2005_12_cuddlepartylg.jpgWhen Marcia Baczynski and REiD MiHalko decided to launch their now-infamous cuddle parties a little over two years ago, they had no idea they were about to take a cyncial, sex-soaked world by storm with their decidedly kinder, gentler vision of touching en masse . What they call the "flannel revolution" has now launched parties in several cities around the country and in Canada, with people clamoring to get into their pajamas and, well, cuddle. Clearly passionate about their sex-free, gender balanced, communication-building events, which are held several times each month, both founders have since seen their germ of an idea spread far and wide, and have been written up in numerous national and international publications, including a mention by Bill Maher on his HBO show. Gothamist spoke with Baczynski recently about skin hunger, who likes to cuddle, and the power of touch.

How did you two meet? How and when did cuddle parties get started?
We met in October 2003 at a mutual friend’s birthday party and within probably half an hour—you know how there’s love at first sight? It was work at first sight. We were both doing sex ed and relationship stuff, coaching and teaching workshops. We were on the same wavelength, I had a workshop for women on how to argue without getting overly emotional and Reid had a workshop geared towards men, teaching men about romance.

I had just started a coaching business. Initially, we didn’t anticipate we’d start a business together. We were teach trying to overcome the b.s. that men and women have about each other and figure out how to create spaces for men and women to communicate around sex but not necessarily having it to be about sex. It was also really clear that we were both really passionate about doing sex ed but what we were really interested in was relationship education.

Then Reid came up with the idea of cuddle parties. For massage therapists and nurses and yoga instructors, people who were giving all the time, they were massage parties, with four on one massage. Everyone took turns, so the people giving always had a chance to receive. That was really successful and so his other friends wanted something for them. They didn’t want to come to the massage party. He went home and wrote up what that would look like. He made up the rules of cuddle party for his friends. I went to the second one and was immediately on board. It was completely up my alley with all the stuff I was interested in, boundaries and communication and affection, it was all there.

How surprised were you at the success of the parties?
I think we were so busy we didn’t have a chance to really take it in at first. We got a lot of press early on and it helped that a lot of it was through the internet. It hit Gawker, and they totally made fun of us, of course, and then we got a call from GQ and The Washington Post and 10 radio stations and that really surprised us. It even surprised me, and my degree was in PR; we never sent out a press release about any of this. Our personalities are very much like let’s jump on board with whatever looks like it’s going somewhere, so we said let’s throw all our weight behind this.

With the first party, how did you publicize it?
Reid sent an email. He had been a bartender for a long time, was very social, and had a huge mailing list. 23 people showed up, the 2nd there was probably a similar number, we kept operating off of his mailing list, the other thing that started was that I got a website up really quickly. We used to clear every person who came beforehand. We had some transition from it being friends of friends to it being the general public. Because of the way it was designed, it flowed very well. Because it was so structured and safety oriented for people to come in and be affectionate, we never really had the sleaze problem.

We’ve had to ask maybe 4 people to leave or not come back. The people who show up are really amazing. One of the things that has been pleasant surprise for me is how many really awesome guys show up. We figured we’d have women out the door and we’d have to pay men to show up, that’s not been the case at all. We’ve had a lot of really sweet guys show up from all walks of life, including Wall Street bankers and multimillionaires, and they’re incredibly respectful. They’re just good guys, they’re fathers who say I realized I’m into being affectionate with my kids. They enjoy not having to always be on the make because there’s a lot of pressure on men to always be making a move. And women, a lot of times, feel pressure from the men because the men feel they have to be doing this. It’s really an environment where people feel they can just be themselves, they don’t have to be trying to get anywhere because we don’t allow it. We have this dynamic where the men can just chill out and the women can feel safe. People are meeting each other and creating these really great friendships. It’s not really a hookup scene, sometimes people date, but it seems to be more of a friendship thing, people finding roommates.

