This is Part 2 of the guest post by anthropologist M. J. Coreil. Part 1 is here.
Part 2: Snuggling with Peers—Reflections on Platonic Touch in Portland
Guest post by M. J. Coreil
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 puffy 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.
[M. J. Coreil’s essay continues in the next post, Part 3 of this 4-part essay.]
About the author: M. J. Coreil is a cultural anthropologist who writes about contemporary social issues. She is the author of “Margaret Mead and the Single Life,” Social and Behavioral Foundations of Public Health, and tropicofcandor.com.
[Artwork, courtesy of Kristen Reynolds. Photo of M. J. Coreil, courtesy of Susan Perez.]