Cuddling and Being Cuddled

I cuddle a lot in my personal life. When I started dating my now-husband he told me early on that he hoped the amount of affectionate touch I liked wouldn’t get annoying over time. More than six years later, he tells me it hasn’t.

Most nights we fall asleep cuddled up. And wake up that way, too. The point is, he’s gotten lots of cuddles from me over the years.

Last night, he was hurting and he asked me to cuddle him. This morning he said “those were some next level professional cuddles.”

“Well, I am internationally certified as a cuddler.” I told him.

The difference, though, isn’t my qualifications or training (as wonderful as all of that is). The core difference between what he’s experienced a lot of times before and what he experienced last night was that we weren’t just cuddling, he was being cuddled.

Being cuddled by someone whose focus is on helping you to heal is a different experience from cuddling up with someone. The difference is in the focus. When I’m cuddling someone to comfort them, my focus is on their experience. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about my own comfort. I’ve learned that I can’t provide the same level of comfort if I’m uncomfortable. 

The process of holding someone, often with their head on my shoulder, as I wrap my arms around them as specific benefits, my clients tell me. It helps people to feel safe and enveloped and comforted. People come away from that experience feeling better, remembering their own strength and more confident that they have the ability to face whatever is in front of them. I’ve cuddled people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, or some other tragedy that won’t be erased or eliminated with a cuddle. That’s not the point of the cuddle anyway. The point is to pull cortisol out of their bloodstream so that the stress of whatever their facing doesn’t overwhelm their capacity to move forward. The point is to reconnect them with themselves in a way that being held and comforted is uniquely able to do.

If you need that sort of comfort, it can seem like a failure if there’s nobody in your social circle capable of providing it. But that’s why the industry of professional cuddling, like the talk therapy industry, exists. To provide a useful service in exchange for equivalent value. My husband doesn’t pay my hourly rate, but he exchanges value with me in a lot of other ways. My clients do the same thing in a much simpler and more scalable way.

My hours have shifted a bit, and I’m shifting my focus some, but I’m still providing this service in my Carmel office. If you’re interested in a cuddle with me, please schedule an appointment or send me a message to find out more.

Holding Space is Shifting

I’ve been running Holding Space as a professional cuddling practice for a couple of years now, and there are some things about it that I want to shift.

The work I do with individual clients has been valuable to those clients. Both those experiences and the research I’ve done on the therapeutic effects of comforting touch lead me to believe this industry has a lot of potential to do good in the world, and I don’t want to stop being a part of that. But my experiences have shown me that there are a lot of people who aren’t interested in or ready for a cuddling appointment who are nevertheless struggling with something about their relationship or their desire for a relationship. I’m observing that a lot of those struggles are based in some common patterns related to how they approach other people and the world around them. 

The traditional models we have for relationships are more than a little broken. I’ve been working on some writing around that, which I’m looking forward to sharing more broadly. I want to free up more time to focus on the writing part of this work. 

I’ll also be focusing more on my coaching. My niche is people trying to build relationships – especially the types of relationships they don’t feel they can talk to their parents or neighbors about. I’ve got a lot of experience with different styles of non-monogamous relationships, and more than a passing familiarity with relationships that incorporate kink dynamics. I’m also difficult to shock – and I fundamentally believe that any relationship that doesn’t hurt the people involved or adjacent is valid and can be beneficial. 

This work of figuring out how to get more love and support into individual people’s lives is fundamental to what I want to accomplish in the world and I’m looking forward to doing more of it. If you or someone you know is interested in working on your relationship in this way, let me know so we can explore the possibilities.

About My Women-Only Snuggle Events

My snuggle events are pretty small, and that’s one of the things I think my regulars like about them. But early on, when I realized I was getting snuggle events with me and 3 or 4 cisgender guys (who didn’t want to touch each other at all), I began to wrestle with how to make my events more accessible to women.

Part of the benefit of being involved in CuddleXpo is that it brought me in touch with a lot of people across the industry. I heard from them that, across the country,  when a cuddle community is being established the men show up first. Having an over-abundance of men at events can make them less welcoming to women, who may begin to feel obligated to cuddle with someone they would rather not cuddle with After all, women are strongly socialized to make men comfortable, even if their own discomfort is an inevitable price of doing so.

I decided tocreate events specifically for people who are not cisgender men. As I was thinking about doing this, I talked to lots of people about it – and heard from a lot of women that they would be far more comfortable at a women-only event than at an event that was also open to men.

