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When a Cuddle Party Transforms Your Life

Organized hugs changed Matthew Irving Epstein’s understanding of consent—and became fodder for a Jill Soloway-produced film

It wasn’t until Matthew Irving Epstein arrived at his first cuddle party that he realized he had no idea how to prepare for it. He looked down at his dress shoes and button-down shirt — not exactly the comfortable clothing the invite had suggested. The address he’d been emailed led him to a corporate office complex above a real estate company just off the 10 Freeway in Culver City, a far cry from the underground sex dungeon he’d imagined. Still, the place was like a different kind of fortress.

“I remember not knowing how to get inside,” he says. “I’m messaging someone from the Meetup group like, ‘Hey, I’m outside this office for a cuddle party, what the fuck is going on?’”

Epstein, a writer on the hunt for new material, had come thinking he might observe something funny that he could eventually turn into a screenplay. He’d first heard about cuddle parties — events that use hugging and embracing to teach sexual consent and intimacy — as a kid watching an episode of Real Sex, the documentary-style series that aired on HBO in the 1990s. In the early aughts, he remembers cuddle parties being featured in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ travel show, An Idiot Abroad. While still tinged with taboo, cuddle parties have exploded in popularity in the years since, with meet-up groups and businesses offering classes and workshops in cities across the country.

“People hear ‘cuddle party’ and they think it’s going to be a sex fetish thing,” Epstein says. “I thought it was going to be a bunch of crazy cat ladies who don’t get touched ever, and you stroke their arm and they cum, or gross old guys who are there to pick up women.”

But the people sitting on folding chairs in the empty second-floor office — where the vibe was more support group than orgy — fit neither trope. There was the 25-year-old virgin who was trying to become comfortable with intimacy for the first time. There were survivors of sexual abuse, people who had been shamed about their sexuality since childhood, and others who just wanted to learn how to communicate with their partners.

“I was like, ‘Oh, these people are pretty normal,’” says Epstein. “Any part of me who wanted to make fun or write about it kind of went out the window because instantly I had empathy for everyone in the room.”

Before the cuddling officially began, the group’s leaders gave a quick orientation that pointed out its many paradoxes while attempting to clear them up: The meetup group was aimed at teaching participants about sexual consent, but there was no sex or nudity involved. It wasn’t a dating group, but it would probably affect their dating lives. And even though they were all strangers, they were about to get very, very intimate. The whole point of the workshop, they said, was to learn how to ask and express consent. If you want to touch someone’s hair, they said, you’ve got to ask. If you want to touch their shoulders, it requires a question and a response first.

“Sit across from someone, and I want you to ask them something and the other person, I want you to say no,” Epstein remembers being instructed. “And the person who asked, I want you to not be hurt and I want you to just hear them and respect their choice of saying no.”

The concept was simple, but to Epstein, it was revolutionary. He’d always practiced consent, but he’d never thought about it being taught in this way. “That was the first time anyone ever spoken to me about consent, ever,” he says, even though he’d grown up getting sex talks from a young age. By the time he was 12, his mom — never one to hold back or shield him from anything — was giving him books about how to have good sex. He’d been raised in a sex-positive environment, he realized during the cuddle party — he just never knew there was a term to describe it, or that it was something he could openly identify as.

“I’m a sex-positive person, I just haven’t had an outlet to understand, [and] give context to who I am as a person,” he says. “Like, hearing all these people who were so open gave context to, like, who I already was as a person.”

But just because he was sex-positive didn’t mean cuddling was easy or comfortable. It was, like most physical activities with strangers, incredibly awkward for the first time, he says. So, when he was assigned to break out into a small “cuddle pod,” he kept his mouth shut and didn’t touch anybody. He waited for others sitting down on the floor next to him to ask the questions. Can I rub your head? someone asked, and he obliged. Someone else wanted to stroke his arm. That was fine, too. He even agreed to the person who wanted to rest a hand on his stomach.

He didn’t know how to start asking other people for permission to touch them, so he started by spitting back out the same questions they’d asked him, performing a kind of mimesis until he got the hang of it and the words started to feel natural coming out of his mouth. “If someone was like, ‘Can I touch your hair? I was like, ‘Can I touch your hair?’” he recalls.

He attended a couple more cuddle parties after that, all within several weeks of each other. His curiosity had been satisfied, and he’d come away with a hardened sense of identity and a new vocabulary for communicating during sex. “I think to ask someone for sexual consent is a very intimate act,” he says. “Once you learn to communicate about sex, communication is one of the sexiest parts about sex — like saying what you’re into.”

Years later, the experience did inspire him to write a script — just not the one he’d initially had in mind. He’d written it around the same time he met the filmmaker Jill Soloway, who agreed to executive produce it, and helped cast Michaela Watkins and Rob Huebel, both actors from Soloway’s Amazon show Transparent.

The result is the 15-minute short film Cuddle Party, a comedy about a couple attempting to repair their torpedo-ing relationship by cozying up to other people — and opening up to each other. The film, which has screened at more than a dozen festivals around the country and will soon be available on Amazon Prime, has no crazy cat ladies, no pick-up artists, and no X-rated sex scenes.

It’s one of the few TV or film portrayals where cuddle parties aren’t explicitly sexual or wildly comedic. Instead, the comedy comes less from the party itself and more from the participants’ complete inability to communicate with one another.

When the couple first arrives to the cuddle party, held in the living room of a private home, Jane (played by Watkins) is so unwilling to communicate with her husband Drew (played by Huebel) that she immediately begins inflating a mattress on the floor, using an electric air pump to drown out the noise and any possibility of conversation. By halfway through the cuddle party, they’re both so eager to scream at each other that they fight over the the wooden “talking stick” that gets passed around from one participant to the next, blurting out the darkest secrets of their marriage to the rest of the horrified group.

Epstein took some creative license with the talking stick, and he says the cuddle party represented in the film is drawn from a combination of the real-life ones he attended and the various couples intimacy workshops he’s gone to over the years. Even though his experience with cuddle parties was short lived, he says it totally changed the way he thinks about interactions with people, and not just the sexual kind.

“As I went to more events, I started to think about how differently in subtle ways I treated men and women,” he says. “Mainly it came down to handshakes and hugs.”

The realization happened when a member of the sex-positive meetup group called him out for giving her a hug but shaking her husband’s hand instead. “And that, like, blew up my brain. I was like, ‘Holy shit. I have these ingrained muscles that are making me treat men and women differently.’”

Now, Epstein always goes in for the hug, no matter who he’s meeting — but nearly always, he’ll ask permission first.