the politics of “free”

Okay, so this is definitely a bit of a topic-hop from the last post, on 24/7 SM slavery. I never promised ya consistency.

The other day I got a couple of “free hugs” via Facebook… and then my brother called me from Ottawa to say that someone had just given him a free hug on the street and he thought of me. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I asked my good friend Google and came up with quite the load of information.

Wikipedia gives a bit of history:

“The Free Hugs Campaign is an Internet-spread phenomenon that appears to have begun in June, 2004, and was widely publicized in 2006 by a music video on YouTube. The phenomenon involves individuals who offer hugs to strangers in public settings. The campaign is an example of a random act of kindness, a selfless act performed by a person for the sole reason of making others feel better. The original organizer has stated in interviews that the purpose is not to get names, phone numbers, or dates.”

Check out the full article here if you want the details; or take a look at the official Free Hugs Campaign website. Wiki says that International Free Hug Day was planned specifically via Facebook for September 10, 2007, which would explain the notes I got and my brother’s amused call yesterday.

Montreal has its own free hug dude – a certain Martin Neufeld, who has been haunting the Old Port as “the Hugger Busker” for three or four years now. Seems this hugging thing is all the rage since 2004. I wonder what happened that year? 

Anyway, Martin actually wrote a book on the topic, which I had the pleasure of editing about a year and a half ago. Funny where projects end up… in checking the book’s website just now I have learned that it won an Ippy, or Independent Publishers’ Award – a gold medal in the “inspirational/motivational” category. Neato! So if you want a free hug and can’t find a friendly Facebooker willing to share, you can always head down to the Old Port and find Martin. His website informs me he’ll be around until September 15.

It’s funny, this whole idea of free hugs. I totally get the beauty of offering affection or human contact to strangers; there are a lot of lonely people out there and there are a million studies showing how deeply physical contact can affect (i.e. improve) someone’s psychological and emotional state. And of course you don’t have to be lonely or destitute to enjoy a hug – they’re hardly a “last resort” sort of thing to do. I’m a firm believer in hugging friends, family and lovers as often as possible. It’s just good for the soul.

The piece that has me mildly confused is the idea of offering them for free. I mean, do you normally charge for a hug? Feels like a weird idea for the whole campaign to be based on the “free” aspect of the thing, as though one would usually expect to be billed.

Of course that doesn’t change that I think it’s a cool idea. Simply that I think the “free” part could only ever make sense in a highly consumer-oriented society, which is part of the problem that creates the human disconnect that the Free Hugs Day is trying to counter in the first place. It’s an interesting technique – get people hooked by offering them something “FREE!”, sort of an updated version of the tired old “SEX!! Now that we’ve got your attention…” tag lines.

At the same time, perhaps it does make sense that there are free hugs out there, since some people are hell-bent on making money off affection.

Case in point: ever heard of a cuddle party? You know, the trendy thing that started up a couple of years back and seems particularly popular in the States, where people all get together in someone’s living room in their PJs and snuggle? I first encountered one of those at Burning Man at a camp that had set up a public-use Snuggledome – a huge geodesic dome strewn with mattresses, blankets and pillows. I found myself thoroughly ensconced in a mass cuddle puddle at one point, with two of my lovers at the time and about a dozen strangers. Of course the lovers were lovely, but even the strangers were totally sweet – I have a distinct memory of one guy saying shyly that he really liked tummies and was wondering if it was okay for him to rest his head on mine. But rather than being creepy and weird, it was just really cute and he was very respectful. I love people with good boundaries. 

Anyway, so cuddle parties. There’s apparently a whole Cuddle Party brand going on now – with official Cuddle Parties charging $30 or $40 entrance fees (!) and Cuddle Party Facilitation Training” being offered at $495 a head. What the hell??

Don’t get me wrong – if you’re a person with a great idea and you’re going to spend a lot of time and energy and money travelling the world to promote it, especially if that idea involves getting people to better understand their physical boundaries and help increase the amount of love in the world, well, more power to ya. I don’t necessarily hold this against the Cuddle Party folks. But it kind of appals me that anyone would need a $495 training session to know how to throw some mattresses on the floor, invite a bunch of friends and ask everyone to be respectful of one another’s “no.” Are we really at the point where we’ve had to make friendly gatherings and the communication of personal space limits into a commercial affair?

Off and on for several years now, I’ve attended massage parties held by a friend of mine. The guest list is long but private; guests are asked to contribute a potluck item, bring their favourite massage oil to share, refrain from getting intoxicated and just generally be nice. There are two official rounds of massages, one clothing-on, the next clothing-optional, all of it explicitly nonsexual. The group is randomly split into smaller groups of four or five people; every person gets a turn in the centre, receiving massage from all the other people at the same time (wheee!), for exactly ten minutes, with a five-minute warning in case they want to change positions. Of course lots of people give each other massages before and after the official rounds and during the break, and of course sometimes folks break off from the group and go make out – sexual energy is not prohibited, it’s just expected that it will be engaged in with respect and kept out of the officially sanctioned massaging.

