Last month, I attended a cuddle party, which is exactly what it sounds like: a chill, clothes-on get-together where strangers go to cuddle and experience platonic touch. I was there on assignment — one of the perks of working for an alt-weekly.
Still, I was also there because, well, I was “touch-starved” and apparently willing to admit it to strangers. On some level, I wanted to give a cuddle party a shot as a possible curative for a shortage of cuddles after an old breakup — if I couldn’t get long-term romantic cuddling from one person, maybe, who knows, short-term platonic cuddling with dozens of people would help replace it.
Of course, skeptics debate the idea that a cuddle party could even be platonic. One friend found the idea hilariously implausible.
“Two people,” he said, “are gonna meet there and go home and bang.”
The concept itself even spurred a fun discussion in the LEO office. “That’s not something I would ever want to go to,” said one coworker, who suggested that an event like that would be a ticking time bomb of legal issues. I joked about how the party might end: “I went to a cuddle party and all I got was this lousy… court case.” Still, I was earnestly intrigued and slightly skeptical, but open-minded and eager to participate.
When we gathered together just after 10 a.m., we sat on the floor of a church in Clifton all clad in pajamas and other cozy clothes, atop a grid of blankets and pillows that other partygoers had brought. I noticed that our group of 25 was much more diverse in age and gender than I’d expected — cynically, and incorrectly, I’d assumed the party would be full of horny old men.
After introductions, we started off as all official cuddle parties do: by learning how to say no. Establishing consent, our facilitator Sarah said, is more to do with saying no and feeling okay to do so rather than saying yes. Guided by a paper packet — and six or seven years of experience that allowed her to improvise when necessary — she walked us through more than an hour of exercises that began with an easy one: turn to the person to your right and ask, “Can I kiss you?” That person would then respond: “No.” No explanations, no apologies: “No is a complete sentence.”
Some people, Sarah told us, leave after the exercises, but no one left our party.
When the cuddling officially began, I went away to the bathroom, and when I came back, I was stunned: in only a few minutes, the entire party had already split up. A few groups of twos and threes were scattered throughout. Some were just talking and holding hands. One couple was giving and receiving a foot rub. One woman I’d done a warm-up exercise with — who’d said she felt hesitant to engage in this kind of touch with strangers — had evidently changed her mind, as she was now leaning backwards onto an older man as he massaged her arms. Another couple was locked in a one-on-top-one-underneath setup that struck me as possibly more than platonic.
The most striking thing, though, was the big group: seven or eight people, all spooning each other in a line down the middle of the room, looking a bit like a caterpillar in pajamas. Every so often, they flipped over, letting the big spoons become little spoons and vice versa.
The morning sun lit up people’s hair; gentle Starbucks-y music played in the background. (Holding the cuddle party in the morning was deliberate, Sarah said, to keep away people just looking for some late-night fun.)
Still, I felt like an outsider in that moment, even at an event that was about literally bringing people together. Asking to join any of the existing pairings (minus the line) would’ve felt gauche and intrusive, even though it was fully allowed. Instead, I wandered around for a few minutes, then sat in a corner, sipping water from one of the church’s mugs.
As I stood watching, two guys I hadn’t interacted with came over to ask me for hugs, which I obliged — not eagerly, I admit. When I hesitantly added myself to the end of the spooning line shortly after, I didn’t stay long — my butt got a little too close for comfort to a guy’s crotch.
About halfway through the session, a woman with long red hair asked if anyone wanted to do a “laughing circle.” Curious — and eager to do something new — I followed her to an empty corner of the room, where a few others soon joined. She led us through a setup in which we laid our heads on each other’s stomachs. A few of us held hands. Then, one by one, we each said “Ha!” out loud, and the next person would add another one — “Ha!” “Ha ha!” “Ha ha ha!” and so on. Almost invariably, we broke into fits of actual laughter by the seventh “Ha!” every time.
Someone pointed out that seven is a special number, which didn’t surprise me – I’d expected (and, in fact, hoped) the event would be at least a little New Age-y, though it was technically secular. I heard talk of “finding my tribe,” of Sedona (“It’s like no other place in Arizona”), of ecstatic dance. One of the white guys had a few dreads; another wore a shirt with the yin yang symbol made from tree branches. In fact, I already knew the venue from a previous story as the newest home of Psanctuary, Louisville’s psychedelic mushroom church.
I stayed in the laughing circle the rest of the time. Some new members came over; a few others moved elsewhere in the room. Then Sarah made an announcement: we only had about 20 minutes left.
Sarah told us that some people experience a sort of depression the day after a cuddle party, sort of like “subdrop” in the kink world, but something weird to me: I felt it then. As she made the announcement, a weird yearning feeling swelled inside me, and suddenly, my back felt empty and cold. It hit me: I hadn’t gotten everything I needed out of the party. Yes, I was there to work, but I also wanted to find the feeling of human connection that I’d been promised. I wanted to be spooned. I wanted to cuddle for real, and I’d missed out because I hadn’t asked for it. In its absence, all I could do was grab someone’s blue comforter off the floor and wrap it tightly around my shoulders.
We circled up one final time, all holding hands, some people squeezing tightly into their newfound friends and cuddle partners. Sarah told us that when we began the party that morning, we were all strangers. “Now,” she said, “we’re all just strange!” We laughed, then dispersed to regroup shortly after at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.
I slouched through lunch, but I didn’t feel any different the next day — no withdrawal, no “drop.” It felt like a regular Sunday. I was disappointed, though, for my coworkers’ sake, that I didn’t have any particularly lurid stories to report back. Unfortunately for them, the cuddle party wasn’t a morass of lust and lasciviousness, nor a lawsuit waiting to happen. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t life-changing, either. It was just a cuddle party.