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Cuddle Parties and the Death of Platonic Male Touch

I’m one of 13 men and women at a night session of The Cuddle Sanctuary, a nonsexual “guided social experience” for adults sharing platonic touch in the hopes of better connecting to themselves and each other.

It’s held at the Love Dome in Venice, a space resembling a small art gallery. Cushioned mats line the hardwood floor, upon which I’m spooning a curvy middle-aged woman named Gayle.

“Wanna try ‘Big Bear, Baby Bear?’” she whispers, gesturing to the corner of the room known as the “Bears’ Den.”

I oblige and follow Gayle, careful not to disturb a four-man “massage train” that’s spontaneously formed beside it.

The “Big Bear, Baby Bear” formation — as demonstrated by Louis, our nebbishy, bearded cuddle coach — involves the bigger bear (me, though only by a smidge) seated with my back against the wall while the “baby” bear (Gayle) reclines into my chest.

“Can you please put your arms around me?” she requests.

“Like this?” I ask, encircling Gayle’s neck with my forearms.

“Yes,” she sighs. “That’s nice.”

Is it, though?

I’m typically hesitant to touch strangers, much less spoon them.

“Are you excited about the eclipse?” I inquire, awkwardly attempting to break the silence with small talk.

Gayle explains that she’s headed up to Idaho Falls to experience totality, but she’s a little worried. “They’re expecting three quarters of a million people,” she nervously laments, concerned that the tiny town might be overwhelmed with stargazers. “They’re stocking up on emergency gasoline and supplies, just in case.”

“You’ll be okay,” I say, reflexively tightening my embrace.

“I hope you’re right,” she responds, leaning into me just as Louis directs everyone to switch partners.

Professional cuddling is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, as men and women across the country embrace touch therapy as the latest iteration of self-care. As such, every day, thousands of people are booking appointments with professional cuddlers in at least 16 states.

To wit, in addition to The Cuddle Sanctuary, there’s also…

  • Cuddle Party in Manhattan, “a playful social event designed for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection.” Founded in 2004 by relationship coaches Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski, Cuddle Party is one of the first organized facilitated touch workshops in the country.
  • Sacred Touch St. Louis, whose stated mission is to “help you feel better so you can change your world.”
  • Cuddle Up to Me in Portland, Oregon, which provides one-on-one and couples’ sessions with certified cuddlers in their studio or at a nearby park.
  • Snuggle Salon, cuddling workshops for those in the Bay Area.
  • Cuddle Party Events in Boston, 10 of which are scheduled in the next month.
  • Cuddle Buddy, enhancing “overall well-being in the form of non-sexual human touch” to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
  • Chicago Cuddlers, inviting people in the Windy City to “receive the love and attention you deserve.”
  • Cuddle Club Seattle, only “changing lives in small ways that matter.”

No matter where it resides, such therapy can be particularly beneficial to men, says Kristen Barber, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University. “Organized cuddling represents safe places where men can touch other men without having to be self-conscious about what it means for their manhood since touch is expected — and even mandated.”

Others, like Mark Greene, senior editor of the Good Men Project, believe the lack of gentle platonic touch in men’s lives is a killer and that men are suffering from something he calls touch isolation:

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through long lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a handshake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think, holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. And if you are a man, imagine five minutes of contact with another man. How quickly does that idea raise the ugly specter of homophobia? And why?

The science is settled on the benefits of platonic touch, explains Ronald Levant, a professor of psychology at the University of Akron. “It’s one of the most fundamental findings in psychological science, going back to [American psychologist] Harry Harlow’s study of monkeys,” he tells me. Touching and being touched by another person is an enormously positive experience for most people, Levant says, and is proven to be healing to humans and primates alike.

But Levant stresses that the therapeutic connection goes beyond hugging. “It’s not just touch; it’s verbal expression,” he explains, because men traditionally don’t talk about personal things with other men — their families, their struggles, their vulnerabilities. “I would put those things, like cuddling, under the category of ‘opening up your heart to the people who you care about.’”

To that end, back at the Love Dome, I’m participating in a non-touch “gratitude swap” with Luis, a middle-aged Latino man sitting across from me cross-legged.

“I’m grateful because I’m so tired,” he shares in broken English. “The tiredness helps me to function from pain. I’m grateful for the opportunity this space is giving me to function from pain with new people that I don’t know.”

I share an uncomfortable nod and take a deep breath.

“I spend so much time on my various devices that I sometimes feel disconnected from humanity and devastatingly alone. I’m grateful to take a break from that.”

Mercifully, Luis leans in for a hug.

“I have a student writing a paper on Tinder,” Levant says. “People come right out and say things like ‘I want to sit on your face.’ Is that intimacy or isolation? When someone calls you and tells you they want to f**k you without even asking your name, are you really connecting?”

That’s probably one of the larger reasons why G-rated connection — with professional cuddlers, massage therapists and hair stylists — is growing in popularity among men.

