Until last Sunday, nuzzling into a total stranger’s lap and having them stroke me affectionately as if I were their pet cat…well it’s something I had never done before.
‘Demonstrate how content you feel as a cat by purring,’ Tom, the facilitator, joked. Some people tried it out but I was barely over the fact that I’d just given a soothing back massage to a different total stranger, so pussy purring into this one’s crotch was going to be a stretch right now.
Despite the array of soft cushions, tender smiles and warm words flying around the room like rainbows, the four hours I spent in that studio were easily some of the most uncomfortable of my life.
I’m not a very affectionate person outside the bedroom. I don’t enjoy getting platonic hugs from very many people and in a society that loves to hug the shit out of each other, I find I’m constantly fighting a battle I can’t win.
‘I just met you!’ Hug.
‘I think you’re neato!’ Hug. Hug. Hug.
I don’t know if I was dropped on my arms as a baby or something, but I have this crippling social hang up about it. They’re awkward and I’m bad at them. Hugging delicate females just makes me feel clumsy and butch and hugging males is more like a rugby scrum than anything else.
And the whole process is so complicated – how are you supposed to sync a physical connection with someone when everyone has totally different styles? I’ve never managed to form any sort of consistency with my own because I’ve been working around the clock to avoid knocking people out or licking someone’s ear.
What if they’re just expecting a kiss on the cheek and I go and wrap my big dorky arms right around them? Or if they catch me off guard with the European kiss thing and I’m just stuck frantically trying to catch my head movements up with theirs? That’s bloody hard for someone with the rhythm of a potato.
I could perhaps blame my family for my distaste of all this funny business; we hate soppy stuff and kittens. I was brought up to believe that having a laugh with someone is a perfectly good way to say hello or let them know you care about them. A sense of humour is a sign of trust and if someone can’t make you laugh, or at the very least laugh at your jokes, then they’re friendship is considered as valuable as a dog bone. We were never called ‘darling’ because that’s lame, we were called ratbags because that’s funny. In fact, I think I only found out what the word ‘love’ really meant when I was sent to school and kept hearing that God loved me – until then I thought love was just when your brothers farted on you.
Now as an adult I try to sneak away from social settings without saying goodbye and when my friends and I spend an afternoon drinking, eating and taking it in turns giving each other massages, I have to tell them to back the fuck up.
The idea of touching or cuddling or snuggling with someone who doesn’t also have sex with me makes me feel like jumping off a cliff. I don’t even like saying the words. They’re gruesome. I’d rather someone ask me to lick their foot than snuggle with them.
So you can probably imagine my absolute horror when I discovered that cuddle clubs, workshops and parties are actual things that really happen, like, for real. They are gatherings where people pay to go to experience a bit of non-sexual touch-and-feel with complete strangers.
‘Whyyyyyyyy do I write this blog? Whyyyyy?’ I moaned as I jumped off a cliff inside my mind.
After booking ahead and living in absolute dread for two whole weeks, I eventually dragged my heels to the workshop, internally kicking and screaming like I had set up my own arranged marriage.
I arrived at the studios and made minimal eye contact while I took off my shoes. I overheard Tom (the facilitator) telling someone that it was not a dating agency, and while romance has sparked amongst the kindling of perfect strangers before, that is definitely not what it’s all about. I wondered how someone could have come to something like this without researching every single little detail first.
Cuddle workshops, parties, clubs – whatever you want to call the same thing – are part of a movement that believes humans need touch that is not about sex. And not everyone in the world has access to that and not everyone in the world is as happy about that as me. Fortunately for cuddle-craving folk, some new-age touchy feely types have created spaces where anyone can grab a bit of a top up if they need it.
I was assured right from the get go that if I didn’t want to touch or cuddle or participate in a stone-cold sober spoon train, I didn’t have to. I could sit out on the sidelines for as long as I wanted and watch other people get high on Oxytocin (the cuddle hormone). I took comfort in this but still wished I’d gotten high on something else beforehand.
There were 22 people in the workshop – of both genders and mixed ages – some return huggers, some hug virgins. And we were all tasked to break the ice by bumping bottoms. I actively tried to avoid this activity, but the space was small and the more I tried to get away, the more the wiggling bottoms seemed to come at me.
We were then told to find a partner because it was time to give each other massages. To me, who didn’t want a bar of any of it, every person seemed as unappealing as the next. Except one; he was a very small and adorable old man who I asked to be my partner and when he agreed, I put him in my pocket and took him to the corner of the room.
I watched as other partners got nestled up into comfortable positions. Everyone looked so relaxed. All we’d done so far was have a few biscuits and bump bums, yet they were already entwining legs and doing stroking things. There would be none of that for me though, I wasn’t ready, so I propped the little guy up in front of me, took a deep breath and started kneading into his back with my bare hands.
And he enjoyed it. I looked around the room and everyone was enjoying it. People just loved being touched. Their faces reminded me of my dad’s dog’s face in this picture, who also loves being touched.
These people had clearly been craving human contact and it was nice to see how appreciative and grateful they all were. (We were all taught very good cuddle manners throughout the workshop.)
We did a few more exercises throughout the course of the four hours; granting each other’s ‘touch wishes’, having chats about how we feel and of course general cuddling could just happen whenever. I really did try to loosen up, I swear. But in hindsight I think I spent most of my time running away from people’s scripted advances: ‘would you like to be cuddled?’
It was amazing to watch the transformation in everyone else though. At first they were behaving like recovering alcoholics around alcohol but in no time at all they were snuggling up to each other, totally unapologetic for small noises. I on the other hand had to run out to get a sandwich at half time because my stomach was about to cause an avalanche in the Swiss Alps.
All exercises had been part of the build up to the grand finale… the infamous cuddle puddle. This is where the mattresses are joined together and everyone jumps into a massive pit of persons. There’s stroking, poking, touching, feeling, caressing, nuzzling.
‘If you see a spare back, join onto it!’ we were encouraged.
It was like watching a sleepy lion pride. And I say watching because sadly I just couldn’t bring myself to join in, so I lay on the sideline just watching like a creep. In the last ten minutes I did let one man lie next to me and sync his breathing with mine though.
I don’t know if it was because I’m not an affectionate person by nature or because I’m not affection-starved in my life right now. (The Kiwi builder and the muscles that grow from his arms may very well fill the void.) But whatever the reason, I mildly regret my decision to not get involved in the cuddle puddle. Not only because I paid £29 to be there but because I wanted to see if I would or could feel the total state of bliss they all seemed to.
My bet is that I actually am just an awkward, stranger-timid ice queen with no need for organised cuddles.
If you are in London and feel you need a no-pressure cuddle, or have some personal issues to resolve, I recommend contacting Anne and Tom – two very very very nice and cuddly people at Cuddle Workshop.