Cuddling With Strangers
Terror. Sheer terror. “What the hell am I doing?... Is this really what I need right now?... I don’t deserve any of it.” Those thoughts coursed through my mind as I stood in a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt, trying not to tremble, as I stared down at the mattress in the middle of the fl . Salt lamps cast a warm light on the brown sheet covering the mattress. Fluffy pillows lined the head, stacked against the wall of the small room, part of a yoga studio in western Massachusetts. I hadn’t come there for yoga. I suffered from touch deprivation–skin hunger, a lack of human contact. I came to this small room to have a session with a professional cuddler. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with touch. When I was a little kid I hated being obligated to hug relatives, and found most physical contact gross and uncomfortable. I grew out of that touch- aversion, thankfully, and now enjoy hugging friends. As an adult, hugs are the only regular contact I receive. I’m somewhere on the asexual spectrum, where I feel attraction but not very often, and my affections have never been reciprocated. My entire 33 years of gray ace (asexual) life lacked any romantic partner. Being nonbinary adds its own complications. Most of our vocabulary to describe sexual attraction falls within the gender binary; a lesbian is a woman who is attracted to women, for example.Words used to describe attraction to those outside the binary quickly leave our dictionary behind: scoliosexal, gynesexual, polysexual. Never mind the fact that most online dating sites don’t accommodate anything more complicated than a man seeking another man, with no place for a non binary person in the algorithm. Being shy and off- the-charts introverted contribute to my chronically single status. Our culture associates touch with sexual attraction. We keep most people at bay with a handshake. Hugging usually involves some distance. Just look at the bro hug – a manifestation of fear of two men connecting. Our culture has a history of justifying touch when it’s based on desire, like going in for a kiss without asking or tapping that hot ass. For LGBTQ people, internalized shame and the systematic trauma of living in a cishet (both cisgender and heterosexual) privileged society can lead to isolating behaviors. Rejection from friends and family after coming out can ostracize LGBTQ people, denying them the human contact they need. Touch is necessary for survival, as many studies show, but the way our culture operates leaves some people deprived or violated.
Up until this point in my life, I coped with the lack of touch by not thinking about it. I stayed busy, hung out with friends, caught a hug here and there. I had gender- affirming top surgery last February with an excellent surgeon in New York. Having a flat chest felt amazing; the recovery went smooth then, to make a very long story short, everything went to hell with my job, leading to health insurance woes and a legal battle concerning workplace discrimination. This all proved too much to handle and I sank into a deep depression. I lay in bed crying, wishing I were dead or that there was someone who could hold me. Add a double dose of why-am-I-single- no-one-will-ever-love-me-there-must-be- something-wrong-with-me. The touch deprivation demon sank its teeth into my mind and wouldn’t let go. Maybe this was a solvable problem. Maybe I could find a platonic cuddle buddy if I could find out how to ask for it. I explained my dilemma to a worldly-wise friend and she suggested I find someone who does professional cuddling. “Wait. That’s a thing?” A quick Google search yielded the affirmative. I could pay someone to hold me without having to deal with possible romantic or sexual situations or relationships. I just had to choose the provider. I looked at a couple different platforms, picked the one with the style that matched my needs, then looked at provider profiles. Rhode Island didn’t have much to offer, so I looked at Massachusetts’ choices. I loved my new flat chest and did not want any awkwardness around my unconventional body. While the agency that trains the providers explicitly stated that all people are welcome clients regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, the profile of Nellie Wilson stood out since it mentioned LGBTQ clients specifically. I dug deeper, watching YouTube interviews of Nellie to get a feel for their personality. Nellie looked to be a little older than I, with curly dark greying hair and glasses. Their gentle explanations of the benefit of touch moved me to tears. We spoke on the phone first to make sure we both understood what professional cuddling was and was not. Nellie also made sure I knew the ground rules before we met, rules like: You must be fully clothed the entire time; you must ask and receive a verbal “yes” before touching; changing your mind is encouraged; the sessions are confidential; it’s okay to become aroused but don’t act on it. I told Nellie I might cry when cuddling with them, and they said that was totally fi . I felt I could be my full frightened self around Nellie, so we booked a session for a