I Went to a Cuddle Party and Learned Just How Awkward Snuggling Can Be

cuddle party
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

In the wintertime, everyone craves warmth.

Nowhere is this more true than in the German capital of Berlin, where December, January, and February are particularly frigid and gray. But the city does have an antidote: its infamous cuddle parties, where perfect strangers explore physical intimacy in a completely nonsexual way.

In theory, I believe touching needn't always be sexual in nature. But in practice?

I imagined these parties could go one of two ways. Either they provide a happy dose of human contact, or ensnare participants in a potentially uncomfortable gropefest. Figuring I'd survive either, and being an expat with no family and few friends in Berlin over the holidays, I booked myself a spot and went to check it out.

Cuddle parties are kept on the DL

I trudged over to the trendy area of Neukölln, where the cuddle parties take place in the depths of a converted factory. After stumbling around lost, I eventually asked for directions at a Capoeira studio.

The instructor looked at me strangely. Did he take me for some kind of sex maniac? "I heard it's in the back…" he said, then whispered, "What exactly happens at a cuddle party?"

I left with a smirk and went up another stairwell. I knew when I had found the right space. The room was covered in pillows and mats with dozens of people sitting in a circle on the floor. It was a fairly even split of men and women, mostly over the age of 40. There were a few people in hippie shirts and harem pants, but mostly it was just sweaters, jeans, and total normality.

All cuddling begins with the laying of ground rules

Wearing name tags adorned with hearts, we took turns passing around a plush elephant and introducing ourselves. There were a lot of first-time cuddlers such as myself and a smattering of frequenters.

A 30-something girl told the group she was a "professional cuddler." She thanked the organizers for the last party, which she said really helped her deal with the recent sadness of giving a pet dog away. Another woman said she came because of her work in a therapy clinic.

Next up, the leader of the group laid down strict ground rules about respecting the boundaries of ourselves and others. He said kissing and heavy petting around the underwear were totally verboten. This party was purely about "the healing energy of hugs."

I started to relax. Everything felt innocent enough so far.

Cuddling itself begins perfectly harmlessly

We began by dancing around the room. Actual dancing! First by ourselves, and then easing into eye contact with others. Its immediate awkwardness reminded me of every middle-school dance.

Two women got straight to the good stuff, grappling into a bear hug and slow dancing to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." I'd never seen the song get that kind of treatment, but just looking at their blissed-out expressions, who was I to judge?

Next we played the cuddlers version of Freeze: When the music stops, hug the nearest person (after asking their permission, of course).

I carefully danced in the opposite direction from some oddball-looking men, one of whom had a pointy beard and had introduced himself as a tantric. I waltzed right into a woman several inches taller than me. She asked for consent to come in for a squeeze.

Honestly, it was a damn good hug. One of those long, meaningful ones you might only get in a brand-new relationship or from your grandma.

Hug after hug after hug, I started feeling pretty cheerful. I'm an affectionate person by nature. So far, it was a warm-hearted way to spend what would've otherwise been a lonely, rainy night.

But even hugs have rabbit holes

The funky dance beats quickly evolved into a didgeridoo meditation track straight from a masseur's playlist. We were told to close our eyes and move slowly toward the organizer's voice, offering gentle hugs and caresses along the way.

Eventually the group was one big schmoozy nucleus. That's when things started getting very intimate.

I was holding a pair of small, leathery ladies hands. What felt like a feminine figure had draped her arms around me from behind, slowly nuzzling her head against my neck. I had to peek. It was the girl who'd given her dog away. All around me, people were sandwiched into each other, stroking shoulders and fondling waists.

Things began to get VERY hot and heavy

All that blind cuddling -- with no visuals as to who or what, just where -- became a bit too much for me.

I composed myself at the snack table and then joined the line for the restroom. Two people waiting behind me, who didn't seem acquainted (judging by their conversation), suddenly cradled each other. I felt claustrophobic from all the affection.

Next was what the party organizer called an "Advent's Bazaar," which involved taking turns offering small physical pleasantries to others. This could be a hand or shoulder massage, or "whatever you like," as he said.

I was in the receiving group first. People offered back rubs and "lay on me or I'll lay on you" deals. Soon enough, the room was covered in spooning. Bodies were stacked on top of each other in same-sex and hetero constellations. I was getting a Reiki treatment and was back to feeling wonderful.

I was so relaxed after the Reiki and a foot rub from some nice lady, that I felt keen to give back to the cuddling community when it was my turn. My first two "bazaar clients" accepted a couple of my non-committal hand massages. However, the third, a party regular, had a different idea.

"Could you just gently touch my arms and my chest?" he said.

I'd already cuddled so much that his request didn't seem that out of the ordinary. So far everyone had been nothing but friendly and respectful.

So I obliged. But this situation was different. He was bossy. "Can you do it more here?" and "Can you do it slower?" and so on. But it wasn't until he started making sigh-moan sounds that I began to feel truly uncomfortable.

Even when it's a PG cuddle party, you've got to stick to your limits

With one hour left of the four-hour cuddle, I decided I'd had enough. Granted, this meant missing the grand finale: one big, last group cuddle with everyone laying head-to-toe in the middle of the room.

I creeped out as the snuggle pit started to form. The party organizer came to the door and asked if everything was OK. I told him yes; but truthfully, in the days after, I didn't know quite what to think.

I'm used to going with the flow and being an open-minded person. But I realized that actually, you don't always know your own boundaries until they've been crossed. Everyone needs affection. I guess for me, I also need to know from whom it's coming.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Barbara Woolsey is a Berlin-based writer sticking to her cat for quality snuggles. Follow her adventures on Facebook and Twitter.