A Real Good, Feel Good Time

Contact Kyle Crawford and Julie Strack at [email protected]

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UC Berkeley graduate student Mark Hoemmen was nervous when he walked into his first Cuddle Party in Emeryville, terrified the intentions of the other cuddlers would be less than innocent. Nevertheless, he kept an open mind as he joined the Welcome Circle to explain to a group of pajama-clad strangers his reasons for coming.

"I heard about Cuddle Party from a friend in choir," he said. "She knows that I am an affectionate person, so she thought I might be interested."

Hoemmen is among the first Berkeley residents to participate in the touchy-feely phenomenon, which originated in New York in 2004 and recently appeared in the East Bay.

In April, Suz Strasburger, a self-described "Cuddle Queen," became the Bay Area's first certified facilitator, hosting official parties in her home in an effort to promote healthy interaction between adults, she said.

"Our society's communication skills do not include body contact," Strasburger said. "Cuddle Party is an opportunity to learn to communicate with touch as well as with words."

Cuddle Parties were created last year by relationship coach and sex educator Reid Mihalko with fellow educator Marcia Baczynski for adults to explore and satisfy their need for non-sexual touch, Mihalko said.

Mihalko, a former bartender and massage therapist, was inspired by friends who were left out of parties he held for professional massage therapists.

"One day, I jokingly quipped, 'Grab your pajamas and come over to my place and we'll just cuddle. We'll have a Cuddle Party,'" he said. "As soon as I said that, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's exactly what we need to do!'"

Mihalko's brainchild soon became a media darling, attracting attention from Dr. Phil and Jon Stewart after the Web log Gawker mentioned a woman's experience at a New York event.

Word spread to Strasburger, who has already hosted several groups for three-hour long Cuddle Parties.

To avoid crossing personal boundaries, Suz, as facilitator, states several rules at the beginning of each party: Pajamas must stay on at all times, participants should be "hygienically savvy," and cuddlers must get permission before touching a fellow cuddler. Crying and giggling, however, are welcome and encouraged.

Once participants get the party started, they enjoy backrubs, spooning and the puppy pile, where they "carefully stack people no more than three layers deep, but sometimes they just fall into a jumble," Hoemmen said.

The Cuddle Party Web site also assuages fears by addressing rejection issues and the possibility of something "coming up" at events.

"Erections become Mother Nature's way of giving us the thumbs-up sign," the Web site notes. "Nothing's wrong. And as long as you're not dry-humping anyone, it's completely OK."

UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner said cuddling also triggers another response-oxytocin, a "cuddle hormone" and natural opiate, is secreted into the brain when a person is touched pleasurably, he said.

"Certain forms of touch send signals to parts of the brain dealing with pleasure and reward," he said. "Twenty percent of non-human primates' lives are filled with grooming and cuddling."

Keltner said cuddle parties may be a manifestation of this primal need to be touched. Strasburger also said the parties establish the importance of touch.

"They remind us that we can settle in and make contact with each other," she said. "They are an antidote to isolation."

Students, though, are skeptical about snuggling up to strangers.

"It sounds kind of pathetic to me," said freshman Brianna Melville. "If I wanted to cuddle, I think I could find a friend or family member."

Despite the hesitation, three more Bay Area Cuddle Party facilitators are in the process of being certified. Strasburger's Emeryville events are also frequently overbooked.

Hoemmen has been to two Cuddle Parties since his first in July. Though the cow-tipping icebreaker, where cuddlers crawled around mooing and then toppled into a heap did little to alleviate Hoemmen's discomfort, by party's end, he had a "fabulous" time.

"Afterwards, I felt almost dizzy," he said. "It was so nice to receive that kind of affection."


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