cost comparable to a massage. A few days later I found myself sitting cross-legged on the dark brown mattress across from Nellie. They looked at me kindly. I looked at my ankles. We started slowly. Nellie asked if I’d like to put my hands in theirs. I said okay and we held hands for a few minutes. They asked if I’d like to sit side- by-side and put my head on their shoulder. I said I’d try it, and we did that until my neck started to hurt. My full-body cuddling repertoire consisted of spooning or more spooning, so I asked Nellie if they knew of other ways. We ended up in this cozy position I now call Challah bread. I lay on my back with Nellie to one side, and we wrapped our arms around each other while I put my legs over their folded legs. I felt warm, calm, and safe, listening to our breathing, held and being held. A meditative stupor came over me like a gentle cloud. As I left the session, Nellie cautioned that the oxytocin high could affect driving. In subsequent sessions, I became less terrified and started exploring positions and touch. I found how much my new chest liked pressure, and had the idea it might feel good to have Nellie lie on my back. My chest loved it but my neck didn’t. I discovered I enjoyed having my head touched, and now we begin each session with me lying against their front while they play with my hair.This lets me decompress after the long drive. While cuddling we have lively conversations about everything from whale dissections to polyamory, or enjoy the peaceful silence. Sometimes I’m in the mood for minimal touch, like lying side-by- side on our backs, my arm under Nellie’s head. Other times I ask for silly things, like rubbing my belly as if I were a big dog. My favorite position involves lying offset face-to-face, arms around each other, feet entwined. I almost fall asleep listening to Nellie’s heartbeat. After a few cuddling sessions, I still felt pretty miserable about the difficult situations I had to handle, but I no longer felt uncontrollably desperate about lacking touch. I also didn’t spend any more entire days crying in bed. Even though seeing Nellie helped greatly, I wanted more touch and decided to go to a cuddle party. I came across the Cuddle Party organization during my search for an individual cuddle provider. With the communication skills and cuddle position repertoire I developed with Nellie, I felt scared but ready. Cuddle parties happen all over the country under trained facilitators using similar rules to the ones I learned with Nellie. “Okay, I can do this.” I found a Cuddle Party event in a home outside Boston, paid the much cheaper fee, and waited for the day to come. When I arrived (on time, before they lock the doors), about 20 people gathered in the cramped sunroom. The facilitator led us upstairs to the attic space converted into a cuddling paradise. Comfy couches and chairs lined the walls. A row of mattresses covered the floor between the couches, with pillows along the mattress’ circumference. I wanted to fl right in the middle of the mattresses and go to sleep. But we had to go over the rules first, practicing saying “no” to all touch requests and asking for the kinds of touch we liked, amongst other things. After the workshop part, those who chose to could ask others to cuddle. I wasn’t sure how cuddling with random people was going to go, but everyone was so sweet and gentle and on the hippie end of the spectrum. The attendees were a wide range of ages, skin colors, and body shapes. I was not the only trans person there (Yay!). Every 20 minutes, a chime sounded and we switched partners or groups. I observed people choosing not to cuddle and just talk or watch. Cuddling with multiple people at once felt so good. I enjoyed almost complete contact when I wound up being the center of a cuddle sandwich, wrapped up in one person’s arms on the front with another person spooning me from behind. It left me feeling protected and pleasantly squished. Before the cuddle party, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cuddle with cis men for reasons of safety and my own gender dysphoria.The ground rules helped me see past that fear and fi comfortable ways to share touch with all kinds of people. Later I learned how some people use cuddle parties to practice having agency over their bodies, to practice saying “no,” and to practice asking for exactly what touch they want – empowering tools in light of the MeToo movement. People of all genders cuddled with each other, even men cuddling with men. And several parties I’ve been to had multiple trans attendees, touch-deprived like me. Touch is a necessary element of human survival, one that many people don’t receive enough of, as the attendance at the cuddle party and Nellie’s profession prove. I feel much calmer and connected after cuddling. I feel open and vulnerable days later. I feel more confident in my new chest since it’s been a non-issue in cuddling with others. I feel more secure identifying as asexual knowing there are plenty of nonsexual ways to have human touch. I feel if 20 strangers can come together under a healthy set of boundaries to share nonsexual touch, there is hope for this world.