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What Are Cuddle Parties and How Should Churches Respond to This Need?

What Are Cuddle Parties and How Should Churches Respond to This Need?

It’s okay if you haven’t heard of cuddle parties. They have been around since the early 2000s and enjoyed a bit of a buzz in the couple years before a pandemic. Not that I have my hand on the pulse of these things, but from simple online searches, it seems that much of the buzz around cuddle parties has diminished. But I think their existence may point to a missing element in the way we are living out our faith

What Are Cuddle Parties?

A cuddle party is exactly what it sounds like. People come together for the purpose of cuddling. Cuddle Party is a 501c3 whose purpose is to “promote and enable empowered consent, choice and nurturing touch.” They work to train facilitators all across the US to host their own events. Cuddle Party explains what these events are about: 

“You can come to a Cuddle Party to meet new people, to enjoy amazing conversations, to touch, to be touched, to have fun, to practice asking for what you want, to practice saying ‘no’ to what you don’t want—all in a setting structured to be a safe place for exploration and enjoyment. You can even come to a Cuddle Party just to cuddle!”

To be clear, cuddle parties are not about sex. There are strict rules against kissing or heavy petting. It’s about touch, really. Studies have shown that when we hug one another, oxytocin is released in our brains, and it makes us feel better. We were created for human touch. Jon Fortenbury, who attended a cuddle party, explains, “It was not a front for an orgy or a bunch of touchy-feely hippies preaching peace and love, but a group of individuals who craved the kind of non-sexual human connection that many people don’t get if they’re single.”

Imagine 20 or so people, mostly strangers, gathering in a room wearing pajamas and then spending an hour dancing, hugging, and cuddling together—all with permission from the others. That is a cuddle party. I’ll confess, the whole thing seems strange to me. I’ve never been to a cuddle party, and I am pretty confident it is not something that I would attend. Why would you want to cuddle a stranger? 

But as I ask this question, it makes me pause. What is going on that cuddle parties need to be a thing? What are we missing in our society? And is this something also missing in our churches? 

Why Do Cuddle Parties Exist?

When we hear of something like a cuddle party, our first instinct can be to either assume that it’s an excuse for sexual promiscuity or to dismiss it as just being weird and pathetic. But if we put those feelings on pause for a moment, and believe the organizers when they say it isn’t about sex, then perhaps we can ask important questions about this event. What is happening in our society that is making people so desperate for human touch that they will pay $80 per hour to be hugged by another human? 

We Have Oversexualized Human Touch

Intimacy. 

When you read that word, what does your mind go towards? If you’re like most Westerners, you almost immediately associate intimacy with sexuality. We live in such a sex-crazed culture that it is almost impossible to think about touch or intimacy without sexualizing it. And this has horrendous consequences. 

It means that within our families and society at large, things like hugs and handshakes are becoming less and less common. People are longing for meaningful human touch and only know how to achieve that through sexual touch. To that end, cuddle parties may actually be a healthier movement. But it highlights a gaping hole in our communities.  

We Are Functional Gnostics 

One of the hallmarks of Gnosticism was a separation of our bodies from our spirits. As much as I’d like to focus on how our culture gets this one wrong, the truth is we might be worse on this point within our churches. How many of the hymns and songs that we sing are anti-body? We neglect the importance of the physical body. We relegate it to the fallen order and neglect our physical body to focus upon that which we think really matters—our spirit. But we are holistic beings. Separating the two makes us functional Gnostics. 

I wonder if we might modernize the words of James 2:14-17 in regard to physical touch. “If a brother or sister is desperate for a meaningful hug and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’ without giving them a hug, what good is that? 

 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Vitezslav Vylici 

A Pandemic Didn’t Help

A pandemic that lasted over a year filled with isolation, no human contact, masks, and six feet of social distancing did not help any of this. It gave us an excuse (and at times a valid one) to pull back even more from human touch. It created in us even more isolating rhythms into our days. We got out of the habit of physical touch. And yet we still were wired for these connections. 

The result is that we have incredibly lonely people who are desperate for physical touch who typically only know it in its perverted forms. I think Lore Wilbert is correct when she says, “our society simply doesn’t know what to do with the human body or human touch.” She goes on to say: 

When we don’t understand the healthy expression of something, or the innate purpose of it, and when it is shrouded in mystery, we don’t know what to do but invent, pervert, or usurp it in every way (Wilbert, Lore. Handle with Care, pg. 38).

Sadly, I believe the church isn’t much better than our culture in understanding the body and human touch. We, too, have over-sexualized human touch and neglected our bodies in such a way that in an area where we ought to be helping our culture, we’re only throwing stones or joining in the perversions. 

How Should the Church Respond to This Need?

I am not suggesting that churches begin hosting cuddle parties. There may be some healthy elements in these cuddle parties, but there are enough elements that cross lines that would likely make believers uncomfortable. But this does not absolve us from the need to have an answer for this epidemic of loneliness. 

The church should be leading the charge in healthy human touch. In his book, You’re Only Human, theologian Kelly Kapic devotes an entire chapter to the need for physical touch. In part of that chapter, Kapic discusses the history of the “holy kiss.” That would be uncouth in our culture, but Kapic makes a good point that “although aware of the dangers and seeking to address them, the ancient church still sought to affirm physical embrace and warm hospitality, all with integrity and dignity” (Kapic, Kelly. You’re Only Human, pg. 63). Kapic also notes that this “unifying expression of embrace and shared dignity” was a massive factor in the growth of the early church. People have always been hungry for healthy human touch. 

When I read this chapter in Kapic and also learned about cuddle parties I thought about how even before the pandemic our church had stopped that awkward time in services where you turn and greet your neighbor. Those handshakes and forced greeting times seemed to be unnecessary and the bane of many introverts. Studies have shown that rather than helping visitors feel welcome, it does the opposite—this is the part of the service that visitors indicated they disliked the most. 

We stopped this greeting time and tried to be organically friendly. We have been told by visitors that our church is very warm, friendly, and welcoming. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe as we’ve thrown out something that wasn’t serving the purpose of welcoming that an unintended consequence is that we’ve lost a specific time dedicated to human touch. 

Conclusion

I don’t have the answer…yet. I do not believe cuddle parties are the answer to this epidemic of loneliness and death of human touch. But I am convinced that we must think about how we can obey 1 Thessalonians 5:26 and 1 Peter 5:14. It’s not about making people feel welcome, it’s about helping people feel human. And the church should be leading the charge in this regard.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Christiana Rivers 

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and his writing home is http://mikeleake.net


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