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.