A foot rested in my lap, and I had no idea to whom it belonged. I nestled in a “puppy pile,” the cozy assortment of people who snuggle together at a cuddle party. Lights dim, eyes closed, and heads resting on pillows, we occasionally talked or laughed or even fell asleep, but mostly we basked in the comfort of tactile bliss. Later, we regrouped into a spooning formation, one arm draped over the side of the person in front. Along the edges of the living room, more people snuggled in pairs and trios. These configurations morphed for a couple of hours before the party ended, our touch needs sated for the evening.
Into my fourth year with this affectionate group, I felt at ease in the cluster of overlapping limbs and torsos. I had come a long way from my first tentative forays into the touch community of Portland, Oregon, shortly after moving here from Florida. In fall 2012 I attended my first event, called a Rub and Grub, which combined a potluck in one room with massage from several pairs of hands in another. Soon after, I found myself at Free Hugs Day at the Farmers Market and at cuddle parties with themes: game nights, movie nights, beach snuggles, and Cuddle Cafés, complete with menus offering tactile selections. But mostly I’ve enjoyed the simple cuddle parties where the focus is on lots of hugging. After these incredibly soothing encounters, I sleep like a baby.
Although the peer touch movement has roots in counterculture groups of the 1960s, it gained renewed interest in recent years through the emergence of snuggle parties and professional cuddlers to meet the needs of single adults and others without access to affectionate touch. We live in a touch-averse society where close body contact is limited to romantic partners. Proponents of the movement hail the benefits of touch, including: reduced heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol; an increase in the “love hormone” oxytocin; and mitigation of the effects of touch deprivation—depression, sleep disturbance, anger, violence, eating disorders, and lower immune function.
Sometimes it still seems unreal that I have easy access to snuggle groups. I remember the negative reactions I received in the spring of 2012 when I presented an essay titled “Touch Hunger” to a writing group in Tampa, a city that had no touch groups. In the essay I argued in favor of touch support groups to meet the needs of touch-deprived adults. I had not yet heard of snuggle parties, but envisioned similar gatherings. My fellow writers roundly dismissed the idea as socially unacceptable.
“It won’t fly,” they said. “Our society isn’t ready for that.”
So when later that year I found myself snuggling with strangers in a Portland living room, I felt vindicated. It struck me as a good example of how culture change evolves differently across the regions of our country. When I shared my experiences with one of my Louisiana relatives, she responded: “You really are weird.”
Even though I found pockets of acceptance in Portland where touch groups flourish, some members of my writing group here expressed skepticism about gaining social approval for peer touch. When I presented this piece for review, someone cautioned me to “clearly state at the very beginning that cuddle groups are not about sex,” because without such a disclaimer, people will assume otherwise and may stop reading.
So when the very conventional mainstream publication, AARP The Magazine, ran a story about touch needs of seniors in December 2015, describing cuddle parties in a positive light, I cheered. It’s happening, I thought. Peer cuddling is slowly becoming an everyday thing, not just for the adventurous. And when Disney presented otters having a cuddle party in the 2016 movie Finding Dory, snuggling seemed to be going mainstream. But despite the growing positive coverage in the media, it remains uncertain how widely peer touch will be accepted in American society.
My experience in the touch community of Portland underscores two major challenges to legitimation of snuggling: the persistent association of peer touch generally, and snuggling in particular, with sexuality, and the pejorative image of people who attend snuggle events as psychosocially deficient in some way. I’ll address each of these in turn, then offer some ideas on what it may take to overcome these obstacles.
Platonic vs. Sexual Touch
The wariness toward touch events felt by many people stems partly from the larger society’s taboos about nonromantic touch, and partly from the touch community’s association with sex-positive subcultures, an assortment of social movements that embrace all aspects of sexuality as healthy and pleasurable. Overlapping membership among touch and sex-positive groups is common. People who practice polyamory (having multiple intimate relationships with mutual consent), for example, and people comfortable with open sexual relationships, often make up the early participants drawn to snuggle parties. While I respect the sex-positive agenda, its association with peer touch complicates the challenge of destigmatizing platonic touch.
