WEST TOWN — On the last Saturday of every month, a group of pajama-clad adults — most of whom have never met — gather at an apartment in West Town for an afternoon of caressing and spooning.
“There are definitely assumptions,” said Craig, 54, a "cuddle party" regular for the past three years. But those thinking orgy are wrong, he said.
Although founded by a sex educator and life coach named Marcia Baczynski in 2004, the parties are not designed to be overtly sexual, according to Craig, who asked that his last name not be used.
Craig and the seven other cuddlers in attendance at a recent party — all men except facilitator Madelon Guinazzo — said cuddle parties aren't creepy or sexual but fhelp satisfy a human hunger for connection.
“The idea behind a cuddle party is to help people learn and practice the skills they need to connect with people the way we all want to,” explained Guinazzo.
Guinazzo said she is a certified cuddle party facilitator. After attending a few classes as a participant, Guinazzo completed a four-month class online offered by the national oversight company, Cuddle Party.
Although Guinazzo is careful to point out that cuddle parties should not replace therapy sessions with trained professionals, she said she has worked with victims of sexual abuse, sex addicts and people who have social anxiety.
For all participants, Guinazzo said her job is to “hold space” — basically, police the party — and encourage a safe environment.
Most attendees are lonely or feeling disconnected from their daily lives, she said.
“They just want more connection with people, and this is an interesting way to do it,” said Guinazzo.
Guinazzo began a recent four-hour session, which cost $20 to attend, with a welcome circle. The eight cuddlers sat on the makeshift cuddle zone — thick foam pads topped with big blankets and unzipped sleeping bags — and introduced themselves one by one.
Guinazzo thanked the cuddlers for having the courage to come to the event and explained the rules of the afternoon. Of the 11 rules, the most important is cuddlers must always ask before they touch.
Guinazzo said the rules make it less risky for newcomers.
“I encourage newcomers to practice their ‘no’s,’” said Guinazzo. “They can spend the whole afternoon saying ‘no’ if they want. It’s empowering.”
A 26-year-old rookie cuddler, who preferred not to give his name, said after reading the rules he was convinced it would be okay.
“If there weren’t boundaries, I wouldn’t have shown up,” he said.
Guinazzo wrapped up the welcome circle with a few brief communication exercises and transitioned into what she called “freestyle cuddling.”
The eight cuddlers started by sitting cross-legged in a circle, with each person facing a cuddler’s back. Paying careful attention to the rules, each cuddler first asked for permission before touching the person in front.
“Madelon, can I give you a back rub?” asked one cuddler.
“Yes, you can,” Guinazzo said.
What started as one cohesive back-rub circle seamlessly splintered into smaller groups. Some cuddlers were chatty — conversing about Jesus, Shakespeare and improv workshops at Second City. Some seemed lazily entranced — silently curled up with other cuddlers, eyelids heavy.
“Cuddle parties are like snowflakes,” said Craig. “There are no two cuddle parties the same.”
A 29-year-old comedian and first-time cuddler said he came because he just wasn’t getting enough touching in his daily life.
“You talk about the chemicals that build up without touch,” he said. “You get depressed, you get a little crazy, and I experienced those things.”
Guinazzo said cuddle parties aren’t for everyone. She worries about the chronically low female attendance, but hasn’t been able to pinpoint why there’s such a gender gap. Many of the men involved actually said they had girlfriends or wives, but still needed more touch.
“Maybe women just aren’t as touch deprived?” she said.