Just Hold Me
Do real men like to cuddle?
Pretty soon more cuddlers joined us on the bed, and someone suggested we do a six-person spoon. So we did: Boy-girl-boy-girl-boy-girl. I was on the end, cuddling the redhead, who felt small and soft and sexy in my arms. She commented that we were like a bunch of squirming eels. She was right. We were like eels, or those black-headed translucent grubs that you sometimes find in shallow mud, writhing in their own goo. The mass of bodies created thermoregulatory challenges, and before long the spoon gang split up.
As I lay back and watched the redhead bound out of the room toward the snack table, I realized that I wanted very badly to cuddle with her one-on-one. These gathering feelings threatened to derail my training in pure, nonsexual cuddling. For a half-second, I actually cared.
Here's a question: Is it possible to snuggle in a nonsexual way? The Cuddle Party people claim their events are not about sex: "As adults, we have fully-formed prefrontal cortexes … we can control ourselves," Mihalko insisted when we spoke. But the temptations associated with mashing one's body against the flesh of another are undeniable. Was my training in "pure cuddling" doomed from the start?
In fact, this very conundrum weighed on the minds of certain early American purity experts—the Puritans—who practiced an odd form of nonsexual snuggling known as "bundling." Bundling occurred when a courting young man wound up at his love interest's home in the evening, and was invited to spend the night in bed with her. They were given separate blankets, and sometimes placed on either side of a "bundling board" that ran along the mattress from head to toe, so as to impede hanky-panky. If the bundling board did yield, and pregnancy occurred, the couple was expected to marry.
The British mocked bundling as a tawdry American tradition, but in fact there is evidence it came from Europe and was practiced from Britain to Holland to Switzerland, perhaps dating as far back as Roman times. In Colonial New England, bundling made practical sense due to a scarcity of beds, poor heating, and long rides between towns. It was only practiced in the winter.
Predictably, the practice stirred passions. Controversy over bundling erupted in the 1770s, when a New England preacher began to insist that it was unchristian. Young men returning from the French war seemed to have brought with them "loose camp vices" and a disregard for the church that made them ill-suited for bundling. Several towns tried to ban the practice, to the dismay of mothers and daughters, who thought bundling was totally cool. A glimpse into the debate can be viewed in an excerpt from an anti-bundling ballad published in a 1785 almanac:
A bundling couple went to bed,
With all their clothes from foot to head,
That the defence might seem complete,
Each one was wrapped in a sheet.
But O! this bundling's such a witch,
The man of her did catch the itch,
And so provoked was the wretch,
That she of him a bastard catch'd.
History's greatest bundling scholar, Henry Reed Stiles, the author of a definitive 1871 volume on the origins of the practice, credited this song with so stigmatizing bundling that it caused its downfall. (Improved living conditions and warmer houses following the American Revolution also played a role.) The tradition died out in the late 19th century, and it is rare indeed today; a 1969 campaign to revive bundling, mounted by a group of clever Pennsylvania teens, did not catch on.
This history confirms that the line between snuggling and sex is indeed slippery—a fact further demonstrated in the 1970s by Vanderbilt psychiatrist Marc Hollender. Having invented a questionnaire-based body contact score to reflect "the wish to be held," Hollender found that many women truly ached to be snuggled; one stated that she would rather canoodle than be given a Cadillac convertible. Yet some women avoided cuddling when they were not in the mood for sex, because snuggling too often converted to shagging. The blame often was placed on the man, and on his penis in particular. As one subject put it, "Being held is an end in itself for women, but for men it is only the beginning."
Back at the snack table. The redhead and I chatted over celery sticks, and she proposed that we go for a cuddle. We lay down and I burrowed in deep, determined to unleash my full snuggly voltage. We got all wrapped up, our legs pretzeled. For the first time since arriving at the party, I relaxed.
And then I felt a feeling. A stirring stirred. Something in my physiology—something about two stops down from the solar plexus—sought to express its special purpose.
A century ago, the pioneering German sexologist Albert Moll described two elementary sexual impulses: the contrectation-impulse—the urge to cuddle—and the detumescence-impulse—the urge to alleviate swelling in one's johnson. It was in this moment that I very clearly perceived how easily the one can tip into the other.
I was grateful for this embodied insight, but worried about the growing crisis in my pants. Luckily, my nervousness paid off: anxious-making juices flooded my system long before blood started flowing south in any quantity, and the incipient erection retreated, like a turtle to its shell. The redhead remained oblivious to the disaster narrowly averted.
Then she had an idea: She should give me a massage! I agreed and flipped onto my stomach, thrilled at the discretion afforded by the new posture. She proceeded to give me a flimsy back rub. A bonus arrived when my first cuddle partner asked if she could play with my hair. Yes, no problem! I was being cuddled by two women at once. I was commanding a double team. I was the LeBron James of cuddling!
But after nearly three hours of lying around, our allotted cuddle time was almost up, and the organizer let us know that it was time for a ceremonial "puppy pile." As I stood up, I saw that about half of the partygoers were not cuddling at all; they were sitting and talking about their dogs. I also noticed a talkative male cuddler who was about six-and-a-half feet tall and seemed to be getting a lot of female attention. If I was the King James of cuddling, he appeared to be the Shaq.
A puppy pile erupted. We stacked like Lincoln Logs, or like seven-layer dip but with only three layers. I was in the top layer. Then the party broke. I changed back into my jeans, and went to say my goodbyes. To my sorrow, I saw that the redhead—the target of my tumescence—was engaged in a long hug with Shaq. He was standing and she was swinging around his neck like a Do-Not-Disturb sign. I sensed that they were going to leave the party together. At the cuddle party, I had canoodled with panache, but had I dominated? I was not sure that I had.
My cuddle party adventure had forced awkward truths to the surface. I was not the peerless cuddler I thought I was. Rather than snuggling like a cold-blooded shinobi, I had performed like an overeager teenager. For me, it was apparent that the yen to cuddle welled from some deep, urgent, animal place that I could barely control.
Cuddling is a beastly habit, to be sure: Scientists often turn to our primate kin to learn more about the practice. Some have sought clues in social grooming, a sort of animal analogue to human snuggling. Grooming is a big part of primate life, with some species devoting 20 percent of their waking hours to cleaning fur and tweezing ticks. It's partially about hygiene—teaming up to clean one's back makes sense. But primates spend far more time doing it than is necessary for cleanliness. They're also grooming to make friends.
Humans don't have much hair, and we outsource many of our grooming needs to barbers and beauticians. Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that in our primitive past, the emergence of language and gossip largely replaced social grooming as a means of adult bonding. Back scratching went from literal to figurative. But we still engage in some pro-social touch—picture a man brushing lint off his buddy's suit jacket, or a woman running her fingers through her lover's hair. Like our primate relatives, we don't normally groom or snuggle with strangers. That's why Cuddle Party is unusual: It invites people to cuddle with people they don't know and then decide if they want to be friends, rather than vice-versa.
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.