“Touch is a large component of my research,” explains Barber, author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. Barber says the female cosmetologists at high-service salons she studied for her book felt responsible for providing men with more than a great haircut — they also wanted to make them feel good. “They provide clients physical touch — i.e., groaning in ecstasy while hairstylists vigorously wash their hair — as well as confidential friendships they might not find elsewhere,” she explains. “‘Everyone needs to be touched,’ these women would tell me. And the only people who can touch men are their wives and their hairdressers.”

It wasn’t always this way, of course.

In Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography, historian John Ibson studied 100 years of photography from the 1840s through World War II. He was initially struck by the way men posed in tin-type photos in the late 19th century. “It was unusually affectionate,” he tells me, “with their arms around each other in a quite unself-conscious and unembarrassed way.”

Several photos to follow from Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography by John Ibson” and via Vintage Everyday and The Art of Manliness.

Clearly, same-sex intimacy was common in the 19th century, which lacked the cloud of anti-gay suspicion around male friendships. In fact, it was customary for men to walk around holding hands and even sleep in one another’s beds. The most famous example of this is Abraham Lincoln, who shared a bunk with his best friend, Joshua Speed.

As for whether this meant Lincoln was gay or not, Ibson laughs. “Abraham Lincoln was absolutely not homosexual. Do you know why? Because the very word ‘homosexual’ wasn’t coined until Lincoln was in his grave! Whether Lincoln and Speed were having sex in that bed isn’t my concern. I do know that if they were, it didn’t necessarily make them think that they had a certain identity. For one thing, there weren’t as many beds in the 19th century. For another, two men sleeping together wasn’t necessarily a sign that they were having sex. We see things through lenses that we grind in our time rather than through lenses of the mindset of the people of the time.”

Ibson concluded that the photographs he collected said nothing about whether these men were sexually involved. Some of them probably were, he says, but more than likely, most of them were not. “I wasn’t interested in whether these men were having orgasms together,” Ibson explains. “I was simply interested in whether they were able to touch each other without any kind of defensiveness.”

Platonic touch was especially common on the playing field, with sports teams regularly posing affectionately. That’s because, Ibson says, like soldiers, professional athletes — particularly in rougher sports — were given a pass based on the idea that they couldn’t possibly be gay because gay men were weak. “On the field they would still embrace and pat each other on the butts, and there’d be lots of horsing around in locker rooms because of a myth that ‘there are no queers here,’” he explains.

Nowhere was this phenomenon more evident than during World War II, which Ibson calls “the largest same-sex environment in American history.” More than 16 million men served — roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population — many of whom discovered a sexual attraction to each other during this time. But many more, Ibson says, were freed up to be more physical with each other due to the pressures of war, evidenced in poignant wartime photos.

That, however, all ended with V-E and V-J Day, Ibson explains. In fact, he’s writing a book about the phenomenon — The Mourning After: Loss and Longing in Mid-Century American Male Relationships. In it, he suggests that there was a backlash against male touch of any kind once soldiers returned home and were relegated to the suburbs, isolated from other men and the deep friendships they enjoyed during the war. “There was a kind of overdone-ness to masculinity in the 1950s following the unprecedented intimacy that men experienced during the war.”

Levant’s father was one of those men.

“My dad was the World War II tough Navy guy,” he explains. “The most time he spent with me and my brother was supervising us while we were mowing the lawn. He was a perfectionist and would come out and say, ‘You missed a spot there, Ronny!’ That was as close as we got to him.” Levant also recently completed a book about men’s relationships after World War II, The Psychology of Men and Masculinities, and similarly identifies this as the moment the American male’s relationship to touch was forever changed.

Ibson chalks the phenomenonup to homophobia and the new idea that there were gay people and straight people — and the belief that it was a lot better to be a straight person than a gay person. “Little boys stopped holding hands with each other,” he says, “and sons stopped kissing their fathers because fathers stopped kissing their sons. There’s a separation of males — e.g., the empty seat in the movie theater that adolescent boys begin to leave between themselves — that begins to infect American masculinity out of a fear of being mistaken to be queer.”

At the end of the Cuddle Sanctuary, Louis invites everyone to circle up in the center on the room for a final reflection. He asks if anyone has a “first” they’d like to share.

“It’s the first time I’ve been in a cuddle spoon seven people deep,” Randy says, eliciting a smattering of knowing groans.

Louis notes that it’s important to protect Randy’s anonymity (as well as that of all the participants). Cuddling is still a fringe thing, he explains, which means, “If you run into Randy on the street, don’t go up to him and say, ‘Hey, how about that spoon train last night?!’”

Next, Louis asks everyone to share a word or phrase that describes a feeling they’re leaving with, some of which include “connection,” “relaxation,” “community” and “love.”

One person, curiously, sings a verse from “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

And a guy who tells me his name is Kevin struggles to capture his post-cuddle euphoria. “Safety,” he offers. “I’ve never felt this way before. Not when I was a kid, not when I was growing up, not in any job, not in any relationship.”