2007 - 2022

Socially, physically and emotionally vulnerable: are we out of touch, with touch?

Emma Simper is joint runner-up of the 2020 Ian Bell New Writing Prize sponsored by the NUJ in association with Bella Caledonia. The awards will be presented by Mandy Bell and the judges at the Aye Write literary festival, on Saturday 14 March at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, following a talk at 6.15pm by Tom Roberts, author of The Making of Murdoch: Power, Politics and the Man Who Owns the Media.

Summer Breeze describes her body as starving for affection. She was raised in an environment where touch was a risk from day one. As she grew older, relationships came and went, some healthy, some unhealthy – some abusive. She was choked by one, and date-raped, punched in the face, even stalked by another.

Touch quickly became closely associated with danger.

For Breeze, there was a very real sense of risk involved when she decided to attend Tracy Montgomery’s Ottawa based Snuggle Salon. Her Facebook friends weren’t exactly supportive at the prospect either. Comments flooded in, all asking similar questions: “What the f*ck are you doing?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Cuddling with strangers, you could get attacked!”
The overall mind-set was: snuggling with strangers is weird.
The same day, one of those Facebook friends admiringly shared a video of several puppies playfully tumbling around each other, to which Breeze inquisitively asked “Oh, so it’s okay for other creatures to go in puppy piles, but not people?”

To that extent, Breeze brings up a very relevant point. Our current society is suffering from such a loss of community that individuals are not only lacking in both social and physical interaction, but as a result, suffering from loneliness.

This begs the question, when it comes to loneliness, how much good can a seemingly simple hug do, and to what extent will people go to get them?

Psychologist Dr. Martin Rovers, owner of Capital Choice Counselling and a professor at St. Paul University, says that this realization of the importance of touch has only really started building over the last 70 years.

Rovers begins by telling of Harry Harlow, one of the first psychologists to scientifically investigate touch in terms of attachment need. His research focused on young rhesus monkeys, and their two surrogate mothers; one made of soft terrycloth that provided no food, and the other made of wire, that did provide food. By the end of the investigation, the young monkeys favoured the cloth touch over simply being fed, establishing not only their need for touch, but the importance touch and secure attachment also has for humans.

The research continued as British psychologist John Bowlby pioneered his work in attachment theory on orphans in England after the Second World War. “Though the orphaned children were being well-fed, well-kept, and clean, Bowlby realized that what they were dying from was a lack of touch. No one knew how important touch was, or if they knew, it wasn’t in the public mind,” Rovers says.

Before attending Montgomery’s Snuggle Salon, Breeze had tried going to massages once a month, and even asked her friends and daughter if they could please try hugging her more often. But as genuinely “non-touchy feely” people, the change didn’t occur naturally and she couldn’t justify continuing to beg her loved ones for physical affection.

But, stumbling upon Montgomery’s Snuggle Salon’s Meetup site, the realization sank in that maybe, if she went to a place where other people were feeling the same way, it wouldn’t be as awkwardly inconvenient to ask for what she was very aware her body needed.

Tracy Montgomery is a certified sexological bodyworker, who three years ago decided to expand her horizons and establish Ottawa’s very own Snuggle Salon; a place where individuals could gather to engage in non-sexual physical touch and intimacy. Each planned session is mediated by her, and piggybacks off the official “Cuddle Parties” rules and regulations for limits, boundaries, and the consenting process of asking for touch.

“Going to the Snuggle Salon, you learn a lot about communication, your boundaries, as well as other people. I recognized that others, who looked seemingly happy and self-content, were there for personal reasons I never would have even thought of,” Breeze says.

For Lisa Paterson, a 50-year-old woman, born and raised in Ottawa, the Snuggle Salon came into her life because a recently ended relationship made her realize the void in her life that became increasingly apparent after his touch was no longer there to fill it. Paterson began attending approximately two years ago, and has been to four sessions since.

“I do feel the impact of the session for a longer time afterwards, as it really makes me recognize that touch is something we don’t do enough of in our lives. Quite often with family members, we get so busy with things that we forget to do simple things like hugging each other occasionally.”

Specifically, in the elderly demographic, where Statistics Canada reports that more than 1.4 million seniors report claims of loneliness, forgetting the small, simple things can quickly lead to larger, complicated issues. In a 2013-2014 ‘Social Isolation of Seniors’ report from the National Seniors Council, it was reported that “socially isolated seniors are more at risk of negative health behaviours including drinking, smoking, being sedentary and not eating well, along with a higher likelihood of falls and a four-to-five times greater risk of hospitalization.”

