Last Week I was on ABC Radio Melbourne with Grace Williams talking about Cuddles and Platonic Touch. You can listen to the whole interview here
ABC Radio Melbourne: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/sundayafternoon/sunday-afternoons/11081838
Grace Williams: Touch is one of the first senses developed in humans. For newborn babies, so much of how they learn to communicate is through touch. For premature babies that are often subject to painful procedures, studies have shown that gentle touch really makes a big difference to their recovery and overall health. Gentle touch has been linked to better weight gain in premature babies and an improved ability to regulate their heart rate.
Grace Williams: Outside of the baby caring world, there has been an increase in professional cuddling services in Australia. Brie Kupke, a cuddle therapist based in Melbourne, is teaching a session on Monday about the science behind cuddle therapy, the benefits, and why it’s needed in our world today. Brie, we live in a world where asking for a hug seems weird, so friendly platonic touch is unavailable for many people. How important is it for people to cuddle?
Brie Kupke: It’s so important, Grace. Like you touched on, with premature babies, when you touch them, flourish and thrive early in life. With children, it helps them learn better. Then within adults, it allows them to have better, healthier relationships, and it also helps with anxiety and depression, in those areas.
Brie Kupke: The ability to have access to platonic touch in everyday life is so important, but at the moment, we’re only able to get platonic touch, generally, through intimate relationships. We don’t really have a facility to go and experience platonic touch outside of that. So, if you’re not in an intimate relationship, or you don’t have really close friends who you hug on a regular basis, it can be really difficult to get your quota of cuddles for the week.
Brie Kupke: It’s having these facilities available and having cuddle therapy and group cuddling events available is super important. I think as a society we’re currently a bit isolated and a bit disconnected from one another and the ability to reach out to people and go, “Look, I’ve had an awful day. May I have a hug?” I think that would make a real difference for a lot of people.
Grace Williams: I really love how you say, “quota of cuddles.” I’ve never heard anyone actually say that. I think I’m going to copyright that. It’s so good. So what was your journey into the world of professional cuddling?
Brie Kupke: Yes. About four years ago, I met my partner and he started introducing me to his friends and family and whatnot. And these people that I was meeting, they were wanting to hug me as they greeted me. And these people, they were lovely, but I really noticed within myself that I was a little bit uncomfortable with people outside of my family and my relationship hugging me. It’s kind of like, this is weird. What’s going on here?
Brie Kupke: So I decided to kind of start exploring that. I found a group cuddling event here in Melbourne, and I went along for the afternoon. And you experience activities through communication consent so that you can confidently walk into a cuddle space and know that nothing bad’s going to happen, and you are at choice at all moments of the session. I really got to experience what cuddling just another human being was like, really got to pull apart the whole, this isn’t some stranger on the street. They’re just a human being who needs touch as much as I need it.
Brie Kupke: That was really amazing for me, and then it was kind of like I became so passionate and became a cuddle advocate, and decided to take on doing cuddle therapy training, so I am now a certified cuddle therapist. And I’ve even-
Grace Williams: Congratulations.
Brie Kupke: Thank you very much. I really love educating people on the importance of cuddling, and how important communication and consent is, not only in our relationships and our interactions in touch, but in everyday life, and how empowering that can be for people.
Grace Williams: Why do you think culturally we have diverged from this affectionate practice?
Brie Kupke: Hmm. That’s a really good question. Honestly, I think that touch has been collapsed and muddled with sexuality, and it’s not appropriate with people outside of that arena. We see young children and if they’re upset or they’re hurt or something, they’ll seek someone else to give them a hug. We do that as young children, and then as we move into late primary school, early high school, that kind of diminishes a bit, and there’s this stigma, almost, of what is and isn’t appropriate past a certain age when it comes to touch.
Brie Kupke: Then as adults, it’s kind of like we’re so caged, almost, in where we can receive platonic touch from. It’s only appropriate for us to get it from our family and our intimate partners. We have massage, and people can get some kind of touch benefits from that, but that’s generally for treating some kind of muscular issue. It’s not as nurturing, I suppose, as being able to go to someone and for the next hour, we’re going to cuddle. We’re going to hug.
Brie Kupke: Things like even stroking a person’s hair, that’s really soothing, and it releases hormones like oxytocin, which create a bonding experience between those who receive that touch and those who give that touch. It also lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress hormones. You are able to then be more emotionally level, be able to think clearer, and be able to interact with people at a deeper, more significant level. You’re not so touch starved.
Grace Williams: That’s really, really powerful. And touch starved, what an amazing way of putting it. You’ve touched on some of the scientific benefits of regular cuddling. Are there any more? Can you give us a bit of a lesson?
Brie Kupke: Yeah, definitely. There’s been studies showing that elderly people are one of the largest groups in our society that are touch starved. They’re not in society and they may be in a nursing home or they may be isolated from their family in some way or another, they then don’t receive that touch. And it has been shown that people who interact with those elderly people, if they have Alzheimer’s or other health conditions, it can actually improve their quality of life. It can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s and help them be a little bit clearer in their more lucid moments, and also just improve their general quality of life, their ability to maybe combat a cold that they’ve got going on, or whatever it may be for them.
Grace Williams: How often should we cuddle each other?
