I cuddled with strangers at a San Francisco cuddle party alongside other members of the city’s intimacy-starved workforce. No, it wasn’t that weird.

In San Francisco’s ‘organised intimacy’ arena, intimacy can take many forms. I prefer the kind that exists within an established emotional connection. Samantha Lee/Business Insider
  • Cuddle parties are intimate gatherings where strangers meet, practice consent, and enjoy human touch.
  • There are some hosted in San Francisco, a city with a long track record of bucking social norms and celebrating innovation – in technology, sex, intimacy, or otherwise.
  • The events are non-sexual, and while they may not be experiences for everyone, their message of proactive consent and communication can help build healthy relationships, trust, and confidence.
  • I decided to go to a cuddle party out of keen curiosity. I found that intimacy takes many forms, but I prefer the kind that exists when established emotional connections, romantic or otherwise, are in place.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I’m lying with my leg draped over a fellow cuddler, my head resting on the collar of his shirt and his arm wrapped around me with his hand stroking my hair. There’s another cuddler, a woman who, like me, had never been to a cuddle party, on his opposite side in the exact same position as me. Her face is inches from mine across from our male companion’s chest.

I feel his foot move toward mine. “Is it ok if I run my foot over yours?”

“Yep,” I said.

There were about seven clusters of platonic cuddlers in the space. Some were forming “spoon drawers,” where multiple people curl around each other in one direction. Some were forming puppy piles. Others laid down with their body nested in another whose body was nested in another and so on, as a chain, in a so-called human train. Consent is the focal point of these cuddle parties, which are explicitly non-sexual. Before you lay a hand on a fellow attendee, you must ask them if it’s alright. Around us, murmurs of “Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” “Can I rub your back?” and “Can I touch your face?” could be heard. Soft music, like Bob Marley’s “One Love” and John Mayer’s “Gravity,” played.

I had met the people with whom I was now snuggling about two hours beforehand. And they were there for the same reason that we all were: human touch.

Are you lonely? Let’s cuddle

Cuddle Party cofounder Reid Mihalko at a Cuddle Party on August 11, 2004 in New York. Chip East CME/Reuters

The modern cuddle party concept and movement as we know it kicked off in 2004 out of a New York City apartment. Sixteen years later and there’s the largest organisation of its kind, Cuddle Party, with so-called cuddle party facilitators (like my party’s, the jovial, bearded San Francisco-based sex educator, consultant, and professional cuddler Dr. Yoni Alkan) worldwide that host groups of strangers in need of intimacy and platonic human touch, among other areas of practice and focus. There are some in Dallas, New York City, and beyond the US in Ireland and Sweden.

The concept of non-sexual, stranger-with-stranger cuddling has steadily seeped into other areas of the 21st-century job market. Professional cuddlers trained through certification programs like Cuddlist sprang into being, with some charging $US60 to $US80 for a one-on-one cuddle session. Cuddle shops opened, like Cuddle Up To Me in Portland, Oregon, and the smaller, Los Angeles-based Cuddle Sanctuary.

These gatherings are places to get high for a little bit on some oxytocin, a hormone that, in part, acts as a bonding agent for humans as well as an “antidote to depressive feelings,” according to Psychology Today.

It’s a “happy” chemical released through human touch, among other activities, that counteracts cortisol, a hormone that, in addition to other roles, is known as the “stress hormone.” That hormone is part of the reason why there were 30 strangers, myself included, filed into a cosy San Francisco building for a cuddle party in the first place. Stress is something we were all too familiar with.

Humans are living increasingly fast-paced lives with little work-life balance – especially in the work hard/play hard tech industry of Silicon Valley. We’re married to our electronic devices, and, according to a 2017 Pew Research Centre study, are waiting longer to find partners or start families, if at all – a valid decision but one that can mean a lack of physical intimacy with a significant other. A 2019 US News and World Report survey ranked San Francisco as one of the best places for singles to live in the country, referencing the 52% of its population that is without a partner.

