I Paid Money To Cuddle With Strangers. It Didn't Go The Way I Thought It Would.

The author in her pajamas.
The author in her pajamas. Courtesy of Megan McCarthy

I couldn’t get anyone to go with me.

As a writer about pleasure, I felt compelled to experience a cuddle party, and I learned about one in New York City that claimed to be “a warm evening of connection, cuddles and consent.” My husband of 25 years, Mark, said the thing sounded “weird,” and my most daring friend simply wrinkled her nose. So I bought a single ticket on Eventbrite, as if this event was just another conventional form of entertainment, like a concert or a play.

A cuddle party is a “social event where participants engage in consensual, non-sexual touch and affectionate physical contact,” or so says my new best friend ChatGPT4. Despite the bland description, just reading those words set my senses aglow. For $69 (oddly enough), I would soon be cuddling with strangers in a NYC loft.

At 77, I’m fairly old, but I’m very fit, and I think I’m quite cute. My husband says I’m the most beautiful woman in the world, so I assumed I was cuddle-worthy.

I do like a good cuddle, but I’ve only cuddled with people I know well: boyfriends, husbands and my sons when they were children. Now I nuzzle my granddaughters, ages 3 and 7, but only briefly, because unless they’re sleepy, they don’t stay still for long.

I’ve rarely felt the urge to cuddle a friend, but I now wondered what it would feel like to cuddle a woman. What about two women? Possibilities expanded. How about cuddling two men and a woman at once?

Cuddling is defined as hugging, embracing, nestling, stroking. It’s not sexual, although it can easily become so, but not at the cuddle party. The website for the event was clear: “THIS EVENT IS NON-SEXUAL, DRUG AND ALCOHOL FREE, AND LIMITED TO PARTICIPANTS WHO ARE 18+.”

The site also posted a list of rules, including: “You don’t have to cuddle anyone... ever” and “You must ask permission and receive a verbal YES before you touch anyone. (Be as specific in your request as you can.)”

Before we’d get to cuddle, there would be a one-hour workshop on consent. Consent is important, but I wondered why such a simple concept warranted an entire hour of discussion, and I fretted this would give us less time for the main activity.

The website advised us to bring “comfy pajamas” (not lingerie) to change into and noted that pajamas were to remain on for the entire event. I wanted to wear my best PJs — teal blue trimmed with white rickrack — but they were short, possibly immodest, and my arms and legs might be cold, so I chose a long pair instead (a wise choice because the venue ended up being chilly).

In the days leading up to the event, I kept daydreaming about the cuddle party.  I imagined a sensual paradise — a radiant garden where attractive and open-minded people playfully intertwined. One person would stroke my hair. I would caress somebody’s shoulder. Somebody else would be pressed against my back, spooning me. My new friends and I would be touching right up to the sexual line (the collar bone but not the breast), and our restraint would be erotically charged. All would be guileless and guiltless. Pleasure in public with strangers! An extended sensuous carnival! What joy lay ahead!

At the last minute, as I was packing my pajamas, Mark said, “Maybe I’ll come with you, after all,” but by then the event was sold out. So I went alone, just as I’d gone solo to Burning Man 15 years earlier (and what a time that had been!).

This particular cuddle party keeps a low profile. There was no sign for the event in the lobby, and the address, which was in Manhattan’s financial district, wasn’t provided to me until shortly before the event.

When I got into the elevator, a young man was already inside and pressing the button for the cuddle party floor. If it’s usually awkward to be sharing a small elevator car with a stranger (you may nod in greeting, but you basically wall yourself off), it’s twice as awkward when you are both going to a cuddle party, where you might soon be touching. As we ascended, the young man and I avoided looking at each other.

The elevator door opened directly into a loft. The foyer area was small and crowded, with many people in line for the single bathroom. A woman with a clipboard signed me in, and then I proceeded to the big room, where about thirty people were lolling about on couches and futons and pillows. I went into a screened-off cubicle, changed into my pajamas, and joined the others.

I was impressed by how racially diverse the crowd was — just like Manhattan. Most people were in their 30s and 40s. I did see a few in their 20s and two or three people around my age. One woman was there with her daughter, who looked to be about 45.

The facilitator, with his balding head and graying beard, also appeared to be around my age, which put me at my ease. I chatted with him as more people arrived and we waited for the program to start. He was genial, enthusiastic and kind. He’s been doing this work for years, and he told me his father is a cuddle party facilitator as well.

I made a quick calculation. That meant his father must be at least 90 — how great that he was still working!

“How old is your dad?” I asked the facilitator.

“73,” he replied.

I realized this man whom I thought was my age must be in his 40s. How could I be so far off? Perhaps I was this far off about many things.

I looked around the room trying to decide if these folks were hot or not. The couple closest to me was definitely attractive, but most of the people in the room were of average appearance. There were a few participants I thought most people would happily pursue and a few most would not, and about 20 people in the middle. There seemed to be an equal number of women and men, a few of whom probably identified as LGBTQ+.

