Just Hold Me
Do real men like to cuddle?
It's not clear how many Depression-era infants enjoyed morning handshakes, but the anti-cuddling paradigm was promoted in women's magazines well into the 1930s. Then it started to fade. The demise of snuggle antagonism grew out of the work of a few renegade doctors who noticed that isolated foundlings often wasted away—a condition called "hospitalism"—but could sometimes be brought back from the brink by a nurse's loving affection.
It was the first hint that the cuddle haters were wrong—very wrong—and the reason why I have to give my folks a pass for their snuggle-positive parenting. Startling experiments in the 1950s showed that baby monkeys will sometimes forego food for contact comfort. Later research on human preemies indicated that massages help babies gain weight. Now scientists may have found a pathway for these love transmissions: special cuddle receptors in the skin that are attuned to social touch. Today, snuggling is seen as so important for babies that many hospitals run infant touch programs staffed by volunteer cuddlers.
These insights prove that Leonard was exceptional indeed. Most cuddle-proofed kids surely suffered as a result. Some blamed their parents: After Life ran an article on the legacy of behaviorism in 1950, John B. Watson's son went to the trouble to write a terse letter to the editor thanking the magazine for dispelling the "illusion" of nonemotional child care. The children of another anti-cuddling zealot —a German physician who also advocated strapping kids into mechanical devices to ensure good posture—fared far worse: One shot himself in the head, and another started thinking that all of his body's physical processes, down to the blinking of his eyes, were being manipulated by cruel external forces.
So, in fact, my parents' snuggles might have saved my life. Maybe the cuddliness they fostered in me was even a wonderful thing—something I could be proud of. Was it was time to get out there and start flexing my cuddle muscles?
I knew I was an able snuggler, but how good was I? Was I primetime material—as I strongly suspected—or more of a junior-varsity type? To find out, I decided to take my talents to an event thrown by Cuddle Party—an organization dedicated to the delicate practice of nonsexual snuggling. My goal was simple: I wanted to dominate. I wanted to snuggle up and watch as my cuddles crushed the competition. Perhaps it sounds silly to approach a Cuddle Party like a sporting match, but what can I say? Winners win.
Cuddle Party was started in 2004 by sex educator REiD Mihalko (the small 'i' in his first name denotes an other-directed focus) who came up with idea while tending bar in New York City. Mihalko has floppy blond hair, the build of a tight end—his dad played the position for the Steelers—and a chill bearing that exudes cutaneous confidence. I first met him at a lecture where he was hawking a DVD that promised to help you earn your "black belt" in relationships. The cover depicted a shirtless Mihalko surrounded by topless ninjas.
Cuddle Party's conception came in a flash, says Mihalko. He was already throwing massage parties for his friends in the holistic health community, and some of his bar regulars were curious but too intimidated to attend. "One day I just kind of jokingly quipped back, 'If you're not going to come to a massage party, then grab your pillows and your blankets and your teddy bears and come to my house and I'll throw you a cuddle party.' "
It was like a meteor strike. "Oh. My. God. I'm like, we need to throw cuddle parties. And they're like, what? I'm like, cuddle parties, man. Like, that's what we need to do." The Yoda of Cuddling was born.
Mihalko raced home to draft the first set of snuggly by-laws, and he threw the first Cuddle Party a few weeks later with the help of his partner, Marcia Baczynski. Not long after, the gossip Web site Gawker took note, and a media storm ensued: GQ, People, the Washington Post, Current TV, and countless others ran stories on the trend. CSI: New York built an episode around a cuddle party. Today, Cuddle Party is an international organization with facilitators in the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary. Some 30,000 people have cuddled at their gatherings.
On a fall evening in New York City, I entered my first Cuddle Party feeling confident that I would be greeted like a baby polar bear. In addition taking a measure of my cuddling prowess, I was eager to see what it was like to canoodle dispassionately with strangers. I hoped that by getting trained in pure, nonsexual snuggling, I might learn to cuddle less like a baby and more like a samurai. The party commenced in a sparsely decorated West Village apartment with blanket-wrapped air mattresses on the floor. Thirteen cuddlers were assembled, most of them in their 20s and 30s. There was one older cuddler who bore a passing resemblance to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He looked comfortable in his pajamas, and his appearance caused me to wonder for the first time what Scalia's feet look like. I made for the bathroom to don my PJs. Per Cuddle Party protocol, the festivities began with a "Welcome Circle" where the instructor laid out the ground rules. To wit: Ask first if you want to touch anyone. Also: If you ask to touch someone and they say no, you must abide. We practiced asking each other if we could have a cuddle, and then saying no.
I turned to the person next to me and said, "Can I give you a back rub?"
"No," the cuddler replied. This was meant to prepare us for the cuddly communication challenges that lay ahead.
Other rules: Keep your clothes on. And: Signs of "arousal" have been known to appear. If a sign pops up near you, do not be alarmed—just stay still and hope it goes away. Also: No dry humping! Plus: It's OK if you don't feel like cuddling and just want to sit in the corner. Finally: Cuddle Party is a private space; if you bump into one of your co-cuddlers on the street, don't mention your shared history. Now, break! Cuddle up!
At this, about half of the assembled cuddlers, myself included, made a beeline to the snack table. Chips, hummus, celery sticks, carrots, water, juice. The mood was indistinguishable from a seventh-grade dance. I quickly decided it was time to get aggressive, so I offered back rubs to several ladies in quick succession. One accepted: a friendly and funny full-figured female.
We retired to an adjoining back room, which held a proper mattress and some burning votive candles. She lay down on her side.
"Um, don't you want a back rub?" I said.
"Sure, or we could just start like this," she proposed, suggesting a frontal approach. I plunged in. We cuddled tummy-to-tummy, with our arms wrapped awkwardly around each other's flanks. I heaved a leg over her waist, John Lennon-style. Gently I began to massage and stroke and scratch and knead her back, working her flesh with mounting fervor, and she squealed when I hit a tender spot. Before long, she was reduced to jelly.
A couple of other people came into the room: A hyper, redheaded female and a sweet-faced dude in an orange T-shirt. Did we want to cuddle feet, asked the redhead? Totally! We did!
The four of us brought our feet together in a pile. We wriggled and flapped them like beached pinnipeds. It was not clear why we were doing this. The experience reminded me of a time in second grade when my best friend Peter and I decided to touch butts. We just dropped our pants and backed into each other. Butt smushed butt in transcendent symphony. Then we fell on the floor and peed our pants laughing. If you ever have to decide between cuddling feet and touching butts, definitely go with touching butts.
While we cuddled feet, the redhead explained that she was into the fetish scene. She liked to get whacked on the bottoms of her feet. One time she'd had staples put in her soles. Another time she and a dominatrix had partied with one of Hollywood's cuddliest men in a Greenwich Village hotel. A cigar was involved. She was psyched to be at a cuddle party!
David Merritt Johns is a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Photograph courtesy of the author.