Almost immediately upon entering, I spotted the dude I wanted to mack.
With a shaved head, an arm tattoo that wasn't a yin yang, and robust facial features, he was the dreamiest of the lot. But the lot was a lot of hippies, normally not my ilk—so "dreamy" was relative.
They were friendly hippies, though, and I received a warm greeting as I was asked to sign a release form and cough up the $25 suggested admission fee to the cuddle party. Twenty-five dollars seemed like a lot of fucking money, considering the refreshments were potluck ("snackluck," as it was called), the decorations were simply mattresses and pillows, and the organization not-for-profit. I spoke to one of the group's ringleaders, Jas, who explained the steep entry fee, "Our costs include the space rental, website development, and, since we don't turn anyone away, your $25 subsidized someone who couldn't pay as much."
So as you can see, "comfort" costs money. And in this instance, "cuddling" costs $25 a pop.
PORTLAND: HOME OF THE CUDDLE PARTY
An organization in New York originally got all the press for starting cuddle parties (cuddleparty.com) as a commercial venture in 2004—but in actuality, Portland is home to the cuddle party concept. In late 2002, the Portland-bred LoveTribe began hosting snuggle events "as a way to bring about personal healing, well-being, and cultural transformation." Jas explains the bigger, global picture they keep in mind, "By learning to share touch, we learn to share our toys and tools. And with the sharing of our resources comes the sharing of our earth."
The group aims to provide a space where participants can have their "nurturing touch and sensual play needs met in healthy ways." Both organizations concur that today's society is overwhelmingly touch-phobic and we seek our contact fix via drunken hookups or Lambada classes. Cuddle parties, they maintain, are a much safer, more comfortable environment—one where you evidently have to keep on your pajamas.
LoveTribe hosts several events a month—90 percent of which are non-erotic snuggle-centered gatherings. With these come very exacting behavioral guidelines, such as "no dry-humping," no drugs or alcohol, and no physical contact (not so much as an ear lobe twiddle) without express consent from all parties involved. I recently attended one of LoveTribe's soirees—the annual "Rapture"—a racier, randier cousin of a cuddle party. At one of these, dry-humping is allowed, as is nudity on the dancefloor (after midnight). Drugs and alcohol are banned, but consent is still key.
"MAY I BREATHE WITHIN SIX INCHES OF YOU?"
The setting reminded me of a school lock-in during adolescence. Instead of a gymnasium floor, this one was held in a yoga studio. The hardwood floors had been covered in mattresses and pillows. There was an adjacent body-painting station, a "safe space" above that for anyone who wanted to meditate, and a "play space" beyond that. The play space was effectively what differentiated Rapture from one of the normal cuddle parties. Whereas a cuddle party draws specific lines (no dry-humping, for instance) for conduct, Rapture did not (as long as the play was consensual). The mattresses were for light petting and cuddling while the play space was for anything else. Baskets of lube and latex stood at the entry to the play space.
My friend Molly and I staked out a spot on a mattress with a good view of everything: the dancefloor, the body-painting area, the entrance to the play space, and the line for the bathroom. Further, I devised a plan of attack. I would take in the goings on for a spell and, after two hours (if no one approached me for some snuggling or nuzzling), I would accost someone else. Surely someone would approach me, though. I was decked out in plaid pajama bottoms and a wife beater, for Chrissakes.
Molly was less willing to explore her snuggling outlets. She felt very misled by my earlier description of the party. I had told her that she wouldn't have to pay for anything, that food would be provided, and there would be naked dancing. Disappointed, yet not quite hopeless, Molly expressed her biggest worry, "They just better not make me stand in a circle."
At roughly 9 pm, the doors were locked and Rapture began. Participants may leave at any time, but re-entry is barred. When Molly found out that she couldn't break for a cigarette for the next three hours, she became even more incensed. Then, Molly's worst nightmare became a reality.
It was time for introductory "boundary games" and, before the snuggly dance party kicked off, we "practiced saying 'yes' and 'no'" to one another. Forming two circles—one inside the other—we paired off, firing off questions and responses with different people. For the positive reinforcement demo, I was matched with Sheila, a woman my mother's age. "May I give you a big hug?" she asked sweetly. "Yes, you very well may," was my genuine response.
For my rehearsal in rejection, I was paired with none other than the guy with the shaved head who caught my eye earlier—Adam. Though his question, "May I embrace you?" required a rebuff, I wanted to take him right then and there underneath the snackluck table. My question for him was different. Figuring it was going to be dissed regardless, I went for, "May I bite your neck?"
He followed up with the response we were all encouraged to use if we were—goddess forbid—rejecting that night. "No... but thank you for taking care of yourself."
Despite being in an environment more foreign to me than Libya, I decided to be amenable—even when it came to dancing. It's rare that I'll dance outside of my apartment (unless someone is spinning Lush or Wham!). It was 10 pm; Molly had already taken to the dancefloor. Donna Summer was playing, so I figured I'd join her. I got in half of "Hot Stuff" and a Black Eyed Peas song—before the rest of the evening turned into techno-infused Enya.
Eleven o'clock rolled around and my earlier buzz had all but waned. However, I was intent on getting me a little "spoon-tang." I advanced toward a lanky, shirtless twentysomething who was cross-legged in proximity to the body-paint station. I decided to be coy.
"Would you be willing to paint a rabbit on my arm?"
He agreed, seized a brush, and began to paint. This I didn't find discouraging. It was the fact that he remained mute for practically the entire time he was frescoing my forearm that frustrated me. I didn't let that stop me from propositioning him—especially when I spied Molly getting her face sucked by an unwashed version of Lance Bass. As if I had been dared, I used the first weak-ass line that came to mind.
"May I massage your lower back?"
He smiled, letting me down gently.
"No, thank you. I'm just about to leave now." With that, he stood, put on his shirt, and left the building.
I chose different tactics with the next dude. No pretext. No stalling. I approached him and asked him directly, "Do you want to make out?"
His response—as if he had been in the bathroom during the boundary games—was a curt, "No, I'm straight."
No explanation, no gratitude, no grace. He had even less reason to be there than I did. That's when I noticed my dreamboat Adam in the corner with two women on his jock.
At first, I took this rejection as hard as I could in a yoga studio—by pouting. I figured most of the men were straight (which was true, but as Jas informed me later, most participants identify as "bi-sensual," meaning they do not discriminate when they cuddle). While I dismissed my initial thoughts that I was repulsive, I settled on the fact I may have been unattractive. Perhaps not "unattractive" in a conventional sense, but in a LoveTribe sense. The cuddlers there discerned that I was a charming charlatan. They had bigger connections to fry.
RAPTURE CAME—BUT NOT ALL OVER MY FACE
Molly had become unstuck from her hippie, and came over looking like she had tossed a sloth's salad.
"I'm ready to go whenever you are."
We left and, strangely, I felt rejected.
I consoled myself with the thought that I have many friends who would indulge my need to spoon, if I so required. I also reminded myself that Adam, my main object of affection, who I was too crestfallen to proposition, was in the end, just another dude in a skirt.
But I still would have made out with him—even on the dancefloor to a didgeridoo dirge.
www.lovetribe.org—the Portland organization with weekly events, including non-erotic snuggle parties and massage retreats.
www.cuddleparty.com—the New York City-based website providing information on cuddle parties nationwide.