Wednesday, October 17, 4:30- 6:00pm, ROS329

Emily Wilson, “Healing Touch: Professional Cuddling in the United States”

Within the past decade, “professional cuddling” has flourished around the United States. Professional cuddling emerged in 2004 as organized “cuddle parties” in New York. Originally designed as a free activity for touch-starved people of all ages, “expert cuddlers” transformed cuddling into a commercialized intimate healing service. Journalists, media outlets, and government officials distrust that cuddling is a safe and serious service, and believe it to be either a trivial oddity or an illegal form of sex work. However, professional cuddlers and their clients insist that cuddling is neither inconsequential nor dangerous. Instead, they claim that cuddling is a safe and trustworthy form of healing. In this paper, I draw from two months of ethnographic fieldwork in Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, California where I attended community cuddle events and interviewed cuddlers and their clients. I demonstrate that touch is not inherently healing; rather, professional cuddlers mobilize touch alongside what I call a “tight conceptual theme.” The tight conceptual theme draws on a variety of existing cultural scripts which provide templates for embodied forms of structure and freedom, both of which organize degrees of control over unruly emotions. Cuddling events blend genres – the party, daycare, and the dyadic consent negotiation – in order to generate an interaction within which touch can become “healing.” I draw from the anthropological literature on healing and ritual in order to take seriously cuddler’s claims about healing, while remaining critical of idioms of purity and care.

Discussant: Lily Ye, Comparative Human Development

To receive the paper, or if you have any questions or require assistance to attend, email Stephanie Palazzo,

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