In a living room just outside of Dallas, Texas, about 20 of us crowded on couches, chairs, and blankets, and wore pajamas, sweatpants, and no shoes. The group was mostly middle-aged, a near-even split of men and women, and predominantly white. We listened to an hour-long lecture about the importance of asking for what you want, setting clear boundaries, and keeping your clothes on.
“Go around the room and say why you’re here,” said the facilitator, a woman with brown hair and penciled-in eyebrows who ran the event with two male assistants she referred to as “cuddle lifeguards.”
“I’m here because I’m a cuddle slut,” said the only 20-something girl in the room.
“I’m here to get out of my comfort zone,” said another woman.
But what came up most often was: “I’m at this cuddle party to connect.” That word connect was a buzzword throughout the evening, as people held each other, gave massages, nuzzled, spooned, puppy piled, and laughed over snacks. It was not a front for an orgy or a bunch of touchy-feely hippies preaching peace and love, but a group of individuals who craved the kind of non-sexual human connection that many people don’t get if they’re single.
When I told friends about this, the most common responses fell into two categories: pathetic and weird. They found it both sad and creepy that some people who attend cuddle parties do so to help alleviate loneliness. They saw it as a sort of emotional sleeping around. But in a country that seems to be becoming increasingly isolated, cuddling may be a healthy way to deal with the disconnection.
Cuddle parties, at least the official, documented ones, began in February 2004 in a tiny Manhattan apartment, facilitated by Marcia Baczynski and Reid Mihalko. From that came the birth of the official organization, Cuddle Party, which trains and supports cuddle party facilitators in 17 countries across the world. Cuddle parties vary in price (ours cost $10) and have 11 rules, ranging from keeping the space tidy to not saying “yes” to something if you're actually feeling “maybe.”
Cuddle parties attract singles and couples, and, on occasion, families (there was a 16-year-old girl with her parents at the cuddle party I attended). You're advised to bring snacks, pillows, and blankets, and aren't allowed to wear shorts, tank tops, or lingerie. If you become sexually aroused, you're advised not to act on it, since the purpose of a cuddle party, according to the website, is to "meet new people, to enjoy amazing conversations, to touch, to be touched, to have fun, to practice asking for what you want, to practice saying 'no' to what you don’t want—all in a setting structured to be a safe place for exploration and enjoyment. … You can even come to a Cuddle Party just to cuddle!"
Professional cuddlers, such as Ali C. in New York City and Samantha Hess in Portland, Oregon, popped up in the last few years and charge for one-on-one cuddle sessions in their homes or yours. They often charge between $60 and $80 an hour and require you to sign a waiver or policy form, which covers the rules on cuddling, confidentiality and more. You can book 30 minutes, an hour, or sometimes even an entire night.
Professionals typically don’t work with clients who merely like cuddling, but use it as a form of healing, or to help people who didn't receive that kind of nurturing as a kid. Hess sums up the benefits of seeing a professional cuddler quite well on her website. She wrote, "Touch has the power to comfort us when we are sad, heal us when we are sick, encourage us when we feel lost, and above all else, allow us to accept that we are not alone."
Cuddle parties and professional cuddlers seem to have come at a good time in America. The data suggests we feel lonelier than ever. According to a study published in June 2006 in American Sociological Review, a quarter of Americans in 2004 had no one to discuss important matters with. That’s more than double what that statistic was in 1985.
The numbers from that report were widely debated but more recent studies also show an increase in isolation. Pew Internet reported in November 2009 that Americans’ discussion networks have decreased by a third since 1985. Barna Group found that nearly twice as many Americans self-identified as lonely in 2013 (20 percent) as they did a decade prior (12 percent).
Loneliness appears to fluctuate with age. An October 2008 study published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health found that 60.2 percent of college students experienced loneliness. A study published in AARP in September 2010 categorized 35 percent of adults aged 45 and older as lonely. Of those aged 45 to 49, 43 percent were lonely, and of people 70 and older, 25 percent were lonely.