Comfort Keepers, an elderly and disabled care service in Ottawa, is one business that helps to combat the issue of isolation while also allowing for independent living.

“Family members are recognizing that their elders are a little isolated in their homes, a little lonely, and with the Comfort Keepers visiting them once or twice during the week then they know that they are being engaged, being stimulated, having visitors, and proper meals,” says Erin Moretto, its community relations manager.

“We as a population don’t live in the same communities as our loved ones anymore, or we might not even live in the same province or country, so that’s the great thing about technology. However, technology is also limiting. You’re not seeing people face to face and you’re not doing that hug which is really what changes people’s day. You’re not truly engaging.”

Moretto iterates that Comfort Keepers work not only to assist clients with their daily tasks, but to establish those crucial personal and social relationships that negate deeper feelings of isolation.

Similarly, Dr. Dugald Seely, founder and executive director of the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, approaches his patients with naturopathic skills that regard connectivity as a wider issue.

Seely acknowledges a “whole body approach to care” and says, “what is really important for them is being heard, really clearly by a medical professional, someone who is capable of understanding the situation that they have, reflecting on it, giving them space to have questions and most importantly, validating what they are feeling.”

Both the naturopathic approach that Seely practices, and the Comfort Keeper’s agenda, place the client’s emotional and mental capacity at the forefront. “Constant engagement or constant stimulation will improve not just seniors, but anyone’s overall wellbeing,” Moretto concludes.

But, as with even the most beneficial things in life, Rovers reiterates that balance is key. From the time when parents were told to just let their babies cry it out in their cribs with a lack of touch otherwise known as separation individuation, as opposed to now being told it’s all right to place the babies in the middle of the master bedroom, Rovers admits that the theory is swinging too far in opposite directions.

“Murray Bowan, an American psychiatrist,” he says, “established during the 60s and 70s that a person needs a bit of touch as well as a bit of individuation, so that they can stand on their own two feet while also being open and able to share physical and emotional contact with others.” If a person becomes too demanding for touch it is labeled as enmeshment, and conversely if they shy away from touch, they are labelled touch avoiding loners.

Rovers explains that that how much touch a person desires and needs, varies from person to person. Traditionally women are seen to crave a bit more touch than men, and the amount of touch we received as children and how that psychologically impacted our internal working model, also subconsciously affects our later adult love relationships.

But whether it favours one way or the other is not entirely predictable. For example, 58-year-old Denise Chadala, another regular attendee of the Snuggle Salon, says that she has always been a hugger even though that was something she never received from her mother as a child. While Breeze was subject to abusive touch, instead of shying away from touch in general, she continues to seek it out on her own terms.

Another individual seeking out solutions on his own terms, is 44-year-old Martin from Gatineau. Martin asked that his last name not be used. Martin has yet to attend a Snuggle Salon session due to scheduling conflicts, but has sought out the help of another prominent cuddling business called The Canadian Association of Professional Cuddlers. Though the rules and guidelines are the same as the Snuggle Salon, the CAP Cuddlers are a business through which a one-on-one cuddling arrangement is set up and paid for, rather than a more open group setting.

Though Martin says he felt the benefits of the interaction in the short term, after a week or two he quickly dropped back into his old habits of loneliness. “The problem with the CAP Cuddlers is that there just aren’t enough professional cuddlers to provide for a steady client base. Particularly not enough women cuddlers. I felt fortunate when I did get an opening, but it simply just wasn’t enough.”

Bryanna, who also requested that her last name not be used, is only 22 years old and like fellow Snuggle Salon member Lisa Paterson, realized what she was missing after a taste of dating life. While intimacy was one aspect, what she truly wanted was the stress and anxiety relief associated with long, deep pressure hugs.

Coincidently, when Rovers was asked what his advice would be for society to hopefully eliminate the overwhelming need for alternative measures such as snuggling salons and cuddling businesses, he enthusiastically spoke of the 24-second hug.

“My most common suggestion in couple’s therapy, is called the 24 second hug,” he says, “It’s something I believe every person should practice at least once a day, standing face to face, an emotional embrace, be it with partner, parent, or child.”

“Research has suggested, that it takes 24 seconds for dopamine, the comfort hormone to start to flow in the brain and say ‘Ah, I’m cared for by my lover, by my parent, by my child.’”

