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A Cynic Cozies Up to the Burlington Cuddle Collective

by

SARAH CRONIN
  • Sarah Cronin

I've been told that I'm a good cuddler. What can I say? I know how to wrap someone in a hug, and my spooning skills are tops. But as a single person, I don't find many opportunities for cuddling in my daily life. That might be true of many people.

The Burlington Cuddle Collective wants to change that. Founded in late 2018, the group presents a safe forum for consenting adults to explore platonic touch and engage in playful, full-body contact as a sort-of therapy. The collective's Facebook page recently noted, "Physical touch is one of the most nurturing, grounding and uplifting medicines. And a lot of people aren't accessing it."

The group further posits that, through guided and free-form corporeal exploration, participants can "cultivate emotional awareness, confidence in oneself, and trust in one another," not to mention "explore the intricacies of consent, intuition, belonging and intimacy."

I should clarify that I enjoy the proximity of a warm body in certain circumstances, but I'm also a cynic and standoffish with new people. My first thoughts after discovering this collective were: How can cuddling be satisfying without sex, or at least without the implication of sex in the near future? Isn't sexual or romantic intimacy what makes cuddling so gratifying? And is true intimacy something you can order à la carte?

There was only one way to find out.

The three-hour cuddling session I attended was held in a private home. The house itself was pure Burlington: Fringe art, tropical plants and two large fish tanks — one of which housed African clawed frogs — adorned softly lit, multicolored rooms. But what struck me most were the thick foam pads covering the entire open-floor areas of the main rooms. Welcome to the cuddle dome.

The collective's facilitator, Olivia Frank, greeted me with a warm hug. A residential counselor with the Northeastern Family Institute of Vermont, Frank, 25, founded the group after experiencing similar events in Montréal. The Skidmore College grad has spent most of her adult life studying and training in the realms of restorative justice, conflict resolution and sociology. As compensation for the research and effort put into fostering the collective, she asks for donations on a sliding scale.

Not including myself and Frank, 15 others showed up to cuddle, some bearing snacks to share. Attendees ranged from early twentysomethings to middle-aged folks and were similarly varied by gender and body type. As I scanned the room, I felt my invisible armor lock into place; the thought of getting intimate with a bunch of strangers gave me the ... what's the opposite of warm fuzzies? I excused myself to the bathroom to collect myself.

"Get it together," I whispered to the mirror. "Get out there and cuddle the shit out of some people."

After we removed our shoes, Frank called everyone into the main room to welcome us. Then we all introduced ourselves and said what we hoped to get out of the evening. Answers ranged from the general, such as simply wanting to cuddle with someone, to more specific requests such as getting a back massage.

As we sat cross-legged on the floor, Frank went over the session's guidelines. Touch only occurs when both parties have agreed, she said, and introduced a red-light/yellow-light/green-light system for responding to someone's touch. And touch is not transactional, Frank clarified; if you give someone a back rub, they are not obligated to reciprocate.

She also talked about taking ownership of your own self and feelings. And, while sexual arousal is totally natural and valid, Frank acknowledged, this was not the space to pursue those feelings.

The night would have two parts: First, cuddlers would form pairs to explore hand, arm and shoulder touching utilizing the traffic-light system. I extended myself to my partner, allowing them to massage my hands and fingers. Then I returned the favor. Green lights all around — though I can't say I felt much of anything during this exercise.

Next, we broke into triads. Taking turns, one group member would ask the others for a specific type of touch. One of my partners asked for one of us to rub their shoulders while the other told them a story. I volunteered to be the talker — my family just sold our home of 40 years, and I had a lot to say about that — while our other groupie began carving into their shoulders.

Then, my partners switched. The first massager asked to lay their head in the other's lap while receiving a face massage. They asked that I tell a story about riding a ferry — an odd request, but one I could accommodate. Wanting to "get into it" a little bit more, I lay down next to them and described in vivid detail what it's like to cross the lake on the Charlotte-Essex ferry in cold weather. It reminded me of the exercises we used to do in high school theater classes, so it felt natural.

Then came my turn to ask for what I wanted done to my body. To keep things simple, I asked for each partner to massage one of my shoulders while they talked about their day. We continued chatting for a few minutes after the exercise was over. It was a nice moment, but I still wasn't particularly moved.

Frank announced that we'd come to the free exploration part of the evening. I changed rooms, found a nice spot on a couch and just kind of posted up. I hoped my body language read, "Open for cuddling." And indeed it did. A cuddler asked if they could join me. They sat next to me and pulled their legs across mine.

"Is that OK?" they asked.

"Sure," I said.

"Would you like to put your arm around me?" they asked.

I obliged. So there I sat with my arm around a complete stranger, gently caressing their hip (they asked) as they put their head on my shoulder. My partner continued to change positions. I wondered if I was doing something wrong. But then I remembered the guidelines. I was OK with what was happening, so it was incumbent on the other person to mind their own needs.

After a few minutes, my partner got up to explore with someone else. I don't think we were cuddle compatible.

Other participants were exploring more intently. About seven folks were spooning together on the floor. Some people sat in others' laps, being cradled like babies. Two people sat back-to-back, then stood, using the pressure between them to hold them upright.

Eventually, everyone gravitated to the main room. More people sat on the couch with me, leaning against me, resting on my chest, draping their limbs over mine. Admittedly, it felt kind of nice. I felt my armor loosen a bit.

The seven-person spoon fest became a puppy pile. Arms and bodies intertwined. Though conversation was frequent throughout the evening — ranging from small talk to deep discussions of feelings and identity — by now chatter had pretty much subsided. The only sounds left were humans breathing, fish tank filters gurgling and a placid alt-Americana playlist.

I thought about throwing myself into the cuddle puddle. Though I was content on the couch, I wondered if I might feel more connected if I were, well, literally more connected. But then a cover of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" began to play. Without being cued, the puddle began murmuring the words, then launched into a full-fledged sing-along. That's when, as a musically inclined person, I felt something akin to connection.

We ended the evening with deep breathing and a vocal chant. Frank asked if anyone had closing remarks.

"Every time I come here, I feel like my gas tank expands, and I need more and more to fill it up," one person said. Though they sounded pleased, I couldn't help but think of that statement as the definition of addiction. Perhaps they meant something else.

On my walk home, I thought about whether I would return. I wondered how the other cuddlers — particularly those in the thick of it — were feeling. Were they sad to head home? Would they bottom out after the contact high subsided? Therein lies the conundrum. Lack of touch can make one feel isolated. But is scheduled touch the answer?

The original print version of this article was headlined "Touch Sensitive | A cynic cozies up to the Burlington Cuddle Collective"