Photograph by Elizabeth Seward
FRIENDS WITH FOOTIES: The author and her buddy Skye Barnett in matching cuddle party gear
The Rub Club
The 'cuddle party' phenomenon leaves our writer alone in a crowd
By Dani Burlison
I DON'T KNOW if they have Valium at Target, but I will check," read the text message. My friend Skye was at the store in search of a matching set of footie pajamas for us. "This is it," I thought to myself as beads of sweat formed across my forehead. "We are actually going to a fucking cuddle party."
I first heard of cuddle parties from a friend who planned one as her divorce steadily approached finalization. "Apparently, it is a safe place to explore nonsexual touch," she told me optimistically. I found myself both intrigued and curiously disgusted as she explained the concept: A group of strangers come together in a safe space to give and receive affection. Perhaps this could be the next step in my life as an armchair anthropologist, a practice in furthering my experience in field research and an opportunity to test my own boundaries and practice saying "no." Stepping into an environment so far out of my comfort zone that I might as well be visiting Pluto was both intriguing and horrifying. I needed some reassurance.
The information on the front page of on the cuddleparty.com website is straightforward and nonthreatening. Yet, I couldn't erase the visions in my mind of middle-aged pony-tailed dudes cruising for young, pretty, affirmation-thumping New Age women. As I poked around the Internet, however, photos of past parties, revealing bare arms intertwining indistinguishably in a sea of flannel-pajama bottoms and overstuffed pillows, tapped into a deep fear inside of me. Thoughts of germs and cold clammy hands running lightly across my back while moaning and sighing mixed with enchanted dolphin music invoked visions of what I imagined would be not unlike an unwilling visit to a couple's tantra retreat. My blood pressure rose. I laughed nervously. I decided that I needed to go and see for myself.
Head to Toe
As we drove the streets of San Francisco, Skye already sporting his completely awesome glow-in-the-dark footie pajamas, I prayed that we would be lost for so long that they would not admit our late arrival. Being one of the most grounded and open-minded of my friends, Skye was there to calm my nerves and talk me down from the extreme anxiety I was experiencing.
"I bet you 20 bucks that there are silk scarves and batik sarongs on the ceiling," I giggled to him as we arrived at our destination. We climbed the stairs and I took one last deep breath before marching up to introduce ourselves in the futon-filled room and pay the $30-per-person entrance fee. I looked up. Scarves and sarongs draped the ceiling.
As I slunk down the dark hallway to change into my pajamas, a tall, lanky man, dressed in a purple satin wrap-around blouse, white short-shorts and purple opaque tights approached me. He stood against my slight frame with his hand on his hip and asked if this was my first cuddle party. "Do you get an edge from this kind of thing?" he asked. "I mean, like, do you really get an edge from this?"
I replied that it was my first cuddle party, embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what edge meant. We chatted for a few minutes and I decided that this guy, who was flamboyantly gay and presumably not interested in women and therefore nonthreatening, would be my new pal; my Safe Buddy, so to speak. A sigh of relief escaped while imagining my new friend and me sitting back and chatting about the silliness of the whole situation. I slipped into the bathroom and emerged a new woman—Dani, Champion of the Cuddle Party—dressed quite literally from head to toe in a set of boy's dark blue footie pajamas, decorated with rocket ships and glow-in-the-dark stars. Skye and I matched perfectly, and as we entered the cuddle room, we were happily greeted by 20 other guests who were sitting haphazardly in a circle on a makeshift, pillow-laden bed.
Cape and Shield
We began with introductions and a brief history of cuddle parties before continuing on to rules. Despite my original assumption that cuddle parties arose from a West Coast commune after residents ingested one too many psychedelic mushroom caps, the parties actually originated on the East Coast. Founded in 2004 in New York by relationship coaches Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski as a place for people of all genders and walks of life to explore touch in a safe, sober and structured environment, cuddle parties have gained popularity around the globe. There are several rules: keep clothing on at all times, be completely alcohol- and drug-free and only make physical contact after receiving a verbal "yes" to a specific and clear request to touch. There are also "Cuddle Lifeguards," trained co-facilitators placed on-site to ensure that everyone is comfortable and safe.