Once that decision was clear to me, the next step was to figure out how to communicate my decision out to the world. That turns out to be a nontrivial challenge. I don’t want to define my events by who’s not welcome – so I need to find language that describes who is welcome.

I want to welcome cisgender women, transgender women, and nonbinary people presenting as women. In addition to being awfully lengthy for an event title, that sentence has a problem in that it specifically calls out transgender women as different than cisgender women. That’s a tactic TERFs often use to talk about how transgender women aren’t really women – and I do believe that transgender women are women. But I live in a part of the world where I can’t assume that everyone reading my ads will understand that to be true.

Knowing that I’m hoping to reach a variety of people with my advertising (and knowing that at least a part of my audience is very conservative in their mindset), I began talking to people who know more than I do about gender about how to communicate what I’m trying to communicate. I asked them to help me find language that would make it clear that:

  • the event is for women,
  • woman is a term I define more broadly than a strict gender binary would, and
  • nonbinary people are welcome at this event if they are in a femme state.

The wording I settled on was “women and femmes only.”

It’s not perfect language, but I don’t know how to better communicate my intent.

I haven’t yet been trolled for this event description – though I am waiting for that shoe to drop one of these days. I have had men RSVP for these events (to which I respond with a clear, firm electronic message that they are not welcome at that event but would be very welcome at my next Open Snuggle event.) I haven’t yet had a man show up at my door to try to attend, though it is clear to me that I will turn away any man who does. After all, it’s part of my job as a professional in this industry to hold  boundaries in the world – and what would that be but an opportunity to hold my boundaries.

My next Women-Only Snuggles event is THIS Friday. I hope that if you are a woman or nonbinary person in a femme state, you’ll join us. Touch is never required, and I hold these events on a pay-what-feels-right-to-you basis.

How Touch Improves Your Health

Touch can be healthy in a lot of ways. We know that babies that don’t get touch can die, and children in low touch environment can develop cognitive and physical deficits that follow them the rest of their lives.

But how and why does touch make such a difference?

A lot of it has to do with the body’s relaxation response.

Did you know your body had a relaxation response? We don’t talk about it much.

We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response, the state in which the body release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Have you ever heard stories about people lifting cars off their loved ones in  crisis? That’s stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol at work, and we get pretty excited about the impact those substances can have on us. Strength, endurance, lowered sensitivity to pain – all of those things are valuable in our broader society. And as long as we’re using those stress hormones to fuel these sorts of efforts, they aren’t bad for us.

Problem is, a lot of the things that stress us out today aren’t and can’t be resolved through physical labor. We aren’t generally running away from predators in a jungle, or trying to clean up after a mudslide, or other tasks that take a lot of physical energy and strength. We’re sitting at a computer, or talking to a customer, or reading the news on our phones, which doesn’t give those stress hormones a function in the body.

Now stress hormones are a bit like teenagers; full of energy and strength, but if you make them sit around with nothing to do they might cause some trouble. In the case of these substances, the trouble they cause is called inflammation. If you have a lot of inflammation, it can become chronic. Chronic inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, and a host of other issues.

Touch helps to trigger the relaxation response, which is created by the parasympathetic nervous system and also called the “rest and digest” response. That one doesn’t get the sort of air time that the fight or flight response gets, but it’s important of for your overall health. If you don’t figure out how to help the body relax, it’s going to cause problems.

There are lots of ways to help the body relax, touch and cuddling isn’t the only option, but it might be an option that you haven’t tried yet. The Holding Space office is set up to facilitate relaxation. We have designed everything from the lighting to the furniture to the fishtank to the music to help people relax. Even having an office at all is unusual in the world of professional cuddling, but we wanted to take that step to help our clients have a space away from stress triggers (like your chores or work) while still being comfortable and welcoming.

Touch also increases the immune response in other ways, increasing the number of white blood cells in the body and the presence of natural killer (NK) cells. These NK cells are the ones that go after germs and viruses in your system to keep them from making you sick.

Between these responses, the body clearly responds positively to safe and nurturing touch. If you don’t have a good source of it in your life now, you can get those needs met in an ethical way at Holding Space. Whether that means a one on one appointment, or a visit to one of our group snuggle sessions, I hope you’ll support your own health by giving it a try.