I haven’t been to a cuddle party yet, but my general impression is that most people there would be of the crunch granola type. Is that the case?
I would say it’s skewed toward that but there’s a lot of people who come. We’ve had ex and current military, we’ve had investment bankers, we’ve had delivery truck drivers, bike messengers, yoga instructors, we have the corporate types who say I’m a really affectionate person and I can’t stand that I cannot touch people, who live alone or with a roommate who’s not affectionate. They’re always hugging their friends, who work in jobs where they’re not allowed to do that. I don’t consider myself crunchy granola.

A lot of people are naturally affectionate, and don’t have anyplace to do that. They’ll say, my roommate’s not cuddly, cats are great, but I like people to talk. At the party on Sunday we had a woman who wasn’t very into cuddling but had such a hard time setting boundaries and saying no and thought I would be a great place to practice. We had an older woman who’d been widowed earlier that year and needs affection but is a mess meeting people. We have a couple people who are regulars who are massage therapists, they are constantly touching other people, and come to keep the psychological scales balanced. Some come cause they’re curious, some cause their therapists refer them. One had heard about skin hunger. He’d gone through a divorce, and a lot of times people eat or they shop or they have sex because they have skin hunger because they don’t have language for it, and touch is something we don’t think of as something we need but it actually is physiologically. His therapist said he’s starved for touch. We had a woman come one time who’s a rape survivor, and said I’m here to work on my issues with men touching me. A lot of people are just here cause it sounded like fun, some come just cause it’s fun, an alternative, social ways to meet people.

What about singles vs. couples, what's the ratio like?
We do get couples who come together, they seem to get a lot out of it for their relationship because a lot of the communication skills are really valuable for relationships. A lot of the rules are about teaching people to communicate. It’s about 75-80% single people, though.

How are the parties structured?
The way it works is that it’s also sort of a workshop, that’s the magical piece to it. It’s a three and a half hour event. You have to show up on time, people change into their pajamas and then we sit down, we welcome everyone, there’s food, people socialize. We have the welcome circle and that’s about 45 minutes long and that’s where we lay out the structure of how it’s gonna work. We start out with the no exercise, we have them turn to each other, Person A and Person B. Person A has to ask Person B if they can kiss them and Person B has to look them straight in the eye and say no. The idea of that is if you’re afraid of rejection it take the sting out of that right away from the get go. If you don’t have experience saying no, we set the tone that saying no is acceptable/ For some people that’s the first time they’ve ever done that that cleanly and clearly in years. We start out getting the scary stuff out of the way. Say their name, where they’re from and why they’re there. We like to know how people heard about us, and why they’re there sets the tone for why this particular party exists.

How are the parties set up? What exactly happens?
The party structure goes: we do “no” exercises, we go over the rules, we explain why the rules are important. Rule 5 is if you’re a yes, say yes, if you’re a no, say no, if you’re a maybe, say no. You don’t have to cuddle with anyone ever at cuddle party. The reason that rule is really important is because so many people say maybe when they’re really a no because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings and it creates this really weird situation where there’s not closure and then the other person’s hanging around cause they’re left stranded and you’re still pressured.

You can just sit at a bar and watch it happen over and over. A guy will ask a girl, “Can I buy you a drink?” She’ll say, “maybe later,” so he comes back 10 minutes later and there’s all this tension and the bartender’s laughing. So there’s all this fuzzy communication that people usually engage in, so that rule’s important. It creates this sense of choice, which is really cool.

We go over the rules and the no dry humping rule. We give people a chance to talk about their boundaries, what they like and don’t like. It’s interesting there how many people have never put into words what they like and don’t like so it’s useful to have that experience before they’re put in that situation.

We offer people a chance to leave, then we do a couple of exercises. The first is a hug exercise, stand up. You have to ask four people for hugs, get a verbal yes before they hug, the cow exercise, where we have everybody get on their hands and knees and pretend to be cows and then the cow tip over.

