Jane*, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, had been attending Cuddle Workshops for over a year when she had what she describes as her "breakthrough". "There was one woman who had joined the group and there was something about her that reminded me of my foster mother who I loved dearly. We happened to be having a cuddle in one session and there was something so unconditional in her love, and the softness of her motherly body that I started crying and I just couldn’t stop. No words were spoken but I felt something that had been very broken, reconnect again. I cried out my grief, I didn’t hold back."
Jane was just 11 years old when her half-brother first raped her. He would go on to sexually abuse her for many more years, with her mother seemingly wilfully ignorant to what was happening under her own roof. Unsurprisingly, Jane’s childhood, marred as it was by abuse and neglect, had a lasting effect on her – she is now in her 50s and says she still sometimes feels afraid of men and that for decades she carried with her a sense of shame and guilt. She tried multiple avenues, looking for a way to heal – martial arts, talking therapies, tantra – but she credits the Cuddle Workshops, a place where her abuse is never even mentioned, as one of the most powerful healing methods she has tried.
When Anna Fortes Mayer first launched the workshops in London seven years ago, there was a flurry of media attention. A journalist from New Statesman mused whether the workshops were a cure for loneliness in this digital age, while The Guardian sent a “reluctant hugger” to see how he fared being caressed by strangers for a few hours. But as much as the workshops might be easy to dismiss as a slightly wacky, uncomfortable way for awkward English people to spend an afternoon, for the survivors of sexual abuse they can be an invaluable way to begin to physically connect with people again. As Anna puts it, “The workshops give people back empowerment over their bodies. People relearn how to receive touch as well as giving it, and to become open and receptive in a completely non-sexual environment.” Each workshop takes participants through a series of well-organised exercises, either in a group or in twos, gradually building up the amount of physical contact that can be given or received, and at any point attendees can stop or sit out of the activities.
Linda, who is now in her 60s, was in a sexually abusive marriage for 20 years and had two children with her husband before she finally left him. Her partner was a sex addict and she says she felt continually pressured to satisfy his needs. “For my generation, we had this insane message that nice girls don’t have sex till they’re married, but when you’re married, you don’t say no – if he wants sex you do that.” Having left him, Linda was keen to start dating but struggled to connect with people. “When you've been in that situation you’re pretty terrified of getting involved with anyone ever again,” she says, “and you forget how to be intimate.”
She was led to the Cuddle Workshop after encountering some people involved in the "Free Hugs" movement and attended her first session about five years ago. “I wanted to get back into the dating world but I didn’t want to find myself getting physical with someone too quickly because I was craving touch.” The workshops allowed Linda to satisfy her need for physical touch without the worry that the intimacy would be a prelude to sexual demands. “For someone who’s not been in a relationship for a while, it can be quite daunting at the beginning because you get this flood of feelings. The workshops are a way I can rehearse how I might feel in that situation.”
The workshops are carefully structured so that physical contact must be explicitly consented to and, perhaps contrary to what one might assume, there’s a huge focus on people saying no rather than yes. “The boundary work is one of the biggest reasons why people come back,” Anna says. She explains that she actively encourages new attendees, especially those who have a history of sexual abuse, to say no to almost everything at the beginning, meaning that sometimes someone may spend the entire session simply sitting near their partner, or even just watching from the sidelines. “It can be uncomfortable and most of us have a fear of saying no, but it allows people to reinforce a dialogue with their bodies,” Anna says.
Michelle, who was sexually abused as both a teenager and a child, says she found the workshop’s focus on boundaries immensely helpful. “With sexual trauma, your boundaries have been overstepped in a very significant way so to be in an environment where barriers were respected gave me a real sense of safety. If you can’t say no then your yes doesn’t mean anything, either.”
It’s not just female survivors of abuse who find the workshops helpful. Michael, who was diagnosed with autism six years ago, suffered years of sexual abuse as a teenager, inflicted by a man who was employed to care for him. As well as suffering from PTSD and mental health problems, Michael’s experiences mean he finds it incredibly difficult to interact with other men, to the extent that he says he cannot be alone with another male. The initial reason he came to a Cuddle Workshop was simply to get a hug: “At times of extremes stress I find it very helpful to have a cuddle, but before I heard of the workshops there weren’t many options of how I would get one of those.” Michael describes how he was “on a high” for two weeks after his first class and, when working with a female attendee, has no problem saying yes during the exercises: “Because I don’t say no, people have to push the boundaries, so they do things like put their finger up my nose or pull on my ears.” However, when it comes to partnering with a male member of the class, Michael is, unsurprisingly, much less open. “It’s very, very different working with men. My map of where I’m prepared to touch is much more limited – hands, forearms, shoulder, neck, head – places you’d considered to be public.” It might seem like a small step but, considering the workshops were the first time Michael had had any physical interaction with other men since his abuse, it’s impressive progress.
For the majority of people, the desire to be touched, stroked or simply held is an intrinsic part of our nature. However, as we get older, these interactions can become intrinsically linked with sex and for survivors of abuse, this is where things become complicated. By providing a non-sexual and controlled environment, Anna’s Cuddle Workshops allow people to engage with one another, without any expectations or pressures. Barriers are respected and the responsibility for interactions is shared – no means no. As Michael says, “In our society non-sexual touch is extremely valuable, but so difficult to get,” a thought mirrored by the other survivors. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the workshops are an invaluable resource for those who simply want to be close to another person again.
Ed. note: All names have been changed to protect privacy