Photo by Jonathan Saunders

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Love: A Case for Intentional Touch from a Professional Cuddler

Love only exists where you manifest love—where you allow yourself to feel love. The feeling of love occurs in your body. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now feel love—for your mother, a partner, a sibling, or a best friend. Where do you feel it in your body? In your heart? In your stomach? In your hips and genitals?

Last night, the man I recently started dating grilled me about my professional cuddling practice. What seemed novel and compelling now made him uneasy and mistrustful. He nervously joked that when I nibbled on his finger erotically, he must be getting the Advanced Cuddle experience. For me, an intimate experience with a partner is different from the healing, meditative physical touch therapy I facilitate with clients.

People ask me if my clients are desperate, lonely people. They must be in a really bad place, huh? Sometimes. But mostly, my clients are just like you and me, the me before I became a public activist around sexuality, intimacy, and relationships, that is, the me that was living life at an architecture job, dating a good man who also checked the boxes on paper as a “catch,” but traveled a lot for work.

I had a new cuddle client last week. As I caressed the sides of his face with my hands or massaged in between his rib bones, he expressed nervous laughter. In time, he opened up to share the changes he wanted to make in his life. I validated them and supported his goals, even helped shape actions for him to take. He confided in me that he was dating someone he expected to have intimacy with, but she was lukewarm and finally admitted she wasn’t emotionally ready to enter a relationship. He wasn’t so much excited about the promise of sex itself but yearned for the intimacy that comes with a relationship. Let down by this, he stumbled on my practice. The giggling came from a place of embarrassment that he felt comfort, pleasure, and relief in front of me. Why? He’s not practiced in intimacy and touch. The things we don’t practice, we can’t master. I believe this is a source of great pain in our society. We are inherently tied to our senses. Intimacy allows us to experience the best part of being able to sense. It affirms our existence when the perimeter of our hands are met by another’s.

I believe that here in the United States, we are starved for intimacy. Even worse, intimacy is shamed outside of romantic relationships and held in a locked glass menagerie. It’s treated like a goal rather than a way of life. While I operate under “cuddling,” I work with clients on a number of levels—to hold a safe space for them when feeling insecure in their lives, or coping with personal trauma, or need emotional support, or sometimes just love the feeling of a cuddle. I blend talk therapy, massage and meditation, and deep breathing, and foster self-awareness. I demonstrate intentional touch and show them pressure points for calming the nervous system. I offer the intimacy of our shared humanity. Touch causes a chemical release of oxytocin, which is a soothing balm to cortisol—a stress-response hormone. When two people hug for 20 seconds or longer, oxytocin is released. Tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, back knots, fatigue, and general feelings of isolation can begin to melt away.

My mother comes from Colombia, and her family is very much touch oriented—“pile ons,” kisses, the occasional playful tap on the behind from a sibling, or knee grab can make you fall to the floor in laughter. My father’s family is American, and there is a clear discomfort with physical touch. There’s distance. A quick “pat pat on the back” type of hug. When my parents divorced, my siblings and I moved in with dad. At some point over the years, I had phases of being withdrawn, anxious, bratty at times, presenting a false arrogance at a young age. I always felt intuitively, with my mother’s family as contrast, that most people in America were not receiving enough physical touch—more specifically intentional physical touch. How can I soothe my partner most effectively when they get home from a stressful day? The cuddle practice enhances your skills. It fine-tunes your tools for communicating empathy with those you love when you want to show love, when you want to heal. Like everything else, it is a skill to be mastered, a language to be articulated.

People travel around the world to receive a hug from Amma in India. Amma is a powerful activist and spiritual leader who inspires, uplifts, and transforms through her embrace. I’ve witnessed this experience in my own cuddle practice—the transformation that happens through the transference of energy in a hug. In college, I completed an environmental biology program in the mountains of São Paolo, Brazil. Across the street was a meditation and healing center run by Yolanda. Yolanda hugged me and I never forgot it. I thought, “I want to be able to do that—create calm, love, and euphoria in another person just from a hug!” But how? After years of an American upbringing, I had become afraid of touch. A boy I swooned over in high school held my hand in the back of a car one night, and I was on the verge of an anxiety attack. I breathed deep and told myself that if I lurch away, I’ll look crazy. It was the moment I had been waiting for, but I had no practice or experience with intimacy and it was terrifying.