Breeze, agrees and adds, “hugs aren’t just a quick thing, it’s a transfer of energy, a support, being given love and understanding in that moment, something you won’t get from a one night stand.”

“While the Snuggle Salon is great, and I found it very valuable to go there, at the same time I’m kind of disappointed in our society that we’ve had to get to this point, that we need something like that.”

With all the world’s many faults, starving for a free natural entity should hardly have to be one of them.

Comments (6)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    This, during a coranavirus outbreak?! Bold, at least. The monkey-baby-wireframe-milkbottle-cloth experiment was about the essentials of early primate mother-bonding, not cuddling with strangers (isn’t there a weaning process for that?). Snuggle Salon Superspreader Scandal! I suspect any strong human compulsion to hug strangers would have been genetically deselective due to plague-spreading.

    Actually, I feel there is something particularly depressing about the medicalized, commercialized, packaged ‘solution’ described here. Surely it is cut from the same cloth as the social problems that cause loneliness, disaffection, stimuli-craving and so forth. Perhaps that is also the sense of the last two paragraphs. One might as easily suggest we need more tigers and wolves preying on us, to make our quiet moments without that deadly embrace much more pleasant by comparison.

    1. Jo says:

      I’m not overwhelmed by this idea either. The stranger aspect would bother me although I think the comfort of a hug, when needed, is most welcome.

      Nine weeks ago I had to have my beautiful Border Collie put to sleep. I am lost without her and pretty inconsolable and devastated. Our dog walker community here have delivered many hugs over that time. Or just the slightest touch to the arm. But they all matter.

      Last week while the wild weather was still with us, I was at a bus stop watching an elderly couple approach. The entire pavement was one massive puddle and I gestured to the man to be careful. The lady fell. I saw her foot start to slide into the ditch alongside and rushed to try and stop her from falling but couldn’t. I tried to help her, a younger man came to help me, we got her up slowly, holding on to the railing and making sure she could weight bear before getting her to a wee ledge in the bus shelter. She was crying by this time. She kept saying, “Thank you dear, but don’t miss your bus.” I told her I was staying put. Her hand was gripping my arm the whole time while the other one was gripping her husband’s arm. We kept checking the knee she’d landed on and then walked her along the pavement to make sure it was working ok. She was ok. She was at least 80. Their bus came and they were getting on it. I was hovering to make sure she didn’t fall again and she turned, still tearful, and gave me a big hug. I thought that was so nice.

      Hugs are grand in the right circumstances. In the right circumstances they’re wonderful.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Jo, that is a perfectly understandable case of a spontaneous and social hug, with mutual benefits (perhaps a way to mark you were *no longer* strangers). I wonder, though, about the opportunity for granting or withholding consent in other situations, like the workplace (there was a ‘hugger’ at an office I worked in for a while).

        I remember the bond of physical contact from my dog who often slept beside me, and in my mind is never entirely lost. And perhaps that also says something about the memories of touch. And there are some dogs with separation anxiety who are not happy to go to sleep without being in touch.

        On the other hand, there is a neighbourhood cat who loves the feel of terrycloth and will try and jump on any warm body wearing a dressing gown, using claws for purchase if it feels like it. This not-so-phantom hugger is apparently living confirmation of Harlow’s monkey trials, as the behaviour is irrespective of neighbours who never feed the furry fiend.

        1. Jo says:

          Yes, I’m sure there was a spontaneous bond forged because I’d helped the lady and her husband.

          Ah, the workplace. There’s a minefield right there! I’d say there’s no room for the hugging business there in any circumstances, just to stay on the safe side.

          I’m still looking around for the dog all the time. It’s the pits. Such a clever girl, knew every word I said, loved Countryfile and the Sheepdog Trials. She’d “herd” all the other dogs in the park and do all the classic Collie moves beautifully. When they bond with us they mean it. Hey, maybe the people in this piece who need reassuring and great hugs should get a dog.

  2. Edie Weinstein says:

    I am a certified Cuddle Party facilitator http://www.cuddleparty.com, consent educator and also the founder of Hugmobsters Armed With Love which offers FREE HUGS worldwide. Both of those touch-friendly activities tap into the skin hunger need that humans have. Whether cuddling with or hugging strangers, it is all by consent. There are people who don’t have consistent, safe, nurturing platonic touch. Nothing weird about it.

  3. Marty Careaga says:

    I agree with you

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