Explaining this apparent increase in American loneliness is the topic of many debates. Some, like New York University professor Eric Klinenberg, refute the idea that America is lonelier, and others offer up explanations. Many, like author of Alone Together Sherry Turkle and Stephen Marche in his cover story for The Atlantic, blame the Internet and social media for our alienation. But despite older studies that found a link between Internet use and loneliness, like the famous 1998 study by Robert Kraut and colleagues published in American Psychologist, some recent studies have shown the opposite.
Pew published a report in June 2011 that showed Facebook users have more close relationships and social support than non-Facebook users. And a February 2013 study out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham showed that Internet use among older adults decreased loneliness and increased social contact. Many seem to use the Internet as a complement to offline life instead of as a replacement.
Perhaps we can’t blame just one thing for becoming disconnected. Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist in Massachusetts and author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, has a more comprehensive explanation.
“I think because we are such a productivity-oriented country and so much product now has to do with working at home on the Internet, there’s much less chance of seeing people on the street or making accidental contact in a way that used to happen,” said Olds, who also teaches at Harvard Medical School. “Being able to do everything from home—work, shop, watch movies, buy books—eventually can lead to too much isolation.”
Regardless of how we become lonely, it hurts our health. John Cacioppo and his colleagues at the University of Chicago presented in February their six-year study that tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and older. They found that those who were lonely had a 14 percent greater risk of premature death. That is twice the risk for early death that results from obesity. It’s not just the absence of someone to take care of you—in this study, isolation was linked with health problems such as elevated blood pressure, altered gene expression, and disrupted sleep.
Cuddling, on the other hand, has quite the opposite effect. Cuddling releases endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin (“the cuddle hormone,” as some call it). All sorts of research have shown that cuddling, and oxytocin, can achieve incredible effects. It can bond mothers with their babies and make breastfeeding simpler; reduce stress and blood pressure; help enable sleep; improve communication among couples; increase happiness and well-being; increase trust and attachment; and much more. The release of oxytocin can have some negative effects, like increasing envy and gloating, but that won’t necessarily happen during cuddling.
Dr. Paul Zak, a scientist and economist who has done numerous experiments with oxytocin and author of the book The Moral Molecule, said that the amount of oxytocin you release depends on how attached you are to the person you’re cuddling with or touching.
“Based on my massage studies, a massage from a stranger increased oxytocin an average of 17 percent,” Zak said. “That's about the range for most oxytocin increases for all types of stranger interactions and likely applies to cuddling. Cuddling with a family member could increase oxytocin 50 to 100 percent. If you’re attracted to the stranger, though, an oxytocin increase of 100 percent or more would not be unlikely.”
Cuddling with a stranger or acquaintance, then, at a cuddle party or private session, may not be as beneficial as cuddling with a parent or significant other. But it releases oxytocin nonetheless and is an alternative for those embarrassed to admit to a loved one their need for cuddling, according to Olds. Sadly, that might be a lot of people.
“In our independent-minded culture, you’re not supposed to be needy or need cuddling,” Olds said.
The same can be said of admitting loneliness. Admitting the need to connect to people at the cuddle party may not have been easy for some. It doesn’t really fit in with the idea of American independence, as Olds noted. But time after time, as people explained why they were there, they brought up their desire to connect. I doubt anyone left that house feeling more disconnected than when they showed up. I know I didn’t.
Though I only cuddled with one girl during the evening—the short, skinny blonde perhaps closest to my age—I felt connected to this stranger like we’d already met. I instantly cared for her. As we spooned and discussed our life plans, the “cuddle slut” joined in. Then another person. And another. Pretty soon, half the party engaged in a group spoon—each person holding the person to their right.
One guy, a blonde massage therapist from Austin probably in his 30s, looked at me from a nearby chair and said, “I want to lay across all of you.” I laughed, assuming it was a joke, and then left to get some food. When I came back, he was lying on his back on top of several spooning cuddlers. The group laughed and smiled.
I thought, like many of my friends, that the cuddle party would be uncomfortable and weird. I always liked cuddling with past girlfriends, but wasn’t sure about cuddling with strangers. But I left that night feeling more appreciated, connected, and relaxed—and like I’d made my own small dent in American loneliness.