And the rest of the party?
There’s lots of talking, not a lot of direction, it’s pretty free form. The caddy or assistant is cuddling too but they’re keeping an eye on things, playing host and moving conversation along and things like that, and people lying around cuddling. To give you a visual, there’s usually groups of three or four, sometimes pairs, usually they’re talking, they might be entangled in these crazy configurations, sometimes they’re napping together. People are allowed to do whatever they want within the rules, sometimes they read aloud, bring a journal, one couple brings Winnie the Pooh and anyone who wants to can have it read aloud to them.

There’s brushing hair, giving foot rubs, lots of massage, cuddling, conversation, then half an hour before the end, there's the puppy pile, where everybody who wants to participate gets into a big pile of people. It’s incredibly relaxing and frequently you’ll hear somebody snoring cause they’ve fallen asleep. Then we have a quick checking in closing circle. People leave feeling really relaxed. When you’re touching people in an affectionate way, your body releases a hormone called oxytocin, it’s the bonding hormone, nursing mothers release it and it’s also released after orgasm, and there’s all these other endorphins that are released as well. You’re very relaxed, people tend to be in a relaxed state, stress goes away. All the stuff is really good for you, the hormones and chemicals that are released boost your immune system.

When people leave, it’s like after you’ve had a really good massage, but more so because of the full body contact rather than just massaging particular places. You’re actually a little intoxicated; often people will leave and go to the diner around the corner and keep talking. Sometimes there’s a lot of conversation about sex because people know it’s not gonna happen. Being really physically intimate with people creates an opportunity for conversation about stuff people are scared to talk about normally, I feel really safe with this person, I’m gonna ask them about ___. Men are explaining to women how men work and women are explaining to men how women work. It’s like a learning laboratory in a lot of ways for people, there’s the psychological aspect, the rules, the communication, people experiment with their comfort levels. Different parties are different, some are almost rambunctious. At one, people were throwing grapes at each other.

How do people who don't know anyone find people to cuddle with?
You can kiss and nuzzle and cuddle, foot rub, backrub, anything within the rules. You have to receive a verbal yes before you touch anybody and giving people space to say no and not making it mean anything about you if you get a no. If somebody says not to me, it could be that I suck, which is where most people go, and they don’t consider any other reasons. They might be there to practice saying no and they might be at a place in their lives where they just don’t want to at that moment. It could be they’re shy. It could be any number of reasons that have nothing to do with you. Don’t make it mean anything about you, just take it as a no as a complete statement. It just means that this person is a no for this particular activity at this time, the next person may be a no or a yes, we encourage people to keep asking even if they’re getting nos. and usually people don’t get a lot of nos, because people tend to be interested in trying things at a cuddle party and some people do get a lot of value out of saying no and you could be giving somebody a gift by letting them say no.

You're now doing parties in other parts of the country. Have you noticed anything different about the New York parties?
Minor cultural things. One thing we did notice is that in New York before everybody introduces themselves, they’re more comfortable sitting close to people. In L.A., Alabama, and Minneapolis, people sit much farther apart from each other. New Yorkers are used to being in such close proximity to strangers, that’s the only thing that jumps out at me. There’s an understanding that living in New York is really hard, this shared experience over how sucky it can be to be a New Yorker at times in terms of affection or when you’re having a hard day or it’s hard to find time. People are very career-oriented or sex-oriented and I think it’s nice for people to have a space where they don’t have to worry about those things, they don’t have to be alone to escape that.

What is your favorite and least favorite thing about running the parties?
My favorite thing and my least favorite thing is the same—the people. I really love the people, they drive me crazy sometimes, it’s so fun to meet all these really interesting people who wouldn’t be socializing together. I learn so much about so many random things, learned about turtles or investment banking, and it’s just fun to hear people's stories.

