Cozy (and CoZE) Cuddle Parties: a Q&A

On a facebook comment thread about cuddle parties, I gave a few tips on hosting one, and said “if you have any other questions, feel free to message me.” Well, one of my friends took me up on that offer and sent me an email asking me a bunch of questions. So I answered them!

(For those unfamiliar, the term “CoZE” in the title refers to Comfort Zone Expansion, the practice of deliberately becoming comfortable with a wider range of experiences and behaviors.)

Q: When I visited the Bay Area for the first time in 2013, I was introduced to hugs as a form of greeting. The nature of these hugs is nonsexual. What is the nature of a cuddle party?

The nature of cuddle parties vary. Typically the term is used to refer to events that are explicitly nonsexual, though contexts do exist that involve cuddling and allow or encourage sexuality.

Q: If the answer is a definite “nonsexual”, then it would help me to get more explanation on how to keep it that way, what with your examples of kissing someone’s neck or spooning. I mean, sure, such things can stay nonsexual. And there are cultures where males kiss each other on the cheek in greeting. But across hundreds of cuddle parties, surely the issue of keeping it nonsexual must have come up before.

Nonsexual cuddle spaces

My first cuddle party was in January of 2013, and was fairly formal. It was organized by a group called The Playful Circle in the San Francisco Bay Area. That website is a great place to learn more about the specific details of cuddle parties. They write

A Cuddle Party is: A structured, safe workshop on boundaries, communication, intimacy and affection. A drug and alcohol-free way to meet fascinating people in a relaxing environment. A laboratory where you can experiment with what makes you feel safe and feel good.

This playful, fun workshop has been a place for people to rediscover non-sexual touch and affection, a space to reframe assumptions about men and women, and a great networking event to meet new friends, roommates, business partners and significant others.

This matches my experience of the event. At the start of the cuddle party, we sat in a circle around the edges of the very-plushy room. The is approximately what the host said:

Host: The Cuddle Party is a nonsexual space. This means a number of things, one of which is that your clothing [typically pyjamas!] stays on the whole time. It also means we’re probably going to avoid contact in the crotch area. As for other boundaries, those are handled in an ongoing and emergent way.

Now, touch is exciting. Sometimes touch—even nonsexual touch—can be arousing. That’s totally okay: it’s not shameful or anything. If you find yourself getting a bit too hot and bothered, you can actually just say to the person you’re cuddling with, “Hey, I’m getting a bit turned on right now… I’m gonna go and get some snacks for a bit.” [I think it’s really important to give people examples of scripts they can use, since for things like this people otherwise totally won’t know what to say.]

My reflection: I think it’s worth noting that you can use your own discretion here… just because your body is excited, doesn’t imply that you’re necessarily thinking of things as being sexual. People are expected to have enough executive control to not interpret physiological arousal as a signal to interact in a different way.

There is a challenge of course, where what feels like sexual touch to one person may not for another, and while the goal is to create an environment where you can trust others, this is never going to be quite perfect. Ultimately what you want to do is try to make people feel safe and comfortable. This means:

  • avoiding touch that’s clearly sexual, even if all parties are open to it (because it’s a nonsexual space, and other people might see it and be made uncomfortable—likely more by the violation of the shared intention around nonsexuality than by the act itself).
  • asking before starting to touch someone, or changing how/where you’re touching them.
  • being clear with yeses and nos.

Consent: Regarding the last two… we actually did an exercise between the introduction and the start of the cuddles proper where we practiced explicit consent: we paired up with the person next to us and one partner would say to the other “may I kiss you?” and the other would say “no” and then switch. Personally, I think “may I kiss you?” is not actually a great question because it’s totally unclear what kind of kiss you’re proposing.

If you’re running a cuddle party, I definitely recommend pairing up and doing this kind of warm-up exercise:

  • “May I massage your shoulders?” “No.”
  • “May I spoon you?” “No.”
  • “May I kiss your neck?” “No.”

There will be plenty of chances to say yes during the event, and it’s important to give people chance to practice this in a low-stakes setting. If it feels challenging during the practice round, odds are decent it would feel sufficiently challenging in reality that you wouldn’t say it. As I said before, having these scripts is really important. We’re not used to saying no. People need to learn that it’s actually a thing you can say. And need to get used to people responding appreciatively to their nos.

Something else that surprised me, but which made a lot of sense once I got over the surprise: breasts get a fair bit of attention at the nonsexual cuddle party. Think about it: they’re widely agreed to be fun to play with and massage (for all parties involved) …but in mainstream western culture, there’s so much stigma about breasts and they’re so hypersexualized, that the only people who touch them are the woman they’re attached to and her romantic partner(s). Since they’re so deprived of touch most of the time, it makes sense that they’d get a lot of attention at a cuddle party, where that touch isn’t taken to imply anything.

But, if there’s a shortage…

Q: what do straight guys do to each other on these cuddle parties that they still consider nonsexual?
(I imagine that if some guy in your circle only hugs girls for greeting, that may feel slightly weird to all others present, because he treats it as a thing only to do to his sexually desired gender.)

Well, in typical Canada/US culture, most guys never hold hands with each other. And they rarely put their arms around each other when sitting next to each other. But I think we can agree that these aren’t sexual activities, inasmuch as one does them with children and family members. Frankly, most guys actually don’t hug each other as a greeting, due to a ton of weird homophobic stuff that I don’t even want to get into. So that isn’t seen as weird—by contrast, in pop culture, a hug is permitted maximum one Y chromosome. I wish it were normal for everyone to hug everyone.

