their hand and try to have them do the same for me by making a rather obvious cupping motion with my hands.
I can't control everything, though. One time, I was handed a Christmas card from my boss, and she went to hug me, and I stepped back and put my arms up and explained that I couldn't hug her. She was obviously a little hurt by this, and when I opened the card and saw she had given me a hefty bonus, I felt horrible.
Just yesterday, my mother-in-law was crying, and all I could do was move a little closer to her. I tried to pat her back, but I ended up only poking her with one finger.
It's been a long journey. If I hadn't taken steps to fix myself, I would surely have had a liver failure from drinking at this point. I often feel like an outsider, but I still have some hang-ups, as I'd rather not be touched than be included. I'm still only in the beginning stages of getting over this, so we'll see where it leads me. Because I think my dad is right: Humans do need touch. I just have to find a way to become comfortable with it.