On a Saturday night in Venice, California, light spills from an open door on an otherwise dark street. The space appears to be an art gallery or studio: blank walls, cubbies for shoes and personal items and cushioned mats and pillows lining half of the room's hardwood floor.
Twelve individuals filter into the room – dressed in pajamas, yoga attire, sweatpants – some more confidently than others. There are a handful who remove their shoes immediately and find a place on the floor, blanket in tow, presumably preparing for some grand slumber party or group nap. Each visitor is greeted by a woman wielding an iPad. "Would you like a hug?" she asks.
Abhit Singh looks puzzled but welcomes the hug – this is his first time here. The woman offers Singh the iPad. He, like all other participants, must sign a waiver. She then instructs the group to take a seat on the cushions, her voice maintaining a steady and smooth timbre.
This room is called The Love Dome and hosts events including yoga, dance and private parties. Every Wednesday and Saturday night, The Love Dome is host to Cuddle Sanctuary, an organization that leads group cuddle events, professional cuddling and training for professionals. This is one of their group cuddle sanctuaries.
"This is a G-rated event," says one organizer. "Touch stays outside the bikini area."
Fei Wyatt, the iPad-toting host, is Cuddle Sanctuary's Chief People Officer, a professional cuddler and certification program leader and the facilitator for tonight's cuddle. In an hour's time, she'll be chaperoning a room full of strangers spooning each other on the floor. But now, participants sit cross-legged, eyes fixed on Wyatt, who leads the group through a number of warm-up exercises like deep breathing, a body awareness activity and light stretching. She then outlines a few rules: to arrive and stay sober, to keep the identities of everyone in the room confidential, that no touch is required, that you can change your mind at any time and to respect others' boundaries with enthusiasm. "This is a G-rated event," Wyatt says. "Touch stays outside the bikini area."
In an event that depends almost entirely on physical intimacy, the topic of consent is crucial to the field's success. Everyone should be in what Wyatt calls a "hell yes" space – that if asked for a specific touch, the reply would be a passionate OK. But more importantly, if you don't want to partake, the word "no" should not be marred with guilt or shame.
"That is the thing that changes the most lives," Wyatt says earlier. "Take the whole touch thing away, teaching people that they have choice over their body, they've never seen it before, they've never experienced it."
The reasons one seeks out a professional cuddling experience range from average adults seeking connection, those on the autistic spectrum, those healing from sexual trauma, adults dealing with sexual dysfunction or for older virgins to practice touch in a safe environment. The elephant in the room during some of these sessions, though, is the current state of the country's affairs. Since November – and the election of Donald Trump – professional cuddling services have seen a spike in client interest.
"The holiday season was the first time that since Trump won the election that a lot of people were seeing their family," says Adam Lippin, co-founder and CEO of Cuddlist, which provides training services to professional cuddlers and allows clients to search listings of "Cuddlists" nearby. "People with different political views were going to be in the same place with relatives. That was the first hit of people having to confront it in a significant way. We saw an uptick around that."
But what makes the organized effort of being held, a service that comes with a cost (Cuddlist sessions go for $80 an hour), something that aids in relieving the fear and discomfort that has come with Trump's presidency?
Professional cuddling is one of the latest iterations of self-care and wellness, focusing on touch therapy. Since the early 2000s, the field of professional cuddling as a therapeutic tool has transitioned from stigmatized field with pay-for-sex undertones to a legitimate service for healing with proven health benefits. Cuddle Party, founded by relationship coaches Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski in 2004 in Manhattan, was one of the first organized groups for those looking to engage in facilitated touch workshops. Now, Cuddle Party trains group cuddle facilitators and hosts parties worldwide from Australia to Utah. Since their incorporation in 2016, Cuddlist has fielded over 5,000 client requests and has trained over 200 practitioners.
A decade after Cuddle Party's first events, Jean Franzblau, who would go on to found Cuddle Sanctuary, discovered her own touch needs on a business trip, mistaking her touch deprivation for a desire for a sexual experience.
"I found myself isolated and lonely," Franzblau says. "I basically hijacked this guy's evening and I pushed for a sexual experience because I really wanted to spoon. I invested four hours in dinner, hanging out and the bottom of it was 'Let's spoon' and he's like, 'I won't do that.' It was humiliating, actually."
Franzblau created Cuddle Sanctuary in 2014, after attending her first group cuddle event, to help others realize their own touch needs. Since the election, Cuddle Sanctuary has seen 252 new clients beginning as early as the day following the election. The usual Wednesday night cuddle workshop following the decision was dubbed "Election Detox." Five of the 21 attendees were new.
While the professional cuddling network is tight and connected, ultimately the field operates through individual organizations and certified facilitators nationwide. Through various groups like Cuddle Sanctuary and Cuddle Party, professional cuddler training includes three-and-four-day certification programs which cover the rules of a cuddle, consent and boundary activities. Cuddle Party even offers online seminars. To be considered a certified Cuddlist, one must enroll in an online course, attend a Cuddle Party group session and pass a video or in-person evaluation.
Though the service sometimes comes with a stigma – Is this an orgy? Do I have to go to someone's house? – there are rules, like asking for what you want and waiting to receive a "yes" before proceeding, that help everyone feel safe. Cuddle Sanctuary and Portland-based Cuddle Up To Me, which has seen 186 new clients and the addition of three new staff members since the start of 2017, encourage clients to be specific with requests – a shoulder to lean on, a spooning session or even for no touching at all – and to not feel ashamed for saying no to what they don't want.
