Touchy Feely 

The Cuddle Party phenomenon snuggles its way into the East Bay.

One afternoon last month, in a sunny Emeryville living room strewn with cushions and blankets, 26 consenting adults clad in pajamas sat in a circle on the floor and tossed a stuffed giraffe-head puppet from person to person. Possessors of the giraffe were supposed to explain why they were here, and what they were prepared to put up with from the others. Some talked through the puppet, ventriloquist-style; others talked to it. One of the few in this group under thirty, and the only participant who requested a pseudonym (he chose Zoidberg), announced that he wasn't comfortable being touched by other men. Michelle, another newbie, didn't want anyone touching her stomach, because she had health issues there. One veteran called herself a cuddle slut; another returnee was there for the great back rubs; and Dane talked about the "timeless altered state that touch induces."

Newcomer David, who was clad in black and wore a large marine tooth of some sort hanging from a string of beads around his neck, said people should ask before touching him at all, or he might react unpleasantly, as he was "trained" to do. Lead facilitator Susan "Suz" Strasburger chimed in that David's request underscored a fundamental rule: If you're a Yes, say yes. If you're a No, say no. And if you're a Maybe ... say no. Even with that, some of the expressions around the room suggested that David's short speech was maybe -- no, yes -- a little bit creepy.

Welcome to the Cuddle Party. No dry humping, please.

Hugs from the Big Apple

Today we spotted the story of a single twentysomething New York City girl bravely encountering what must be the most horrifying new trend: cuddle parties. Seriously. Invented by a man who calls himself REiD Mihalko (no, seriously), at cuddle parties people get together and, obviously, cuddle -- they set "boundaries" and they do "safe role-playing" and then they "cuddle." Let's do some healthy role-playing of our own:

Your friend says: "I'm hosting a cuddle party. Will you come?"

You say: "Go fuck yourself, you ridiculous California-damaged ninny."

Your friend says: "I wish you wouldn't be so judgmental and hostile. Cuddle parties are about sharing and intimacy!"

You say: Nothing, because hopefully you'll never speak to them again. --

It was early 2004 when Reid Mihalko's friends started giving him guff. A former Brown University football player, struggling actor, bartender, and intuitive masseur, Mihalko had by then become a full-time participant in the healing arts, acting as a relationship coach and sex educator, and even writing a book on cunnilingus titled Everything I Needed to Know about Life, I Learned from Eating Pie: A Sexual Manifesto for Malekind. He writes his name REiD to signify the selflessness of his profession -- small "I," get it? Since his social circle included so many massage therapists, Reiki healers, and yoga instructors, he'd begun hosting monthly massage parties at his apartment. "People who tend to be in the healing modalities, a lot of them have horrible habits around taking time off and receiving," Mihalko explains, "because we just end up being caretakers and givers, and that's all we do." But his other friends started to feel left out. They wanted to attend these gatherings, but felt intimidated because the regulars there were pros. "Jokingly, one day I just quipped back, 'Well, you know what? Grab some pajamas, come to my house next weekend, and we'll cuddle. We'll have a cuddle party,'" he recalls. "All of a sudden it was like, 'Ding!' The lightbulb went off in my head. ... It was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's exactly what we need to do.'"

He held the first cuddle party two weeks later. That was February of last year. Two or three weeks after that, Marcia Baczynski, a writer and fellow sex educator and relationship and communication coach, joined up as his partner-in-cuddle. Then, in April, the snarky media blog Gawker made note of a personal blog called Picture of Me, wherein a young New York City woman talked about her experience attending a cuddle party. The mention on Gawker -- time-waster of choice for cube monkeys everywhere -- led to a full-on media assault. With coverage by Dr. Phil, Newsweek, Marie Claire, People, GQ, FHM, ABC's World News Now, BBC Radio, and most New York City papers, Mihalko and Baczynski soon found themselves with new full-time jobs.

