Inside Chicago's Romantic, Boundary-Filled Cuddle Parties

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 28, 2016 6:41PM

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Three way hug, Chicago Adventures Meetup, November 2015. Photo by Matt Koziel.

Cuddling to connect, even with strangers, creates a space of “innocent intimacy” and helps alleviate loneliness, something that can’t always be achieved in the swipe right, app-enabled world.

Private cuddle sessions and public cuddle-up events attract both singles and couples looking to reduce anxiety and to feel physically rejuvenated through the curative power of spooning. Some say cuddling is the new yoga—and there are definite similarities, according to Madelon Guinazzo, co-founder and director of training for Cuddlist, a network of “certified cuddlists” trained to empower their clients through consensual, nonsexual touch.

“We are very present in a cuddle session—present with ourselves and with another person,” said Guinazzo, who leads both individual and group cuddle sessions in Chicago. “Cuddling involves a specific degree of self-awareness of our bodies and minds. And similar to yoga, it’s physical. Stretching changes the chemical balance in the body and cuddling releases oxytocin which produces a sense of well-being and happiness.”

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Cuddlist group at a social get-together in New York City, on Jan. 9, 2016. via Cuddliest.com

Best practices for cuddling boil down to boundaries and consent. Cuddlist, which launched in 2015, provides their professional cuddlers and clients with a Code of Conduct that encourages confidentiality, bans exchanging saliva, and requires minimum clothing of tank top and mid-thigh shorts. Public events—such as those hosted by the Cuddle Party network (Guinazzo is a party facilitator for the Chicago outpost)—also follow a set of rules designed to make participants feel safe and accepted. No alcohol is permitted, pajamas stay on the whole time, and the following guiding principal is honored by everyone in attendance: “If you’re a yes, say yes, if you’re a no, say no. If you’re a maybe—say no.”

“The Code of Conduct is the fence around the playground; within the playground you can play safely. This could include spooning, hugs, foot rubs, neck rubs, cradling, scalp massage—a session looks like whatever works for both parties involved,” said Guinazzo, who sees a dozen clients a week, mostly men, in her role as a professional cuddlist. “Men seem to be more touch deprived, while women have more access to socially acceptable touch,” added Guinazzo, who charges $80 an hour, a figure she said is comparable to a massage therapy session.

While overt sexual touching is outside the playground parameter, Guinazzo frowns on sex shaming. “We don’t have a problem with honesty. If you need that, go find it somewhere else. It’s all about being human, and responses, like an erection, are normal, healthy responses—we simply don’t have to act on them.” She said when someone is sexually aroused, in a private or group session, participants are urged to change positions or take a break. If the participants want to talk about it they can or they can just move on.

“We know erections can happen—we’re not anti-sex at all—but when you enter the realm of sex it changes the cuddle experience, said Dwight Okita, co-organizer of Cuddle Adventures for Gay Men, which had its first Meetup event at the Center on Halsted in November 2015.

“Just because this experience isn’t meant to be sexual, that doesn’t mean it’s not sensual. It often feels romantic, too. One of my favorite cuddling moments is when I am holding someone and we are both closing our eyes, just holding each other…it speaks to an intimacy that a single person doesn’t always have access to,” said Okita.

Okita also compared the transformative benefits of cuddling to yoga and meditation.
“There are parallels to yoga—both are about using your body in new ways to create better energy flow,” he explained. “I think they are both about mindfulness and how to be more present. When you are cuddling someone you aren’t thinking about your laundry, you’re thinking about who this person is, and who you are in that moment.”

And akin to yoga, Okita’s group promotes specific positions to ensure the benefits of cuddling are shared by everyone. Cuddle positions include “the starfish,” where participants lie on their backs with their heads at the center of a circle, holding hands and looking at the ceiling; and “the fork” which has cuddlers lying face to face ideally with their eyes open.

“We’re different from other cuddle parties because we like to try positions. We’ve found that if you don’t provide structure, people might sit on the sofa and not interact. This way, everyone is always cuddling someone. One of the main differences between Madelon’s Cuddle Party and ours is that cuddling is not required for that group. They can sit and chat and so on like they are at a party,” explained Okita.

The Cuddle Adventures for Gay Men group, which has about 130 members, was formed to address issues that Okita says are endemic of some gay men, specifically an attraction to what some perceive as an ideal physical form.

“I used to be involved in massage groups… and there came a point when people’s appearances were not relevant, that it was not about who was ‘hot.’ I wanted to replicate that in the cuddle group.”

Even in the most nonjudgmental, stress-free setting, Guinazzo freely admits that not everyone is going to be open to cuddling as a transformative experience. “People are different. Some are picky eaters, others need a certain amount of sleep…not everyone benefits from being touched,” she said. Nevertheless, the platonic touch phenom continues to expand. In 2014, the film Cuddle: The Documentary was released with the aim of dispelling preconceived notions about group and one-on-one cuddling sessions.

For Okita, cuddling make him more cognizant of his existing relationships.

“Cuddling makes me aware of how tactile my friendships are,” he said. “I am more conscious of how much time we spend together without any physical contact. Even it’s just putting my hand on someone’s shoulder, that small gesture connects you.”

The next Cuddle Adventures for Gay Men Meetup is March 11.