After emerging as a media-driven fad in the mid-2000s, cuddle parties continue to attract stressed-out Torontonians looking for a little non-sexual TLC.
Tim Alberth didn’t know what to expect the first time he went to a cuddle party. Having discovered the parties online by accident, Alberth was curious enough to search out the event closest to where he lived in Buffalo. The entire ride up to Toronto, he asked himself, “What am I doing?” By the time he crossed the border, he knew there was no turning back.
But he was surprised by how easy it was to find a fellow snuggler. Only a few minutes after the group finished with icebreakers, he recalls, a woman approached and, as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world, asked him, “Do you want to cuddle with me?”
Alberth admits he was definitely “taken aback” by her boldness—but he answered in the affirmative. That first cuddle was so soothing that he decided he would return to another party. Four or five parties later, he started thinking about organizing his own.
“Cuddling is usually sexualized by people. Cuddle parties gave me a chance to cuddle and hug without having to worry about that,” says the 31-year-old blond and bearded Alberth, who has been running cuddle parties in Toronto since 2010. A Buffalo, N.Y. native currently studying nursing there, he continues to make the trip across the border every month to host the parties here. The decision, he says, came about naturally when the previous facilitator in Toronto announced that she was going to step down, and offered to pass details and contact lists onto Alberth.
Last year, Calgary was named the most active Canadian city for cuddle parties, though Toronto holds its own with one party a month, typically held at The Centering Space near Broadview Station. Participants, in exchange for a $40 fee, can go to these three-hour events to receive non-sexual touch and experience everything from hand-holding to hugging to spooning. All participants must wear pajamas, and the floor is lined with blankets and pillows for comfort.
“A lot of people think, right off the bat, that it’s a sex party,” Alberth says. “But there are rules—one being that it’s a non-sexual event, and two being that clothes stay on at all times.”
Alberth says that about 10 people, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, show up every month, and that facilitators put a lot of effort into making sure people feel safe. Parties usually start off with a “welcome circle” where rules are clearly laid out and ice breakers help loosen people up. If one feels uncomfortable after the welcome circle, they are free to leave and are eligible for a refund.
Participants can also choose whether they wish to cuddle in pairs or in larger groups, and with whichever gender they’re more comfortable with. The most important thing, he says, is that one asks permission first.
“It’s their choice whether they want to cuddle with someone at a cuddle party or do nothing at cuddle party,” Alberth says.
Cuddle parties first grabbed media attention back in 2004 when they were introduced in New York by relationship experts Reid Mihalko (pictured at left above) and Marcia Bacyzinski. A year later, the parties arrived in Toronto and, long after the spike of attendance following initial media interest, cuddle parties have continued to attract participants.
Michelle Hayes, a 47-year-old child care assistant, began attending cuddle parties last year after finding out about them while watching a VH1 reality show. Though apprehensive at first, she looked up Toronto cuddle parties online, thinking that they would be a good way practice her communication skills and try something outside of her comfort zone. What she likes most about them is that she can momentarily free herself of her daily responsibilities.
“That is one of the most difficult things for me to do because I work with children all day,” Hayes says. “When I go to cuddle parties, I find it makes me sit back and say, ‘Okay—I have to practice taking the day off now.’”
Hayes says that, while it took her a few parties to stop feeling nervous before each gathering, she is completely comfortable with cuddle parties now, because she trusts the rules to keep her safe. A facilitator is also always on hand to dissuade anybody who’s overly persistent, though Hayes says that such interventions are rarely necessary.
Cuddle parties may also appeal to Hayes, because, she admits, “I’m a cuddler. My inner circle will tell you that I am definitely a touchy-feely person.”
Jessica Maxwell, a doctoral student at U of T currently researching relationships and those who avoid intimacy, is not surprised by the parties’ enduring appeal. Cuddling is proven to stimulate the body’s production of the chemical oxytocin, which has been called the “cuddle chemical” or “love chemical,” because it has been found present in people engaged in romantic relationships and other intimate bonds (like the one between mother and infant). Oxytocin de-stresses and relaxes, in addition to reducing blood pressure.
“[Cuddle parties] seem like they’re completely non-sexual, which I can understand from a research perspective because we do find that the attachment system and the sexual system are very separate things,” Maxwell says. “I think these cuddle parties are more just a desire to feel secure and to feel loved, and a need for closeness with someone.”
That sense of closeness, she says, is definitely lacking for many people in a big city like Toronto, where career-driven lives leave little time to form relationships. According to Toronto census data for 2011, almost a third of all households in the city were comprised of single people.
Maxwell says that cuddle parties may even encourage participants to find a romantic relationship, a sentiment that is echoed by Cecilia Moorcroft, a life coach who organized cuddle parties in Toronto for more than five years before handing the reins over to Alberth.
“On the surface it seems like this fun, silly thing—grown-ups in pajamas—but it’s actually a really amazing workshop around boundaries and communication and getting what you want,” Moorcroft says.
She credits cuddle parties for having helped at least three couples she knows find each other. The gatherings have also changed Moorcroft’s life. Back in 2005, she was going through a rough patch—single but not looking, she was over-eating and had found out that her father was sick. All she really wanted, she says, was to spoon with someone.
“I think everyone who goes to the parties is driven by… I guess you could call it loneliness, but I call it hunger,” Moorcroft observes. “For me, it was literally like a hunger. It was the way that I was attuned to the fact that I needed more affectionate touch.”
Moorcroft says that cuddle parties taught her to be able to say no to the things that she didn’t want, and ask for what she actually wanted in life. Shy all her life, she recalls how her newfound assertiveness shocked her friends and family, especially when she began appearing on television to discuss something as seemingly bizarre as cuddle parties. Moorcroft believes the parties provide a kind of “community service” to those out there who feel lacking in the affection department.
At the very least, they make great conversation starters to get people thinking about what is missing from their own lives.
“Even if somebody hearing about cuddle parties would never ever go to one,” she says, “it made them think, ‘Well why don’t I hug my friends more? I’ve known these people for years, why aren’t I more affectionate?’”