Show Notes: Fei Wyatt – Professional Cuddling In Lockdown

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Show Summary:

Fei Wyatt, a professional cuddler at Cuddle Sanctuary, talks about how her profession is coping with lockdown — and the importance of physical intimacy in a world that’s making it increasingly difficult.

Show Notes:

  • [00:30] Fei breaks down cuddling in a professional capacity
  • [1:37] How is lockdown affecting professional cuddlers?
  • [6:57] How did you start out in this industry?
  • [9:04] Cuddling as meditation.
  • [9:20] What are the biggest misconceptions about professional cuddling?
  • [11:53] How do you vet clients in a professional cuddling setting?
  • [13:12] How to cope with lack of physical intimacy during lockdown.

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Transcript:

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Jimmy I'm on the line with Fei Wyatt. Fei is a professional cuddler and cuddle trainer with Cuddle Sanctuary in LA. And just like almost every other industry, cuddling has been hit hard by COVID-19. But because this is 2020, they have some workarounds and we will get into those. But first, Fei, what exactly does professional cuddling involve?

Fei
So professional cuddling is just this really sweet service where I get to see clients and hold them and listen to them. And it can look like a range of just being really warm, like two friends getting together or it can look like a really therapeutic service. My services feel more therapeutic, like people come to me because they’re feeling lonely and they actually want to deepen their quality of relationships in their lives and also to get touch at the same time. So it’s just a very warm, very heartfelt place to feel safe and nurtured.

Jimmy
And so there’s a balance between the physical and the mental there isn’t there, you are receiving the benefits of touch but, it’s transferring through to whatever you have, if you have loneliness or trauma or looking to feel close to someone, it really transfers through to that mental side.

Fei
That’s exactly right. I mean, our emotional states and our bodies. They’re so interconnected. And I have the pleasure of working with both.

Jimmy
Absolutely, and so obviously a pretty crazy time right now. How are shelter in place orders, lockdowns, everything like that around the world, how those affecting you and I guess other professional cuddlers as well?

Fei
Yeah, it’s really unfortunate because we are in lockdown mode it means that I’m not able to see my clients in person anymore. So that definitely has put a halt, basically a halt on new business for me, I haven’t seen a new client in a long time. And my existing clients, I am only able to do virtual sessions with, and virtual sessions are amazing. There’s still a lot of connection if you can imagine the kind of conversation where you’re deeply heard and seen and that quality is still there. But the actual physical touch component isn’t there anymore. And so I have got a little bit more time on my hands these days. Waiting it out.

Jimmy
A bit. Yeah, yeah. And so these virtual sessions are not virtual reality, right? That sort of Skype or some other?

Fei
Yes, yes. It really is. We just hang out on zoom.

Jimmy
And have you seen any VR stuff that does work that might be a hope for the future? If we are in lockdown for a while?

Fei
I certainly can speak to that. They have to have some amazing haptics. I have to say if you want to be able to integrate touch into VR.

Jimmy
Yeah, okay, and nothing’s coming up positive on that, so far.

Fei
No.

Jimmy
Yeah. And what are you hearing from your customers, your clients? Obviously, physical touch is a super important part of their lives. Are people having a sort of withdrawal? Is there a feeling of lack in people’s lives?

Fei
Oh, yes. So many of my clients already came from very isolated lives before. And actually for some of them, this is just more of the same. They’d already gone a lot of their lives kind of being alone and not having many romantic relationships, if at all, and definitely not much touch. So for some of them, this is the same old but it’s very, it’s a very depressing, same old and for others, they were just leaving that. Can you imagine they had just like, found a consistent place where they could feel belonging and safety and nurturing? And now with this taken away and it’s not on the calendar anymore. There was something really lovely about, you know, knowing that once every week or every two weeks, you’re going to get a reprieve from whatever tough thing that you’re going through. It’s really bleak for them right now. My heart actually breaks, as I tell you about it.

Jimmy
Yeah, I bet. I bet. And have you been able to have the virtual sessions been able to bridge that gap a little bit?

Fei
It does bridge the gap in the sense that there is connection there, they still have access to somebody there who can be there for them. But touch can do so much more than I can do with a gaze or, or a few words, you know, that’s missing.

Jimmy
Yeah. And are you seeing much drop off? People opting to not do the virtual sessions, whereas they might have continued if it was in person?

