On a chilly Saturday night last month, Janeen Sonsie paid A$35 (NZ$45) to snuggle with a group of strangers.
"I had three guys massaging me, which was bliss," the fiftysomething Australian business coach and marketing consultant says.
"My friend and I were a bit scared when we arrived, but also quite excited. Because everyone sets their own boundaries, it's amazing how quickly you relax."
Sonsie was one of 20 people attending the "cuddle party": a strictly non-sexual gathering in which guests hug, touch and massage one another. Created by two American relationship counsellors, the first such party was held in New York in 2004. A Melbourne chapter opened two years later, closing not long after when its founder became ill.
Then, in 2008, the relationship and life coach Marus – who goes only by his first name even on his business card – reopened the Melbourne arm, recently expanding to NSW and Queensland. His first event attracted two dozen people; a recent gathering drew almost 100. More than 1000 have attended one somewhere on the east coast.
"They're growing fast," Marus says. "I've got my first Sydney party in October and I'll be taking them to other states soon."
He greets me at the door of his Elwood flat by asking for a hug, which I conclude with a couple of matey backslaps. "In our culture, men always do the 'pat pat' thing with each other," he laughs. "There's a stigma when it comes to showing affection."
Hence his desire for adults to reap the benefits of "non-sexual touch". As reported last week, hugging boosts the feel-good hormone oxytocin, acting as a social glue.
"People at cuddle parties experience everything from sheer elation and liberation to a sense of inner peace and calm," Marus says. "One of the rules is that tears and laughter are welcome — and we do see both."
One rule is that a verbal "yes" must precede any touching. "It's not about sex, it's not about sex," Marus says. "I cannot overemphasise that it's not about sex."
He believes Australians wrongly view physical affection between adults as inherently erotic. Australian men, he adds, are taught that cuddling is a bothersome but mandatory precursor to sex. "We're living in a touch-starved society. People are not sure how to be loving and nurturing towards one another without it being sexual."
Accredited as a "cuddle party facilitator" by the US parent organisation, Marus begins each event by reiterating the guidelines. Some guests sit back and observe; others snuggle, spoon or massage each other in pairs or groups.
Most parties conclude with a "puppy pile": a big communal hug on the floor.
So far, everyone has obeyed the rules. But what happens if a cuddler gets inadvertently turned on?
"Sometimes, things pop up," Marus explains. "It happens, it's natural and it's totally OK. I explain what to do, how to be present with that and how to not act on it."
Nothing untoward occurred at the party Ms Sonsie attended last month. She has already bought tickets to the next one on September 29.
"I wasn't interested in going to a swingers' party," she says, "and there was definitely nothing sexual about it. I felt absolutely safe and relaxed. We all felt so loving and caring and affectionate and there were even moments of euphoria. Everyone walked out on a high."
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