In addition to the cuddle parties in New York and Emeryville -- Suz has thrown more than a dozen here since April -- the intimate gatherings are now being held regularly in Orange County, Los Angeles, Toronto, New Jersey, and Alabama, and occasionally in a host of other places. Mihalko, now 37, says Germany has a copycat organization, and CSI: New York plans to air an episode this month titled "Grand Murder at Central Station," wherein the victim is a cuddle-party acolyte. In fact, Mihalko himself tried out for the role, which was based on him, of the facilitator-cum-suspect. (He didn't get the part, of course, and to add insult to injury, the producers changed his character's name to the fictitious Ira Feinstein.)

"We've had Orthodox Jews, bicycle messengers, senators' daughters," Mihalko boasts when asked about the makeup of his New York events, which cost $30 a head to attend. Citing cuddle confidentiality, he says he can't reveal names of the famous folks who've spooned in his Manhattan abode. But it's not hard to imagine why starlets and pro sluggers might find such a party attractive: If even the average bear could separate sexual tension from the desire to physically touch someone, how many regrettable sexual liaisons could be circumvented, drunken fallings-into-bed and misbegotten road-trip clinches that ended friendships and other people's romances? How many jobs retained, and skin lesions avoided? And for the celebs, how many potential scandals stopped in their tracks? Plus, what with e-mail, text messaging, satellite TV, and blogs replacing face-to-face interaction at an astounding rate, people seem farther removed than they ever were, with the result that touch can feel rare, even dirty.

Had Cuddle Party(TM) -- that's right -- started in touchy-feely Berkeley, it probably wouldn't have warranted the media double-take, but Mihalko says its provenance provided shock value. "New Yorkers are cuddling strangers?" he exclaims in mock horror. All the press attention, though, didn't change the fact that most of Mihalko and Baczynski's first six months as Cuddle Party's founders were spent assuring people they weren't running orgies. "People couldn't believe that," Mihalko says. "And that speaks to a deeper situation in society that we've been raised since we were adolescents, like, 'Don't touch one another. You can't control yourselves.' And that touch will lead to sex." Cuddle parties, he says, dispel those myths. The dry-humping rule is not a joke, although facilitators use it to get people giggling. "Once you get people laughing, you can talk more comfortably about larger issues," Mihalko says.

Even in the Bay Area, people tend to jump to the conclusion that "cuddling" is just some sort of not-quite-ready-for-the-Casual-Encounters-page euphemism for group sex. "If you're living in San Francisco," Mihalko says, "and you're dealing with people saying, 'C'mon, you can take your pants off, right?,' imagine how much we had to work just to get people in Kansas to understand what was going on!"

Meanwhile, Back at the Condo

Prior to the giraffe-head game, the Emeryville cuddlers -- equal parts men and women, largely middle-aged, and almost entirely white -- conducted a few exercises of the "getting present" kind. The 26 people in attendance included twenty paid participants, one reporter, one photographer, Suz, and three of her snuggle sidekicks -- officially called "co-lifeguards." (There's a persistent poolside theme to Cuddle Party.)

First we would-be cuddlers had to pair off to exorcise our day's emotional baggage, talk about our touchy-feely likes and dislikes, then practice saying -- and hearing -- no.

I paired off with Mike, a bearded fortysomething with a belly and a twinkle in his eye (picture a young Santa who does bodywork and teaches sexual massage). As a journalist-participant, I told him, I could probably accept shoulder rubs and offer up some hair play. But if anyone tickled my neck, the jig was up. Mike's eyes twinkled into overdrive during the "no" exercise -- saying the word seemed to amuse him greatly.

As each drill proceeded, Suz struck a soft bell to indicate it was time for the other person in each pair to take a turn. Everything was regulated here -- softly, gently regulated.

Straight and Extra-Narrow

Though Cuddle Party began as an East Coast venture, its enthusiastic reception in Los Angeles and hereabouts should come as no surprise. Just as you might imagine the SoCal events having a glittery, bearskin-rug vibe, the East Bay incarnation is also tailored to fit. For one thing, the $30 cover charged in New York and Los Angeles has morphed into a sliding-scale donation on local turf -- no one turned away for lack of funds, natch. Also, upcoming cuddle-party calendars will have fewer events tailored to the hetero-fixated. It's harder to put together the monthly gender-balanced parties, say Suz and co-lifeguard Samuel "Samzy" Zoranovich. Besides ensuring a correct number of men and women, organizers have to spend extra time soothing people's insecurities. Samzy notes that many men, like Zoidberg, are uncomfortable at the prospect of other men touching them. "But I've also experienced," Suz says, "that a number of men, heterosexual men, are pleasantly surprised when they've been in a cuddle pile of a couple of women and a couple of men, and they said, 'After a while, I don't realize whose hands are whose.'