In Portland, an organization called Love Tribe paved the way for the emergence of a vibrant touch community through its sponsorship of events offering gradations of intimacy. The group invented terminology for different “levels” of intimacy that have become widely used. Snuggle parties designate exclusively platonic touch, romps are sensual events where upper body nudity and kissing, but no direct genital contact, are allowed, and eros events involve full sexual participation. Touch Positive Oregon evolved from this group during a period when LoveTribe was inactive, initially sponsoring both platonic events and romps, although the latter, surprisingly, were publicized as platonic in nature. Following a change in leadership and a somewhat contentious internal debate, Touch Positive Oregon discontinued romps and began holding exclusively platonic cuddle parties. It also changed its name to Oregon Touch (OT) to distance itself from the sex-positive movement.
As an anthropologist with many years studying both support groups and social stigma, I worried about the public image of the new touch group in Portland. In the early days before the policy change, I chafed at the discrepancy between the way the group labeled itself as platonic on its Meetup homepage, and yet advertised “juicy” events where “light making out” and going topless were allowed. I expressed my concerns to one of the organizers and she promised to talk to the leadership about it, but I never heard back. Later, someone at an event asked a leader to define platonic. Her definition included romp-style activities. I jumped in to advocate for eliminating sensual events in service to the larger good of societal acceptance. The leader sternly rebuked me for disrupting the meeting, saying it was not the place for such a discussion. “Members are free to decline to participate in any activities that make them uncomfortable,” she noted.
People in Portland’s touch community often make the counter-argument that participation in any event is consensual, as if the voluntary nature of an activity should obviate any concerns one might have about it. There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of the impact of social perceptions on peer touch as a movement.
Passionate about this issue, I sent a follow-up email to the leader that upbraided me, outlining my position. “As an advocate/activist for social change to promote greater acceptance of affective touch among adults,” I argued, “we have an obligation to try and avoid doing anything that reinforces that old view of touching as sexual. . . . In American culture ‘making out’ is clearly understood to be sexual in nature. Calling it ‘light make-out’ doesn't change that. Hosting such events sends out mixed messages and sabotages our hard work to desexualize touching.” I concluded with a plea for the group to discontinue “socially irresponsible” practices that harm the larger cause.
Three months later, the leader replied and requested that “any future opinions and feedback be given either in writing or at a scheduled, private meeting with the leadership.” Voicing criticism in a public setting, I was told, was “inappropriate and showed disrespect for both the facilitator and participants.” My plea to limit sponsored events to nonsexual activity as conventionally defined was not addressed, but I was asked to “be patient as policy matters were in flux with a transition to new leadership.”
Part of the problem is that people in the touch community think all forms of touch and sexual behavior should be placed on a single continuum. For example, in Vitamin T: A Guide to Healthy Touch, Bob Czimbal describes a broad spectrum, with impersonal public contact (e.g., a handshake) on one end, more personal touch in the middle (hugs from family and friends) and sexual activity on the other end. LoveTribe’s levels of intimacy hierarchy presents a similar framework. However, placing friendly touch on the same axis as sexual contact confuses the issue and perpetuates the misconception that all forms of touch are slightly erotic. It is the context of the act that defines its meaning. “The very same touch on the arm, activating the same neurons in the skin, can be friendly, sexual, aggressive, etc., depending upon the situation” (Personal communication, David J. Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.)
In the context of snuggle groups, close body contact can have ambiguous meaning for participants, and many seek guidance for what is acceptable touch in that setting. Several rounds of discussion within OT led to useful distinctions that helped clarify the difference between platonic and sexual touch. As co-organizer Kristen Reynolds explained in a December 2013 newsletter, “Essentially nurturing, non-sexual touch as we define it is relaxing, comforting, affectionate, with clothes on, and calming. While sexual touch is exciting, stimulating, with clothes off, and arousing.” Members found these distinctions between “calming” and “arousing” touch helpful in understanding the forms of touch that were allowed at our events.
By the time I started hosting snuggle parties in my upstairs space, there were clear rules in place to guide acceptable, nonsexual behavior. New members were required to attend an Introduction to Snuggling class that addressed norms, boundaries and consent. Clothing was never optional. At the start of a cuddle session, participants introduced themselves as either “puppies” or “cats,” stating whether they were open to snuggling with anyone without first being asked for permission (a puppy) or whether they preferred to be asked before someone initiated touching (a cat).
