Touchy Feely 

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

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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.

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