"Time and again, men get that awareness," she goes on, "but it takes going through a fair amount of resistance, a fair amount of anxiety -- layers of self-awareness that make the gender-balanced parties have a little bit more of those edges to them. The edges of, 'How can I get my needs met, because I only want to be with women?' And women feel like, 'Oh, I'm a commodity,' then there's sort of an energetic imbalance. And it's no longer about nurturing and it's more about 'Where can I get mine? Where can I get my cuddle on?' So even though it's not sexual, per se, it's still based on sexual dynamics. "

Cuddle Party, at its heart, is a learning laboratory. And the people who run these relatively novel events are learning much themselves. For Suz, it's that she, too, has limits that are triggered by the limits of others. The feeling created in the all-women, all-men, and "queer-friendly" or "queercentric and allies" parties (they're still working out the verbiage), is so amazing, she says, that it makes her want to host the gender-balanced parties only as an occasional public service, and concentrate her energy on the more advanced healing events. Suz is actually moved to tears when she talks about the baggage some straight-and-narrow people bring to the parties: "I've got to tell you -- and this is the part that I don't like admitting to myself -- I really want to be not judgmental of the biases that exist, while also trying to change them, and I get kind of sad and frustrated by what feels to me to be self-imposed limits that keep people from feeling the wealth of affection that there is, both within a gender, and across gender."

Rules of Engagement

Samzy read the rules aloud: Kissing is all right, from gentle hand kisses to mouthier ones, with advance permission, of course. Sex is not permitted; bodies must stay clothed. No dry humping or pelvic thrusts; you must take responsibility for your sexual feelings. He also talked about couples' rules, and cited a request by Nora and David that they'd like people to ask both of them if anyone wants to touch either of them. "I hope it's okay that I used you as an example," Samzy added, asking this classic cuddle-party question with what seemed like a slender coat of fear.

After the rules came a brief talk about personal hygiene: There's a shower upstairs and a variety of breath mints on the counter. Cuddlers can offer them to others if need be, or ask the cuddle lifeguards to do it for them. There are so many rules here, so many regulations for something that feels so good when it's spontaneous. So does the cuddle party, which prides itself on creating a nurturing space, actually kill the mysterious joy of naturally occurring snuggles?

"I treasure small moments of intimacy" no matter where or how they arise, explains John, a serial attendee.

Perhaps, then, an intense session of strictly regulated snuddling, even if inferior in quality, would at least give the cuddle-hungry more than their typical daily dose. Not that we newcomers would know, since an hour had already passed with no actual cuddling going down.

At this point, participants were offered the chance to leave with a refund. The woman who had deemed herself a cuddle slut wasn't feeling well, so she accepted the offer. The lifeguards asked those remaining to stand, and to meet and hug three new people. Participants were then invited to get on all fours, moo like cows, and fall over onto each other. Then the facilitators put on some soft choral music, and, finally, the cuddle was on.

In the "deep end," bathed in sunlight, three people spooned; one giggled loudly. I sat with Kira and Violet Burleson, a co-lifeguard, in the shallow end. Zoidberg joined us soon after. Half a dozen people hovered over snacks and drinks in the small kitchen, and filtered out over the next ten or fifteen minutes. By then, the center of the room was a locus of canoodling.

Violet explained that she'd gotten involved via Samzy, who first experienced organized group cuddling at Burning Man's Snuggletown camp. He found Suz through Snuggletown's parent Web site, -- which does its own volunteer-based "snuggle parties" in Portland. Suz was looking for Bay Area folks to help her bring Cuddle Party to the West. About a dozen people showed up to the first official planning meeting in Emeryville early this year, Samzy said later: "I got home and I e-mailed Suz, and I said, 'I absolutely adore you. Any energy resources that I can give to you for this, you've got. Just tell me what you want and what you need.'"

