Girlhood by Melissa Febos review – a view from her 40s

The Whip Smart author explores consent, bodies and boundaries in a poignant and frank collection of essays that celebrates the power to say ‘no’

Several years ago, the New York writer Melissa Febos went to a cuddle party, in which people pay money to engage in non-sexual intimacy with strangers. The events are designed to meet the needs of those suffering from what psychologists call “skin hunger”, or a lack of human touch. Attendees in pyjamas sit amid pillows, duvets and blankets stroking and hugging each other or holding hands. Sessions typically begin with a short workshop about boundaries and consent. Touching around “bikini” areas is forbidden; participants must seek permission and receive a clear “yes” before any physical contact; everyone gets to practise saying “no”.

But, despite the clear messaging, Febos is uneasy. When a man asks to spoon her, she is reluctant but allows him to do it anyway. Another requests a cuddle; rather than say no, she suggests they hold hands, prompting him to look annoyed and ask if he can massage her instead. Afterwards, Febos is unnerved. It wasn’t just the air of entitlement among the men that disturbed her. “It was how powerful my instinct was to give them what they wanted, as if I didn’t have a choice.”

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