Saskatchewan·In Your Shoes

What cuddling with a stranger taught me about non-sexual and safe touch

It was not a question I expected to pose to a total stranger on a Sunday afternoon. "Can you show me how to cuddle?"

Two people who have experienced touch as a violation talk about its power to heal

John Loeppky and Traci Foster are with the Listen to Dis' community arts organization, which set up a cuddle corner as part of Sask. Culture Days. (CBC News)

It was not a question I ever saw myself posing to a total stranger on a Sunday afternoon.

"Can you show me how to cuddle?"

I was at a Creative Cuddle Corner set up at the Artesian. There were soft lights, books and colouring markers, along with an invitation to take part in consensual, non-sexual touching. I sank into a velvety red couch and consciously tried to relax.

Touch is an exquisitely sensitive sense, the first to develop while we are still in the womb and likely the most finely developed at birth. Many experience and celebrate touch and closeness with their families or their pets, but others may feel adrift or not know where to seek that essential, physical contact with its physiological and emotional benefits.

Touch is likely the most finely developed sense at birth, with skin-to-skin contact seen to have benefits for both newborns and mothers. (Martha Irvine/Associated Press)

That need has even spawned businesses with professional cuddlers and an app for people looking to heal, to combat anxiety or feel the warmth of human contact.

My cuddling experience was not set up by a business, but rather took place within a Listen to Dis' Community Arts Organization as part of Sask. Culture Days.

Across from me were Traci Foster and John Loeppky with the organization, both comfortably curled into each other. As relaxed as they were, they noted touch can be a loaded concept. Many people recoil from the idea of touching a stranger.

Foster, as a rape survivor, and Loeppky, who has cerebral palsy, understand that reaction. They said they've had it themselves at times.

But what they were sharing that day was safe, developed through careful conversation and consent.

"In this space, I'm creating intrinsically an opportunity to relax into someone else, and feel that humanity," Loeppky said.

In today's world, touch is often equated with sex, Foster said.

"That's the whole premise of the political right to being in our own bodies. Women have been looking and fighting for that for a long time. We still are," she said.

People with disabilities understand the struggle to have their bodies respected, they both say. Loeppky said it's a violation when people take away his ownership of his own body, for instance when they push his wheelchair up a ramp without his consent.

John Loeppky (left) and Traci Foster both say touch has helped with past violations.

Foster has experienced the uncomfortable side of touch during her work in arts and drama. Her teachers might expect touching to happen as a matter of course.

Sometimes, this unwanted touch will trigger her post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. She panics, thinking, "I really need to get out of here right now, I really need to fight."

"Part of the work I've done as artist was to get back in a relationship with my body, even though I live with complex PTSD," Foster said.

Both said they carry the memory of trauma in the muscles of their body. Non-sexual, consensual touch has helped them through trauma, grounding them and helping them work through moments of panic.

Trying out touch

As physically close as we were to one another, after a long time talking about touch, those last few inches between my hand and Loeppky's hand felt like an impossible, physical barrier.

I finally asked the question that brought me there.

"Can you show me how to cuddle?"

Loeppky invited me to come sit next to him, and said I could take his hand. I did, but hand-holding felt too intimate.

Cuddling with a stranger may initially seem like a jarring idea, but it can feel safe if approached carefully. (Submitted photo)

Foster may have sensed my discomfort and advised us to slow down. She invited us to just sit next to each other, being aware of all the spaces along our bodies where we were already touching.

I felt Loeppky relax next to me, like butter melting on a hot pan. After that, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to lay my head on his shoulder.

"Sorry if my shoulder spasms," he apologized, just a moment before I felt a brief tremor. It was the strangest sensation, to be physically connected to a stranger, to the very experience of his physical body affected by cerebral palsy, simply through the touch of our heads.

"Your breaths have synchronized," Foster said softly.

I opened my eyes, and indeed, our chests were rising and falling together.

Sitting here on these red, soft couches, the superficial distinctions between us — man and woman, disabled or not — slowly fell away.

It felt natural and safe to be in the moment. Just two humans, hearts beating, breaths flowing.

Touching.

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.