After recovering from the shock of discovering that kissing, groping and erections were all acceptable at the party, we quickly moved on to boundary-setting exercises that revived my confidence and led me to practice giving an abundance of verbal "nos." I proceeded to glide back and forth through the crowded room in my celestial jammies, repeating "no" over and over to nearly everyone in the room and their requests to touch, kiss or otherwise fondle me. I felt empowered, like I was sporting an invisible cape and shield to deflect any unwanted advances with pride and dignity.
I have had my fair share of physical and emotional intimacy. I have stumbled into intriguing and boundary-testing situations in places like Burning Man, yoga retreats, cocktail parties and even once at a Super Bowl party in my own living room. I have been strewn across a mattress in the "chill room" of a 1990s rave with complete strangers massaging my every muscle while I puffed away on menthol cigarettes. What sets these incidents apart from the format of a cuddle party is the lack of expectation, formal structure and, of course, the buffer of controlled substances. Entirely sober and surrounded by strangers, I had no way of knowing if the generous offers of hand-holding held deeper intentions.
I made for the bathroom, tripping over a penis pillow on my way and rummaging through my bag for the last time in hopes of discovering one last overlooked Xanax before I sucked it up, accepted my fate and returned to poor, dear Skye, who had managed to cram his body—in full fetal position—into the smallest corner of the room. If my body language was saying "Please don't touch me," Skye's read more like a serial killer ready to pull a chain saw on the first person to even look at him. His open mind seemed to have gone on strike as I squeezed into the corner with him, observing the active and diverse scene.
Young polyamorous couples took turns caressing the hair of those next to them. A middle-aged, 6-foot-tall transgendered woman tangled herself up in the arms of a young, attractive South Asian immigrant man whose hands were groping the breasts of a thirtysomething yoga instructor. And just when I grew comfortable enough to accept an offer of a foot rub from a married cuddle party frequenter, I noticed my Safe Buddy, Mr. Purple Pants, groping and grinding a woman while they twisted their tongues in a fit of exhibitionist passion. (Apparently, I missed the "rule" stating that kissing, frottage and rubbing genitals are not sexual touch.)
One of the rules did mention that attendees could get up and walk out at any time, but I was honestly too worried about calling attention to myself. I suddenly felt old-fashioned, boring and old. I just couldn't let go of my inhibitions like everyone else in the room. I felt an almost palpable wall building itself up around me as the party-goers continued to push their boundaries by allowing stranger's hands to wander and rub and caress in the most interesting ways. I was freaked and continued to nervously laugh and chat with anyone in the room who looked as horrified as I until an announcement came that the party was winding down.
The facilitator invited everyone to join in for one last hurrah by piling up into a giant "cuddle puddle" for the remaining 20 minutes of the party. As Skye stood, paralyzed by the scene that played out before him, I made one last-ditch effort to open my mind. I crawled around the circle and was invited to lay my head on the shoulder of the young South Asian man in the gender-bending three-way. I accepted and placed my head on his shoulder with my entire body on the outside of the circle, cold and constricted like an armadillo under attack. I attempted to relax into the moment. I failed.
As we laughed and recapped the experience on our drive home, I realized that I had learned something fairly valuable during that party. While cuddle parties certainly provide the benefits of physical touch for those who may not regularly have access to affection for various reasons, I felt that this particular party was no more a practice in intimacy than the husband who refuses to be affectionate or sexual with his wife, yet forks over cash for sex or is otherwise promiscuous with strangers. The experience also confirmed in me that when it comes to affection and intimacy, I am indeed old-fashioned. I desire that sense of safety and closeness that comes from sustained relationships built on trust. And I will certainly never be attending a cuddle party again—at least, not without some hand-sanitizer and Valium on hand.
THE WINTER WARMTH CUDDLE PARTY, the next and nearest Cuddle Party, takes place Sunday, Feb. 28, at 2:30pm in Santa Clara. $40 individual/$30 each for two. To learn more visit www.cuddleparty.com.
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