Anthropologist M. J. Coreil snuggles with strangers. Would you?
[Bella’s intro: When anthropologist M. J. Coreil shared with me her essay on snuggling with strangers, I was intrigued. Dr. Coreil makes a compelling case for the importance of distinguishing non-sexual touch from sexual touch, and she thinks that non-sexual touch, including touching with strangers, should not just be destigmatized, but widely practiced. She reminds us that massage therapy had to get past stigma and misunderstandings before it was widely accepted, and she hopes to see attitudes toward non-sexual cuddling evolve in a similar way. M. J. Coreil has attended many snuggle parties and has also hosted a few herself, so she knows the topic both as an academic who has studied it and as a participant.
Because the essay is so long, I am publishing just the first part of it here. At the end, you will find a link to the full essay, which appears on the blog on my personal website.]
Snuggling with Peers—Reflections on Platonic Touch in Portland
Guest post by M. J. Coreil
A foot rested in my lap, and I had no idea to whom it belonged. I nestled in a “puppy pile,” the cozy assortment of people who snuggle together at a cuddle party. Lights dim, eyes closed, and heads resting on pillows, we occasionally talked or laughed or even fell asleep, but mostly we basked in the comfort of tactile bliss. Later, we regrouped into a spooning formation, one arm draped over the side of the person in front. Along the edges of the living room, more people snuggled in pairs and trios. These configurations morphed for a couple of hours before the party ended, our touch needs sated for the evening.
Into my fourth year with this affectionate group, I felt at ease in the cluster of overlapping limbs and torsos. I had come a long way from my first tentative forays into the touch community of Portland, Oregon, shortly after moving here from Florida. In fall 2012 I attended my first event, called a Rub and Grub, which combined a potluck in one room with massage from several pairs of hands in another. Soon after, I found myself at Free Hugs Day at the Farmers Market and at cuddle parties with themes: game nights, movie nights, beach snuggles, and Cuddle Cafés, complete with menus offering tactile selections. But mostly I’ve enjoyed the simple cuddle parties where the focus is on lots of hugging. After these incredibly soothing encounters, I sleep like a baby.
Although the peer touch movement has roots in counterculture groups of the 1960s, it gained renewed interest in recent years through the emergence of snuggle parties and professional cuddlers to meet the needs of some single adults and others without access to affectionate touch. We live in a touch-averse society where close body contact is limited to romantic partners. Proponents of the movement hail the benefits of touch, including: reduced heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol; an increase in the “love hormone” oxytocin; and mitigation of the effects of touch deprivation—depression, sleep disturbance, anger, violence, eating disorders, and lower immune function.
Sometimes it still seems unreal that I have easy access to snuggle groups. I remember the negative reactions I received in the spring of 2012 when I presented an essay titled “Touch Hunger” to a writing group in Tampa, a city that had no touch groups. In the essay I argued in favor of touch support groups to meet the needs of touch-deprived adults. I had not yet heard of snuggle parties, but envisioned similar gatherings. My fellow writers roundly dismissed the idea as socially unacceptable.
“It won’t fly,” they said. “Our society isn’t ready for that.”
So when later that year I found myself snuggling with strangers in a Portland living room, I felt vindicated. It struck me as a good example of how culture change evolves differently across the regions of our country. When I shared my experiences with one of my Louisiana relatives, she responded: “You really are weird.”
Even though I found pockets of acceptance in Portland where touch groups flourish, some members of my writing group here expressed skepticism about gaining social approval for peer touch. When I presented this piece for review, someone cautioned me to “clearly state at the very beginning that cuddle groups are not about sex,” because without such a disclaimer, people will assume otherwise and may stop reading.
So when the very conventional mainstream publication, AARP The Magazine, ran a story about touch needs of seniors in December 2015, describing cuddle parties in a positive light, I cheered. It’s happening, I thought. Peer cuddling is slowly becoming an everyday thing, not just for the adventurous. And when Disney presented otters having a cuddle party in the 2016 movie Finding Dory, snuggling seemed to be going mainstream. But despite the growing positive coverage in the media, it remains uncertain how widely peer touch will be accepted in American society.
My experience in the touch community of Portland underscores two major challenges to legitimation of snuggling: the persistent association of peer touch generally, and snuggling in particular, with sexuality, and the pejorative image of people who attend snuggle events as psychosocially deficient in some way. I’ll address each of these in turn, then offer some ideas on what it may take to overcome these obstacles.
[From Bella: Click this link to continue reading the entire essay. Thank-you, M. J. Coreil, for the guest post. I’ll just add one more excerpt, below, from the rest of the essay, because it is so important.]
“Essentially nurturing, non-sexual touch as we define it is relaxing, comforting, affectionate, with clothes on, and calming. While sexual touch is exciting, stimulating, with clothes off, and arousing.”
–Kristen Reynolds, Oregon Touch co-organizer, as quoted in the rest of M. J. Coreil’s 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.]