Cuddle Party

When I started to advertise Glasgow’s first Cuddle Party at the start of this month on social media, what amazed me was the response. I naively thought that the event would be uncontroversial.

 

But uniquely, people with whom I had no connection shared the posts, even though they often did so with comments like “being hugged by strangers is my worst nightmare”. Not one but two Glasgow Herald journalists got in touch with us. One of their leading journalists, Rohese Devereux Taylor, wrote a half page article on the event, which was beautifully objective and fair. (there’s a link to the article on the Home Page of my website www.loveandsexcoaching.co.uk ). Radio Scotland interviewed us, and again, were fair and enquiring, rather than the sensationalism we were apprehensive about (and familiar with). 

 

The readers of the Evening Times were cordially flabbergasted at our effrontery. Reader Betty McCormick opined “Omg, what is coming to Glasgow next?”. Reader Fergus Thomson was of the view “ the lunatics have taken over the asylum”.

 

I had no idea cuddling was so radical.

 

We eventually sold 25 tickets, and there were 30 of us gathered in The Clubroom, a beautiful dance space, within the CCA on a wet Sunday afternoon on 2 February. My dear friend Stella Sonnenbaum, who has been running these events in London monthly for the past five years, facilitated the event, and I assisted her.

 

We started with a sharing circle, where we all took turns to say our names, what had brought us here, what we hoped to get out of it, and any anxieties which we had. Other than me, none of the participants had been to a Cuddle Party before.

 

After that, we went over the rules of Cuddle Party. There are 12 of them, but the essentials are that the participants stay clothed, there is no sexual touch and we only accept touch if we actively want it.

 

We then got into groups of three, where we took turns to  practice asking for how we would like to touch, or to be touched. In the first round, our partners would give us a No, in the second round they would give us a Yes (nothing happening in either case), and in the third round, when we asked, our partners would give an authentic Yes or No. It is a great opportunity to practice saying Yes and No, to experience hearing Yes and No, and not to be crushed by feelings of compliance, resentment, embarrassment or shame. As the great Betty Martin says, if you can’t say No, your Yes isn’t worth anything.

 

After that was the free section, where each of us could ask for the touch we wanted. When I looked around after my experience with my group of three, I was surprised to find that everyone else appeared to have scarpered to the refreshment area next door. After a little while however, people started coming back in, interacting with each other. What was so beautiful to see was how tenderly feeling it all was. Some people were spooning in groups of three or four, some people were hugging, and there was a tangible feeling of gentleness, connection and warmth in the room.

 

The last part of the workshop was the Cuddle pile. This is what is depicted in the photograph. One person lies down in the middle of the room, then the rest of us lie in connection with that person, and each other, and we’re then still for 5 minutes or so. It’s wonderful!

 

And that was it. We got lovely feedback. One participant later said:

 

“I had a wonderful time at the cuddle party at CCA, thanks to you and Stella, it was such a great experience, felt really safe and well facilitated and actually such a space for exploration and growth in a lot of ways I think”. 

 

Due to the response, Stella recommended that I arrange another Cuddle Workshop as soon as possible, and I have: it’s on Sunday 15 March 2-5pm at In The Moment Yoga Studio, 72 Berkeley Street, Glasgow G3 7SD. I’ll facilitate it. The cost is the same as before, £14, and payment is in advance. Places are limited, so if you’re interested, please contact me. You can email me through the website, or at johnwebberfraser@gmail.com, or text me on 07545707751.

 

Be part of something new. And radical, apparently.

 

Cuddle Party

The Herald article by Rohese Devereux Taylor, 1st February 2020

Physical contact is good for us. Studies have shown it can ease pain, lift depression and strengthen our immune systems.

Conversely, a lack of touch can lead to developmental issues in infants and elevated levels of stress hormones.

This, at least in part, is what motivated sex therapists John Fraser and Stella Sonnenbaum to bring the first ever so-called “cuddle party” to Glasgow.

The unconventional event is an invitation for men and women to explore their boundaries, build confidence and experience intimacy with no expectations – perhaps a hard-sell in a part of Scotland not known for its overly tactile culture.

