Cuddle parties in Texas provide snuggle opportunities

- In this Nov. 17, 2016 photo, a dozen people clad in pajamas squeeze in for one last snuggle after a three-hour cuddle party in Austin, Texas. (Andrea Zelinski/Houston Chronicle via AP)

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — There is a purple velvet couch, blankets everywhere and about two dozen people wanting to get their cuddle on.

The Houston Chronicle ( ) reports they came for different reasons. Some to meet people. Some to explore their boundaries. Some to touch, and be touched.

This is a cuddle party, an intimate private event where people pay $25 to cuddle with strangers for a few hours. Almost everyone wears pajamas.

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The little-known parties are warming up basements, studios and event spaces across the country, capitalizing on a culture that has drawn more people into electronic devices, texting and dating apps and further away from personal human contact.

“It gives you a space to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone a little bit, but not to the point that it’s a stress,” said Christina Hidalgo, a cuddle party host in Houston. “You see people from a different light, that they’re as vulnerable as you, as they’re as much in need of intimacy as you.”

Cuddle parties have snuggled up to cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas, although sporadically, and are gaining steam across the country. The events, often held in people’s homes, usually are advertised on social media or on event sites such as Eventbrite and Meetup.

At a recent cuddle party in an Austin basement, half a dozen people spooned on a large bed as Indian flute music wafted in the background. Others curled up under blankets in pairs on the floor — some just lie there, hands to themselves, talking. Five feet away, people crowded around a woman lying on her stomach to rub her arms, back and legs until a few pair off for one-on-one shoulder action on the couch. On the other side of the room, a man carefully rubbed the shoulders, back and buttocks of a woman with leopard-print leggings for the better part of an hour.

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“Cuddle parties are a way to be able to take apart touch from sexuality. Many, many people have never had that experience,” said Monique Darling, author of “Cuddle Party: How Pajamas, Human Connection and 11 Rules Can Change Your Life” and the Austin party’s host. “When you close the door on sexuality, then you open up all of these other doors of what touch can look like.”

The first and most important rule, Darling said, is that no one has to cuddle.

Parties like this one are one part empowerment seminar and two parts hands-on practice, teaching participants to embolden themselves to give an authentic “yes” when they want something, to stop seeing “no” as has a hurtful rejection and to put that logic into action.

“I’m not saying no to you. I’m saying yes to myself,” said Peter Peterson, a co-facilitator and Patrick Dempsey doppelganger in a white button-down shirt hanging over blue velvet pants. Saying no, he said, is “giving people back the gift of their voice.”

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This is a “life laboratory in how to connect in this bubble,” he continued, gently gesturing to the room in front of him, an unfinished basement wall-to-wall with blankets and pillows. He keeps an eye out for anyone who might try to turn the friendly touch into something more. No one is. “We get stressed by thought alone.”

Only twice in Darling’s five-year career of hosting cuddle parties has she had to kick someone out for taking things too far, she said. Most people who attend are looking for connection, and only need a warning to back off if they find themselves drifting too far toward a sexual advance.

Eric Nelson felt his own stress wane after his first cuddle party. Cuddling releases the powerful, feel-good hormone in the brain known as oxytocin. Bonding flips the hormone on, as does sex and breast-feeding.

“My battery was recharged for months afterwards,” Nelson said. He now is a “cuddlist-in-training” with “Cuddle Party,” a national educational and training nonprofit. “We’re really a touch-starved society.”

The idea of cuddle parties makes some people cringe, whether because the intimacy with strangers is too much or skeptical that the touch is just a pretext to sexual intimacy in a group setting.

Indeed, Darling’s fall cuddle party was her 514th event and is followed by a “Play Party” the next night, with clothes and sexual contact optional. The latter is encouraged, although the same rules of consent apply. Cuddle parties are meant to make a connection without crossing that bridge, Darling said.

Sasha Rose, an intimacy coach who found herself in a sea of blankets surrounded by people rubbing her arms and legs, and later spooning on the bed, said people need to learn to advocate for themselves.

“When you can ask for what you want in touch and intimacy, you can ask for what you want in life and money,” she said.

As people rubbed and leaned into each other, they shared their stories. Some were there with their partners to explore this “cuddle” idea for the first time. Others said they needed more touch in their lives because they weren’t getting enough of it at home — some said their partners hardly touched them at all anymore.

“It’s a very basic human need to be touched and to feel touch,” said Brandy Deutsch, who hosts cuddle parties out of her studio in Houston. “Sometimes it feels awkward to connect with others. Mostly I’m thinking of people who are shy, who don’t like to put themselves out there. It’s fear.”

By day, Deutsch is a wellness coach with Holistic Changes, a company that counsels cancer patients and their family members and helps people searching for clarity in their lives. Her goal with cuddle parties is to pair touch with promoting intimacy and authentic relating. Her cuddle parties, which run about $10 a session, include games like eye-gazing exercises and asking people to address how they avoid intimacy.

“It’s very helpful,” she said, “to start breaking down barriers and start to feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable.”