Cuddling doesn't always have to be sexy and isn't just for curing loneliness. Shawn Coleman's organization Touchpoints: Cuddles and Community uses cuddling for yet another purpose.
Coleman grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and now resides in Chicago. They described themself as a nerd, always dedicated to school. They were on track to be an engineer, but after taking a sociology class that they said rocked their world, they majored in sociology at Iowa State University and also studied abroad in South America and Mexico.
"I love learning about different people and gaining an understanding of what occurs in different communities and how different people relate," Coleman said. "That has all kind of led me into wanting to connect with different people in different ways."
Coleman calls themself as a professional cuddler, mediation master, skillful facilitator, healer and public speaker. They started their business, facilitating weddings and funerals, then moved onto also facilitating relationship funerals. Relationship funerals, Coleman explained, are a way of allowing people to have some closure after a breakup, in a new way.
"They're very big events in people's lives that can often change the course of a person's life," Coleman said of seeing the similarities between weddings and funerals. "A lot of people tend to deal with breakups in a lot of unhealthy ways, or just try to brush past them, or distract themselves with lots of alcohol or flirting with new people, or things like that, but this was an opportunity for people to talk and process with their friends and family."
Coleman continued to expand their business, formerly called A Wedding and a Funeral, to include one-on-one cuddling sessions. They were inspired to do this as they were co-facilitating and attending other cuddle parties. Cuddle parties, Coleman explained, were created by Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski in New York City, over a decade ago. These platonic parties are typically held in someone's living room or another comfortable space and the attire is casual. Coleman added the parties include an introduction, agreements about what will and will not happen at the party, a discussion on consent and then free-range cuddle time, which can involve massage trains, spooning, hand-holding, or just having a conversation. Coleman said there are now there are over 100 people across the country trained to facilitate these parties.
"I'm a survivor of sexual assault," Coleman said. "Because of that, I've often had a complicated relationship with touch and felt very unsafe, specifically around, heterosexual, cisgender men because those were the people, in the past, who have sexually assaulted me. With cuddle parties, because it was a space where the rules are clearly spelled out and people were clearly not welcomed if they were not following the rules, I knew that I could be in that space and maybe try to let me guard down a little bit more."
"I started to meet guys who were really consent-saavy, who cared about my 'no' and honored it instead of push past it and discovering that there were lots of guys like that in the world, specifically at a cuddle party, was revolutionary for me and it allowed me to relate to touch in a new way and it allowed me to be more present while receiving touch and be more comfortable receiving touch."
Coleman said they are passionate about people gaining a new relationship with touch. In the one-on-one cuddle sessions they lead, Coleman welcomes clients in their living room, which has a mat on the floor, with a soft sheet and blanket over it. Soft spa music plays and sometimes they have stuffed animals out. The whole idea, they described, is around creating a comfortable and a stress-free environment, to encourage clients to open up.
"A big part of cuddling is acceptance," Coleman said. "It's hard to snuggle up next to someone or let them touch you at all if you feel that you will be judged. Feeling safe is critical. One of the biggest things that I can do is create a space in which people feel safe sharing and connecting."
Coleman confirmed the session is completely platonic and the client selects the activities. They go at a pace ideal to the client, beginning with discussion, and nothing is done without consent.
They have a wide range of clients, but Coleman noted they have more female, gender queer and transgender clients. Coleman identifies as genderqueer and is pansexual.
"For me, it's remarkable that probably nearly 20 percent of my clients this year have been somewhere under the transgender umbrella," said Coleman. "I tend to have significantly more queer/trans clients than most other [professional] cuddlers in the area. I think this is partially because they know that I am gender queer. For some, this helps to put some of their fears to rest. When doing something edgy, it can feel impossible to also deal with potential discrimination."
Touchpoints now caters even more to Chicago's LGBTQ community with its new Chicago Queer Spa. The spa offers trans, genderqueer, androgynous, non-binary and gender fluid communitiesand their members of colorto have a safe place to rest, recharge and heal.
"This is not simply a service for men who want touch from women," said Coleman of the one-on-one cuddling sessions. "That's a great service that's provided by the cuddle industry, but this is also a service that's here for women, for trans individuals or for anyone who wants to have a new relationship with touch, anyone that wants to receive a massage or hold hands with someone, an eye gaze with someone without it 'leading up to something else.' It's a service for anyone who wants to work on their boundaries, it's a service for anyone who wants to reestablish their control over their own body."
For more information, visit: ourtouchpoints.com .