Get in touch with a 'cuddle party'

Nothing sexual, just a lot of massaging and stroking for snuggle-starved adults

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NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. -- Edie Weinstein-Moser, best described as an insatiable cuddler, massaged the knee of Faith Kremer as she lay on a carpet of soft blankets. Ms. Kremer, 38, a social worker who lives south of Annapolis, Md., closed her eyes and nestled against another woman, who rested her head on the belly of Kerry Blubaugh, 56. He owns the Natural Healing Arts wellness center off St. Albans Circle in Newtown Square, where the unusual workshop was taking place on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Mr. Blubaugh pressed his back against his close friend, Denise Gilmar, 45, of Glen Mills, who snuggled near Melvin Jones, 32, someone she had just met. She rubbed his shoulder, while Mr. Jones massaged the back of stranger Linda "Linney May" Hunter, 56, of Glendora.

"Ah, this feels wonderful," said Ms. Hunter, a holistic practitioner, resting her chin on a fluffy pillow.

The Cuddle Party was going perfectly.

Cuddle Party? The very name raises eyebrows. Snickering is inevitable. But this wasn't some kinky swing time. Begun in 2004 in a corner of the country not usually associated with touchy-feely encounters -- New York City -- the nonsexual socials have since spread around the nation, including the Philadelphia locale, and to Canada, Australia and England. Founders Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski, sex and relationship educators, bill the events as communications and boundary-setting workshops that have touched thousands of snuggle-starved adults.

"It's a human need," said Ms. Weinstein-Moser, 49, of Dublin, Bucks County, who introduced the phenomenon to the region last fall. She was smitten after attending her first in 2005, where she discovered she was a natural. Now a certified cuddle facilitator (training price tag: $1,490), Ms. Weinstein-Moser throws parties as far as Maryland and North Jersey. It costs $40 to attend.

The self-described Renaissance woman and freelance journalist also has gigs as a social worker, interfaith minister, clown and massage therapist.

"We live in a low-touch culture where strangers are suspect," she said during the introduction, little silver hands dangling from her earlobes. Like everyone else, she wore pajamas. Her black top had the word karma stamped across the front; pink hearts dotted the bottoms.

"Our culture teaches intimacy has to be sexual," she said. "It doesn't have to be."

In fact, research finds that sustained touch, that oft-ignored stepchild of a sense, can lower blood pressure, relieve stress, reduce aggression, and foster peaceful coexistence. Seriously.

"Hundreds of studies show that with moderate touch, you get all kinds of health benefits," said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School.

The sense, though, needs a makeover. "Touch is tied to sexual behavior," Ms. Field said. "People misinterpret touch."

Without taction, babies fail to thrive, studies of orphans show. Lower-touch cultures, such as the United States and Great Britain, also have more aggression than higher-touch ones (France), she said.

The key word is moderate, surprisingly. "If you're lightly stroking someone, it's going to arouse, elevate blood pressure and heart rate. If you get moderate pressure," Ms. Field said, such as a back rub, "it puts you in a relaxed state."

Cuddle Parties do not claim to offer therapy or even massage, but do tout the benefits of tactile contact. Not everyone, though, is convinced that what happens at the hugfests can deliver health benefits.

The American Massage Therapy Association has little love for Cuddle Parties. "We really have no idea if there's any value in the kind of massage they provide at these things," said Ron Precht, communications manager for the Chicago-area group.

Still, participants often leave with big, goofy smiles and glowing reviews.

"I was almost pre-verbal," said Verna Tweddale, 58, of Ambler, a nursing instructor at Abington Memorial Hospital who went to a party in June. "I felt an unconditional space. We were all in our being, rather than doing."

Couple Phil Garber, 43, a financial controller, and Janet Berkowitz, 50, a drama teacher, who live in Maple Shade, said a workshop this year at a Doylestown church brought them closer.

"We usually don't take the time to cuddle with each other," she said.

"The little boy inside wants to get nurturing," Mr. Garber explained. "It didn't for me at all have a sexual tension."

In Newtown Square, the scene looked like a game of Twister gone slightly awry. It was all G-rated, well maybe PG-13 at times, what with all these grown-ups lying in a pile like a bunch of puppies while soothing Celtic chants played.

Before stroking Ms. Gilmar's face, Mr. Jones asked permission -- one of the rules. She reciprocated.

"I came out of curiosity," the IT consultant who lives in Glenmoore said at the start. "I'm a little nervous."

As a child, he said, he hadn't received much physical affection, and his busy life -- he's a married father of a toddler -- left little room for intimacy. His wife, according to Mr. Jones, wasn't comfortable attending the hug huddle but had sent him with blessings after she read details at www.cuddleparty.com.

"I'm trying to open my world," he said.

Midway through the 31/2-hour party, Mr. Jones snacked on grapes and said the experience so far had made him "feel more connected with other human beings. I feel very relaxed. I feel full of something -- warmth inside my own body."

Cuddling, Ms. Weinstein-Moser said, triggers oxytocin, the so-called love hormone released by nursing mothers that helps them bond with their babies. "When you leave Cuddle Parties, you're on an oxytocin overflow," she said.

(While touch does increase various hormones, Ms. Field, the researcher, said the jury was still out on cuddling's connection to oxytocin.)

For others, the experience was about personal growth. "I like the fact that you practice boundary-setting, asking for what you want in a safe environment," said Ms. Hunter, a "cuddle caddie" who assists at the parties.

Earlier, Ms. Weinstein-Moser had gone over the rules during the 45-minute Welcome Circle, which also included exercises in setting boundaries and icebreakers to overcome the awkwardness of it all.

PJs stay on, she said. Ask permission and get a verbal yes before touching anyone. No means no. Maybe means no. You don't have to cuddle.

Sometimes, she said, a novice cuddler (80 percent of cuddle partiers are single) might come out hoping to score. That's not going to happen here, she made clear. "It is a way to make friends," she said. "It's not about picking someone up or hooking up."

Ms. Weinstein-Moser covered permissible behavior: "Caresses, hugging, nuzzling, cuddling, spooning are all on the table, as long as you ask," she said. (Spooning is lying down front to back, like spoons arranged in a drawer.)

"It's just as important to say yes to what you want in life," she said.

Then Ms. Weinstein-Moser broached the sensitive topic of erections. Yes, that might happen -- and that's OK, she assured -- but don't act on it here, she said.

"This is not an orgy," said the "Cuddle Lifeguard on Duty," as she calls herself.

"Yet!" joked Mr. Blubaugh. Ms. Weinstein-Moser gently admonished him.

He chuckled. And then, after asking, he reached over and touched someone's hair.



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