Therapist Mr Fraser, who specialises in working with individuals and couples on issues around sexuality, relating and intimacy, said: “I think it’s needed [in Glasgow] because I don’t think people know that they are touch-deprived. We just live in a very touch-deprived society. It’s just awful.

“You see people after they’ve had lots of touch and they’re really peaceful, content and happy and they lose the jaggedness that lots of people have.”

As a lawyer for more than 30 years before retiring last May to focus on his therapy work, Mr Fraser dealt with countless acrimonious divorces and saw first-hand the effects of touch and affection deprivation.

He said: “One of the things cuddle parties try and do is break the unfortunate connection that people have got with affectionate touch and sexual touch, with the consequence that people are simultaneously over-sexualised and touch deprived.”

As adults, who do we get touch from, he asks, especially without demand. One cuddle party-goer who was only ever touched when her husband wanted physical intimacy and received no affectionate contact was “essentially starved of touch”.

Mr Fraser said: “Coming to the cuddle parties enabled her to experience affectionate, consensual touch with no sexual agenda.”

A hug that lasts for 20 seconds releases the hormone oxytocin, known as the cuddle or love hormone, which can lower blood pressure, slow heart rates and improve mood.

Researchers have found that the same areas of the brain that respond positively to gentle touch also help to develop a sense of body ownership, or what Mr Fraser calls “embodiment”, the sense of inhabiting one’s own body and setting healthy boundaries.

The first cuddle party was held in 2004 in the United States and soon migrated to British shores where the y started with regular events in London, facilitated by Ms Sonnenbaum.

She said: “A cuddle party is a way to ask for and receive loving touch in a safe non-sexual setting. This helps with finding out about our own touch preferences and communicating about them effectively without fear of being judged or rejected.

“We practise saying both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ confidently to each other. Strong personal boundaries and the ability to say ‘no’ are the prerequisite for letting people come close to us – or else this wouldn’t feel safe.”

She added: “With the rise of one-person households in big cities people don’t get a lot of touch which is non-sexual and my suspicion is that people have casual sex just to satisfy their skin hunger.”

The party, held at the Centre for Contemporary Arts tomorrow, begins with participants sharing their expectations and concerns. Ms Sonnenbaum then lays down the rules: touch is always consensual and non sexual; people remain fully clothed; the group breaks up into smaller groups to practice their asking and their yeses and nos.

Mr Fraser said: “People have said things like, ‘this is my worst nightmare’. But it’s only touch that you wish to receive – if you don’t want to get hugged by somebody, you don’t get hugged by them.

“This is the opposite of being indiscriminately touched by other people. It’s reprogramming people and it’s empowering people.”

Consent is vital and never more so than in the post #MeToo era when even consensual physical intimacy can be shadowed by fears of accusation and abuse.

Mr Fraser said: “The traditional idea of consent is a bit like an army besieging a castle and the people inside surrender and open the doors and then the army can come in and do whatever they like. You agree to something and then you’ve got to just accept whatever follows. Our idea of consent is entirely different – it’s based on enthusiastic consent in the moment.”

The importance of being able to say no to touch of any kind can’t be underestimated, said Mr Fraser. He added: “If a person can’t say no then they and the person in contact with them are both fundamentally unsafe. You have to have clarity because it’s only if you have a no that your yes means something.”

EveryBody Loves Cuddle Party Workshop, CCA Glasgow, Sunday February 2, 2pm-5pm.

The First Cuddle Party was held 16 years ago in America, and since then, it has spread around the World. And now, at last, it is about to come to Glasgow, on Sunday 2 February, 2-5pm at the CCA, facilitated by Stella Anna Sonnenbaum, who has been running these events monthly in London for the past five years.

 

Cuddle Party is a non sexual, clothed event, part workshop, part social gathering, that offers participants an opportunity to experience personal exploration and connection with like minded individuals, in a relaxed, friendly environment that teaches and models personal boundaries, and where a safe and warm atmosphere is maintained at all times. At Cuddle Parties, everyone is encouraged to engage in communication and touch, in a non threatening, share affirming format.

 

The event begins with a Sharing Circle, where everyone is introduced to the “rules of cuddling”. For example, that you don’t have to cuddle anyone, and you must ask permission and receive a verbal “Yes” before you touch anyone.