“We live in these little boxes and we’re disconnected and our groceries can be delivered – our everything can be delivered – [when] we press a button,” Dr. O. Christina Nelsen, a sexologist and psychologist and the CEO and founder of San Francisco Intimacy and Sex Therapy Centres, told me. “So there are a lot of people that don’t have that daily connection through touch or even eye-gazing.”

In a city, and society, where people are more digitally connected than ever, there can be a true lack of human connection. While loneliness hasn’t been identified as a mental health condition, studies have shown a link between loneliness and a higher risk of early death, cardiovascular issues, and poor mental health, among other conditions.

Lonely people of the world may unite at cuddle parties, but their inclusion in the San Francisco Bay Area market specifically could be categorised as part of a larger trend in the city: organised intimacy, as Vice’s Andrew Chamings wrote in March 2019. There are eye contact parties, which one writer described as being “more intimate than an orgy,” $US35-$US60 tantra speed dating sessions for singles, and then, of course, actual sex parties. Cuddle parties are much more G-rated than many of such events you’ll find in the city, but either way, San Francisco is the perfect place for them.

Cuddle parties are nothing new in San Francisco

During San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love’ in 1957. Robert W. Klein/AP

The city has long possessed a proclivity for embracing innovation, for technology or intimacy or otherwise. Counterculture is a mainstay in San Francisco – that was true in the city’s hippie-era 60s heyday and it’s true in today’s predominantly experimental, biohacking tech environment. San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district became the birthplace for the bohemian movement that would sweep the nation. The neighbourhood was where thousands flocked for the Summer of Love that helped shape the city’s social norms and defining traits of sexual liberation and letting it all hang out.

So cuddle parties may be experiencing a 21st-century reawakening, but Nelsen, the psychologist and sexologist, said they’re nothing new.

“I see this as probably a really positive way that people are exploring ways to get their needs met, but also that it’s a continuation that’s been happening for decades,” she said.

The city’s long-standing reputation for, and openness to, experimentation may be to thank for its burgeoning market for previously taboo concepts like cuddling with strangers. But Nelsen said a need for connection obviously isn’t unique to San Franciscans.

“I think it’s easy to look at it like, ‘Oh, well it’s more liberal, it’s different and wild, San Francisco having cuddle parties and all that,” Nelsen, a San Francisco resident of 25 years, said. But, she said, humans in various cultures across the world have rituals that breed connection, community, and a space where core needs are met. These gatherings are just another example of that.

“We have a biological need and a psychological need for connection and for touch,” Nelsen said. “And we live in such a disjointed culture these days, and a lot of people don’t have that.”

In such a lonely, disjointed world, intimacy has become a commodity that can be packaged and sold, in this case on a Saturday afternoon in a San Francisco building for $US35.

‘Spoon drawer’ anyone?

Alkan, the facilitator of the party I attended, has been hosting these non-sexual cuddle parties for three years now. He’s the only San Francisco party facilitator for the Cuddle Party organisation and the events can be difficult to get into, Alkan told me on a video call days after the cuddle party. They typically sell out a month in advance due to popularity, but space and San Francisco’s high rent costs are also two big factors.

“When people charge you the amount of money that you are about to make from the event, it makes it very difficult to find a venue,” Alkan later told me.

I booked mine a month and a half beforehand. I showed up donned in loungewear to the secret “Cuddle Castle” 10 minutes before showtime, sober (attendees are told to not consume alcohol beforehand), and I was the first one there. Alkan gave me a warm greeting and instructed me where to put my shoes. The restroom was down the hall, and there’s the guacamole, with the name tags beside it, he said. We’ll begin as soon as everyone shows up.

And show up people eventually did. About 20 to 30 of us were crammed into the warm, lit space. There were blankets sprawled everywhere, with pillows in every crevice of the room. Inflatable beds and couches were placed among the more typical-looking living room furniture.

We lounged around the room, with tags stuck to the front of our shirts indicating our names and our pronouns. Mine read “Katie, she/her.” There was a tangible tentativeness in the room – some were repeat party goers, already cuddling as we waited for Alkan to take the stage. Others, like me, had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

I immediately fired up a conversation of pleasant small talk with the attendee who I would later cuddle with. This was her first time, she said. She was curious about what it was like. Another woman, a free spirit with flowing tendrils of dirty blonde hair, had met a friend at a separate mindfulness-related event who suggested she try a cuddle party. She was clearly in her element.