Part of what becomes possible at cuddle events is questioning assumptions about what’s acceptable touch. In particular, there are a lot of assumptions around what kinds of touch are acceptable between straight guys. Basically, handshakes are okay. Highfives and fist-bumps are fine. Pats on the shoulder, check. But not much beyond that.

Ridiculous. Also note that this a fairly recent development. Here are some possibilities, ranked in order of approximate cultural-weirdness-for-straight-guys.

First of all, hugs, definitely. Plenty of guys agree with this, but it still doesn’t happen that often because of the assumptions we have built up. Also being in contact with each other in the context of a much larger cuddle puddle, which has women in it. And putting your arms around each other in that pile.

Moving up, massages. A massage is an awesome way to share touch with someone, and can feel a lot safer for men because there’s an explicit functional purpose behind the touch, and because it’s a thing that professionals do in a totally nonsexual context.

Then… what else? Spooning doesn’t have to be a sexual activity. My first memories of spooning were with my parents… so I sure hope not! This one will probably set off some homophobia alarm bells, but so what? Again, definitely ask. But a cuddle space is somewhere where you can start to drop the assumptions around “why might we want to spoon?” That said, from my experience there is a tendency for people to pair up hetero-wise, so it’s possible that someone will assume something. But not necessarily, especially if there are more guys than gals in attendance, or if you’re offering to spoon a gentledude on one side while spooning a lady on the other side.

Furthermore, it’s a nonsexual space. So it can be a place for getting rid of homophobia in other ways too: even if one man is straight and the other is gay or bi, then there’s no reason (in theory) that they can’t engage in any kind of nonsexual cuddles with each other. Just like a straight man and woman can cuddle with each other, even if one or both of them aren’t romantically attracted to the other. In my experience, there’s actually way more space for that kind of exploration at a nonsexual cuddle space than at any context where sexuality is present, because you don’t have to worry about signalling interest to someone that isn’t there, aka “leading them on.”

Sexual cuddle spaces

Q: If the answer is anything [other than nonsexual], then it would help me to have different possible scenarios of a cuddle party sketched out. Also, how does the group dynamic work if not everyone wants it to be sexual? Do the others then just gracefully bow out of the entire thing at some point? And explicit consent works for getting touched yourself, but what about the weirdness if you’re enjoying something nonsexual and the people next to you turn it into something sexual?

Right, sexual cuddle spaces… At the moment, I don’t think that’s a topic I’m going to blog about in any detail. I will speak in abstract though. You definitely want to be really, really careful about letting an explicitly (or even implicitly) nonsexual cuddle party turn into a sexual one. This is kind of a response to the “if not everyone wants it to be sexual” bit. If a nonsexual cuddle party shifts, then those who are made uncomfortable won’t be comfortable at future nonsexual cuddle parties (at least not those hosted in this context; possibly any if this is the only context they know) because they can’t trust them to remain safe. So keep this distinction clear from the very outset.

As for any discomfort caused by people next to you doing things, I think that’s healthy discomfort. That’s the kind of discomfort that you can learn and grow from. If you’re paying enough attention, you can watch your thought patterns of fear or jealousy or defensiveness pop up, and you can let them diffuse. It can also be an interesting experience on the content level, of seeing how other people relate to each other. And then ultimately, if you’re too uncomfortable, the door is always open. That is, you can leave. And that’s okay! (Note, if you’re hosting a cuddle space and you have the sense that someone has left because they’re feeling uncomfortable, you might want to go check on them to make sure they’re processing it okay.)

Closing thoughts on comfort zones

There has been one occasion I can recall when someone touched me in a way that I didn’t like, without asking, and it made me uncomfortable in a way I didn’t like. It took a bit of energetic preparation, but I found myself able to speak up and say that I would prefer to be asked before being touched. This seemed to work in the short-term, although it later learned that that person didn’t seem to be particularly respectful of these agreements in general. I mentioned this to the host and she said that she’d talk to them about it, and that in general people who don’t respect the agreements aren’t welcome in the space. For reasons that are entirely logistical, I haven’t been to a party there since, so I don’t know how this was dealt with.

Reflecting on “uncomfortable in a way I didn’t like,” above: I think a lot of this is about control. If someone is violating your consent, it makes you feel out of control really fast, especially if you’re torn between wanting to be in the cuddle space but not wanting to be touched by that person. By contrast, when it comes to observing, we’re much more in control of our own experience.

Allow me to propose the term “meta-comfortable”. Meta-comfort refers to the ability to be okay with your discomfort. When practicing CoZE, you’re going to become uncomfortable, so it’s important to have a safe environment where your discomfort isn’t the end of the world. There are a number of strategies for this:

  • having other people who are there to help you work through your discomfort
  • creating a context where people expect there might be some discomfort
  • framing the discomfort as being part of the growth experience
  • encouraging people to be vocal about how they’re feeling to reduce the sense of isolation that can occur

In addition to the direct benefits of touch, cuddle parties can be an excellent place to expand your comfort zone and to learn new ways to interact with people. Also, a great place to practice skills like explicit consent and build affordances for using them.

If you have more questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to email me 🙂.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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