Summer of Snuggles

Part of the reason I started Holding Space was to help normalize platonic touch in our culture. This summer, I’m doing this by handing out hugs at various public venues. Find me at the Fishers Summer Concerts on Tuesday evenings or Wednesday lunchtimes, or at the Carmel Summer Family Concert Series at the Gazebo on Wednesday nights. I’ll also be showing up at some other local festivals (like the Strawberry Festival on the circle yesterday, or Monumental Yoga next week).

Two public hug sessions in, I’m not over my nervousness about handing out public hugs, but I am more convinced than ever that it’s an important part of what I’m trying to accomplish with Holding Space. Professional cuddling doesn’t work in a culture that doesn’t have a comfortable relationship with platonic touch – and our culture is a little shaky on that ideal.

Friends have warned me to “stay safe” when I go out to give hugs, and that’s not entirely unreasonable. It’s not entirely reasonable, either, though. The venues I’ve chosen are in very safe parts of town (each of the concert venues I’m going to is no farther than across the parking lot from the local police station, and the festivals on Monument Circle also have a pretty strong police presence.)

Some of the people that encounter me are gonna laugh at me. That’s already happened. I’m not gonna say that’s my favorite part, but it doesn’t make me feel unsafe. Someone yesterday asked me if I offered more than hugs, which was creepy and unpleasant, but mostly made me sad for the guy who asked. I believe I’ll have the same reaction if someone gooses me –  It hasn’t happened yet, but if it does it’ll be creepy and gross and will also give me an opportunity to ask what makes him think that’s a reasonable part of hugging a stranger. I promise to report back how I actually react when it happens – but I know it’ll be a growth opportunity for me and not something that damages me.

I’m actively looking for other opportunities to encounter people in public and offer them hugs. If you have ideas, comment here. Thanks for following along on my interesting journey!

Public Hugs

IMG_20180613_193324.jpgI did it! I gave out some free hugs at the Carmel concert series concert tonight. (Well, technically to the crowd before the actual event started. I left when they started playing – I didn’t want to disrupt the concert itself.)

I was unreasonably nervous about it. When I got there, I stood awkwardly with the sign for a little while, then wandered around the audience. I gave hugs to anybody who wanted one, and thanked anybody who told me they didn’t want one for being clear about their boundaries. One person I hugged told me their daughter just lost a friend to suicide yesterday – so at least that person really needed the hug I gave them.

I handed out a few brochures, too, but only to people who asked me questions about why I was giving out free hugs. I figure hugs don’t need a reason (even if I do happen to have one.)

In fact, the longer I keep this business open, the more I realize that normalizing platonic touch is an important part of why I started this business and an important part of what I want to accomplish in the world. Touch is a normal and natural human need, but we’ve told people (especially men) that they’re only allowed to touch romantic partners (or, more darkly, people they’re exhibiting power over.) Touch reduces pain, improves cardiovascular function, and improves mood – and none of those benefits require you to have an ongoing relationship with the person you hug. I got to do that a couple dozen times in less than an hour tonight, and that was a useful way to spend some time. 

There are concerts every week this summer. I plan to show up to most of them with my sign and a smile. I’m looking for other good venues, too, so let me know if you have some I should consider. 

Workplace Dating Now that #TimeIsUp

Now that the #MeToo movement is telling us all that #TimeIsUp, a lot of men are expressing fear and uncertainty around how to engage with women in the workplace. People relay stories about happy, successful couples who met at work, and express fear that such connections will be impossible in the workplace of the future.

Understanding the guidelines for flirtatious or sexual conduct is challenging in part because the effect an action has isn’t entirely dependent on what you do – it’s an interaction between what someone does and how it’s received. The sitcom How I Met Your Mother called this the Dobler / Dahmer effect. A flirtatious interaction could be cute and romantic (like Lloyd Dobler in the romantic comedy Say Anything holding up his boom box outside the window of his love interest) or creepy and threatening (like Jeffery Dahmer, the cannibal serial killer) depending on whether the person you’re interacting with is into the connection or not.

There is no list of actions or words that can never be intended or interpreted sexually. To keep from creating situations that make others uncomfortable, we need a model of behavior that takes the communal nature of communication into account. The enthusiastic consent model offers relevant guidelines. While this model was developed to be used in sexual situations, it offers guidance that can be useful in professional and platonic situations as well.

