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Spooning, stroking and sobbing - what really happens at a West Hampstead ‘cuddle orgy’

17:00 27 January 2014

Members join in a mass-spooning. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Members join in a mass-spooning. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

Fancy a cuddle? Me neither. But then English reserve is a real affliction.

A global study looking at how often people would touch each other during a typical social situation has found our society to be affection-deprived.

Over an hour, Parisians would make some form of contact an average of 110 times. In Puerto Rico, it was 180 times. In London, zero.

But a cure does exist – and is said to lie right in the heart of West Hampstead.

For more than three years, an upstairs studio off West End Lane has been hosting sessions of the Cuddle Workshop.

Affection-seekers pay £29 to spend four hours hugging, stroking and spooning total strangers.

The brainchild of Anna Nathan Shekory, 37, and partner Tom Fortes Mayer, 40, the classes are intended to offer a “safe space” to indulge in therapeutic touching.

“I grew up in a Middle Eastern family,” explains Anna. “We were very cuddly, and as I grew up, I got very confused about why people in our society weren’t doing that.

“British culture in general was very closed off physically, and historically it seems emotions have been seen as things that get in the way.”

The sessions start with ice breakers, involving gentle touching of elbows and bottoms, but quickly move on to something more intense.

As I lie with my face being stroked and my back rubbed by two strangers, Anna and Tom repeat to the group of about 25 that this is a strictly “non-sexual zone”. This is about providing an area for people to come and relax, not pair up.

“Unconditional love”, “neutral touching” and Buddhist philosophy all get a mention.

But it’s oxytocin – or the “love drug” – that is most talked about.

This is a hormone said to be released during cuddling that can boost a person’s yearning to bond.

“This is my fourth time here – it’s where I get my fix of the cuddle drug,” says my hugging partner Ben, who works in double glazing. “The effects can last a whole week. It’s fantastic.”

Allie, 22, a student on her first “cuddle trip”, says: “It took me a year to muster the courage to come to one of these sessions, but I’m so glad I did. It made me more comfortable in my own skin.”

At times the studio becomes an opium den of affection euphoria.

Bodies lie on the floor, entwined and in a kind of trance. Some people burst into uncontrollable sobs.

After three hours the session finishes with a “cuddle orgy”.

The group joins together in one pile, moving in and out of mass spoonings. This is the time to really explore your boundaries.

My face is squashed up against a woman’s chest and I’m holding hands with a young man.

My legs are entwined with the oldest member of the group, Eric.

At 82, he says today was the first time he’d had a hug for 40 years.

“When the children were born my wife stopped being interested in hugging me,” he says. “It happens to a lot of marriages.”

Regularly over-subscribed, the sessions have attracted a core following and many new attendees.

For my part, the “week-long high” did not materialise, but it did feel odd returning to the outside world and being passed by people on the street who barely made eye contact. Just for a moment, I wanted to hug them.

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