After college, my perfect boyfriend on paper traveled so frequently for work that when he returned home and embraced me, I would flinch from the sudden extreme physical contact. One night at a bar with friends, I found myself leering at men with an urge to grope them—the very type of sexual harassment men are typically called out for. My male friend thanked me for sharing my thoughts—he didn’t think women could have those same inappropriate yearnings. Why was this happening to me? I hadn’t been touched—in a long time—and the symptoms were showing: compulsion and anxiety, a general sense of alienation and loneliness.

My new man challenged me by asking “can’t you get the same result from meditating? Can’t you just touch yourself?” He mockingly pet his left hand with his right. In fact, you can caress yourself. It’s a great feeling. I frequently massage my own scalp to self-soothe when fatigued or stressed. Amy Jo Goddard, sexpert and author, told me on my T&A Talk Sex podcast that she practices self-care by patting her entire body from feet to head every morning to connect with herself and appreciate her body. One antidote is not necessarily better than another. All varieties of self-care are needed depending on the burden we face—physical touch from another person is one of those healing options.

Our current society condemns our need for touch as base, animal, and even dirty. What’s wrong with you? Something must be wrong with you if you need that? Well, if babies can die without human touch, and children suffer psychological deficiencies from neglect, why wouldn’t it be true of adults? As humans, we only advanced into complex cities and civilizations through interdependence and communication. From practicing cuddling with clients for almost two years now, I have felt the shift from guarded defensiveness and mild paranoia walking down a Manhattan street at night, to empowered openness and confident initiative in connecting with others—human to human, eye to eye. I feel more centered, calmer, and able to give more to others in my daily life because my tangible physical need for touch is being met. My desire to nervous eat dissipates. I don’t rely on a dopamine boost to counter my lack of physical touch. I don’t arrive at a night club craving sex with someone I don’t know, as I have in the past. Now I get to choose, with intention, if that’s what I want to do—in control of my body, in the deepest sense of the phrase.

At the core of my boyfriend’s questioning was the fear that our interaction wasn’t sacred if I had intimacy with others. “How is my intimacy with clients different from a romantic relationship?,” he wanted to know. It’s prominently different mostly due to expectation. I am a trained facilitator in communicating boundaries and comfort zones, using words to both ask for what you want and what you don’t want. Once you practice this in a neutral space, you become acutely aware of when your voice is being negated or denied by those in your life. Is your community respecting your boundaries, even when you communicate them? Once you are validated in a tangible exercise where I acknowledge you and respect your boundaries, it’s surprisingly clear when others don’t provide that respect and space for you. Then you can begin to change. Constructively shape the reality you want to be living in, surrounded by those who support you wholly.

He pushed further, asking “But what makes you an authority? Why are you qualified to offer this?” We have the power to impact each other profoundly. Every single person is capable of giving healing touch. It’s our universal super power. Life is best lived like a river. If you live like a pond, nothing new passes through you. Your creativity atrophies, and you have less to offer those coming to you for inspiration and guidance. I myself must continue questing for knowledge and new experiences to impart those observations on others. Sometimes my clients teach me. And in fact, the exchange and mutual respect is the gift for both of us. I now massage the armpits of my clients thanks to an individual client who asked if he could do just that to me. Weird! And incredibly enjoyable! It massages your lymph nodes and stimulates blood flow to an area that is never touched. Uncle Al stopped playing tickle monster with me at age twelve, so the armpit became a no-go zone.

Now, I say again, love only exists where you manifest love—where you allow yourself to feel love. The feeling of love occurs in your body. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now feel love—for your mother, a partner, a sibling, or a best friend. Where do you feel it in your body? In your heart? In your stomach? In your hips and genitals?

Now, go out and ask someone in a neutral stance if they would like a hug and hug them like you mean it! Put all your energy into your heart, take a deep breath, and exhale in unison. Love is all around us when we decide to gift it.