 

There are then some exercises to teach communication and boundary skills in a fun and light hearted way, and then a free form part, where you can relax, chat, share consensual touch, cuddle, snack, or just hang out.

 

It is a lovely way to receive lots of consensual touch, to learn how to ask for what you want, and to practice saying Yes and No, and having this respected.

 

There is lots more information on Stella’s website, including interviews, newspaper articles and suchlike

 https://stellawithlove.com/cuddle-party/ https://stellawithlove.com/cuddle-party

which has articles on the slider at the bottom.

 

If you have any queries, please just contact me, either by email (johnwebberfraser@gmail.com) or text 07545707751

 

Tickets are on sale through the CCA http://www.cca-glasgow.com/programme/everybody-loves-cuddle-party-workshop

 

Early booking is recommended, as we have already had a lot of interest.

(This is an article I wrote for my tanta teacher, Hilly Spenceley Of Shakti Tantra. She pioneered Women only tantra, branching out into mixed work and, more recently, work with Couples. She is the most influential of all my teachers. Although I tend not to use the word Tantra to describe my own work, partly because the term has been so misused, I really believe it to be a great path of liberation from the fragmentation that is characteristic of modern life. You can find out more about her work at www.shaktitantra.co.uk)

Frequently with couples, the sex between them has stopped, or has become radically unsatisfactory, and neither partner really knows why. The problem is twofold. Firstly, the couple tend to have a clear idea of what sex should be like. You could call it The Hollywood Model. In this model of sex, each is urgently passionate for the other, so much so that they tear each other’s clothes off, with scant regard for fabric longevity, have some very perfunctory foreplay, then get down to business, and in no time at all simultaneously and noisily orgasm. Whilst having sex, they are very engaged with each other.

That’s the first problem: there’s an ideal of what sex should be like, and you’re naturally disappointed and frustrated if it isn’t like that for you. The second is the focus on orgasm. Couples tend to speak about this in terms of what “works”. If it promotes orgasm, it’s good, if it doesn’t, not so much. But over time, the sex gradually narrows, like a play where the characters, one by one, disappear, until you get to the point where it’s just perfunctory. And then it vanishes entirely.So, it isn’t just a restrictive view about what sexuality is like. It’s an increasingly restrictive view about what THEIR sexuality is like.

How can we think of sex in a different way? Donald Mosher, an American researcher, came up with the idea that we have three different sexual modes. What I’ve called The Hollywood Model is his second mode, Partner Engagement, but there’s two others: Trance and Play. Trance is where you’re very caught up in your own experience. Your partner might be doing something delicious to you, and you are having an exquisite time, but it’s very internal. It’s as if you are having a delicious meal. You don’t want to tell the waiter every five minutes what a great time you’re having, as that detracts from the experience. Except, because The Hollywood Model is what we think sex is, we often feel guilty and selfish when we’re in this mode, and feel that we’re taking up too much time. And we feel we have to reassure our partner, even although that takes away from our experience. The other state is Play. BDSM – particularly power games – are the classic exemplars, but it really includes all behaviour where the couple are acting a part. For instance, where they pretend to be strangers, picking each other up in a bar. Or one of them is a Naughty Doctor. For example.

In remedial work with couples in a non-tantra setting, it’s helpful to focus on these two other states – and primarily on Trance to begin with – so that the couple can broaden out an idea of sex which was largely restricted to Partner Engagement in the first place, and fatally constricted further by the singleminded focus on the boa constrictor of orgasm.

How does this all relate to tantra? It relates very much, because all three of these aspects come together in co-created, ceremonial space which is, essentially, what tantra is.

In tantra, we see ourselves and our partner as aspects of the Divine. In a sense, that’s clearly in the Play mode, but let’s be clear: it is the capacity to play which quintessentially makes us human. It isn’t something trivial, it is our essence. Play, like Love, completes and vivifies us. And that’s what ceremony understands. In my other identity as a zen teacher, I misunderstood ceremony for 25 years. I thought it was symbolic activity. It took me that long to understand that I was mistaken, that ceremony is the direct entranceway to the crucible of the Present.