In June 2014 I hosted my first event with ten people in attendance. Touch Talk was a discussion group plus cuddle session. I wanted to share ideas about how groups like ours could play an advocacy role in society to promote greater acceptance of organized touch events. In particular, we explored ways to de-sexualize common misperceptions of snuggle parties. Animated talk focused on a recurrent theme—how to mainstream touch groups by increasing community awareness and holding events in public places. The Free Hugs events at the Farmers Market are an example of these kinds of normalization processes. We talked about how decades ago, massage therapy went through a similar legitimation process, in which the profession disassociated itself from the shady massage parlors of old. Touch groups face similar challenges in shedding their identification with erotic activities. I also shared with the group my perspective that societal taboos against nonromantic touch deny single people access to the full range of physical affection. Like other forms of singlism, the term coined by Bella DePaulo to describe discrimination against single adults, such restrictions place an unnecessary burden on uncoupled people to find specialized sources of touch.
Attrition and Social Compatibility
Following Touch Talk, I began hosting monthly snuggle parties, mostly in the evening and typically lasting about three hours, with 8-15 people present. I had fixed up my upstairs into a snuggle den with foam mattresses, pillows and blankets providing the fluff to cushion our bodies. These gatherings continued through Fall of 2015, when a growing problem posed a new challenge for the group—retention of members. Over time we noticed an increasing turnover among people who attended the snuggle parties. New people continued to join the Meetup and attend an introductory class, but they often tried only one or two events and didn’t return, so that gatherings became largely a collection of strangers, each time a new set of faces and personalities to get to know.
To better understand why people were not returning for more events, Kristen queried members about what might be causing this turnover. She discovered that people were satisfied with the kind of events offered and the forms of cuddling available, but they felt uncomfortable with the strangeness of some of the participants. They said many of the people seemed “weird” to them in some way and hard to relate to. Kristen described the pattern as reminiscent of high school notions of popular and unpopular crowds. Popular people, she explained, shy away from parties where unpopular people predominate. Listening to this analysis, I felt sad that these old patterns from our early years still affected us in adult life (even in a city that prides itself for being weird!).
The social compatibility theory rang true to me. At events I hosted and many others, a disproportionate number of individuals attended who would be considered, by mainstream society, oddball characters, socially awkward or strange. Oregon Touch seemed to attract introverts, geeks, people recovering from addictions and mental illness, veterans with PTSD, physically less able persons, transgender folks, and others who might make a straight, “normal” crowd uncomfortable.
In The Snuggle Party Guidebook, Dave Wheitner notes that touch events tend to attract people who have difficulty relating to others, such as those on the autism spectrum, and who seek opportunities for nurturing touch in a structured setting. Since I place myself somewhere on the spectrum, I took pride in providing a venue for safe touch that is welcoming to neurodiverse individuals. But such openness can have a downside—neurotypical people may feel ill at ease.
To counteract the turnover phenomenon, we tried different scenarios. Kristen and I implemented a strategy to assemble a stable group of people that met on a regular basis and got to know one another, so that instead of greeting new faces each time, participants embraced the same people every month, over time building trust and caring. The announcement billed the group as open to anyone, but noted that after a couple of meetings it would be closed, with new members added by invitation only. Thus, the Friends Friday Night Snuggle was born.
For the first few months, the formula seemed to be working. Meeting the first Friday of the month in my snuggle den, the group sustained a core membership of about a dozen people who learned one another’s names; as members drifted away, others were added one at a time. After a few months, however, attendance began to decline, and eventually we suspended the group for lack of interest.
A similar pattern characterized the trajectory of a small cuddle circle that two of us formed in late 2015. Helen, my co-organizer of the small group, was an original member of the Friends group who dropped out because the group’s chatter was too loud for her tastes. Like me, she prefers a quiet, soothing atmosphere for snuggling. We recruited three OT members to join us, two men and a woman who we knew from previous events were not loud and boisterous. To our delight, the group had a few successful meetings, but it soon lost members. These were replaced, but the group quickly unraveled for disparate reasons. Lacking the energy and motivation to keep the circle going, I regretfully disbanded the group.
Stereotypes of Touch-Deprived People
While I can understand people being turned off by finding too many socially awkward individuals at snuggle events, I was taken aback to find negative stereotypes of touch-deprived people within the touch community itself. Sometimes this took the form of leaders making well-meaning but insensitive comments about having to accommodate the needs of those desperately starved for affection, or how to handle an overabundance of introverts and Asperger types at an event. Other times the pejorative views were blatant.
