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A recent acquaintance massages Tim Longwell's bald head, which sits in her lap.

The 6-foot-5 Longwell, an Orem native, wears a lime green pajama onesie, complete with footies. The two are joined by about 25 others in pajamas — some strangers, some old friends — ranging in age from 20 to mid-50s. They're sitting on what looks like a giant bed — although they're assured it is not — made of four futon cushions pushed together, with blankets and pillows atop. Couches line the walls.

The large room — a recording studio by day — feels full. The lighting is dim, and laughter and affection abound from the time people enter the room. People who just met are massaging, spooning and caressing one another.

It might sound awkward, or too intimate, but the mood is overwhelmingly positive, and people seem comfortable even before the four-hour party begins.

The gathering is a "Cuddle Party," and strangers come for nonsexual feels and feel-goods. It's about physical touch that's not about sex.

Why people want it

Many at the gathering mention being prompted to attend by life-changing events — a recent breakup or divorce, moving to a new city or simply being lonely.

Pamela Bradford moved to Utah in 2013. A divorce and her children moving out of the house meant months passed without being touched.

"I would go to work in a male-dominated workplace with HR regulations — no touch," she said. "Come home and write until I went to sleep — no touch. Wake up and repeat. I hadn't touched another single human being except in the course of an accident, and you don't want to get to where you start to arrange accidents."

Bradford searched for touch therapy and found Cuddle Party, but there were no cuddle parties in Utah at the time. That's when she became the group's first official facilitator in Utah.

Rick Priddis, the facilitator and host of this July party, understands even though his girlfriend is at the party.

"My dad, I don't remember him ever hugging me," Priddis said. "When I went off to college, he gave me a nice, firm handshake. ... I just had this desire to let down some of the walls that I felt."

How it works

The national Cuddle Party organization requires a workshop to begin the party so cuddlers become oriented to the rules — a clear attempt to keep the cuddling nonsexual. There's a list of rules that must be followed.

Clothes (or pajamas) must stay on. No one is forced to participate. And people can and should change their minds in the middle of a cuddle.

A cuddle must be initiated by first asking permission. When the cuddles begin, phrases like "Can I massage your back?" "Would you like to hold my hand?" or "May I rest my head on your chest" are on repeat.

"If you're a 'yes,' say 'yes,' " the rules state. "If you're a 'no,' say 'no.' "

And "if you're a 'maybe,' say 'no.' "

As long as there is verbal consent, anything is fair game. Everywhere you turn, there's a back rub, a scalp massage or running fingers through another's hair. People are rubbing feet, stroking arms or holding hands.

While the feeling in the room isn't sexual, and Utah facilitators say they've never seen a party out of line with the rules, a few relationships formed at cuddle parties have turned into something more.

Bryant and Diane Hansen met at a cuddle party in July 2014 and married in June.

"I was the first person to cuddle her at her first party," Bryant Hansen said. "But it wasn't cuddling that brought us together. That's just a nice bonus."

Priddis remembered one military veteran who came to a party from Logan after his counselor said he needed touch therapy.

"It helps people to feel good and experience that kindness," Priddis said. "He used to have somebody just run their fingers through his hair."

The science of it

Tiffany Field, founder and researcher at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, said her research implies that nonsexual touch can reduce stress and blood pressure, improve sleep and save immune cells to help fight off illness.

But none of the research deals with strangers cuddling. That's why Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who studies the benefits of nonsexual touch in married couples, said she's skeptical of the benefits.

"Is it about physical touch or about the connection?" she said. "Or is it a combination of the two?"

If there could be a potential harm, like people becoming lonelier after leaving a cuddle party, Holt-Lunstad said, "we need to be aware of that."

Plus, Holt-Lunstad said, if there are any benefits to cuddling with strangers, her guess is that it's temporary.

Field agrees, saying touch therapy is like diet and exercise — you have to do it daily to get the benefits.

Because of that, the three Cuddle Party chapters in Utah gather at least twice a month, sometimes more, in Salt Lake and Utah counties. And Longwell said he looks forward to each one.

"You're blissed out" after a cuddle party, he said.

After a couple of days, the "bliss" of physical touch wears off, and he's left awaiting the next cuddle party.

"There's a thing about transferring goodness through touch," said Hannah Laine, a party participant and Priddis' girlfriend,"and it's not something to be trifled with."