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For some, group cuddling is the cure for loneliness

Published: Tuesday, July 22 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Touch has been shown to be therapeutic and relieve stress, leading to "group cuddle" sessions.

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As loneliness becomes a more recognized health risk in the United States, the need for human contact and community has led to the creation of "cuddle parties."

But law enforcement suspect that cuddling can be used as a front for illegal sexual activity. And others object to the trend on grounds that physical affection should be saved for those you already have an emotional bond with and that cuddling strangers makes physical touch less meaningful.

Recent studies have reported on the danger of being isolated, including a study by the Department of Public Health at University College London, which found that people over age 52 who experienced social isolation were 48 percent more likely to die over the course of the study, all other factors being equal, The Telegraph reported.

Thirty-five percent of Americans over the age of 45 are lonely, according to a report by the AARP. An article in Forbes discussed the growing problem of loneliness among millennials, who are working more independently and prioritizing personal success over relationships.

Just as loneliness and isolation have a negative effect on human health, physical contact has a healing effect. "Stimulating touch receptors under the skin can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress," Matthew Hertenstein, director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, told Huffington Post.

One phenomenon that has arisen to combat loneliness is the cuddle party, promoted by a "federally recognized nonprofit educational organization" that is designed to create a fun social experience and teach people how to get the most out of cuddling, according to the Cuddle Party website. Trained facilitators host events around the United States and Canada. Other, similar organizations have opened in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

The cuddle party organization has trained facilitators who host parties in various cities around the United States and Canada. Participants must be at least 18, wear modest pajamas, and arrive on time. Before the cuddling begins, the facilitators teach the participants how to ask for permission and how to say no if they need to. During the actual cuddle session, participants ask each other for hugs or back rubs, but no one is forced to cuddle with anyone they don't want to.

Not everyone is convinced of the efficacy of a group cuddle. Glenn Wilson, a clinical psychologist, told the Daily Mail that while cuddling and hugging are beneficial, it seems wrong to only use physical touch as a way to evoke a specific, health-related reaction.

Jon Fortenbury, a freelance writer, participated in a cuddle party and wrote about his experience in The Atlantic. The point of the exercise was both to engage in some friendly human contact and to learn how to connect in a positive, non-sexual environment.

"In a country that seems to be becoming increasingly isolated, cuddling may be a healthy way to deal with the disconnection," Fortenbury said.

Others view the group cuddle sessions in a less positive light.

"I can’t get over the fact that ­everyone present was essentially paying for their cuddles, which made the experience a bit depressing," wrote Daily Mail reporter Sophie Morris of her own experience at a cuddle party.

Individuals who are touch deprived have other options as well, including visiting one of several "snuggle houses" around the country. At The Snuggery in Rochester, New York, a person can pay $60 for an hour of one-on-one cuddling. Clients can also choose an "overnight cuddle" option, which costs $425.

While cuddle facilitators and snuggle house owners emphasize the strictly non-sexual nature of the encounters, others are less convinced.

"There's no way that (sexual assault) will not happen," Jennifer Zilavy, an assistant city attorney in Madison, Wisconsin, told The Associated Press after Madison officials became suspicious of a proposed snuggle house opening last year. "No offense to men, but I don't know any man who wants to just snuggle."

Others are hesitant of cuddle parties because of how little research is available about the actual benefits of touching strangers. Wendy Walsh told Yahoo! Shine that engaging in platonic cuddling can devalue emotionally driven cuddling. “Cuddling should be an integral component of an evolving relationship, not something you can grab on the run,” she said.

Email: ehales@deseretnews.com

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