Later, after Alkan introduced himself and announced that a full refund would be given to anyone who decided in the next couple of hours that this wasn’t their cup of tea, we began taking turns going around introducing ourselves and saying why we were there. Some participants were part-time professional cuddlers, booking one-on-one sessions with clients on top of their “day job.” Some were what they called “bodyworkers,” some held IT jobs, some were mindfulness therapists, and some were from out of town.

And everyone had their own reason for being there. Some were lonely, some wanted to learn more about consent (“a muscle,” Alkan said, that can never be too strong), and some just wanted touch. One woman said she liked cuddle parties because they could recharge your batteries. Others said they usually got their cuddling fix from casual dates they matched with on dating apps, but they wanted to try the cuddling aspect without the disappointing sex that usually preceded it.

One young woman, who I later decided was quite possibly the bravest of the bunch, tearfully explained that she had recently gotten out of a serious relationship and was adapting to the crushing new lack of human contact in her life. She was there to take the edge off.

The first portion of the four-hour event was very much like a workshop, with breakout group sessions and the like. First, Alkan launched into explaining the 11 rules of the cuddle party. Rule No. 1: pajamas stay on. Alkan made it very clear that being attracted to or aroused by other attendees was normal and not something to be ashamed of. “It’s how our bodies work,” he said. But he did stress that this was a non-sexual event and to remember that. Even in the disclaimer at the time that I bought the online ticket, it was spelled out that if sex was desired, people should leave the premises after the fact if they wish to engage.

“We all have a hard time asking for what we want,” Alkan said.

Other rules were that “yes” and “no” should be heartily exercised when you’re discussing with a fellow cuddler what you want. Do you want them to put their hand on your shoulder? And more specifically, do you want them to massage it or squeeze it? He and his assistant demonstrated how to properly ask someone to touch them: Ask, and then wait for an answer before reaching your hand toward the intended spot on your fellow cuddler’s person.

Another rule was that changing your mind is encouraged. If you say yes to something but decide halfway through that you don’t like it after all, voice that to your cuddle partners.

Perhaps the one I found most interesting was that as important as it was to say no to what you didn’t want, Alkan stressed that it was just as critical a focus to practice saying yes to – and also asking for – what you did want. As humans, we’ve evolved into an independent-minded society, one where seeming needy is feared. “We all have a hard time asking for what we want,” Alkan later told me, whether that’s touch or asking for a raise at work.

Then came the exercises. One was grouping into threes and practicing saying yes or no, regardless of what the question was. For example, two of us aimed rapid-fire made-up questions, like “Will you go to the zoo with me?” or “Will you cut my hair?” at the third person, and that person had to practice saying no to every question. Then we’d switch.

The idea was to familiarise yourself with the concept of saying no to something, even if the question was ludicrous and out-of-place, so that you could more easily and firmly answer “no” truthfully in the future to something you don’t want to do.

Part of these exercises was also to practice being rejected. “We’re adults, we can take care of ourselves,” Alkan said in regard to handling rejection. He later told me that as a cisgender, heterosexual, white man, that’s one of the biggest lessons he’s wanted to teach through the gatherings that he facilitates: that it is possible to possess a type of masculinity that isn’t diminished by vulnerability or the grace with which to handle a rejection, though of course, that skill can apply to everyone regardless of gender.

Once the rules were spelled out and the workshop was complete, we jumped into the first step of cuddling: We hugged.

Alkan instructed us to stand and walk around the room, asking one another for a hug before embracing for as long as we’d like. I couldn’t remember the last time I stood with my arms wrapped around someone and vice versa for more than 20 seconds. You could feel how equally foreign and pleasant it was, a bunch of strangers in a room hugging while the rest of the world went about its business.

I eventually grouped up with two others and we started out slow and simple – sitting in a row against the wall atop pillows, all holding hands with our legs stretched out and crossed in front of us, chatting. We transitioned into laying down, with the male in our group on his back and us two women draped over either side of him.