One surprising example came from Portland’s first professional cuddler, Samantha Hess, who opened her Cuddle Up to Me business in 2013. Ever curious about new developments in the touch arena, I became Sam’s first female client. This was before she gained whirlwind national media attention, highlighted by a stint as a contestant on America’s Got Talent, where she boldly cuddled with the judges on stage. A few of the nineteen cuddling positions described in her book, Touch: The Power of Human Connection, Sam practiced with me, including one called “the blanket” (renamed “the cloak” in the book), where she drapes her body over the client’s like a coverlet.
Sam and I cuddled during four hour-long sessions scattered over a period of about a year, for which I paid $60 per session, the going rate for a massage. Much of the time we spent laughing and discussing society’s taboos surrounding touch. What impressed me most about Sam was her professionalism and her ambitious goal to establish a national chain of cuddle shops serving clients on-site instead of at their homes.
Sam opened the first cuddle shop in Portland the year following our sessions. The business had a staff of four young cuddlers, three women and one man. But by this time, Samantha and I had parted ways over a public comment she made that offended me. In a Q & A posting about her book on Reddit, Hess wrote, “Unfortunately not everyone has someone to reach out to in their time of need. My service is a stepping stone meant to help them gain the self-worth it takes to find what they need without me. If I have a long term client I have failed at my purpose.”
The idea that my use of Hess’s services reflected low self-worth was offensive. Moreover, it seemed that my long-term use of those services casts me as one of her failures. Propelled to respond, I sent an email:
“I certainly do not consider the deficit of touch in my life as something caused by poor self-worth. . . As I discussed with you on several occasions, I see the problem as residing in society and its values and norms, not within the individual. . . So I hope you will rethink your position on this matter and continue your good work in a positive way that does not locate the problem within individual psychology.”
Samantha replied promptly, explaining that she had made a generalization that did not apply to all clients. She considered me an exception to the rule and hoped I would not take offense. Still, it is disconcerting that one of the most widely-publicized proponents of platonic touch endorses marginalizing stereotypes of touch-users in the media.
Meeting the Challenges
Faced with declining attendance at events and competition from other organizations sponsoring touch events, in the summer of 2016 Oregon Touch entered another transition. It sought to merge with one of the more successful of these organizations, called SnuggleHQ, which had been hosting platonic snuggle parties for two years and seemed to be attracting more participants. This group operated as an entrepreneurial business, with a website, Snuggle Mobile and fee-based events.
Participation in SnuggleHQ events is selective; not everyone who applies is accepted. Disclaimers such as the following accompany publicity for events: “Due to the need to create a thoughtful mix of attendees, our RSVP Manager will follow up asap to notify you if you’re on the final guest list.” Presumably the composition of a “thoughtful mix” includes demographics and experience with cuddling, but the rubric for a “thoughtful mix” is not defined, leaving open the possibility that personality traits such as introversion or social competence also come into play, in order to limit the number of socially awkward attendees.
When I asked the founder of SnuggleHQ, Shanya Luther, what niche she sought to fill with her snuggle parties that was not already served by Oregon Touch, she said her impression of our events was that they were “introverted,” and she wanted to offer more playful gatherings with a party-like atmosphere, where participants are encouraged to wear theme-focused costumes to help create a festive ambience. Her first two snuggle events after taking over the Meetup included a Pirate and Gypsy Snuggle and a Zombie Snuggle.
The new fee structure for events privileges couples by offering a discount for signing up with a friend, and, with a nod to polyamory, three people can economize even more by registering as a “pod.”
A respected sex therapist and certified LoveTribe facilitator, Shanya incorporated LoveTribe levels of intimacy terminology in labeling her events. She also adopted LoveTribe’s 867-word legal waiver, required at both platonic and sexual events, that releases the organizers from liability for, among other things, someone contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Consequently, even people interested in attending only platonic events must read about sexual behavior and sign a document agreeing to disclose their sexual health to others. For anyone feeling skeptical about the nonsexual nature of a snuggle party, such a waiver cannot be helpful.
