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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.