"What this means is that we will feel more connected, empathetic, content, [have] lower stress, anxiety and depression," says Samantha Hess, owner and professional cuddler at Cuddle Up To Me. "We will sleep better, have higher metabolic function, increase our immune response, and even decrease our impulse behavior – like drinking because the world is doomed."
"The work is actually political now," says an organizer.
Either via one-on-one sessions with a certified professional cuddler or in a workshop basis where groups of people snuggle up to one another (lead by a facilitator), participants are looking for a natural boost of the hormone oxytocin, known to relieve stress, which is released in the brain upon positive human contact. Studies have shown that just 20 seconds of mutually engaged touch can trigger the release of oxytocin.
The same kind of feel-good hormones that are released when mothers nurse their babies or when you get a great massage are the same ones at play during a positive and platonic embrace. Those chemical aftereffects leave you experiencing nurtured and connected in much the same ways that sex does.
As executive orders, cabinet appointments, abuse of power, protests and other signs of political unrest sweep the nation, there's a sense of unease brewing in many. They are turning to alternative forms of care to alleviate these fears.
Marcia Baczynski, co-founder of Cuddle Party, has seen her already established clientele base reacting to the election. Many of them, she says, feel triggered by Trump's actions, history of sexual abuse allegations and manipulative behaviors.
"The work is actually political now," Baczynski says. "It used to be the case that you talked about cuddle parties because these are important skills for life – everyone's navigating boundaries. And now we need to have boundaries with our government. How the fuck do you do that? How do you conceptualize having a leader who is essentially an abusive asshole?"
A significant number of those seeking professional cuddling services have experienced abuse, and some see in Trump qualities that remind them of past trauma. Three days after the election, Anastasia Allington, a professional cuddler in Austin, Texas, had a session with a client who was bereft and frequently broke into tears. Another scheduled a cuddle session on Election Day in order to alleviate the anxiety he was already experiencing around the campaign.
"I started thinking about why it would be that people would seek out this service after this particular election and I think it has a lot to do with the space," Allington says. "We walk through our days and we wear all these hats: mother, sister, employee, then something like this happens where, for many people, they felt bereft and the world doesn't stop. In the cuddle space, you can be where you are with whatever emotion you're feeling and no one has any expectations of you."
For others, generalized anxiety and depression are heightened because of some of Trump's executive orders. John, who declined to give his last name, originally sought out cuddling services after determining talk therapy and prescribed medications didn't fit his needs. A veteran who served in Iraq, John felt that a combination of his experiences and chemical makeup contributed to his mental health and that the inclusion of positive touch in his life was the most effective form of treatment. Since Trump took office, he noticed his stress levels creeping higher again. The day prior to the inauguration, John received a career-changing job offer. Days later, it was rescinded – the job was a government position and Trump's federal hiring freeze prevented the department from moving forward with John's employment. Cuddling has been a way to help him cope.
"I think that there's so much stress in people's lives these days, and especially in today's political climate," he says. "What a cuddling service can offer is that opportunity to lower those stress levels, to relax, and [to] go back to the basics and seek out some human touch."
At times, the cuddle party Wyatt leads in Venice turns silent. Along one wall, participants sit stacked snugly in between another person's legs, one person using another's body as a support pillow; in the middle of the room is a spooning train; others sit side-by-side coloring. Just as touch is optional, so is speaking.
Abhit Singh has worked past his initial cuddle shyness and engages in the spoon train. Professional cuddling has been on his radar for the better part of a decade – this is Southern California, after all – but this is his first foray into the practice.
"When we have a figurehead who's dismissing those values, it's an opportunity for the rest of us to say, 'This is who we are and this is what we want,'" says one professional cuddler.
"I think I worked up the courage to come and cuddle with random people," he says. "Along the years, I let go of some inhibitions. It was the perfect synergy and the perfect timing to try it out."
His mood fluctuates, he says, but for the most part, the start of 2017 is a lot harder for him, emotionally, than the end of 2016 because of the new administration.
"There's a lingering sadness but it's not like I'm still in the shock phase. I've gotten over that," Singh mentions. "If that triggered [me] attending an event, I didn't consciously think about it, but it could've been a perfect storm, [Trump] driving me subconsciously to attend this."
The tools one learns in both workshop and one-on-one situations translate into life outside the cuddle space. The practice of asking for what you want, being prepared to hear no and, more importantly, turning down offers you don't want are crucial in both cuddles and in life. It leaves participants and facilitators feeling empowered and like they have a choice over their bodies and livelihoods, especially in a time when so much can seem out of the average person's control.
"When we have a figurehead who's dismissing those values and demonstrating that it's not important, it's an opportunity for the rest of us to say, 'This is who we are and this is what we want,' and to take more action around it," Madelon Guinazzo, co-founder of Cuddlist, says.
"The skills we're teaching in Cuddle Party are, 'What do I know to be true, right now in this moment?'" Baczynski adds. "When something's not right – or when something is right – let's listen to that. I think that's a really important counter when there's someone running the country who's acting like an out of control, abusive father."
There's a reason for the emphasis on the "sanctuary" part of Cuddle Sanctuary. It's a place for people to go when they feel wronged, Wyatt says. The program Franzblau developed allows for participants of all backgrounds and political affiliations to gather together for the sole purpose of feeling safe while being touched.
"In regards to the Trump administration, this practice is really inoculating me from the drama and trauma that I'm witnessing on Facebook," Franzblau says. "I'm getting the boost that I need on a regular basis that helps me feel like a human instead of a panic machine."