By Lili Golmohammadi, IN-TOUCH
Through my PhD I am exploring the relationships between touch and loneliness. Although much has been written about loneliness in cognitive and behavioural terms, loneliness felt or addressed through the body is far less understood.
Fig 1: Cuddle Nation – London 360 Cuddle Workshop
Last month, I signed up for a cuddle workshop after reading numerous articles about people paying for platonic touch, provided or facilitated by professional cuddlers. In the media, the emergence of the professional cuddler has been linked to loneliness – ostensibly caused by a combination of increasing touch regulation and deprivation, and technology disrupting the amount of face-to-face connection and intimacy we receive (ideas which I am also grappling with as part of the PhD). The way touch has become increasingly commodified in western societies has been commented on by leading touch scholars (e.g. Paterson, 2007; Field, 2014), who cite a proliferation in available touch therapies and toys. The professional cuddler and cuddle workshops are perhaps the most recent evolution of this tactile commodification. I attended the workshop because I was curious about how this new kind of paid touch experience was organised and experienced.
Fig 2: ‘No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?’, The Guardian (Cocozza, 2018).
The cuddle workshop was four hours long, and worked through a series of facilitated touch-based exercises, mostly in pairs or small groups. The exercises were designed to help participants explore touch boundaries, intimacy, affection and communication. The workshop included clear ground rules (“ask permission, no kissing, no sexual touch”), gently reiterated over the course of the session.
Touching many bodies
Fig 3: Still, from Cuddle Nation – London 360 Cuddle Workshop
For most people, excluding some specialised professions (e.g., as a physiotherapist, hairdresser, or masseuse), there are usually only a few bodies other than our own that we have any real familiarity with. Unless touch is part of one’s professional practice, we generally aren’t used to negotiating sustained touch with others – especially strangers. In their training, student physiotherapists are encouraged to change patients as a way to understand how much bodies differ, and this gives patients an opportunity to understand how touch between the physios themselves vary. In this way, those involved in such professions build up specific forms of touch sensitivity and acuity.
As someone who has not had this training, it was interesting to reflect on the experience of touching so many unknown bodies in so little time – feeling a stranger’s unfamiliar contours and muscle tensions in the first exercise (a back massage), or another person’s wispy head, resting on a pillow on my leg as they enacted the role of ‘sleeping cat’ in the ‘cat-in-the-lap’ exercise.
It took me over an hour to adjust to the reality of being in a room to touch and cuddle 32 strangers. There were some exercises I enjoyed more than others; the ‘cat-in-the-lap’, which involved placing my head on a stranger’s lap and then having that stranger place his on mine, definitely pushed my personal boundaries. The connecting of heads and laps from two different people is a very particular form of closeness, allowed by (at least for me) deep familiarity and trust built up over time. I also had to suppress a strong sense of alarm upon finding myself in a ‘cuddle pod’ (three people grouped together on an ‘island’ formed from two joined-up mats). Each person in the pod could request the form of touch they wanted the other two to provide. Here, again, I had to consciously put my boundaries aside to have the back of my upper body massaged by two people with very different styles (I did feel a flood of oxytocin at the very end though; it turns out a four-handed massage is pretty good!).
I found one exercise centred on exploring boundaries especially interesting (you might want to try it out with someone close to you): Working in pairs, one person holds their hand at a short distance from the body area they want to touch and mimes the kind of touch they would apply there. The second person can respond in three ways – “yes”, “no” or “please” (meaning “definitely, more of that”). If permission is granted then the partner can touch – and even if they are refused, they may return the same area later to see if the response changes. In this way, the activity is also a process of creative negotiation. Where permission to touch is granted, a return might involve proposing a different type of touch, experimenting with pressure, rhythm, duration (e.g. a tickle vs a light chopping vs a gentle rub). The exercise facilitates a way of self-attuning not only to “where your yes and no lie”, but also develops an understanding of the ways in which particular types of touch are less likely to be pared with certain parts of the body, and where these boundaries are placed for others.
All touched out
Fig 4: ‘Cuddle pile’ – Still, from Cuddle Nation – London 360 Cuddle Workshop
During the final exercise (a free-forming mass ‘cuddle pile’) I suddenly had the overwhelming sense I was almost spreading my touch too thin – as if I might be running low on a reserve I hadn’t been aware I’d had. Feeling as if I wanted to hold some touch back, I decided to leave 20 minutes early. This was a surprise outcome, and I wondered how professional cuddlers feel at the end of their day – do they feel touched out? Do they have enough touch left for any partners or family they live with? How does it feel to cuddle them after cuddling so many strangers? Does it make familiar bodies feel unfamiliar? Hugging my partner when I got home felt unexpectedly disorientating. I still carried the smells of strangers on my clothes.
There is clearly a therapeutic element to these interactions – in an early moment of ‘checking in’, there were some who said they felt lonely or fragile, for different reasons. A few interactions had quite a strong emotional impact on participants – exercises that were more focused on embraces or gentle stroking (rather than the light touches or back rubs at the start) brought some to tears. This points to both the emotional power of touch and the need for an ethics of touch.
A next step to gaining a a fuller understanding of where loneliness comes into this context might involve interviewing participants and facilitators. The workshops are clearly both popular and well-attended, running every few weeks, and about a third of participants in the session I attended had been before. Despite my early departure, I enjoyed the workshop and the ways in which it made me think differently about touch – how creative one can be with strangers when touch is placed centre stage, but also what the potential limitations might be.
Cocozza, P. (2018). ‘No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?’. The Guardian. Available [Online] at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/07/crisis-touch-hugging-mental-health-strokes-cuddles.
Cuddle Nation London 360 Cuddle Workshop. Available [Online] at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Guo4ktLxOVU&feature=youtu.be.
Cuddle Workshop. Available [Online] at: https://www.cuddleworkshop.co.uk.
Field, T. (2014). Touch. Second edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Paterson, M. (2007). The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Oxford; New York: Berg.