Brie Kupke: My personal preference is as often as possible. There is some suggestions that one minute at the beginning and end of each day is enough to really get the benefit of platonic touch.
Grace Williams: Mm.
Brie Kupke: Yeah.
Grace Williams: One minute.
Brie Kupke: Yeah, one-
Grace Williams: I think we can all put that into our diaries.
Brie Kupke: Yeah, one full minute at the beginning and the end of each day.
Grace Williams: I think it’s really interesting, because most people hug for 10 seconds, or they just pat you, and I’m like, “That’s not a hug. It’s basically a pat. It’s not a one-minute hold.”
Brie Kupke: That’s it.
Grace Williams: It’s good to have that number there. That’s what we’re aiming for, one minute, everyone.
Brie Kupke: Yup.
Grace Williams: What is the best way to navigate consent, particularly for people who have experienced past trauma in the area of touch?
Brie Kupke: Yeah, absolutely. There are people that I work with who have experienced that trauma. The general rule is that if I was to do a session with someone there would be mutual ground rules that we agree to before even starting the session. But then there’s exercises that you can do around communication and consent. The key points to that are being incredibly specific with your communication.
Brie Kupke: Instead of saying, “May I hug you?” or, “May I touch your arm?” it’s, “May I touch your arm between your shoulder and your elbow?” Because you may find that people are comfortable being touched in certain areas of their bodies, but they’re not happy being touched in other areas of their body.
Grace Williams: Mm, yeah.
Brie Kupke: Or being really specific about the firmness of the touch or the lightness of the touch, and really having a mutual conversation to get to what works for both parties.
Brie Kupke: One thing that I continually have to speak about is people feel that they’re having to ask too often in our sessions, like make requests, like, “May I hold your hand? May I give you a back massage?” And people feel that they have to ask too often. And what I say is, “If you feel like you’re asking too often for consent or permission, then you’re doing it exactly right.”
Grace Williams: I think that is the foundation of really respectful relationships.
Brie Kupke: Yes.
Grace Williams: Even with an intimate partner, I think it makes them feel honored and valued-
Brie Kupke: Exactly.
Grace Williams: … when you ask them. It’s like, “Wow. Oh. Thank you for respecting me and my body. You don’t own it. Wow.”
Brie Kupke: That’s right.
Grace Williams: I’m choosing to let you engage with me in this way, and that’s really special, teaching people that that’s how you invite them into a space, or a cuddling space.
Brie Kupke: Yeah, definitely. And as you said, people then get concerned that, well, what if that person says no? Because that’s a big thing for us. Rejection is huge when it comes to intimacy and relationships.
Brie Kupke: One way of thinking about someone saying, “No,” to you, is if someone asked you the question, “Is Flinders Street this way?” If they’re going in the wrong direction, you’re not going to tell them that they are going in the right direction. You’re going to give them the information that they need to successfully navigate their world, to successfully navigate that relationship. By them making a request of you and you saying, “No,” they then have information so that they can successfully navigate the rest of this interaction.
Grace Williams: Wow. That’s a really positive way of framing it.
Grace Williams: What is the gender balance in your teaching session? I was just … Men? Did men come? Are men interested in learning about this?
Brie Kupke: They love it.
Grace Williams: Oh, yay.
Brie Kupke: Yay. If I was to hold a group cuddling event, it wouldn’t be strictly gender balanced, because I find that a little bit limiting. But we do find it to be a 60/40 balance in favor of men, which I find fabulous and incredible.
Grace Williams: That’s fantastic news. Mm.
Brie Kupke: Yeah, yeah. Then if I was to teach a class, it would be very similar, because men in general, they don’t have access to touch overall. Stereotypically, it’s quite acceptable for women to be able to hug each other more freely than men. So, that’s a little bit lacking, but the thing is we’re all human beings. We all need touch, and to be able to get rid of that stigma and have people confidently be able to enter that world is absolutely magical, and I think it could really make a difference.
Grace Williams: How much do you think that toxic masculinity holds men back from being affectionate with one another?
Brie Kupke: I think it has quite a lot to play, to be honest. And I think from a young age, men are taught what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of affection between other men. Depression rates in men are actually higher than women, and I think that not being able to readily hug someone. Or even I have men come to me and they’re like, “I’d really love to hug this person,” but they then feel awkward and kind of like, “Well, how long do I hold on for, and is it appropriate for me to tap them on the back?” There’s a lot of anxiety around hugging another man. Like, “Are they going to think I’m weird? Am I doing it right?”
Brie Kupke: That’s what’s there for men is this anxiety around, what are people going to think of me? And I think given that this is such a basic need for people that that anxiety, it makes me so sad that that’s there.
Grace Williams: Brie, what’s one thing we can do to improve our hugs?
Brie Kupke: What’s one thing you can do to improve your hugs? Give it all you’ve got.
Grace Williams: Awww.
Brie Kupke: Give it all you’ve got. Don’t have it be this half embrace. Have a real hug and really connect with that person as a human being.
Grace Williams: Thank you, Brie, for that lesson.
Brie Kupke: You are most welcome.
Grace Williams: That was Brie Kupke, a cuddle therapist based in Melbourne, teaching about the science of cuddle therapy.