A Band-Aid for loneliness, but a boon for consent

I lay there, eventually sinking into a cocoon of relief. There undoubtedly was a sense of fulfillment that I don’t typically find outside of this kind of physical intimacy. But I couldn’t let my feet leave the ground completely. However nice his arm felt, with his hand running through my hair, I knew there was something missing.

Attendees were encouraged to make cuddle bonds with each other and then separate to form new ones with others. Eventually the male cuddler who held me so gently announced he was moving on to find new cuddlers, thanked me for the touch, and joined another group. It made me wonder: Is intimacy something you can find with a stranger or do you only feel the true breadth of it with actual emotional bonds in place? My first instinct was that I agreed with the latter. It was a tough pill to swallow that we all were magically being cured of our loneliness there. It felt more like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

But Nelsen told me that that conclusion was a product of my own personal need when it pertains to intimacy and physical touch. For others like me that were, even subconsciously, yearning for a more heartfelt, established connection, cuddling with strangers was not going to meet the same level of need as being with somebody that you have a close bond with. But for certain people, that stranger-with-stranger cuddling can fit their needs perfectly. She said it was still genuine intimacy and, either way, your body reacts the same way physiologically and neurophysiologically.

“It makes sense that we’re, in some pockets, creating opportunities then to have connection,” Nelsen said. “Even if it’s not the type of connection you have with an intimate that you have an ongoing relationship with, it’s still going to meet a lot of those same in-the-moment needs, at least.”

A few days after the cuddle party, I spoke again with Alkan. He was honest when he, too, pointed out that cuddle parties were not a magic pill to cure loneliness and that it’s not a substitute for an intimate relationship, sexual or not, with a person you see often and have a personal rapport with. But on the other hand, experiencing touch with a stranger is a different brand of excitement than intimacy with an established partner might be. And besides, he said, that’s not the entire purpose of these intimacy events. The purpose of these cuddle parties is multifaceted, about consent and intimacy and comfort and so many other things, despite my own personal motives or preconceived notions. People, in San Francisco and outside of it, attend for various reasons.

As much as touch is missing in our lives, Alkan said consent is a practice that is even more sorely needed, which cuddle parties can address. Internalized gender roles and associated shame are issues that can be ironed out. And, as we practiced in the workshop portion of the party, cuddle parties can also help foster better communication for participants when asking for what they do or don’t want.

“The more we practice it, the better we get,” Alkan later told me.

It took me a while to feel comfortable enough practicing it, at least when it came to asking for things beyond simply laying down together. While lying in my tame cuddling position at one moment, I could see and hear in my periphery the more experienced cuddlers giggling and experimenting with how to contort their bodies together on the sofa, the inflatable bed, the pallet of blankets on the floor. If this was a swimming class, I was the one wearing floaties and they were diving off the platform into the deep end.

By the end of the party though, it had become a bit more second-nature. I was eventually the second spoon in a four-person “spoon drawer,” with two male cuddlers on either side of me. If I wanted to stroke their neck or shoulder, I asked and they said yes before I moved my hand to do so. If one of them wanted to rub my side, they asked and waited for my consent before moving their hand to my hip.

At the end, Alkan gave us an end-of-party spiel. It included how we were essentially high off of oxytocin, and if we were driving home, to be very, very careful while doing so. And I could definitely vouch for that – I felt lighter, my head was fuzzy, my muscles relaxed, and residual stress from the week and even months beforehand had dissipated. A part of me was fulfilled, thanks to the hours-long snuggling – the fact that it felt half empty instead of half full was my own personal problem.

We stood in a circle holding hands while Alkan “signed us off.” And then it was over.

I gave hugs to the people that I’d talked to, the strangers who I now felt were my friends. I hugged Alkan, after asking if it was alright that I do so, and he genuinely squeezed me back. “I’m glad you could be here,” he told me.

I left the warmly lit, cosy space and stepped out into the cold, dark night. The windows of apartments nearby were wide open, and I could see friends and families and loved ones laughing and eating and connecting with one another, free of charge.

I waited for my Uber, went home, and climbed into bed, hyper-aware of the absence of an arm around my shoulder.