Another new age invention that I’m going to have to explain to my parents now, because I finally bit the bullet and attended one.
I had my reservations.
I mean, just from the name alone, I conjured images of creepy men in Hefner-esque silk robes just rubbing up on poor trapped female bodies.
But this was being offered as part of a tantra yoga and latin dance festival I was attending. And the Cuddle Party leader was now a trusted teacher of mine, so I was willing to investigate.
People showed up in their pj’s.
To be fair - they were in fact encouraged to attend in their pj’s.
There was one man in a silk robe, but I’d met him before and considered him a friend, so it was not a deal breaker. Plus, he looked rather rakish in his outfit. And, he was pretty devoted to his partner, so I wasn’t getting any creepy hands vibes from him.
Some went all out, wearing huge onesies that looked very snuggly.
Some wore fun fluffy hats. Some wore basic shorts and t-shirts.
I wore sweats – comfy and clean, but in no way flirtatious.
I was getting nervous as the room filled with people.
I appreciated the goofiness of some of the outfits. I like the general air of joviality from those who seemed totally at ease.
But I was still wondering – How exactly does this work? What the hell did I just agree to?
My skin was starting to itch. I was starting to look around, eyeing the doors and planning my exit strategy.
I’m an empath. I feel people’s energy as if it were a physical thing.
So when a room fills up with a crowd of excited, buzzed people, I can get high off sensation… without even touching anyone.
It’s my superpower.
But it can also feel like a curse. Especially when I’m around a crowd whose sole intent is to touch one another. Eek. That can be my worst nightmare.
Sometimes when I’m in a crowded room, feeling everyone else’s high sensations, even the idea of being touched overwhelms me.
Luckily, as I learned, it turns out that Cuddle Parties are not huge free-for-alls.
In fact, what defines a Cuddle Party is a set of rules (11 of them!)
The biggest and most important of these rules is that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. EVER.
In fact, you can spend the entire evening in a corner, hanging by yourself, reading a book, or just enjoying the energy.
My other absolute favorite rule is that you can say No to anything. At any time.
And you can change your mind about your Yes or your No, at any time.
To really drill this in, we started the Party off by turning to a stranger and asking them: “Can I kiss you?”
To which they had to say: “No.”
And to which we had to reply: “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
This final phrase, by the way, is like honey to my ears. It’s such a huge turn on to have my boundaries respected and honored.
The organizers went on to explain that we live in a culture that is so used to overriding on our personal sense of self – from telling kids they have to give their relatives a hug even when they’re reluctant, to being pushed or shoved or chased on the playground, to going out dancing and having bodies just ride up on us – that this experience of determining what we will and will not allow is precious to many of us.
In fact, it was encouraged to experiment with saying No as much and as often as we wanted. It was even an option to say No to everything. For the whole night.
This lit me up with desire.
YES!! I thought. I just want to say NO!!
The flip side of being an empath is that when I turn someone down, I feel keenly their disappointment, their regret, their rejection. So it’s incredibly hard for me to hold onto my No, because even though I’m not interested, I sometimes feel their reaction more powerfully than my own.
I decided to go for it. I decided I would say No to every single request for the entire night. Every offer of a hug. Every proposition of a massage. Every proposal of a foot massage.
It was a wild experiment. And totally fulfilling.
There were many – mostly women – who happily said either “okay” with a shrug, or remembered the golden “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
Most men were stunned, and slightly dazed, to hear No.
Some of them looked downright upset.
I caught myself pointing a finger and almost yelling at one man who slumped his shoulders and looked so dejected. “You can’t do that!!” I heard myself saying. I was incensed that he would dump his insecurity and his sense of defeat so blatantly onto me.
And then I remembered – that’s not my problem.
He gets to handle his disappointment.
I get to battle my need to make everyone feel welcomed and adored, and my deep desire to never ever hurt anyone.
So I did.
I put my wagging finger down, and walked away.
I found someone else to say No to, and kept building my new muscle.
All around me, people were snuggling up in twos, threes, and fours.
People were massaging each other, giving foot rubs, practicing the Thai Massage moves we’d learned over the weekend.
It all seemed quite innocent. And fun!
(Another rule of Cuddle Parties: all clothing stays on for the entirety of the event.)
You’d think from all of this that I must hate cuddling.
In fact, the opposite is true.
I craaaaave cuddling.
There’s an actual term for how much we need to be held: Skin Hunger.
It’s my belief that most people partner up in life because they so desperately crave to be held, and in our society, having sex with someone or being in a relationship is the only way to have that need met.
Which is crazy, right?
There was a study in India that compared babies who were fed every day with babies who received massages every day. The babies who were touched outpaced the fed ones when it came to growth and health.
And yet we’re so starved for physical touch in this culture. In Europe and the Middle East, it’s much more acceptable for men to hug. Women hold hands while they walk. Friends cuddle.
Here, these things are considered taboo. We don’t touch each other. We don’t hold each other. If you have a partner, or kids, or a pet, you’re in luck. Otherwise, best to go pick someone up at a bar and bring them home.
So the idea of a Cuddle Party is appealing.
Once you get behind the rules, and you realize it’s all about negotiating what kind of touch you want, and from whom, and for how long. And that the goal is to find an enthusiastic Yes from someone else to meet your desires. Then get to it.
And it’s all so PG. Which helps to disconnect the notion that all touch must come with sex. That all touch is an invitation to future sex. Which honestly, as a woman, I sometimes feel. So I stay away from men, because I don’t want to give them the wrong idea. Don’t want to promise something I’m not ready to give.
We connect by touching. We feed each other by touching. We soothe each other by touching.
Studies show that our immune system is boosted by touch. We are healthier and stronger when we are held.
After an hour of saying No to everyone and everything, I got bored.
I’d been walking around the room, watching people gleefully massage each other, give back rubs, stroke each other’s hair, or just lie in each others’ arms, talking.
I also saw a lot of people hanging back, standing at the edges, not sure how to engage. Or perhaps, choosing to engage by watching.
I decided I was full up from my No’s, and was open to saying Yes (!)
So I did another loop around the room, watching people, thinking about what exactly it was that I wanted.
A salsa partner I’d danced with the two previous nights found me, and asked if I wanted to sit. I checked in with myself, found I was a Yes, and agreed.
We talked. We got to know each other.
Then he asked if I wanted to cuddle. Again, I checked in, and said Yes.
We curled up on the yoga mat. Covered ourselves with a blanket. And cuddled. We kept talking for a bit. Then we just got quiet, enjoying the sensation.
Then the party was over. I was hungry, so I went off to find dinner.
That was it. No commitment. No promise of a date. No need to follow up and make sure he was okay. We’d both agreed to cuddle, and we had. It was lovely, and sweet, and soft. And then it was over, and I went back to practicing my No. Because out in the real world, getting an effortless, non-judgmental No out is still a battle I’m waging.
But I’m well on my way.