Because we are with our partner, we are also in the Partner Engagement mode, but in a different, broader, more profound sense. We are with our partner as an aspect of divine creation made flesh, not with an overfamiliar body with an ill functioning orgasm switch. That’s a crucial distinction. And because we are in moment to moment contact with what we feel, in a world entirely different from the dysfunctional sexual capitalism that is our usual home, we are also in the Trance state, but reconfigured not as something ‘internal’ or ‘subjective’, but as an aspect of total human experience, channeled through this body.

In this way, the couple can learn a way of being together which is much broader, which has much more feeling, and which has much more connection to everything. Rather than a Puritan focus on performance, we are opened up to our creative and expressive capacities as instruments of the divine. And that changes everything.

 

How should we touch? When I was a kid in the late sixties, watching Man From Uncle on the telly, the bit I liked best was Napoleon Solo going into an innocent looking basement shop in New York. He would casually press a few buttons on the back wall and then a door in the wall would open, revealing a completely different world.

Men are encouraged to believe that women’s sexuality is like that wall. All they need to do is find out where the buttons are, and they can be Napoleon Solo too.

So, they’re eagerly receptive for material that will enable them to make a woman ejaculate, or find their g spot, or their third gate.

I say they’re mistaken. Why?

Four reasons:

First, Touch which is future orientated isn’t good touch. If I’m touching you to produce an effect, you’re going to know that. If you sense me thinking “is she there yet?”, you won’t be able to relax. In fact, you may feel somewhat irritated. You may feel somewhat done to.

Second, there isn’t a secret inner world. Our eroticism is completely available to us, and those who love us. It isn’t hidden at all. There aren’t silos of pleasure in an otherwise numb world. The world of the body is completely alive. All of it.

Third, good touch is heartful, not technical. When people tell me they don’t know how they want to be touched, that arises from the deficient notion that touching is just something my body does to your body. But that’s not so. I touch you with my heart, through my body. If we can include the palette of emotions, touch is never repetitive, because it’s always expressing ourselves at this moment.

Look how animals are, how comfortable and easily affectionate they are with each other. Yes, we’re different because we have tools and artifacts and self consciousness, but our intimate connection with all beings remains. And those species developments needn’t determine our nature. When we’re assembling a watch we need to be technical. When we’re expressing ourselves, we don’t.

And lastly, we don’t want to be manipulated. We want to be adored. Lusted after. Be the ravished summer orchard for the hungry hordes. All that stuff:

simple

 

If one person feels something, that’s a personal issue. If a lot of people feel the same thing, that isn’t just personal; it says something about society too. The problem of sexual inexperience falls into this category.

We live in a hyper sexualised society, but a large number of us seem to have no or minimal sex, or have very unsatisfactory sex.

What’s going on?

Well, one factor is that we tend to view sexuality in terms of recreation, and of performance.  It’s a hunger.  It’s something that you do, not a central part of who you are.  We overemphasise the body and underestimate feeling and connection.  We give the body only provisional value: if the body looks great and ‘performs’ well, then great, otherwise, not so much.

And this Tinder-ising doesn’t work for a lot of people. But because the model is so dominant, they think there’s something wrong with them, rather than something wrong or incomplete with the model.

So, I get young women coming to me whose boyfriends have a very pornified idea of what love making should be, and they blame themselves for being inadequate. Other people can’t seem to get started, and don’t know how to.  It’s as if everyone else is speaking a language they don’t understand.

It’s really widespread, but silent, like a secret epidemic of shame.

I don’t do surrogacy work.  It can be very valuable, but often it operates within the dominant model of doing, rather than feeling, being and connection.  It’s those latter qualities I want to bring out when working with clients who have issues of sexual confidence and sexual inexperience, because it seems to me that inexperience is in some sense a choice -perhaps an unconscious one – not to participate in this dominant mode of low-feeling, high action performative sex.

So my starting point is not somehow to reconcile the client to getting out there and get with it.  It is to start with an open enquiry into what the body and the heart feels and wants. Starting from that place, we then ask what wishes, sensations and worlds can come into being.

My perspective is that feelings of perceived sexual inadequacy or inexperience are best addressed not by fixing the body, but by opening and connecting the heart.  Everything positive flows from that.

