Monday 22 February 2016

The Allure of Professional Cuddlers

Paid cuddling services are popping up everywhere.  They are clearly filling a void in society; it seems lots of people in the world are not getting their quota of cuddles from their nearest and dearest.  Or perhaps 'cuddling with no strings attached' is a new manifestation of the 'me' generation... I'm still pondering that.

This morning I read a fascinating profile of leaders in the new cuddling industry.  It turns out that professional cuddlers have a lot in common with caregivers.  We know the power of touch and we intuit opportunities for the sharing of fears and memories.  Caregivers are the mining engineers in the complex business of being deeply human.  But professional cuddlers get paid $80 an hour - that's just one of the differences between us.

It's no wonder that artists are interested in exploring the meaning of cuddling, too.  Here's a review of a 'play' that appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer of 2011.  Titled "The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding...", it consists of one actor and one audience member - and yes, it is played out in silence and involves the actor bathing the audience member (bathing suits required), followed by a long session of holding and being held.

Here is the review from the Edinburgh Fringe:

This one-on-one hotel room experience is Adrian Howells’ attempt at total care for a single audience member. It starts with a warm bath filled with rose petals. I undress and step in. ‘It’s my honour to bathe you,’ Howells says, with no hint of insincerity. He lathers up a sponge and starts to wash my face, torso, arms and legs. Afterwards I’m wrapped in a dressing gown and taken to a pre-prepared duvet nest for a snuggling session.

It makes you realise that in adult life most individuals don’t get the opportunity to be truly pampered. I could book into a spa, but after I’d received an all-over body scrub it’s unlikely it would be followed by 15 minutes of tender cuddling. Also, Howells seems to be saying, some people don’t receive any cuddling at all in their lives: not from a professional, not from a partner, not from a parent. His offer is a rare half-hour of someone’s undivided attention and affection. An experience of almost unconditional love that feels like it could be a form of modern therapy for the isolated individual.
But, I think to myself, as I’m lying in the bath covered in petals, there has to be a catch. Everyone brings to this show his or her own set of connotations. I bring a healthy amount of reviewer’s cynicism. I wanted to give myself up to the pleasure and warmth of human contact. But I didn’t feel loved, or even decadent. I thought, instead, of a time when I might not be able to wash myself any more. I thought of my elderly grandparents, and how my parents used to bathe them. That love was truly unconditional. This is just a simulation – a performance.
Or is it? I don’t for a second feel as if Howells is playing a part. When he hugs me goodbye it’s a real hug. I think about him repeating these intimate moments over and over. Giving away something so much more significant than a therapist – giving away what feels like a two-way emotional connection for the price of a Fringe ticket. Is he doing it purely for the thrill of participatory theatre, or for deeper reasons?
There’s a moment when I’m lying against his chest when I remember what it was like to be a kid. But this memory jars against the reality of what’s happening. As a child I felt safe because my parents looked after me, and their reasons for doing so were the simplest on earth. In this setting I’m not quite sure what Howells’ reasons are.
Perhaps I should have asked him. But the time seems to run out very quickly. Howells makes it clear that there’s no wrong way of experiencing The Pleasure of Being … It’s true that your enjoyment of it will depend on what you bring to it. What’s certain is that the show (if you can call it that) creates an incredibly knotted and intriguing performer/audience relationship. I don’t leave feeling relaxed, but I do leave questioning my own definition of the performance, which is testament to how bold and unique this is as a piece of creative work.
Currently, I'm co-writing a new book with my friend and colleague, Vickie Cammack.  We are seeking to define and articulate the inherent skills and wisdom of caring.  As I said to Vickie last week, "It's like when a new mother knows the difference between her baby's tired cry and his hungry cry - these skills are often minimized or considered to be private and not really valuable." Caregivers are knowledge-keepers and how to give and receive deep comfort in cuddling is one aspect of our sage wisdom.  There's a booming business in professional snugglers.  Let's remember our value the next time we hug our loved ones.

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