In a small, open room in Portland, 15 people are lounging in groups of three. One person in each group lies face-first into a pillow while the others run their fingers through their hair, along their backs.

This is just one scene from Cuddle Con, the world’s first cuddling convention, held in Portland on Saturday afternoon.

Cuddlers smiled and spoke softly as they casually stroked each others’ bodies, and while it was hard to watch and not smile, it brought up an unsettling question: Isn’t cuddling supposed to be intimate?

The Power of Touch

When I told my girlfriend I was covering Cuddle Con, she was naturally a bit skeptical.

“So it’s just a bunch of strangers cuddling?” she asked. She hesitated. “Are you going to be cuddling with all of them?”

The discomfort is completely fair. To her and I cuddling is intimate, romantic. It’s a kind of gift we give each other, not something we share with other people.

Philosophically I agree with what these cuddling enthusiasts are doing — touch can be powerful, and there’s nothing wrong with consenting adults doing it en masse — but I have a hard time getting on board myself. Why would I want to share my intimate experience with a bunch of people I don’t know?

I took my hesitancy to the big event Saturday, which brought together a network of interrelated activities — partner yoga, massage classes, contact improv — all centered around Cuddle Up to Me, Portland’s new cuddling studio founded by professional cuddler Samantha Hess.

The woman of the hour was running around when the convention opened at noon, so I chatted with one of her new employees, a cuddler who goes by the name Ray Hugs. She got the job (over some 1,000 other applicants) in part because she believes so strongly in Hess’ philosophy.

“I believe in the message, I believe in the idea that everyone should be loved and accepted, everyone should have access to that,” Hugs said. “[Clients] get so much. They get that connection, that human touch, that acceptance.”

Absolutely. That sounds great. But isn’t it a little, I don’t know, awkward?

“We don’t pretend that it’s not awkward, because it is,” she explained. “Life’s awkward, life’s challenging, and it’s our ability to navigate through that that’s really important.”

For so long cuddling has been a strictly intimate act, a perk for those in relationships. And the single people of the world? They just don’t get that. If they want that level of physical intimacy they have to find a romantic partner or else enter the murky world of Craigslist.

Cuddle Up to Me strips cuddling of all its romantic and sexual implications, offering it as an available service to anyone who needs it. And judging by the long line of people standing outside Hess’ studio at noon Saturday, there are a lot of people who need it.

Sam Cantu, a 48-year-old father of four, drove up from Visalia, California for the convention. Single for the last five years, he counts himself among those that have craved cuddling, but haven’t known where to find it.

“That’s something that’s missing in my life,” he said. “I spend a lot of time alone.”

If a cuddle studio can help people like Cantu feel that kind of love, some chemical reaction in the brain that makes us feel like we’re not alone, is there really anything wrong with that? Isn’t that a great public service?

That brings up a much bigger possibility — a potentially profound shift in the way human beings interact with one another. Cuddling services like this could mean a move away from our cold, distant technological interactions to this warmer human connection.

“With people being so isolated from one another with technology, this is something people will need,” Cantu, who’s thinking of opening a cuddling studio back home, explained.

Hugs agreed. Social media distances us, and platonic cuddling is — admittedly a more extreme example of — a way to bring us closer together. “It’s one of the many tools that can bring us from that,” she said.

As crazy as it sounds, the conversation we’re having isn’t whether platonic cuddling can be a socially acceptable business model, but whether or not it has the power to change the world.

Comfortable, Consensual Cuddling

I finally caught up with Samantha Hess at the start of her Consent 101 class, a mandatory seminar for anybody who wanted to participate in Saturday’s many open cuddles. Dressed in a bright pink Cuddle Up to Me shirt and a green blanket cape, Hess stood proudly, albeit a bit flustered, in the midst of her greatest achievement to date.

It’s a big deal, she admitted, both professionally and personally.

Hess got divorced at 28, she said, and like many of her clients she felt empty without that physical human connection.

“Everybody goes through (hard) times in their lives,” Hess said. Her goal is to help those people who struggled like she did, who needed that connection but didn’t have access to it.

Cuddle Con was a natural format to promote her new business while introducing the world to the larger touch-positive community.

To ensure everybody’s comfort Saturday, Hess established what she calls the “stoplight system.” All participants wear different colored ribbons based on their own personal comfort levels. Red means that verbal consent is required for any touch. Yellow means verbal consent or a thumbs up is necessary for any cuddling. Green means you’re ready to be touched by anybody, anytime.

That strict level of consent is important to maintaining the peace, she said. A chalkboard at the front of the Consent 101 class listed dozens of polite ways to reject cuddling. There were phrases like “I’m honored, but can’t” and “I am not ready for that.”

Each cuddler must accept these verbal rejections, as well as the universal mid-cuddle sign that it’s time to stop: two quick taps.

“Everybody has their own comfort level,” Hess said. Cuddle Con and Cuddle Up to Me are for people who are comfortable with the idea of cuddling up to strangers, and if the thought makes you cringe, you simply don’t have to do it.

That last part is key for people who have reacted with anger and confusion to Hess’ cuddling, but love it or hate it, Cuddle Con has launched a very healthy and important discussion about platonic physical connection.

Why do we cuddle? What do we get from it? Should this be a private act for intimate people? Are there ethical dilemmas entangled in this kind of affection? Could there really be a profound societal benefit to platonic touch?

Hess can’t offer up those answers, but she can provide the platform for Portland, and perhaps the global community, to find them. This kind of cuddling isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people who actually need it.

I still didn’t feel comfortable cuddling up to strangers Saturday, but that’s my own prerogative. Just because us non-public cuddlers aren’t interested in events like Cuddle Con doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the event or its philosophy.

I discussed this all with Hess as people continued to flood into Cuddle Con, and she said she understood.

“Can I get still a hug?” she asked as I left.

Yes, Samantha Hess, a hug is just fine.

–Jamie Hale
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