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by Joel Tozer

At a time when relationships are increasingly being managed through computers, a new party scene is seekings to restore the importance of human touch by having strangers ask each other for cuddles.

In public halls and private homes across Sydney, people of all ages are handing over money in exchange for the latest form of therapy: a cuddle party.

Conceived in the United States five years ago by sex-therapist-couple Reid Mihalko and Marcia Baczynski, this new wave of relaxation is an opportunity for the touch-deprived to indulge in an anonymous act of pleasure.

Andrew Barnes, an Australian spokesman for Cuddle Parties says the concept of cuddling pyjama-clad strangers is “kind of edgy enough to make people curious, but it’s not out there enough to scare people away.”

But Mr Barnes says some people still have their reservations.

“One of the first questions people ask me is ‘Oh my god, do I have to throw my car keys in a bowl?’”

But the guidelines are clear – cuddle parties are a non-sexual party of unadulterated touch.

Relationships counsellor, Frances Amaroux, facilitates a personalised version of the cuddle party – termed ‘Snuggle Parties’ – which she says are very popular.

At the beginning of each party, the first time cuddlers introduce themselves in a welcoming circle. They comprise a broad range of men and women from their early twenties to late fifties; both couples and singles.

Before getting touchy, the rules of ‘cuddle language’ are made clear. Clothes stay on and genitals remain untouched. Ask permission and receive a verbal ‘yes’ before touching anyone.

Participants go through an exercise at the start of the party where one person asks for a hug and the other says no, regardless of whether they want a hug or not.

Frances Amaroux admits that not everyone comes to the party to touch some people just go to practice saying ‘no’.

“I’m sure there are a bunch of guys that will turn up hoping to get a free grope, and good on them! But the reality is, people [at the party] are told to ask for what they want and to say no. And for that ‘no’ to be respected,” she said.

With such an intimate setting, couples are advised to set out their rules before the party and stick to them. Jacqui Ward, 32, full time massage therapist and second time cuddler took her partner along to a cuddle party.

“We were a bit nervous and didn’t know what to expect. The idea of hugging a stranger, or the awkwardness of communicating what I wanted was freaking me out,” she said.

Relaxing in a pile of blankets and pillows brought from home, Jacqui said she felt at ease knowing that it was a non-sexual environment. It has even been good for her business.

“As a massage therapist there is an agreed set of boundaries that you work with and the cuddle party is so different to that. I feel a lot more relaxed interacting with people,” she said.

But what makes people so keen to ask for touch from strangers? Frances says most people that come to the party are looking for a partner or a new circle of friends.

With over 45 registered cuddle party facilitators in the United States and two in Australia, not to mention the many people holding Cuddle or Snuggle Parties of their own, the feel-good cuddle therapy is gaining converts.

Perhaps it is a reaction to our increasingly touch-starved online relationships with our friends and partners, but more likely, it’s an excuse to get up and close with other cuddle-hungry adults in an anonymous session of touching and laughter.