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.
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.
Perhaps because of his concern that people will confuse cuddle parties with orgies, Mihalko has adopted a kind of kindergarten teacher language. He calls the people who attend his parties "cuddle monsters" and calls their praise "cuddlemonials." He signs his Cuddle Party newsletters with phrases like "Happy spooning." He says his parties create a "safe space" that allows people to be "energetically open." He has a community of apostles who attend cuddle party after cuddle party, saying it relieves stress and social anxieties.
Cuddle party guests have included a born-again Christian, a sanitation worker, a tattooed general contractor and a man who was either an Orthodox or a Hasidic Jew, Mihalko isn't sure which. Many of the cuddlers are in their twenties and thirties. The oldest cuddler was an octogenarian.
It costs $30 to attend a cuddle party; $20 if you take advantage of the Endless Summer Spooning Special and sign up with a friend. There are also cuddle party T-shirts and mugs and teddy bears and thongs. Mihalko and Baczynski say they're planning a book and training courses so other people can throw cuddle parties.
As she collects money by the door, Baczynski says she wants to hold an HIV-positive cuddle party and a senior citizen cuddle party. Perhaps they should hold one for college freshmen, she says, and for people with autism, and for the S&M community and members of Alcoholics Anonymous and for practitioners of polyamory, a modern twist on sexual swinging.
Mihalko says he caps the sexual tension at his parties by holding them during the day, banning alcohol and making sure no one wears lingerie. He says kissing is allowed because it's not necessarily sexual.
"When is kissing making out?" Mihalko asks. "When's kissing just nurturing? . . . I can be hugging you and my hand is partially touching your breast and you can feel completely at home and safe. Or, you can be in an elevator and you can have somebody barely touching you and you can feel unsafe."
Still, there are moments when the cuddle party feels like a warm-up for something steamier. There are a few swingers at Saturday's event, though they don't wish to be publicly identified. Toward the end of the afternoon, a cuddler in a group hug surreptitiously caresses the backside of the woman beside him.
"I get now what my life's been leading up to," Mihalko says in a moment of introspection. "We all want touch in our lives, but nobody's telling each other."
Mihalko's journey toward his destiny has been uneven. At 36, he has held just about every job other than professional cuddler. He grew up in Pelham, a small town in southern New Hampshire. At Brown University, he studied fine arts and did comic book illustration and played football. He studied karate and massage. He moved to New York and played an evil henchman and an evil nurse on soap operas. He became a minister on the Internet through the Universal Life Church. He spent 21/2 years taking courses at Landmark Education, an outgrowth of the '70s est movement.
For 14 years he has also been working as a bartender. After talking to many customers about their relationships, he says, he decided to become a sex and romance coach. Although he has no degrees or official training, he has read a lot and "had a lot of conversations with experts."
He has written several romantic comedy screenplays and sitcoms, none of which has sold, and an as-yet unpublished "humorous how-to book for men on oral sex."
He met Baczynski at a party.
"Our first conversation was like, 'Oh, you're a sex educator? I'm a sex educator!' " Baczynski says.
Now 26, Baczynski studied public relations and women's issues at the University of Georgia. According to her online biographies, she has been involved with AIDS groups and women's sexuality forums, and is a "registered Barbara Sher success team leader."
In February, after throwing some massage parties, Mihalko came up with the idea for a cuddle party. He invited Baczynski, who offered to join forces. These days, the business is about breaking even, Mihalko says, and he pays his bills bartending and working as a romance coach.
He is unmarried, and won't say much about his dating situation. "All the relationships in my life are fully expressed," he says.
About two hours into the cuddle party, the three men and a woman who've been sitting awkwardly on the bed stand up and move toward the door. They look shell-shocked. "There's a guy's nipple hanging out of his shirt," one of the shell-shocked fellows says, eyeing a husky cuddler in a loose-fitting tank top. He and his friends head out the door as Mihalko strokes a woman's face and talks about something being "so confronting."
It is only over the next few days that the rest of the cuddlers find out that the four who left abruptly were employees of DC-101's "Elliot in the Morning" radio show, sent by shock jock Elliot Segal to infiltrate the party and report back on the air. On Monday, they entertain the listening audience with tales of a foot massage.
The cuddlers also discover that the impostors came with the permission of Mihalko and Baczynski, who kept the whole thing a secret. Suddenly, the cuddle party's "safe space" doesn't seem so safe anymore. Several cuddlers feel betrayed. Mihalko and Baczynski are suspect. Was getting publicity more important than maintaining the sanctity of the cuddle party?
"It sort of felt like they were sort of shamelessly self-promoting themselves," says Patten, the exotic dancer. "They've just basically violated trust."
"This has been an amazing learning experience," Mihalko says in the days after the party, as he sifts though angry e-mails from D.C. cuddlers. He says he wasn't going to let the interlopers come to the party until he had an "amazing phone conversation" with Segal, who convinced him radio coverage would be a positive thing.
"We actually have a lot of people who have signed up for the newsletter, crediting DC-101," he says.
Perhaps these are the inevitable growing pains of a new movement. In any case, several of the D.C. cuddlers are still high on their experience. Ursula Esser, 28, of Arlington, says the cuddling gave her an epiphany. She realized that she has been starved for emotional intimacy. And even Patten says she might cuddle again. She feels like she made several good friends, which is strange, she admits, given that she doesn't know their last names.
But who needs last names when there is the power of touch?
At the end of the cuddle party, Mihalko and Baczynski initiate a "puppy pile." Everyone lies on the floor on top of one another, arms and legs intertwined. Someone's head is on someone else's buttocks, and someone else's head is just about in someone else's armpit.
"Whose foot's that?" someone asks.
The music cycles around to John Lennon's "Imagine." And for the moment we're all dreamers, and the world is living as one.