This is Part 3 of the guest post by anthropologist M. J. Coreil. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

 

Part 3: Snuggling with Peers—Reflections on Platonic Touch in Portland

Guest post by M. J. Coreil

 

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.

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[M. J. Coreil’s essay continues in the next post, the last of this 4-part essay, Part 4.]

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.]

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