In 2003, I started working for a Paris-based trend forecaster as a futurist, collaborating with clients like L’Oréal on what the next trends would be in texture, shade and scent for cosmetics and skin care products. I got the job largely because I understood the importance of using email subject lines, which my boss, the only other employee there, did not. I was living in Paris post-college with a fancy comparative literature degree and no visa, an overeducated illegal immigrant of sorts, and my boss tended to pay me in discarded haute couture clothing and oysters from her lover’s wine bar instead of cash. But I stayed because it turned out that I had an affinity for forecasting.
We predicted trends on a 5- to 10- to 20-year timeline. One of the basic rules of trend prediction is that you prove there is a desire for something by pointing to its lack: Flat sandals lead to platforms; the nude lip goes coral; the unadorned ears of Fashion Week 2018are sheathed in ear cuffs a year later.
It was during one of those 20-year assignments where I was trying to figure out what kind of skin people would wear on top of their real ones when there wasn’t any ozone left that I first encountered Zentai. From “zenshin taitsu” (Japanese for “full-body tights”), Zentai is a skintight, colorful garment that covers the wearer’s entire body, even the face. You need assistance to get into one; that’s how tight it is.
Kooky as the suit was, in Zentai I saw the “lack” that futurists search for. It seemed to symbolize two opposing desires — the yearning for a head-to-toe embrace and the avoidance of naked human touch. Suddenly I was on the trend hunt: Has intimacy gone so far out of style that it was poised for a comeback?
Trends don’t always have great timing — consumers went bonkers for K-cups and disposable baby food pouches while simultaneously fretting about plastic pollution — and the touch trend is no different. Human-on-human contact is fraught these days. College faculty handbooks advise male professors to meet female students with their office doors half open. Sexting has replaced the back-seat makeout. Sometimes it feels like there are more people writing about consensual sexual activity than there are people having sex.
In our “you do you” culture it’s no wonder, then, that the market is offering self-care as a stand-in for intimacy — with products from Hygge blankets all the way to sex-doll brothels. If no one else will touch us, the message seems to be, let’s all touch ourselves!
Trend forecasters look for endgames to signal the start of something new, saturation points at which no more of any one thing can be accepted in the market. For me, this point in the self-touch-is-the-best-touch phase was Gatebox, a product from a Japanese tech company that went on sale for $2,520 in 2018. Touted as a “digital assistant,” Gatebox is actually a holographic girlfriend named Azuma Hikari who lives in a glass cube. The commercial for this item, in which a lonely worker eco-commutes home on his bicycle while texting an impatient Azuma, who worries he has forgotten their three-month anniversary (more horribly, he hasn’t), evokes more existential dread than the director Spike Jonze managed in the two hours of his science-fiction drama, “Her.”
That was also the year when the French actress Catherine Deneuve and 100 of her peers sent an open letter regarding what they saw as the excesses of the #MeToo movement. The letter was much derided, for the co-signers’ privilege and their conflation of seduction with violence, among other transgressions, but in it I recognized a worry that I’d been harboring myself. If welcome, spontaneous touch had fallen out of favor, and formerly sexually active citizens were staying home with “Game of Thrones” and a vibrator, wasn’t it possible that people could literally forget how to touch another human? And if we did lose the muscle memory of consensual touch, how would we get it back?
To start with, we’re going to have to get off our phones. Dating apps tell us that the most empowered thing we can do for our love lives is to hire a third-party interloper in the form of a touch screen. Online dating has numerous benefits, but it also leads to option paralysis, decreased fluency in social cues and the tendency to consider people avatars instead of human beings.
A bumper crop of stylish dumbphones like the Light Phone and the Jasper Morrison-designed Punkt suggest that people are catching on. Facebook has reported having “teen problems,” with young users clicking “deactivate” by the millions, and none of my 20-something-year-old half siblings (of which I have many, thanks to another trend: divorce) have ever joined Twitter. Among my writer friends, a social media hiatus is as de rigueur as a Moleskine. And while I realize that “my own life” is a problematic test group, my husband recently quit Instagram even though his enthusiasm for it was the reason I joined that time-sucker in the first place. It has to be a sign.
“Offline” might be the new black, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to jump up from our sweet-and-sour-stained Crate and Barrel couches and into one another’s arms. Instead, people are turning to the experts for compensated touch.
When she founded Cuddle Up to Me in 2013, the professional hugger Samantha Hess had one treatment room in Portland, Ore., and spare time. Today, Ms. Hess has an expanded practice and five new employees. The New Jersey-based website RentAFriend.com has over 621,000 human companions available by the hour for company barbecues, class reunions and that all-important category of “hot air balloon.” And sex therapy is making waves as a viable — and potentially superior — option to couple’s counseling. In a Vanity Fair interview last year, the sex therapist Walter Brackelmanns said that the divorce rate in his practice was just 5 percent, which would suggest that sex therapy is effective, or at least sex therapy with Walter Brackelmanns was.
I’m far from the first person to consider the future of touch. The Atlantic asked, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” The Guardian’s Paula Cocozza wondered, “Are We Living Through a Crisis of Touch?” The New York Times posited that “Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good.” Meanwhile, professional cuddling has gone from being a “no freaking way that exists” thing to a bona fide service that Siri can find you a local address for. Could the pendulum be swinging from “Don’t touch me!” to “Please touch me again”?
If trend forecasting is, indeed, a game of opposites, then I think we’ll see touch-deprivation check-in spots in public wellness centers where patients can go to be embraced. Executives will enroll in body language clinics where elders teach the nonverbal communication skills that have fallen out of use. Picture a return to “pheromone-based” dating, prolonged eye contact as the new Soul Cycle, skin-hunger regulated as diligently as our Fitbit steps. Hell, maybe ballroom dancing will even make a comeback, because if my experience in Mr. Paige’s fifth-grade extracurricular taught me anything, it’s that a chaperoned Viennese waltz can quickly teach you and your partner about the parameters of “good” touch.
And while I don’t yet understand how the leap will be made, I think that humans will move from spending most of their time thinking about sex to having some themselves.
If I’m right about any of this, you can buy me a nice big plate of fines de claire, my ex-boss’s currency of favor, and an aphrodisiac, I hear.