Fei
I think it’s more the opposite. I feel like as time has gone on, as touch hasn’t been an option that people are now reaching out to take what they can get in terms of connection. So, there, it’s proving that it’s not just touch that has been needed. It’s actually connection too.

Jimmy
And once we let’s say we get through this, we were released from lockdown. Once people land outside again, I guess. Are there any existing protocols or habits within the cuddling community that help protect people from a resurgence of COVID? Are there kind of safe cuddling practices that are going to work well for the cuddling community once we have a little bit more freedom?

Fei
Oh, totally. As I think we’ll go back to what it was when we first started. Right now we’re really particular about hand washing, you know, the hand washing ritual when you come in. I think there’s going to be a lot more transparency now in terms of exposure, in terms of illness, sort of like having it’s almost like having a safer sex conversation, but you’re doing it now with - have you been exposed to somebody who has had any symptoms of COVID or a cough or flu recently? I think that will become more of a part of the discussion than it, it was just something that we had never really addressed before. We cancel a session if you’re sick, but we never talked about anything in between.

Jimmy
Right. So, I mean, so it sounds like you were already having very similar conversations. Did you get much pushback? Or is there pretty good compliance with people from following the best practices?

Fei
Yeah, I mean, everybody wants to be able to do the right thing for the most part, and I definitely have been a recipient of a lot of care. I know that I had clients who preemptively would cancel because they just didn’t want to risk getting me sick, for example. So for the most part, there’s just a lot of care and concern for each other.

Jimmy
Sounds lovely. Nice community. And very quickly looking backwards. How did you get into this line of work?

Fei
I saw that professional cuddling was a thing and I immediately recognise myself in it. For me unconditional love has been a thing that I’ve been seeking out for my whole life pretty much looking for this place where I could use my strength of accepting people exactly where they are. And using that, like superpower of mine, I suppose to heal or to make a difference in other people’s lives. And I have to be honest, that when I first started, because I’ve always been in relationships, the touch aspect of it was a little bit of an afterthought for me. I think a lot of people when they hear about professional cuddling, and they already have a lot of touch in their lives, they get very confused and they don’t really understand what the point is. And that’s probably because they haven’t gone for long stretches of time without touching their lives, so they don’t really understand how important that is. And that’s sort of how I was, I always imagined, like, Oh, I like hugging. And I’m definitely very good at listening to people and having deep conversations with them. And I thought I could do that and just hug. And it never occurred to me that actually the touch piece has been the keystone to people being able to access their bodies in a way that really can shift things for them. There’s just a depth of feeling and a depth of being alive, that I can’t access without the body and touch is like the superhighway into that.

Jimmy
Yeah, it’s powerful, powerful thing,

Fei
Powerful mechanism. So yeah, in our virtual sessions these days, you know, I can’t touch but I can invite people to check in with their bodies, we can feel our breath or I can, they can breathe and I can mirror them together. And there’s something really co-regulating, like our nervous systems can get tuned with one another, even on screen. So that helpful; touch is a little bit more immediate. But this is a nice little bridge in the meantime.

Jimmy
Absolutely. And it sounds like the, the language you use and some of the practices you use are actually quite similar to yoga.

Fei
Yeah, I mean, yoga is a mindful practice, it’s all about being in the present moment. And absolutely, there’s a lot of mindfulness in the practice that I do for me. I say that cuddling is my meditation.

Jimmy
And you said that even you came into this almost with some level of misconception, you know, I like hugging. And what outsiders I imagine there’s a tonne of misconceptions about cuddling and professional cuddling what’s, what are some of the biggest ones that you see?

Fei
Well, definitely the number one misconception is that this is a cover for sex work. I think less and less people are suspicious of us anymore. I think it’s just unfortunate because sex work isn’t legal here in the US, or at least escort work and that is not. So a lot of people think that oh, cuddling there is no way that you can cuddle in a non-sexual way. So that’s definitely a cover for something else. So that’s the number one misconception we’ve had to combat essentially in doing our marketing and getting the word out there. And then I think the other thing that people don’t understand is that there’s a deep value in the type of connection that we’re talking about. I use this word platonic, and it can sound a lot like jargon, but for me, it’s just a type of connecting that doesn’t have the agenda of romance or sexuality in it. And a lot of people think that when you’re doing cuddling it automatically includes both romance and or sex. And for me, I feel like I’ve experienced there’s a freedom in being able to be intimate with another person without having that agenda at all. And I would say that one of the misconceptions people have the general public has is that men are probably the least able to be able to put sexuality aside, there’s a stereotype or something, that they’re going to sexualize every situation. And I have to say that in all of my experiences, I have learned actually that for them, it’s a relief. It’s a relief for them to be able to have a space where they can be vulnerable, where they can be soft and tender, without having to be macho and strong and perform, which often sexuality can be for them.

