We were paired off and carefully arranged crotch to butt in what I would normally label a post-coital embrace, yet there was nothing sexual about our position. The group I was with consisted of 11 strangers including my cuddle partner and me—four women and seven men—all of us pajama-clad and embarking on Seattle’s first public Cuddle Party. To reduce the risk of sexual arousal, the party was being held on September 11th, in the afternoon, on the floor of a computer lab in Bellevue. The setting was about as unsexy as I could possibly imagine if I’d been given 10,000 unsexy scenarios to choose from—including being humped by Trent Lott’s corpse while a pack of ugly school children shouted math problems at me.
But then Cuddle Parties aren’t supposed to be sexy. In fact, rule #2 explicitly forbids sex, rule #1 states that pajamas must stay on at all times, and rule #7 disallows dry humping. Kissing and stroking are allowed, but only with permission. According to the official Cuddle Party web site (www.cuddleparty.com), the goal of a good Cuddle Party is to be a free-for-all “affectionate play event for adults, designed to provide a space to explore and enjoy touch, nurturing, and communication.” Parties like this have been praised post-9/11, and now post-Katrina, as a form of hug-therapy for traumatic events.
The concept of the Cuddle Party was created and launched in New York city in early 2004 by Marcia Baczynski and Reid Mihalko, two counselors and sensualists who wanted to create safe spaces for adults to be physically affectionate without the pressures of sex. Due to the popularity of their cuddle sessions, the duo began training facilitators to spread the party across America. Now for only $700 dollars anyone can fly to New York and learn how to tell strangers not to have sex together in computer labs.
Our facilitator was cuddle enthusiast Jeff Eliasen, a friendly, easy-going man in charge of bringing the cuddling revolution to Seattle. Eliasen aspires to lead bimonthly cuddle parties for the public in addition to the private parties he is regularly commissioned to facilitate.
“Seattle feels like a cold city as far as touch is concerned,” Eliasen told us. “Cuddle parties break down the societal barriers related to physical touch, and highlight common bonds and needs for affection we all share. This is something Seattle needs.”
But where is the affection in physical contact when it is shared between total strangers? Was all our spooning and polite writhing creating an intimate scene, or simply imitating one? Are cuddle parties merely a B-rated version of the physical acceptance we crave from friends, family, and hot people we wish to screw?
Eliasen doesn’t believe so. “Cuddling with strangers gives us the context to realize we all have the same needs for touch and closeness,” he said. “Someone shouldn’t have to be your best friend for a hug.”
But why should we take the sex out of cuddling? I mean, if cuddling becomes the handshake of the future, what will sex have left besides apologies, disease, and the cleanup sponge for ladies?
“When I walked into this room, all I saw were 10 strangers,” Eliasen further explained, “now I’m walking out with 10 friends.”
His argument was not totally convincing. Friendship should be defined by more than just proximity, and cuddling should have more substance than our cold lab floor and anonymity could provide. Despite my reservations, though, I was suited up in flannel and willing to play for the afternoon. Following Eliasen’s leadership and careful guidance, cuddlers in our group were free to spoon, stroke, snuggle, explore touch and nap with one another. We were coached on how to ask for physical affection, and conversely how to comfortably process total rejection from strangers who didn’t want you touching them. Erections, we were told, are a perfectly natural nonsexual response to positive physical attention and should be welcomed into our space as warmly as the bodies they are attached to. (I prefer to confront strange erections with salad tongs and antiseptic spray, but then I’m not a Trained Cuddle Facilitator.) Participation at this Cuddle Party was not mandatory; we could simply watch the other cuddlers, cuddle alone, or even get up and leave as two members did. Privacy was respected, as were personal boundaries.
“May I caress your stomach?” asked the man curled against my spine like a cocktail shrimp. I had been hunched into a fetal ball on my foam mat when he’d approached and asked to cuddle with me. Cuddle Party rule #3A states that you must ask for and receive approval before initiating any form of touch, so he waited for my enthusiastic “um, yeah” before joining me.
I couldn’t remember his name or what he did for a living, although we had covered these basics as he snuggled up behind me, crotch to butt. He then proceeded to happily drape his warm, trusting limbs over me and placidly chat like we were at a singles mixer.
He’d graduated from M.I.T.
He liked rollerblading and hated hairy things, like cats.
Man, the weather sure had been turning chilly this past week.
As I lay there, arms crossed over my chest as if in death, a strange man’s crotch pressed into my ass, I realized that it was probably the closest I’d get to M.I.T. in my life. Someone somewhere would be proud. I made a mental note to tell my mother.
My cuddle partner was not a grotesque man. No one in the room was freak-show ugly or looked visibly contagious, which would be a worry when signing up for this sort of thing. The creepy vibe that one would expect was almost completely drowned out by the sheer enthusiasm of the fledgling members of our party. With the exception of myself, everyone had learned about the event from the Internet site. We were all first-timers. There was a wide disparity in age and profession, from early 20s to late 50s, and from student to dancer. The unifying element was that everyone simply seemed eager to hold and be held.
Still, I found it impossible to get excited about the forced intimacy.
“May I caress your stomach please?” my cuddle partner politely asked.
“No, you may not,” I said. “But you may scratch my elbow.”
His attentions shifted from kneading my shoulder to affectionately fondling my elbow. Stroke stroke, pat-pat-pat. Stroke stroke, pat-pat-pat.
“I could really get addicted to this,” whispered a woman to my right being felt up and down by several adoring men. She was the lucky slab of meat in a man sandwich. Nonsexual my ass, I thought.
While I wasn’t repulsed by the Cuddle Party concept, it didn’t satisfy me in a way that my personal relationships fail to. Given our government’s general state of freakish incompetence, I cannot deny that cuddle therapy might be a credible solution to mending international relations and decimated levees, but even after my first, second, and third hour of nonstop cuddling I wasn’t convinced it would lead to a more physically enlightened, affectionate society without cheapening the intimate moments people choose to share with a select few. I mean, I could gain the same level of anonymous pleasure if left to my own devices with a role of quarters, but I usually refrain because I like to save my affection for true love or whatever.
But in this group my view was the minority.
“May I have permission to knead your butt a little?” someone asked. Permission was granted.
And shortly after my partner made it to second base with my elbow, the party ended.