You can make an analogy with conversation. As a society, we tend to think that the point of sex is orgasm.  But suppose we imagined that the point of talking was to make jokes.  Well, no doubt that would work for some people. And those people, doubtless, would accuse others of having a low humour drive, or being unskilled at punchlines.

It’s a ridiculous analogy, isn’t it?  But is it really?  Sexuality, like communication, involves the whole, unique, feeling person.  The range of expression is endless. It’s not something simple and straightforward, like appetite. Although, of course, it does involve hunger.  But hunger for what?

My friend Minnie Iris is a very talented artist. I have one of her pictures in my practice space. She is a trustee of  the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Trust.

In the words of their website:

The term Body Dysmorphic Disorder [BDD] describes a disabling preoccupation with perceived defects or flaws in appearance. It can affect both men and women, and makes sufferers excessively self conscious. They tend to check their appearance repeatedly and try to camouflage or alter the defects they see, often undergoing needless cosmetic treatments. Onlookers are frequently perplexed because they can see nothing out of the ordinary, but BDD causes devastating distress and interferes substantially with the ability to function socially”

Minnie herself suffered from the condition. It started when she was 11, when she became fixated with creases in her neck. She believed she was ugly, but was able to function until she was 38, when her Mum died. At that point, her hair started to fall out because of the stress. She started to feel monstrous when she saw herself in the mirror. Then she started to have a lot of suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, she was able to access specialist therapy.

BDD is said to affect around 2% of the population in varying degrees. But if we take this as the extreme edge of a spectrum, who can honestly say that they don’t know at least one person who seems unreasonably negative about one or more aspects of their appearance?

When Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, died, in the obituaries we learnt that as a teenager, Michael was sensitive about his nose. And his Dad, deliberately mocked his nose. Hence all the surgical treatment as an adult, which transformed his beautiful black face into something weird and other worldly.

Often, something like this is at the root. A person perhaps has an accident and their appearance changes. Or, for a variety of reasons, they suddenly lose or gain weight. Or, like Minnie, they suffer bereavement or other loss.

But underneath the wide range of immediate causes, there’s a common mechanism. The mind -an idea ‘I am ugly’ – takes over the body. The person loses a realistic sense of their body because they lose their feeling connection with it.

My Swiss friend, Thea Rytz, was a pioneer in treating eating disorder sufferers somatically. She realised it was no use telling them that their ideas about themselves weren’t true, or getting them to look in the mirror, because it was so easy for the mind to distort. So, she would do things like get her patients to put bags of sand on themselves, so they could feel actual weight, and so the mind could recalibrate itself.

It’s a major problem, a major, widespread cause for great unhappiness.

As, among other things, a body worker, I am very well placed to work with body image, for several reasons:

– I meet the body of the other in love, respect and acceptance, countering the negativity

– I re-embody the client, so the body can become autonomously feeling again, free from the tyranny of the mind

– with the active participation of the client, I help the body to be a source of pleasure and empowerment

– I replace judgement with alive embodied presence.

Here’s Minnie’s picture: it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

In coital alignment technique, the man lies on top of the woman, but moves upward along her body, until the upper side of his erection is pressing against the clitoris. Instead of the thrusting of the missionary position, there’s a kind of rocking. Movement is focused on the pelvises. There’s no leverage from the arms or legs. The man’s weight is mostly on the woman, rather than resting on his arms. The woman leads the upward stroke and the man leads the downward stroke.

 

The technique is now about 30 years old, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it’s a significant improvement for women’s sexual experience. But I fret that it fits into a set of assumptions that don’t serve any of us – men or women – well.

 

The principle assumption of course is that woman’s sexuality is just like men’s, and if only that pesky clitoris could be engaged, then women would enjoy sexual intercourse as much as men. The secondary assumption is that what men want from sex is the build up of erotic energy and subsequent orgasmic release.

 

Fostering intimacy

 

What if the first assumption was true, but the second assumption was false?

 

What if the reason why coital alignment technique “works’ is that it fosters intimacy? The giveaway is that there’s lots of skin contact, and it’s very yin. In fact, it’s a bit like a horizontal version of the tantric practice of Yap Yum.

 

Isn’t there a risk that we’re constantly making better versions of the same car, but it still takes us to a place that isn’t quite where we want to go?