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!"


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