The Cuddle Gene

Suz Strasburger, 52, was born and raised in Baltimore. She recalls, sometime during her teens or her twenties, having asked her parents, "Is there a cuddle gene?" She'd noticed that her family was willing to have her snuggle in when she was upset or when they were watching a movie, and other families weren't like that, it seemed to her. It was sort of a joke, she says, but "nobody shamed me for being a cuddler, which was a great beginning."

Suz moved to the Bay Area in 1976 to obtain a master's degree in dance from Mills College. From there, she went on to teach dance and become a physical therapist, but soon moved into the field of interpersonal communications. By the late 1980s Suz found herself working as a corporate facilitator and diversity coach. This was back in the days when co-workers could exchange neck rubs or hold wrists as part of communication and trust exercises, before sexual-harassment litigation made physical affection and expression in the workplace a risky proposition. To break the ice at cuddle parties, she frequently jokes that in her day job she teaches "the kind of things that we'll be practicing here, but in corporate America, there's not a lot of cuddling."

Last year, Suz started questioning whether softening the edges of corporate office space was enough for her. Friends who knew her as the woman who was always giving someone a neck massage at a dull cocktail party reminded her of her love of body-mind wellness work. "We joked one day about how maybe I could be a cuddle coach," she laughs, "working with people who weren't comfortable with cuddling." Then somebody sent her a link to in November of last year, and she wrote to Mihalko and Baczynski, saying, "I kind of do this anyway, just not as a facilitator of a large group." They responded that they were about to start training people, and this past January, she became one of the first.

To date, Mihalko and Baczynski have trained forty people as cuddle-party facilitators. They've come from Orange County; Seattle; Toronto; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; New Jersey; even Australia. But only eight others, including lifeguards Violet and Samzy, are in the process of being certified as hosts. Some come to Mihalko's training -- which costs $700 plus application fee -- just to experience it, not to be cuddle kings or queens. Many don't even know what they're getting into, having never attended a cuddle party themselves. And some, Suz says, don't realize just how much work it is.

"I say this with tongue in cheek, but cuddling is serious business," she notes. "It takes some responsibility and responsiveness, and personally I think it takes community, which is why I think Reid and Marcia are so brilliant at creating the facilitators' boards [online discussion groups] and why the Bay Area is going to be, and already is, such a strong cuddle party community, because there are people who are really willing to chip in and support the endeavor. Because I would have burnt out by now if I hadn't had Samzy and Violet and other lifeguards rooting me on, because it really is the equivalent of only a couple of dollars an hour, if that much, with all the expenses and stuff. I'm just barely making a couple of dollars an hour."

Snakes in the Puppy Pile

Michelle arrived on the kiddie side of the pool after about a half-hour of cuddling. She'd bravely taken a newbie-in-the-deep-end position (lying down, in fact), and now she instigated a massage train with Amelia and Daniel, a young are-they-or-aren't-they-a-couple who'd been sitting side by side since the start. Since it's hard to witness this much affection and not be tempted to at least get in on a little of the action, I offered my services as the engine. Daniel had good hands, so I allowed myself to participate for about ten minutes. At some point Zoidberg returned to the shallow end, and I invited him to sit in front of me. But just then, Suz came by and began to facilitate the train, calling it a "toboggan" and suggesting we switch directions. Sadly, Zoidberg had no clue how to rub shoulders, which, as any pro-am masseur connoisseur will tell you, made him worse than handless. I politely thanked him, as recommended in such situations by our overseers, and crawled across the room to talk to David and his lady friend Nora, who wore a smaller version of David's marine-tooth necklace and spoke with a European accent.

Fortysomething with a hangdog look, David kept his arm around his partner as we talked -- he says Nora, who looks about ten years his junior, is giving him a new way of looking at things. He frequently touched her as he talked about how much she'd changed his life. It turns out he's a professional bodyguard, and in return is trying to teach Nora to watch out for people's motives more. This was her second cuddle party, and he came along to make sure her boundaries weren't being compromised. He mentioned how Dane had, only moments before, come up to them on all fours and used a roundabout way of asking to touch Nora's hand. David made a snake movement with his own hand, and said his first impulse was to cut off the snake's head.

