I don’t come from a massively huggy family. My dad hugged me once, after a heart attack. My mum gives me hugs that hurt, when I leave. She leans in, then raises her shoulder, so her shoulder bone stabs my windpipe. Sometimes, when I’m wallowing in hormonal self-pity, I’d like a hug very much. But outside a relationship, there’s no one I’d feel comfortable getting that close to.
So I’m surprised when I hear about the launch of “Be Cuddled Today,” a “professional cuddle agency” that offers snuggles as a service. Who would let a stranger hug them – and pay for it? But it’s not a new idea. Cuddle parties – where strangers cuddle, without sexual contact – came to the UK a decade ago . The benefits of hugging apparently include a boosted immune system and a reduction in stress.
I phone Stella Sonnenbaum who runs cuddle parties and one-to-one sessions. She tells me the people who come to her parties are mostly single men in their forties and fifties. With 16 spaces in a session, Sonnenbaum puts a cap on the number of men who can come. They’re quick to sign up, she says, but she has to keep spaces for women because, “straight men are reluctant to cuddle other men.” Sonnenbaum says people aren’t getting enough touch – or the right touch, and: “Men are more touch deprived, because of their social conditioning.”
Sonnenbaum invites me to a party she’s throwing, so on Saturday afternoon, I pack a pair of socks and a long sleeved top, and head to Leyton, where she lives. The barricading clothes are my idea. It’s 24 degrees, so I’m in flip flops and a vest, but I don’t want anyone touching my skin.
“Sit anywhere you like,” says Sonnenbaum, once I’ve armoured up in the toilet. “No, that’s where I’m sitting.” Everyone is in a circle round the room. A mattress with a purple fitted sheet is in the middle. I pick a space with my back to the snacks. This is a bad move. The guy next to me thinks he’s at an all-you-can-eat. He begins with a banana that has a vertebrae. I know, because a surround sound system is installed in his mouth. I hear him shatter every bone in that banana. When he’s done, he rifles in a bag of Kettle Chips, behind my head. I don’t need a hug, I need a tranquiliser gun.
We’re asked to write down how we’re feeling – in one word – then fold it up and put it in a bowl. The bowl comes round the circle and we pick a piece of paper, “not your own!” The guy next to me unwraps one, and it says, “fucked.” Sonnenbaum is sorry he got this word. She doesn’t know who would write this. I am paranoid people will think it was me.
Sonnenbaum talks to us about consent. We must be specific – if someone agrees to a hand on their shoulder, it doesn’t mean they’ve agreed to be stroked. What’s OK one minute, may not be OK the next.
Encouraged to be outlandish for a training exercise, we practise first saying no to each other, and then saying yes each time, to experience how it feels to agree through gritted teeth. “Can I shave your hair off, then stroke it?” Yesssss…
Next we’re on to real requests. A guy asks me to hug him. Communication is key, so I ask what sort of hug he wants. “Well, I don’t know, a pink one, a blue one…” He is being disingenuous and I point this out. “There is no genital touching,” Sonnenbaum told me on the phone, “or not with hands – breasts will be touched during hugs, but not with hands.” I do not want him touching my breasts.
Sonnenbaum says this is a safe space – arousal is OK, as long as no one acts on it. But growing up, girls are taught to watch the signals they send, in case they’re interpreted as an invitation to S-E-X. It’s tricky to chuck out a life time of lessons. I accept a foot massage and a shoulder rub, but avoid full frontal hugs.
Two of the regular guys have been single for some time. I ask if they’d come to these events if they got girlfriends. One says yes, pointing out that people bring their partners. The other one says no: “Why would I?”
After a “puppy pile,” in which we form a blindfolded mass, on the mattress (I make myself participate on the third go), the afternoon is over. “We should keep in touch, hey?” says Bananaman. I do not want to keep in touch, but despite the exercises where we practised saying “no,” I find myself feeling awkward.
Although it’s been an afternoon of escalating physical contact, when I leave, I shake Sonnenbaum’s hand. While I believe in the benefits of touch, are organised events like this the answer? Would there be a need for them if we were more tactile as a society? One of the women – a touch practitioner herself – points out our English reserve and says: “We’ve got a long way to go.”