Group hug: people embrace during a Cuddle Workshop in London. Photo: Getty
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Cuddle workshops: the latest solution to loneliness

Could it be that, in a digital age, people are left missing physical touch? Sophie McBain goes under-cuddle to find out.

Are you going to the cuddle workshop?” For a moment I was tempted to say no – the prospect of an afternoon spent embracing strangers seemed suddenly terrifying – but I followed the man up a flight of metal stairs and into a dance studio. We walked past two women hugging in the hallway, and my stomach tightened.

The first official “cuddle party” was held in 2004 in New York, hosted by relationship coaches Marcia Bacyznski and Reid Mihalko in their Manhattan apartment. The idea quickly spread, first across the US and Canada, and then to London in 2006.

I had signed up for a four-hour cuddle workshop in north London run by newlyweds Anna Shekory, who started doing this in 2010, and Tom Mayer. Anna also runs private cuddling sessions; Tom is a Harley Street hypnotherapist. An afternoon of cuddling costs £29 and the aim is to help people “rediscover nurturing touch and affection”.

It is no coincidence that cuddle workshops have caught on here. According to OECD statistics, Britain is the loneliest country in Europe: we are the least likely to report having close friendships or knowing our neighbours. The number of people living on their own has doubled since the 1970s, with single-person households now making up a third of all homes. We often imagine older single people as being the most isolated, but a 2010 survey found that 60 per cent of those aged 18-34 described themselves as lonely.

Which left me wondering: what exactly do people mean when they talk of loneliness? In some ways, we have never been more connected: the internet has made it faster and cheaper to contact distant friends or to make new ones. Could it be that, in a digital age, people are left missing physical touch?

The people I met at Cuddle Workshop think so. I spoke to a trendy thirtysomething who said he had lots of friends and a big family but still felt “disconnected”; he was looking for a “healthier” way of finding affection. I asked what he meant and he looked embarrassed and then explained how he sometimes takes the Ecstasy-like drug MDMA as an excuse to “hug it out with his mates”. Another participant, a nurse, felt that the workshops helped her care for others because she left feeling valued and loved. Many described the cuddle sessions as “life-changing”.

When I first arrived, ten minutes early, about thirty people were already milling around the studio, reading out “ice-breaker questions” from multicoloured strips of paper. “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?” I asked a nervous-looking, middle-aged man in a tight black T-shirt. “Stand-up comedy,” he replied, unexpectedly. Whatever stereotype you might have of the kind of person who pays for cuddles, few people would fit it. There was a roughly even split between men and women; some cuddlers were in their early twenties and others were much older.

We started by sitting in a large circle and meditating. Anna asked us to close our eyes and to focus our attention on whatever we were feeling. “Perhaps you’re feeling sadness, and those feelings are welcome, too,” she said at one point, and the sound of ragged breathing suggested that two people had started crying. Then we were invited to do warm-up exercises: we danced around the room and touched body parts on command: “Everyone, high-five the person next to you”, “Touch your hips together”. It was excruciating.

Still, I had promised myself I would try to “get into it”, so I focused really hard on giving another woman a “loving” back massage. “I was really moved by that. Thank you,” she said, and I found myself cheered.

During the tea-and-biscuit break, we were assigned the task of asking at least three people for a cuddle. I couldn’t face it, but I was halfway through eating a Bourbon when someone asked if I wanted a hug, and I said yes as cheerfully as I could. I ended up cuddling four people, and it did feel nice. Then I turned someone down, which is OK, too, because it’s important to “honour yourself” and know your boundaries.

I might, in retrospect, have been better off leaving then. I must have reached my cuddle limit. Instead, I ended up stroking a woman up and down her body like a cat, while she purred, and then caressing a man’s face. We finished with a huge “cuddle huddle”, in which everyone lay on the floor caressing each other.

Almost everyone, that is. I sat on my own in a corner, hugging my legs defensively against my chest. “Are you happy where you are?” Anna asked me, looking quietly concerned. I nodded. And then I had a strange realisation: I felt lonelier than I have in years. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.