Later on, Suz refers to this as being this particular party's "biggest hiccup." But no party rules were broken, she insists. "It was just that this guy didn't like this other guy's style."

What she told David at the time, which she said seemed to give him some solace, was to look around and see that there was probably not one person in the room who hadn't been triggered at some point during the party. They're all grappling with their triggers, she told him.

Like David and Nora, other pairs who came together -- young Daniel and Amelia, Tantric teachers Annette and JC -- stuck together. This is in sharp contrast to Suz and her partner, co-lifeguard Roy, who consider themselves "bisensual" (or "trisensual," as in "I'll try anything once," they quip) and who cuddled freely about the space.

In the center of the room, people sighed and asked for water. Suddenly, it was quite clear what a Cuddle Party resembles most: an Ecstasy party without the Ecstasy. By the end, Zoidberg and Michelle were swapping spoons in the deep end, and the room's cuddle range spanned from whispered conversations to tender ear kisses, from hand rubs to "the lounge chair," wherein one person laid on another's back. The photographer on duty had her hair played with, and I'd allowed Mike to give me a lower back massage and, even, for a brief moment, to tickle my neck. He was the one who pulled away from that, saying, "Oh, I see," and chuckling.

About ten minutes before the party's conclusion, Suz rang her gentle bell again, calling attention to the center of the room. About three hours had mysteriously passed -- remember Dane's "timeless altered state that touch induces"? Samzy encouraged us to eat protein before leaving, and to ground ourselves before attempting to interact outside of the party. Violet added that we should be extra gentle with ourselves: Don't go straight to the grocery store or other less-than-cuddly places. Finally, Suz cautioned that after participants left this protected environment, it would be up to us whether to carry the freedom to say no, the respect inherent in asking constant permission, into our everyday lives.

Snuggles and Singles

"At every party there's something that hasn't happened before," Suz says. Like the time, and it's only happened once, she adds, when a guy left at the end of the welcome circle, with a refund, because he didn't find any women there attractive. Although leaving the party for that reason is unusual, it's not so out of the ordinary for newbies to view Cuddle Party as a dating scene. But people get past that, she explains: "More often than not, there's somebody at the end of the circle that will say, you know, 'I came in here and I looked around, and I went, 'Oh, my god, there's no one here I'd like to cuddle with.' And at the end, I thought, 'There's no one here I wouldn't want to cuddle with.'"

Founder Mihalko is more pragmatic -- he says the parties are clearly part workshop, part social event. Cuddle parties weren't meant to be singles' scenes, but he admits "they're definitely being taken advantage of in a really positive way by people who are single." If and when people decide to hang out or date after the party, he says, they have "this really awesome set of rules and communication skills built in that you can take into the rest of your friendship or relationship."

Maybe that's what young Zoidberg had in mind when he called the Express three weeks after the cuddle party, claiming to have just found the reporter's business card in his wallet. Though he had no particular insights into what Cuddle Party had done for him, he did offer that he attended because he was single, and that he didn't have anyone to cuddle with on a regular basis. He'd wanted to exchange contact info with people, he said, but I was probably the only one he'd talked to.

"I guess I'd be a little more comfortable with someone my age," he said. "I mean, I thought you were cool, but then, you're also, like, a journalist."

I informed him that I was not his age.

"You're close enough. But you're also a journalist, so you want to keep it business, right?"


Consistently Inconsistent

While every party is different, all must have, organizers say, a reading of the rules and the assertion of a nonsexual vibe. Apart from that, they can be adapted to fit any circumstances.

Normally, for instance, the parties end with a hokey-pokey kind of exercise, one that involves a leg in and a leg out, but no singing. It also involves standing up, which is why Suz decided to skip it -- our vibe was too mellow. Other parties, she says, are very chatty, or have a nervous energy that can fuel the more playful activities such as the toboggan, lounge chair, puppy pile, and so on. But some parties are pretty self-directed, and Suz doesn't feel the need to impose with some sort of cruise-director shtick.

Our party ended with a loosely organized lounge chair exercise and an optional puppy pile, and then another circle, this one to allow participants to acknowledge each other. Finally, we were asked to volunteer a funny phrase that someone had overheard during the course of the afternoon, so that we could all say it together.

All we could manage was "A little to the left."


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