We did exercises where we asked for the kind of touch we wanted and were turned down, and we did exercises where we turned down others’ requests. This seemed silly at first, but the simulations achieved the goal of making us comfortable both requesting and turning down cuddles — and also getting rebuffed.

Although the website emphasized strict punctuality and said the doors would be locked at 7 p.m. sharp, we waited half an hour for the latecomers to straggle in.

As we waited, I couldn’t help noticing the general grubbiness of the venue. I wish the organizers had hired a cleaning service or rented a higher-end loft. More disturbing was the huge window on the south wall of the space. It had no blinds or drapes, so people on the upper floors of the building across the street could look right in. Anybody with a telephoto lens could see and photograph any of us.

Finally, the welcome circle was formed and the workshop began. We were told how to ask for and refuse consent. We did exercises where we asked for the kind of touch we wanted and were turned down, and we did exercises where we turned down others’ requests. This seemed silly at first, but the simulations achieved the goal of making us comfortable both requesting and turning down cuddles — and also getting rebuffed. They helped us verbalize our requests and responses frankly, without fear, and I realized that this experience could affect us well beyond cuddling with strangers. What seemed like a dreary preamble to the evening was actually providing us with a useful skill.

Of course, there was the usual workshop jargon I’d encountered in similar situations. We were in a “safe space.” The room was our “container.” We should respect people’s boundaries. We should practice mindfulness. (And I should probably practice being nonjudgmental!)

Finally, the workshop was over, and, as the website promised, we’d have “a couple of hours for free-style cuddle time” which we could use to “relax, chat, cuddle, have a snack, or just hang out.” I didn’t want to have a snack or just hang out. I looked longingly over at the attractive couple who had been sitting near me when I first arrived but now were further away and facing another direction. Was I paranoid or had they taken evasive action?

I looked elsewhere. No one was looking at me or waving me over, but the exercises had emboldened me. I asked the person closest to me, a tall fellow of about 35, “Could I stroke your forearm?” He gave his consent, so I stroked his forearm. It wasn’t especially pleasurable, and it didn’t lead to further touch. After a while, I thanked him and moved on to a woman who agreed to let me caress her cheek.

My few requests were never denied, but no one ever asked to touch me.

After about half an hour, I began to feel — to misquote Nora Ephron — like a wallflower at the non-orgy.

I noticed that many people were not cuddling, just awkwardly chatting with each other. I found the absence of alcohol or, for me, pot, made it harder to be sociable. Perhaps newbies to cuddle parties are often inhibited.

I ended up on a banquette with another first-timer, a German woman around my age. We spoke about ourselves. I told her I was happily married. She said she was looking for a partner and showed me her “dating cards,” which she proactively gave to men who interested her, a gambit I admired. The cards contained only her first name and her phone number. She said she didn’t want prospective dates doing internet research on her (I wish I’d asked why!), and she didn’t want emails. She wanted calls. She wanted voices. She wanted true connection. She had come to the cuddle party for some touch, yet like perhaps half the people in the room, she wasn’t cuddling, she was talking.

Maybe she and I could have cuddled, but at the time it didn’t occur to me. I moved toward the crackers and cheese.

I did see some cuddling going on — a few people on the rug were hugging a pretty woman of about 30 — but I was never part of such a poly pile. I saw no people I wanted to embrace, and no one seemed eager to embrace me. My warmly envisioned garden was drying out and withering.

Or maybe only I was.

Is any experience as thrilling as one’s fondest expectations? Perhaps only being a grandparent. And what did I expect — that I, a granny, would come to this party and be the belle of the ball? My loving husband had made me ridiculously self-confident.

I slunk out before the closing circle.

“I have to catch my train,” I said at the door, revealing myself as a suburbanite.

I was suddenly eager to return to the man who’d cuddle me whenever I wanted, no consent required.

The author and her husband, Mark Thompson.
The author and her husband, Mark Thompson. Courtesy of Megan McCarthy

Mark was asleep when I crept into bed, with his back facing me, which I prefer. I snuggled against his back and put one leg over him. In his sleep, he held my foot.

I was home.

A few days later, I got a message from the German woman. She’d come down with Covid and asked how I felt.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if I’d caught Covid at a cuddle party… without having done any cuddling?

But I hadn’t caught Covid. I’d gotten my booster shot and I was fine.

The only thing I caught at the cuddle party was a blow to my vanity ... and I was already beginning to recover.

Catherine Hiller’s weekly Substack newsletter is The Pleasure Principle. Her most recent novel, “Cybill Unbound,” is about the sexual adventures of an older woman. She is also the author of a short story collection, “Skin,” which John Updike called “Good, brave, and joyful fiction,” and the controversial “Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir.” Short pieces have appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review, AARP Magazine, Ms., the Girlfriend, NextTribe, the Westchester Review and the Antioch Review. She is co-producer of the documentary film “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.”