Seattle Freeze and the rise of cuddle parties in the Emerald City

10/17/2017 09:02 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2017

Science says that eating greasy cheeseburgers and sucking down soda every day isn’t good for us. Even so, America is one of the fattest nations in the world. We also have been made aware, that too much of a good thing, isn’t such a good thing. Yet, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry finds that one in eight American adults are alcoholics.

I’m not particularly svelte and I’m no teetotaler, my point is, from climate change to gun control...American’s have become really good at ignoring science.

I recently discovered that despite scientific findings that say touch is essential for the physical and emotional well-being of humans, few things are more sneered upon than the notion of paying someone to cuddle with you.

I stumbled across the topic, through a link on Seattle’s Craigslist, advertising a non-sexual cuddle party. I was intrigued. Was this something, new? And in spite of a high probability of getting a computer virus and/or being inundated with porn, I clicked the link.

http://www.cuddleparty.com/seattle/

Like most writer’s beholden to the number of likes, comments and shares a story generates, the idea of dashing off a quick “click-bait” story poking a bit of fun at the expense of a handful of desperate cuddlers on the fringe crossed my mind.

But deep down, I was hoping for something substantial. As a mom to five, I worry that despite the science proving the importance of touch, American culture is shifting more and more into a kind of violent, tech driven world where we touch each other less and less.

It makes total sense to me that people who aren’t in relationships or who rarely experience non-sexual touch would go to a cuddle party.

According to the CuddleSeattle meetup, a cuddle party is a place for Seattleites to gather to explore boundaries, communication and non-sexual touch. (Think hugs, foot rubs, back rubs, spooning and just general non-sexual snuggling.)

Meg Hunter is a Cuddle Party Facilitator. Hunter paid about twelve hundred dollars to become certified by the non-profit, Cuddle Party that was established in 2004 by two relationship coaches.

It turns out, Hunter is a delightful and charming forty-something who’s day job is in HR.

She holds bi-weekly cuddle parties in studios around Seattle and charges 25 dollars per person for a three hour cuddle party. She also offers one-on-one cuddling sessions for 80 dollars an hour.

Hunter says when she first heard of Cuddle Party a few years ago, she stalked the web page for six months before she felt comfortable enough to join for the first time. But after the first session, she was hooked.

“I was at a time in my life where I wanted intimacy without the baggage. After the first cuddle party I knew, eventually that I would become a Cuddle Facilitator.”

Research has shown that stress wreaks havoc on our physical and emotional well-being. We eat better when we are getting more touch and experience less depression, anxiety, and pain syndromes.

Touch effects physiological and biochemical phenomenon: the heart rate and blood pressure slows. A more relaxed state decreases the stress hormone, cortisol, which kills immune cells that combat disease.

Non-sexual human touch releases a powerful drug naturally produced in your body called oxytocin.

According to co-founder of Cuddlist.com, Madelon Guinazzo, she has seen a spike in the past year of people coming out of the woodwork to join cuddle parties, particularly in Seattle, the land of the Seattle Freeze.

She refers to this increase as clusters, (other such clusters are New York and Chicago) that attract people like Meg Hunter who feel disconnected and want to cuddle and connect without the emotional baggage of a relationship.

Guinazzo says the mission of Cuddlist.com is to change the paradigm in our culture from paying to cuddle as something unseemly, to something that is viewed as natural and normal.

“We are all kind of traumatized in our own way by the messages and the overload in our nervous system of living in this increased information age. We are bombarded with stories about all the horrible things that are happening in this world. Cuddlist is just about keeping it simple and basic and helping people feel like this is something that is natural, this is something that is normal.”

According to my flimsy personal research on the subject of paying to cuddle in Seattle, despite the “clusters” we’ve got a long way to go.

The overall consensus of my guinea pigs: family, friends and co-workers...most of them believe that people that have to pay to have someone cuddle with them are desperate losers or looking for a hookup. The men flat out refused to believe it wasn’t a sexual thing.

And the majority of the women I spoke with said that intimacy with strangers was impossible.

But that isn’t true, is it? Accepted touch with strangers happens all the time and we pay for it.

We go see massage therapists we don’t know. And any healthcare professionals worth their salt are touching us all the time: a simple pat on the shoulder or a gentle grab of the hand as they pump the blood pressure cuff. When we’re in the shampoo bowl getting our hair washed and scalp massaged.

Having given birth five times, I realized I have had some of the most intimate touch experiences with strangers…nurses and doctors who I virtually just met that held my hand when I needed that comforting touch most. One of the most terrifying moments in my life was being rushed into a C-Section and the anesthesiologist holding my hand and reassuring me it was going to be alright.

I’ve since learned that studies have shown that doctors prone to touching their patients have better outcomes, than those that touched their patients less.

Same goes with teachers. Students who experienced a slap on the back coupled with an “atta girl” are far more likely to engage in class than those that didn’t. Despite that research, touching has become taboo in American schools. Teachers from preschool to high school have been warned not to touch children for fear of potential lawsuits (Mazur &Pekor, 1985).

In the wake of the recent Las Vegas shooting, people are yearning to find out why? And the larger question: why are American men so violent?

A study from the Touch Research Institute, part of the University of Miami, found that Parisian teenagers hanging out in McDonald's restaurants overwhelmingly touched each other more than their American peers, and were less likely to exhibit symptoms of aggression.

France is one of the highest touch cultures (110 times per 30 minutes), while the U.S. was among the lowest (2 times per 30 minutes). High-touch cultures have relatively low rates of violence, and low-touch cultures have extremely high rates of youth and adult violence.

Research suggests that touch deprivation in early development and again in adolescence may contribute to violence in adults.

Which brings me back to Madelon Guinazzo’s client, who recently came to her for a one-on-one cuddling session.

The client drove six hours to see her. She described him as having extreme PTSD. He told Guinazzo, “I don’t know what I need…I have tried all of these things and I am at this point of either get busy living or get busy dying and I am going to come see you.”

Guinazzo says that it took two consecutive sessions of roughly two hours each until her client felt comfortable to finally have physical contact.

“It’s interesting” Guinazzo said, “we ended up spooning. Initially, he showed me a picture. And I asked him if he wanted to be the one on the outside, or the inside?”

Guinazzo says her client talked about how when he looked at the picture, he felt wrong to be in the more typically female inside position. That as a male he wanted to be in the outside position.

“I was like, great okay, so you go ahead and lie down and get comfortable and then I'll join you. And then he got comfortable on the couch and he left space behind him. He didn’t leave any space in front of him. And isn’t that interesting? I was like so where did you want me? But his body sort of knew in a way. I ended up holding hands and I spooned him from behind.”

I asked Guinazzo about what ended up happening with her client…even though I had never met him, I felt worried.

“When he left, there was a process of the mind catching up with the body. He said he didn’t know how he felt. That his body wasn’t used to this…he hasn’t spooned with someone in 15 years."

At the end of the day, platonic pay-for-cuddling is a hard sell. The first hurdle is convincing people this has nothing to do with sex. The second, is for people to take the science of cuddling seriously: the importance of the physical and emotional benefits of cuddling on children and adults.

Guinazzo says a lot of it has to do with replacing old tracks, where our culture doesn’t value “emotional labor.”

Guinazzo is working to bring Cuddle therapy to hospital and university settings.

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