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A Touchy Subject

At Cuddle Parties, Strangers Don PJs and Snuggle Up

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page C01

If Reid Mihalko is right, nearly all of us are desperate for someone, anyone, even someone we've just met, to hold us, rub our feet, stroke our hair. And because this is about healing, this someone might give us a long, soul-baring kiss. Then, our needs fulfilled, we might venture back into the real world, boasting that we'd been to a cuddle party, the grandest social experiment since the 1970s brought us primal screams and group rebirthings.

If Reid Mihalko is wrong, then the scores of people who've been paying him for the privilege of letting strangers spoon with them are really, really weird.

In a "puppy pile," Su Sinclair, left, and organizer Reid Mihalko, bottom, are among those sharing their personal space at a recent cuddle party. (Photos Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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But let's take the optimistic view. Let's celebrate the cuddle party, a six-month-old trend that started in Manhattan but feels decidedly West Coast. It hit Washington recently for the first time. It is run by Mihalko and his business partner -- two self-proclaimed (that is, uncredentialed) sex and romance coaches.

Everybody needs their "daily recommended allowance of touch," says Mihalko, standing in a suite in the Hotel George on Capitol Hill last Saturday with the blissed-out expression common among gurus. "We live in a very touch-deprived society."

Mihalko is a strapping blond fellow with big teeth and a superhero jaw. Today he is wearing a Superman T-shirt stretched across his muscled chest and a pair of orange flannel pajama bottoms. He keeps invoking his favorite word, "touch." He says that his mission is to encourage "touch-positive" behavior. He says things like "everybody has concerns regarding touch" and "affectionate touch doesn't need to lead to sex." He also likes the word "confronting," as in, "intimacy can be really confronting for people."

Thirteen people arrive, mostly in twos and fours, at1 p.m. They change into pajamas and put on name tags. World music and jazz soften the mood. Mihalko asks them to gather in a "welcome circle" on the blankets arranged on the floor. He calls himself "your cuddle lifeguard" and introduces the other organizer, Marcia Baczynski, who wears thick-rimmed hipster glasses and pajama bottoms printed with a Froot Loops design.

"This is about people being able to explore touch and affection in a nonsexual way," Mihalko says. "Just because we 'grow up,' whatever that is, I don't think that we all of a sudden stop needing to be held."

He explains the rules: Everybody must ask permission of everyone else before doing anything. Kissing is as far as things can go. Nobody has to cuddle at all if he or she doesn't want to. Nobody can take off his or her clothes.

Mihalko tells people to discuss their "cuddle boundaries" and turns them loose. Within minutes, he is bundled up with three women, his legs intertwined with theirs, his expression beatific. Elsewhere in the room, there is foot stroking and a four-person back-massage chain. An exotic dancer, Jade Patten, 25, massages the hand of a 28-year-old Web site developer named Robbe Richman. There is discussion about society's cuddling hang-ups, and someone makes reference to Plato being "touch-negative."

Coby Mitchell, 34, a "varsity cuddler" from Brooklyn, N.Y., who has come to Washington for the day, is lying on the floor behind Joe Glassman, 35, of Arlington. Mitchell has a leg snuggled between Glassman's legs and an arm is draped across his chest. They've known each other for an hour.

Glassman's fiancee, Su Sinclair, 26, is at the other end of the blanket, cuddling with Mihalko.

There are a few people on the bed, stiff and unmoving. They look around uneasily.

Reid Mihalko often muses on the adult world's loss of innocence. As kids, he says, we made pillow forts in the living room. We threw slumber parties. We held hands and braided each other's hair. Then adolescence happened, and all of that ended.

"Why did we stop touching each other?" he asks with the earnestness of a pageant contestant who has just discovered world hunger.

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