With COVID restrictions relaxed, Seattle cuddle club sees spike in interest
When the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged in early 2020, the various restrictions on business and social activity issues by most states, counties and cities had a devastating effect on millions. Alongside restaurants and bars, social clubs were forced to shut their doors, and people who used to enjoy gathering and socializing found themselves quarantined, many in complete isolation from other human beings.
One such social organization was Spoonz, a cuddle-club which operated in the Pacific Northwest from 2018 and hosted weekly group-cuddle events. Spoonz regulars who used to visit the club looking to socialize with like-minded individuals as part of group-cuddle events now faced devastating loneliness and isolation. The club’s closure was even more detrimental to the Trans community, as many members felt the cuddle club was their home-away-from-home; one of very few places where they felt truly accepted and welcome.
Heather Jacobs, a 35-year-old trans woman from Capitol Hill shared her frustration. “As a trans woman, I’ve had to deal with the judgy looks everywhere, but at Spoonz, I was always 100% comfortable with myself,” she says. “When I heard our club closed, I was in shock, and for almost 1.5 years, was essentially completely alone, not knowing if or when I could resume spending time with my community,” said Jacobs desperately.
“Spoonz was certainly unique,” admits Erez Benari, Spoonz former owner. “I created the club with the dream of bringing a healthy and beneficial touch to everyone, and I was amazed at how popular the place has been, but sadly, COVID really hit us hard.” After a long period of 30% growth month-over-month, Benari was unable to afford to pay rent on an empty and unusable space and had to abandon it and hope things might look up one day.
Eventually, Washington state governor Jay Inslee relaxed COVID restrictions in June 2021, which allowed Benari to once again host group-cuddle events, this time on a non-profit basis under the name Hugz & Cuddlez. Benari could no longer use the Seattle space, but numerous clubs in the area have heard of the high popularity of the group-cuddle events and wished to host such events. Numerous former Spoonz members also offered to host events at their homes, and within a few weeks, Benari was running cuddle events at 9 locations (2 locations in Tukwila, 2 locations in Redmond, and locations in Lake Stevens, Auburn, Bremerton, Olympia and Seattle), and hosting up to 3 events per week.
“I received a lot of feedback from the community I built, so I knew people were eager to resume attending cuddle events, but to be honest, I was surprised at how fast things grew back, “Benari confesses. “Within less than a month, I was getting more vet requests per day than I did in a week during the time Spoonz was active,” he added.
Vet requests refers to a process practiced by Benari, where each potential guest to his cuddle events goes through a thorough check and interview process before being allowed to participate in the events. “I review each person’s online presence, social media and history, and also conduct a personal phone interview with them, to make sure their values align with my community’s, and in order to ensure the safety of my events from sexual predators and other unsavory characters, “explains Benari. “I spend many hours a week vetting people, and it’s not easy, “says Benari, “but that’s the foundation of my community and this safety is a main reason for why my events are so popular.
At first, some are uncertain about the idea of a cuddle event, but Benari alleviates their concerns by explaining that these events are not sexual. “Touch and cuddling are a fundamentally healthy and beneficial behavior, “he explains. “We cuddle with our pets, we cuddle with our children, and we cuddle with our life-partners, but many people don’t have anyone to cuddle, and many of us are touch-starved all our lives, “says Benari. According to Alexander Peters, an avid cuddler and frequent cuddle-event participant, even people like him, who are married, benefit from these events, because life gets in the way. “I have work, and house chores, and kids, and my wife and I struggle to find time to cuddle, “laments Peters. “But at cuddle events, we can set-aside several hours every week and cuddle with each other, and with the many friends we have made in the cuddle community. These notions are also supported by medical and psychological research, which has shown that touch and cuddling causes our brain to release oxytocin, a hormone that plays a key part in social bonding and its release is accompanied by pleasant feelings of serenity, joy, affection, and closeness. “No one can contest the benefits of touch, “says Benari, “which is why doctors recommend mothers touch and cuddle their newborn babies as soon as possible after birth.”
Franz Corman, another regular at Benari’s events, has his own perspective. “Not only is this an amazing way to meet and connect with people, sometimes I literally just plop myself in the middle of the ‘cuddle-pile’ and take a nap”. Being surrounded by so much affection and warmth provides the best rest he has all week, according to Corman, and his boyfriend, Jamie, agrees. “He comes back from these events a different man, much happier and relaxed” says Jamie. “I’m not jealous – on the contrary, it makes me happy too. After all, we met at one of Erez’s events!”.
At the time of writing, Washington state is still under some COVID restrictions, and guests at Benari’s events do wear masks and are required to show a COVID vaccine card, or a negative COVID test. “The response has been all positive, “says Benari. “Everyone is very understanding, fully compliant, and we have not had a single case of infection in 6 months of running these events, because all my guests are not only vaccinated, but most have also received a booster shot, “he adds. Naturally, no one can predict the future, but Benari is very optimistic. “I can see every day how my events are making a huge impact on my guests, and I hope to continue running these indefinitely, “he says. One of Benari’s guests is also starting to run these events in the Houston, Texas area, and Benari is working with an individual in South Africa towards a similar goal. “My dream is that one day, there will be a group-cuddle event in every city, or maybe even in every neighborhood,” he says. “We all need more touch, and I hope that one day, people will come to see group-cuddling as a normal activity just like going to Yoga or book club, and do it regularly, “says Benari enthusiastically.
And if you are wondering “how much it costs”, the answer is zero. “I have a sufficient income from my work in the tech sector, and so I can afford to do these events for free, because I want to bring people together. Everyone deserves to cuddle, and I am dedicating my free time to making that happen!” he exclaims.
For more information, visit www.hugzandcuddlez.com