[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 some cuddling parties, so she knows the topic both as an academic who has studied it and as a participant.

I published the first part of M. J. Coreil’s essay at my “Single at Heart” blog at Psych Central. Here you can find the entire essay, in four parts. If you came here from Psych Central, you can pick up the essay starting with the heading, “Platonic vs. Sexual Touch.” Thank-you, M. J. Coreil, for your thoughtful contribution.]

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.

Platonic vs. Sexual Touch

The wariness toward touch events felt by many people stems partly from the larger society’s taboos about nonromantic touch, and partly from the touch community’s association with sex-positive subcultures, an assortment of social movements that embrace all aspects of sexuality as healthy and pleasurable. Overlapping membership among touch and sex-positive groups is common. People who practice polyamory (having multiple intimate relationships with mutual consent), for example, and people comfortable with open sexual relationships, often make up the early participants drawn to snuggle parties. While I respect the sex-positive agenda, its association with peer touch complicates the challenge of destigmatizing platonic touch.

In Portland, an organization called LoveTribe paved the way for the emergence of a vibrant touch community through its sponsorship of events offering gradations of intimacy. The group invented terminology for different “levels” of intimacy that have become widely used. Snuggle parties designate exclusively platonic touch, romps are sensual events where upper body nudity and kissing, but no direct genital contact, are allowed, and eros events involve full sexual participation. Touch Positive Oregon evolved from this group during a period when LoveTribe was inactive, initially sponsoring both platonic events and romps, although the latter, surprisingly, were publicized as platonic in nature. Following a change in leadership and a somewhat contentious internal debate, Touch Positive Oregon discontinued romps and began holding exclusively platonic cuddle parties. It also changed its name to Oregon Touch (OT) to distance itself from the sex-positive movement.

As an anthropologist with many years studying both support groups and social stigma, I worried about the public image of the new touch group in Portland. In the early days before the policy change, I chafed at the discrepancy between the way the group labeled itself as platonic on its Meetup homepage, and yet advertised “juicy” events where “light making out” and going topless were allowed. I expressed my concerns to one of the organizers and she promised to talk to the leadership about it, but I never heard back. Later, someone at an event asked a leader to define platonic. Her definition included romp-style activities. I jumped in to advocate for eliminating sensual events in service to the larger good of societal acceptance. The leader sternly rebuked me for disrupting the meeting, saying it was not the place for such a discussion. “Members are free to decline to participate in any activities that make them uncomfortable,” she noted.

People in Portland’s touch community often make the counter-argument that participation in any event is consensual, as if the voluntary nature of an activity should obviate any concerns one might have about it. There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of the impact of social perceptions on peer touch as a movement.

Passionate about this issue, I sent a follow-up email to the leader that upbraided me, outlining my position. “As an advocate/activist for social change to promote greater acceptance of affective touch among adults,” I argued, “we have an obligation to try and avoid doing anything that reinforces that old view of touching as sexual. . . . In American culture ‘making out’ is clearly understood to be sexual in nature. Calling it ‘light make-out’ doesn’t change that. Hosting such events sends out mixed messages and sabotages our hard work to desexualize touching.” I concluded with a plea for the group to discontinue “socially irresponsible” practices that harm the larger cause.

Three months later, the leader replied and requested that “any future opinions and feedback be given either in writing or at a scheduled, private meeting with the leadership.” Voicing criticism in a public setting, I was told, was “inappropriate and showed disrespect for both the facilitator and participants.” My plea to limit sponsored events to nonsexual activity as conventionally defined was not addressed, but I was asked to “be patient as policy matters were in flux with a transition to new leadership.”

Part of the problem is that people in the touch community think all forms of touch and sexual behavior should be placed on a single continuum. For example, in Vitamin T: A Guide to Healthy Touch, Bob Czimbal describes a broad spectrum, with impersonal public contact (e.g., a handshake) on one end, more personal touch in the middle (hugs from family and friends) and sexual activity on the other end. LoveTribe’s levels of intimacy hierarchy presents a similar framework. However, placing friendly touch on the same axis as sexual contact confuses the issue and perpetuates the misconception that all forms of touch are slightly erotic. It is the context of the act that defines its meaning. “The very same touch on the arm, activating the same neurons in the skin, can be friendly, sexual, aggressive, etc., depending upon the situation” (Personal communication, David J. Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.)

In the context of snuggle groups, close body contact can have ambiguous meaning for participants, and many seek guidance for what is acceptable touch in that setting. Several rounds of discussion within OT led to useful distinctions that helped clarify the difference between platonic and sexual touch. As co-organizer Kristen Reynolds explained in a December 2013 newsletter, “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.” Members found these distinctions between “calming” and “arousing” touch helpful in understanding the forms of touch that were allowed at our events.

By the time I started hosting snuggle parties in my upstairs space, there were clear rules in place to guide acceptable, nonsexual behavior. New members were required to attend an Introduction to Snuggling class that addressed norms, boundaries and consent. Clothing was never optional. At the start of a cuddle session, participants introduced themselves as either “puppies” or “cats,” stating whether they were open to snuggling with anyone without first being asked for permission (a puppy) or whether they preferred to be asked before someone initiated touching (a cat).

In June 2014 I hosted my first event with ten people in attendance. Touch Talk was a discussion group plus cuddle session. I wanted to share ideas about how groups like ours could play an advocacy role in society to promote greater acceptance of organized touch events. In particular, we explored ways to de-sexualize common misperceptions of snuggle parties. Animated talk focused on a recurrent theme—how to mainstream touch groups by increasing community awareness and holding events in public places. The Free Hugs events at the Farmers Market are an example of these kinds of normalization processes. We talked about how decades ago, massage therapy went through a similar legitimation process, in which the profession disassociated itself from the shady massage parlors of old. Touch groups face similar challenges in shedding their identification with erotic activities. I also shared with the group my perspective that societal taboos against nonromantic touch deny single people access to the full range of physical affection. Like other forms of singlism, the term coined by Bella Depaulo to describe discrimination against single adults, such restrictions place an unnecessary burden on uncoupled people to find specialized sources of touch.

[This essay continues with Part 2, here.]

MJCoreil photo, credit to Susan PerezAbout 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.]