A couple of years back I was inspired at one point to hold my own impromptu massage party for a slightly different set of people, and it was a ton of fun.

And guess what? My friend doesn’t charge for his parties. I didn’t charge for mine. There was no need to turn something friendly and warm into something commercial. Certainly, while I’ve charged a small entrance fee for many a private SM play party at my place, the cost has only ever been enough to cover food and equipment expenses and chip into maintenance costs for the leatherdyke group officially hosting the event… the idea has never been about profit.

It’s funny. When it comes to physical intimacy, the whole idea of exchanging money just bugs me, and I’m trying to figure out how to square that with my politics around another (and much more controversial) form of physical intimacy for cash: sex work. 

For years now I’ve worked with Stella, Montreal’s sex worker rights association, in various capacities – it started with a Concordia internship a few years back, and since then I’ve translated and edited manuals and conference proceedings, helped with their newsletter, and more. I’m right behind those ladies when they fight for the recognition of sex work as a legitimate form of employment that should be considered eligible for all the protections and benefits of other jobs. Let me be crystal clear that I don’t think sex work is immoral.

But no matter how much I support the cause, I do often feel it’s unfortunate that the sex industry is booming. To me that indicates that a lot of people aren’t getting what they want, sexually speaking and in terms of intimacy, within reciprocal emotional relationships.

I recognize that’s not always what’s going on; there are any number of reasons to employ the services of a sex worker. In some cases, people may want a really particular sort of sexual act for which it’s hard to find a willing partner. In other cases they may have special needs due to mobility, disability, or other concerns that prevent or hinder them from engaging in intimate relationships of the more standard variety. In still other cases a person really just really wants to get off, and they’re single or far from home or whatever, so why not pay a lady or gentleman of the night to do what s/he does best?

I think I’m figuring it out… it’s not that I think sex work shouldn’t exist, or that people shouldn’t charge for cuddle parties, or that pro-dommes shouldn’t whip clients for $300 an hour. The bare fact is that human beings want to connect with one another, and we also want to make a living, and sometimes those things team up.

Here’s what bothers me: to me it seems like that SM, sex and cuddling are generally most satisfying and when the exchange is about genuine reciprocal connection and affection and desire. And when a given individual’s surface needs are instead met through commercial channels where those deeper things are not necessarily present, it strikes me as unfortunate.

I don’t doubt that many people find satisfaction in at least some of those commercial exchanges; I would speculate that satisfaction is most likely to occur when the exchange is for something relatively straightforward and “surface” in nature, or when the service provider is really excellent and connects well with his or her clients. But I’m equally certain that others go in wanting depth, intimacy and human connection and come out with nothing but a lighter wallet and a vague sense of disenchantment, and maybe a few less grams of come in the pipelines. And that kinda feels icky to me – sorta like when a kid gives a popular kid his sandwich on the playground in the hopes of making a friend, and the response is “I guess I’ll let you hang out with me for half of recess, but bring me cookies tomorrow and maybe you can hang out with me for the whole recess.”

While I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity to make a buck, I do recognize that my own satisfaction lies in keeping intimacy and cash quite separate, with neither one motivating or influencing the other. So whether it’s Free Hugs Day or no, and whether I aim them at strangers or at friends, my hugs will always be free and I’ll only give them when I genuinely want to, for no other reason than the joy of hugging itself. And if I invite a bunch of friends over to cuddle, I will only want them to chip in with their charming company, not with a cover charge.

2 thoughts on “the politics of “free”

  1. In the case of Free Hug Day, maybe it’s free as in “no strings” rather than free as in charge?

    To me, hugs are serious business. You gotta work on technique and perfect that shit. You gotta tell people when they do it well. Not to hug and tell, but most of the Canadians I’ve met are *great* huggers. Maybe it’s something in the water up there? I don’t know.

    I have a complicated relationship to sex work, as you might imagine, and I’m starting to contemplate new ways of payment for bootblacking. Obviously not the times at the bar, but if I’m doing a special coat or something on the side, I’m thinking more and more about having a wishlist that people can purchase things off of to the degree they feel compelled. I’m still batting that around and I’m not too sure if it is a good idea or not. I know that I don’t really like having to provide a dollar amount since A. it’s hard to quantify B. it’s a pleasure for me to do them (and I’m happier when I do) C. I’d do it for free most of the time D. sometimes it’s for charity anyway. Hrm. These are tricky, tricky questions.

  2. Tricky indeed. Another layer: I’ve heard of wish lists as payment, but the only people I know who’ve used them are pro-dommes. Fascinating to think of a bootblack employing a similar technique. I wonder what people would make of that? Please do keep me posted if you decide to start, I would be intrigued to hear how it goes!

    Hugs are serious business. And I know a TON of awesome huggers, who by default are mostly Canadian, so perhaps there is something to this statement of yours. Though maybe it’s just cause it gets so cold here in the winters… that’s encouragement to perfect technique if nothing else.

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