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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.