This week I had the pleasure of talking to Sarah Alexander, a professional cuddler based in Melbourne. Even as a therapist who regularly draws from a variety alternative sources in my work, I have to admit the concept of professional cuddling was pretty foreign to me! So what the fresh heck is a professional cuddler?
Although many of us are surrounded by loved ones who we can go to for a cuddle when we need it, still more of us aren’t so lucky. This is where people like Sarah come in. Her job is to provide platonic physical touch to those who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to fulfil those needs elsewhere. Sarah’s clients range in age and circumstance, and seek her services for a variety of reasons. Boundaries are paramount, clearly communicated and strictly adhered to, ensuring that the experience is totally safe for both parties. Professional cuddling services may be used in tandem with or in place of traditional therapeutic methods such as psychology and counselling, where physical touch is generally ethically forbidden. She is originally from the United States, where she says professional cuddling services are already relatively well established. One of her passions is helping people who may not have any family or close friends nearby. She knows how that feels, having arrived in Australia from Washington State in 2011. She is currently one of only three certified cuddlers in Australia, and is a pioneer of what she hopes will become a thriving cuddling industry. Of her work, Sarah states:
There is no wrong way to have a session as long as you are honoring your body. It may be expressed in different ways on different days. Anything from sitting and holding hands in solitude to laughing and singing or falling asleep are all totally appropriate things to do in a session. There is no “typical” session and I love it that way!
When I mentioned to a few people that I had been chatting to a professional cuddler, the most common response was a cheeky comment about what the definition of “cuddle” might be, wink wink nudge nudge say no more, and its hard to blame them. Alongside our old friend nudity, the concept of physical touch in general has also fallen victim to sexualisation in today’s society, and the knock on effect of this can be deeply problematic. At coffee with a friend earlier in the week, the topic of platonic physical touch came up, and I was surprised to realise that it wasn’t something I had really given particular thought to. It occurred to me that although I consider myself to be quite comfortable with physical contact, the majority of physicality in my life comes from my romantic relationship. Although I regularly give mates a good hug hello or goodbye, if I’m honest, that’s pretty much the limit for me. A montage quickly formed in my mind of all the times that tiny, niggling feeling of discomfort would well up when physical touch extended past these cursory exchanges, even when the type of touch being offered was welcome, expressly platonic and coming from a trusted loved one. This lead me to consider not only where the hell that little chestnut of baggage may have come from, but also what my life might look like if my romantic relationship wasn’t a part of it, and what impact it might have on my mental health and emotional wellbeing if I wasn’t regularly able to meet that extremely human need for physical touch. The potential implications blew my tiny mind.
You may be familiar with psychologist Harry Harlow’s 1950s study involving baby rhesus monkeys. Pausing for a moment the discomfort we may initially feel around the use of baby monkeys in science, the results of this study were an incredibly powerful demonstration of the importance of physical contact on a primal level. The monkeys were left alone for a time, and then presented with two inanimate ‘mother’ surrogates. One, a wire figure holding a bottle of milk, the other made from a soft, fluffy material but offering no milk. The majority of the monkeys chose the fluffy ‘mother’, prioritising physical comfort over food. This speaks volumes about the instinctive need for sensory sustenance.
In todays tumultuous socio-political climate, the concept of boundaries around physical touch has become a (thankfully) common topic of conversation. It is vital that we all feel safe to define our own boundaries when it comes to when, how and by whom we want to be touched. We must feel confident in our right and ability to speak up when touch is unwanted, and hopefully that conversation is becoming increasingly easier to engage in. At the same time however, we must remember that it’s equally important to learn how to identify and speak up when we do want to experience touch, and that conversation needs to start with ourselves.
Many of us have experienced significant trauma related to touch, be it through physical or sexual assault, domestic violence, childhood trauma or abandonment and lack of touch. This creates conflict when our entirely human need to experience physical contact starts to present itself. If experience has taught us that physical touch equals pain, fear, danger and trauma, it’s only natural that we try to protect ourselves from going through these things again by avoiding being touched. Similarly, if we have a conflicted relationship with our own bodies, as so many of us do, we might feel shame at allowing others to experience it.
So how do we start this conversation with ourselves and others? We have to start by working on our connection to our bodies. This journey will be different for everyone, and we will each have different work to do to get where we need to be. Make friends with your body by taking care of it. Choose a form of exercise that you enjoy, not to lose weight or “improve” an aesthetic, but as a bonding activity between yourself and your body. Learn what sensations your body enjoys and what it doesn’t. Notice what kinds of touch trigger feelings of discomfort. Sit with yourself as you would a dear friend, and ask where these feelings are coming from. The answers may or may not be obvious, but give yourself the gift of patience and perseverance and peel back the protective layers so you can begin to understand. You may like to enlist the help of a therapist or close friend to help you do this if it feels overwhelming or you get stuck. Discomfort is your mind telling you ‘DANGER, YOU ARE NOT SAFE’. This is an extremely important mechanism, and our brains are not stupid. That wall is there for a reason, and at one point in your life, it served a vital purpose. Be kind to yourself and be appreciative of how hard this part of you has worked to protect you, but gently reassure it that right now, in this moment, you are safe. Invite it to take a little break. Breathe through the discomfort and listen with compassion to what your heart and mind are afraid of, and respond with love and attentiveness. As silly as it may feel, start by giving yourself a hug. Hold your own hand, stroke your own arms. Depending on where you’re at, this might be a breeze or it might be surprisingly difficult! Once you feel comfortable and familiar with what your mind and body are asking for, you can start to think about asking for and sharing touch with others.
At the moment, Sarah operates her business from Melbourne, and at the time of writing, there aren’t really and professional cuddling services available in Sydney (something Sarah hopes will soon change!). However, if you find that your platonic physical needs are not quite being met, something as simple and accessible as booking yourself in for a massage can help to top up your tank, and if you’re in Melbourne, drop Sarah a line and give a professional cuddle session a try!
By Rosie Jackson
Rosie Jackson is a qualified Counsellor based in Sydney, NSW, practicing from Bondi Junction and via Skype.
For more information or to arrange a session, please get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Alexander is a certified cuddlist in Melbourne, Victoria, and can be reached via her profile at http://thecuddlist.com/sarahbelle
Blum, Deborah. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. Perseus Publishing, 2002
Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218-227.