While most of us grew up being taught “no means no” an enthusiastic consent tells us “only yes means yes.”  The practical steps are simple but run counter to our cultural understanding of relationships.

Take little steps. Don’t try and recreate your favorite cinematic grand romantic gesture – those are generally creepy if you think about how they would play out in the real world anyway (Do you really want someone who crushes on you standing outside your bedroom window with a boom box?  Annoying and creepy.) Take a little step at a time, from spending social time together to a kiss to more physical intimacy, taking one little step at a time means that if you step too far it’s only a little bit too far.

Let them make moves too. If they are enthusiastic about a relationship or interaction with you, they will make some of the moves. If you’re making out, stop for a minute and wait for them to kiss you. Wait for them to ask you about getting together next.

Be transparent with your intentions. While it might be less vulnerable to keep up plausible deniability by couching what you hope will be social time with made up work excuses, doing so is fundamentally dishonest. If you want to get to know someone socially, tell them that. Don’t hedge your bets by asking them to stay late or work over drinks.

Pay attention to soft nos. When you ask someone if you can have a kiss or a hug, any sort of deflection is a no. Think about the techniques you use when you don’t want to say no, but you also don’t want to do the thing you’re being asked. You say maybe. You don’t answer the question. You change the subject. You avoid eye contact. If you see any of these things in response to a flirtatious ask or physical contact or any kind, recognize it as a red flag and back off immediately.

Project safety when you get a no. For women, saying no can be literally life threatening. Let’s assume you are the sort of human who would never, say, shoot a woman dead for refusing to give you her phone number. She doesn’t know that. That’s not an insult to you- it’s a commentary on the world we live in. Recognize that someone saying no to you probably feels like a risk to her, and react kindly. If you are in a position where you being angry with her might hurt her career, be doubly careful to make sure she knows you’re cool with her saying no. (Yes, even though it always hurts to be rejected. Yes, even if your heart feels like it’s breaking. Yes, even if other parts of you are feeling unpleasant physical sensations.)

Do the work that lets you actually be okay when you get a no. Your job as a decent human being who sincerely doesn’t expect people around you to give in to your sexual demands is to make it clear to anybody saying no to you that you aren’t going to retaliate. That’s the bare minimum. Better yet, do the work you need to do to understand that nobody owes you sexual favors. That your status as a star isn’t the thing that will or will not allow you to have a sexual encounter with someone.

Notice that most of these guidelines are focused on what happens when you get a no. There are two reasons for this. First, people not taking no for an answer is where things go sideways. There are men in the world who kill women who say no to them. Second, taking no for an answer is challenging. It’s contrary to everything we’re taught about romantic relationships.

Of course we understand that it’s no fun unless both people are into it – just like we know we should be putting money into savings, exercising and eating vegetables at most meals.  But reacting with kindness and consideration when a situation doesn’t go as you hope it will is still difficult.

The question of whether it’s worth the trouble, ultimately, boils down to what sort of person you want to be.

Aspiring to Cantaloupe

At Capricon over the weekend, I heard a story from the delightful Ada Palmer about how cantaloupe changed the world.

When the Europeans first sent explorers to the “new world,” they had some very strong beliefs that the natural world was subject to a specific hierarchy. They applied this idea of hierarchy to the plant kingdom, and to the structure of society. On the plant side, trees were the most noble of plants because they were tall and strong and enduring. Bushes were the next most noble, and then floppy grasses and lower still those things that grew on the ground and vines, which couldn’t even stand up on their own.

On the social side, the aristocracy was the most noble because nature and God wanted it to be that way. And while the more noble people ate things that grew on trees like oranges and apples, the less noble people ate things that grew on the ground, like potatoes and onions. They believed they had evidence that this was the way God wanted it, because if you fed a noble diet to a peasant or a peasant diet to a noble the person would get sick. They didn’t understand that if you don’t eat a particular food regularly your gut biome isn’t adapted to digesting it. Instead, they took this phenomenon  as proof that their understanding of hierarchy was correct.

And then the cantaloupe was discovered. It was clearly a noble fruit, as it was round and golden and sweet and had all the properties of noble food – but it grew on the ground on a lowly vine. It didn’t fit into the system, and in not fitting into the system it began to sow seeds of doubt that changed the way people viewed the system itself.