Jimmy
Yeah. It’s a release.

Fei
Yeah, totally.

Jimmy
And obviously there are these misconceptions, has that affected - how is that I assume it has to affect your relationships or at least early relationships? Is that something that you front foot and explain? Hey, This is what I do. It’s not sexual. Is there another way you go about it?

Fei
Yeah, I literally say this over the phone. When I’m vetting my clients, I say, I’m pretty sure that what you’re looking for is a platonic experience. But I want to say a little bit more about what that means to me, which means such sessions are going to be non-erotic, non-romantic, and non-sexual. So we’ll just stay in the sort of affectionate, friendly, warm and playful, nurturing realm where tears and laughter welcome. So I, we definitely put a lot of effort into the marketing that we do to just really make it clear that there’s just no room for misinterpretation, for sure.

Jimmy
And it’s I guess it’s a new boundary for people because a lot of people exist in a world where the misconception is reality, right? If you are that close with someone, it must mean something. Whereas what you’re trying to do is separate write those things out that this can be without that other thing.

Fei
Exactly. And the only way to pull them apart is to be explicit about it. Because if we’re not, then we come up against the sort of general assumption of the culture that we’re in.

Jimmy
And so going back to the situation and the future of professional cuddling, have you seen any other things apart from virtual sessions over calls? Is there anything else that, any other ideas that you’ve seen out there in the community or are people, people either hurting or doing these phone calls and there’s not much else.

Fei
At Cuddle Sanctuary, we’ve had these daily 15 minute dance breaks that we’ve been doing, I think today was day 28. So we just did it for four weeks in a row, 15 minutes of dancing every single day. And that’s one way that we can involve our body, you know, movement, breathing, play and connection together. Just imagine getting a dance with somebody on the screen that you feel close to. It’s just been amazing. So we’ve done things like that, in order to add a little bit of like a supply of connection, you know, on the internet.

Jimmy
So, I mean, I’ve been dancing by myself every day anyway. So great to be able to feel like I’m doing it with other people.

Fei
Yeah, exactly. So there are a lot of resources. We are by no means the only people doing these dance breaks, everybody – there was like a whole ecstatic dance community that has moved online now. There’s yoga, there’s meditation, at Cuddle Sanctuary we have these weekly connection calls. So where we used to do a weekly cuddle events, so on Wednesday evenings, people would get together, we have like an orientation, teach people the guidelines, and then they kind of basically ask each other to cuddle. It’s the sweetest thing ever. It’s a room full of like 15 to 25 people who are just making their way around cozying up with one another and just getting their touch needs met in a community setting, you know. And we had to cancel those quite early on in March. And now we’ve moved online. And we play games together, we ask each other questions that we play a game called Hot Seat where one person is in the centre, and everybody gets to ask them any question that they’re curious about, like we play games like that to create the sense of community and connection.

Jimmy
And that connection is obviously getting more and more important as we stay cooped up and apartments and houses and places.

Fei
I feel so protective, like the word that we’ve been using all across the media is, what is it called social isolation or something like, social distancing,

Jimmy
The opposite of what you want!

Fei
It’s not, it’s not social distancing. There’s a lot of social opportunities. We’re just physically distancing for a moment. I’m really hopeful, though, that this is reminding people how important tactile in-person connection is. I feel like so much of my career, I’ve been doing this for six years really soon now. And I’ve been educating people about the importance of touch, just like touches, so good for your nervous system and helps you feel grounded. And it’s good for your health and all of those things. And I think people get it now.

Jimmy
That is a worthwhile thing to remember, I guess, is social distancing doesn’t have to mean social distancing, it can just mean physical distancing. Well Fei, thanks for getting on the call and best of luck getting through this.

Fei
Thank you, you as well, take good care.

Jimmy
You can find Fei and access to virtual cuddle sessions – and dance breaks – at www.cuddlesanctuary.com and we’ll post the notes from this conversation at minaalradio.com/cuddle