The activities of one local group affect perceptions of other related organizations. Cuddle Party, the national franchise that trains facilitators to run snuggle “workshops,” advertises its activities as strictly nonsexual, with modest clothes worn at all times. The AARP magazine article describes Cuddle Party unequivocally as nonsexual. Yet a few participants told me there are Cuddle Parties in Portland that combine sexual and nonsexual activities in the same evening. The platonic portion of the event takes place first, then after 10pm the rules change to allow partial nudity and arousing touch. It is unlikely these events are officially sponsored by Cuddle Party, which does not list any workshops in the state of Oregon on its website. But the point is that some people believe Cuddle Party offers sexual events, skewing the perception of a franchise that is nonsexual. As long as the boundaries are blurred between sexual and nonsexual events, public attitudes will continue to associate all touch activities with sex.
Many members of OT don’t see a problem with an organization offering both platonic and sexual forums. They argue that as long as the rules for different sessions are clearly stated, people can decide for themselves which activities fall within their comfort zones. While I see their point, I believe that the general public doesn’t make such fine distinctions. To continue the massage analogy, just imagine if in the early days of legitimizing massage therapy as a health profession, a business advertised itself as providing therapeutic massage during the day, and sexual massage after hours. The mere existence of such a duality would taint all massage practice and stymie efforts to change its image.
Plans to merge Oregon Touch with SnuggleHG were abandoned, without explanation to the membership; instead, a new entity very different from either parent group emerged. OT became Conscious Touch NW, adopting an expanded mission to promote the full range of sex-positive events. Shanya soon began offering sensual (romp) events and announced plans for future sexual (eros) events, under the banner “Sensual Playground Presents,” a name elsewhere associated with a Playgirl porn film.
We had come full circle, I thought, and the battle to preserve nonsexual peer touch in Portland has been lost. An organization that initially sought to distance itself from the sex-positive movement had morphed into a vehicle for its celebration. I felt deflated. Not only because the policy change would hurt the cause of social legitimation of snuggling, but also because the decision-making process to arrive at the new policy involved only the OT co-organizers; the rest of us event organizers and other informal leaders were excluded from discussions.
When I met with Shanya to explain my opposition to these changes, she made a sincere pitch for the healthfulness of a broad sex-positive agenda to promote the redefinition of human sexuality as encompassing all forms of affective touch, including platonic snuggle parties as well as newborn babies needing to be held. She sees her work as that of an activist for normalizing sex-positive values. “Would it make you feel better knowing that the sensual and sexual events are heart-centered?” she asked me. No! I mentally countered, you’re missing the point entirely about social stigma. It’s not about how I feel personally doing certain things; it’s about prevailing social norms for appropriate touch among adults. But all I actually said was “No, it wouldn’t.”
The story of Oregon Touch is an example of an organization evolving over time and ultimately returning to its roots as a sex-positive entity, one that has integrated (some might say co-opted) snuggling into its purview. There is money to be made in snuggle events, and even more profit potential in romps and sex parties. As always, Portland is teeming with would-be entrepreneur-activists primed to capitalize on the latest wave of self-development trends.
Biases toward people who attend cuddle parties present a different kind of challenge. Within the touch community itself, as we have seen, people are often turned off by the strangeness of participants. For outsiders, on the other hand, the stereotype of someone who attends a snuggle party is that of a socially handicapped person unable to meet their touch needs through traditional relationships. In either case, perceptions are skewed toward unflattering images of participants.
There is no simple fix for derogatory images of snuggle participants. Within Oregon Touch we experimented with various strategies, including trying to create stable friend groups and smaller cuddle circles within the membership, but these efforts had only temporary success. As for negative stereotypes within the larger society, these will change over time if peer touch events become commonplace and people hear them discussed in everyday conversation. When everyone knows someone close to them who attends snuggle parties, attitudes will change.
With a heavy heart I left the group that had given me cherished moments of affective touch as well as hope for the legitimation of peer touch in mainstream society. I didn’t want to contribute to an organization that harms the larger mission of destigmatizing touch. Snuggling is firmly tethered to sex-positive culture in Portland, and that is a good thing for the sex-positive movement. For peer touch, however, linkages to sex positivity may be a hindrance. Other cities where the sex-positive community is less dominant may fare better in promoting platonic touch independent of sexuality.
My greatest hope is that peer touch groups will become widely available to meet the needs of touch-deprived adults, and that singles, introverts and other marginalized people inevitably drawn to them will be afforded a welcoming place of quiet, comforting touch without having to don a costume.
Reposted from Single at Heart (blog), PsychCentral, February 2, 2017.
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