I have high hopes that professional cuddling can have a cantaloupe-like effect on the world we live in. As I’ve begun this practice, I’ve seen the way that it challenges people’s ideas about what’s safe and not safe in the world. While we trust men to run most of the country, we don’t entirely trust them not to react violently if a woman denies them sexual access to her body. Heck, our Vice President so distrusts himself that he won’t have a meal alone with a woman without his wife to keep him in line – and much of our culture seems to applaud this stance as moral and reasonable.

And here I am saying “yeah, as long as you’ll assure me verbally over the phone that you don’t have a sexual intent for our session, you can come to my office and I’ll snuggle up to you and hold you.” My friends and acquaintances worry that I won’t be safe if I do this, but so far the most trouble I’ve gotten is a little boundary pushing. And I expect a little boundary pushing – it’s just the client’s way of figuring out that the boundaries are secure.

Professional cuddling is also a space where people are talking about consent in an intentional way. The idea that all humans should have a say over how their body interacts with other bodies is pretty new, and pretty revolutionary. For much of the past few millenia we’ve believed that the people in power literally owned the bodies of the people over which they had power. Institutions like slavery made this explicit, but also, when my parents got married my dad had a legal right to my mom’s body whether she liked it or not. Men in power have assumed a right to women’s bodies in the workplace and the idea that it’s wrong to act that way is new and so revolutionary it’s bringing down institutions and practices that have been accepted as the way the world works for generations.

The woman who told the cantaloupe story is a historian who works across centuries. She continued to insist throughout the panel that in terms of change to the way humans think, years aren’t the right unit of measure. It takes decades to change embedded systems in human behavior, so we can’t be in a hurry about it. I don’t think it’ll take centuries for the ideas of consent and platonic touch to catch on – but it might take a couple of decades. That’s okay, as they say the impossible will take a little while.


Why Didn’t She Just Leave?

In the latest in the #MeToo movement is a story about an encounter that falls somewhere on the bad sex / sexual assault continuum. For the time being, we’ll simply give a little side eye and otherwise table for later the fact that these things are so often indistinguishable, and move right to the question of “why didn’t she just leave?”

There’s an argument to be made that turning guys down is dangerous. I’d argue, though, that in cases where a dude is willing to shoot you for saying no, you aren’t safer just saying yes.

There’s an argument that social pressure makes it hard for people, especially women, to say no to sexual advances. I’d argue, though, that crappy social norms like that deserve all the disrespect we can possibly give them as we kick them down the road to extinction.

I have worked with a number of people who came to me after an event saying, “I was uncomfortable” but who did not say no in the moment. At first, I was a little shocked to find out people who seemed very confident were not comfortable disengaging  from a conversation or declining to, say, put their hand down the pants of a dude they found creepy even before he asked.

I started going to presentations on creating safe spaces, and was disheartened to hear that people having those conversations often believed that it was unreasonable to expect others to assert boundaries. I understand their good intentions in protecting people who might freeze in uncomfortable situations. I understand the role of trauma in creating that freeze. And also, I believe people have the right to set their own boundaries. For all practical purposes, that also requires them to communicate their own boundaries.

So I started working on ways to teach people to do exactly that. Please understand – this is in no way intended to mean people are responsible for their own abuse or assault. The #MeToo movement isn’t needed because people have weak boundaries, it’s needed because our culture has terrible norm around sexual interaction. I’m not talking here about who’s responsible for this happening, I’m talking about helping people learn to respond to boundary assaults in a way that makes their life a little better.

That work is now available in two forms: The Building Healthy Boundaries Telecourse and the Consent and Cuddles workshop.

In the Building Healthy Boundaries telecourse, we talk about the barriers to identifying your own boundaries, and provide some tools to help you strengthen them. This session is free, and held by phone.

Consent and Cuddles is a workshop that allows people to put some of these skills into practice. This session is $15 (early bird) or $20 (last minute or at the door), and involves a series of exercises designed to encourage participants to get comfortable with saying no (which is the hardest part of putting this consent stuff into practice.)

If you think this work could help you, I hope you’ll join us.

What Are You Hiding?

The studio wasn’t sure that the authentic Patrick Stewart with his perceived flaws (baldness) was going to be good enough.

It wasn’t easy. It took some time and some pushing. One of the producers just knew Stewart was the guy for the role, even though Roddenberry’s initial reaction was “I don’t want a bald man.” And you know what? It turned out okay.

How are you trying to hide your perceived flaws? Is your wig working for you? Or is your disguise getting in the way of you being you in the best way you can?