What advice would you give to a newbie cuddler? What should or shouldn’t people do?
You definitely want to wear comfortable pajamas, the drawstring kind, not the lace kind. It’s not about being sexy, it’s about being comfortable. People are usually really nervous, even people who’ve been a lot of times, it’s exciting and an unusual occurrence. The thing to keep in mind is there’s all this conversation before anything happens. You’re allowed to leave at the end of the welcome circle with a full refund. If you’re not sure it’s for you, you can check it out and then if you’re not into it, you can leave and we’ll be happy to give you your money back. We do that because people tend to stay but Reid and I both feel really passionately that the conversation we’re having at the beginning is so valuable, we don’t want money to block them from coming.

I know that actual sex isn’t allowed at cuddle parties, but how sexual is the vibe of the parties? Is there lust in the air, or is it more tame, like an adult slumber party?
I would say 90% of the time, it’s extremely tame, like surprisingly tame especially given what people’s images in their heads are. The other 10% it’s never more than 8th grade.

By the nature of the rules?
It’s sort of how it’s set up. Most people aren’t looking for a group sex experience. If you want that, there are plenty of people in New York who can help you find that. We’re not gonna judge you, but that’s not here, so it tends to be really tame. If you get a couple who really hit it off, when there’s kissing, but it’s allowed and we’re totally fine with it. It’s interesting how people have this whole teenager-like experience with it where you’re making out for a really long time because you know it’s not gonna go any further so you can just enjoy making out. There’s an innocence to it. You’re totally allowed to like people, sexual energy might show up, the whole point is that you are capable of controlling yourself, you don’t have to worry about it getting out of hand. See what it’s like to not have to make the move on them, just enjoy that you like or are attracted to them or are feeling happy around them. We’re also very sex positive, we think sex is a great thing, just not at cuddle parties.

I think there’s not a lot of spaces where that’s true either. There’s not a lot of places where people simultaneously think sex is a good thing and it’s not allowed. Usually it’s not allowed and it’s bad and that’s no the case with us at all. For us it’s just not the place for it, and it has nothing to do with good and bad, it’s unrelated almost. At the same time, it touches on so many aspects of people’s sexuality.

Cuddle parties have gotten a lot of mainstream media attention, often as the butt of a joke. Do you the think the concept and the events are being understood?

I have a degree in PR, I know people have to write for their audience, and we’ve gotten people who love cuddle parties but they have to write about it in a certain tone.

We’re very silly, but we also take what we do very seriously but we have fun with it at the same time. We make up silly names, the silliness is built in even though we’re very serious about the work itself. I’d say the biggest misconception is that it’s just about cuddling; there’s so many aspects, the bonding and the relaxation and the physicality of touch, the communication stuff, the community aspect, the male/female aspect.

My mom came to facilitator training and was absolutely blown away by how deep the training is. A lot of the feedback we’ve gotten, we’ve developed it based on what people have told us. There’s so many dynamics an so much benefit even for people who have a lot of affection in their lives or are really good at communication or have a partner, there’s so much benefit people can get even if they have a tremendous wealth of resources in their lives. That’s definitely the hardest piece to capture.

What’s next for you?
We’re working on a book proposal, for single people on how to cuddle your friends, your family and anything that moves, that’s the working subtitle right now. It’s not just the cuddling, it’s the communication, the skills around making people feel safe, creating an environment where this is acceptable in your life. That’s the big project probably for the next year. We’re running three more facilitator training sessions, one in San Diego in February and we’re excited cause it’s 72 degrees there in February. Reid and I are developing more ideas for other projects, so people can keep getting access to this in various forms, whether they come to a cuddle party or read a book or some other format. Right now we’re focused on training and writing.

Photo by Ron Rinaldi

Visit www.cuddleparty.com for more information. Upcoming New York Cuddle Party dats are: January 14th, press-friendly Cuddle Party, time TBD, January 22nd, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., February 1st, 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., and February 12th, a Valentine's Singles event, time TBD. Upcoming Facilitator Training weekends will take place in San Diego February 24 - 26, Minneapolis May 12 - 14, and New York September 22 - 24. To register for an upcoming event, email your name, gender, phone number and preferred event date to RSVP@cuddleparty.com