A few years ago, I became interested in Go Naked nudie parties. Nudies are into creating naked space without sexual contact, and Icouldn’t imagine what an environment full of other naked gay men would be like with a prohibition on sex. I’d not yet been to Gunnison Beach (a nude beach in Sandy Hook, New Jersey), but I had taken my shorts off in the water at Jacob Riis Beach in Queens, and even those little moments of playful nudity at the beach were sexually motivated.
And anyway, as gay men, why would we want to restrict ourselves? Hadn’t we worked hard to integrate sexuality into our lifestyles and identities? I had to know.
My first nudie party was in Long Island City. While most of these events took place in bars, this was at a spait was a pool party. The ritual of getting in followed the familiar routine of entering a sex party: wonder if the people walking on the sidewalk are heading where I’m headed, triple-check the address, walk through a long hallway, pay the doorman and grab a white Hefty bag and Sharpie, get undressed in a lobby with strangers, pass through a sliding black curtain to another sexy realm. I saw a few people I knewsome from sex parties, others from my “ordinary life,” others who were friends of friends I’d stalked on Facebook or Instagrambut everyone was friendly and happy to hang. Literally.
Nudity made it easier for me to talk to, be seen by, and generally be in the presence of other gay men. I spent most of the evening chilling with guys I found sexywho I usually avoid because I don’t have absdiscussing social work, queer theology, and intersectional politics. What about nudity without sex allowed me to question my assumptions about the way I would be received, in my big-bellied body, by those men?
Around the same time, I became interested in the Cuddling Men NYC Meetup, in which men got together and cuddled non-sexually. I was terrified of going. What if I got a hard-on? What if nobody wanted to cuddle me? What if everyone (including me) was a sewer-dwelling mutant who’d never had human contact?
I showed up, changed into pajamas behind the privacy screen, sat on my zafu, and avoided eye contact with everyone, even though no one turned out to be a mutant. Once things got going, the facilitator went through the Cuddle Party Rules and led us through a series of role-playing exercises to dive deeper into them. He emphasized that you never have to cuddle anyone at a Cuddle Party. No touch is initiated without an explicit, specific verbal request and verbal affirmationif you’re not sure if you’re into it, you’re encouraged to say “no” rather than “maybe.” You can always change your mind.
We were asked to perform structured role-play such that we would each have the experiences of making a request and having it affirmed, making a requested and having it rejected, affirming someone else’s request, and rejecting someone else’s request. Like many other gay men my age, most of my relationships with other men begin on apps, on which it’s easy to feel iffy about someone, agree to an encounter, and fail to follow through. It’s just as easy to passively reject someone by ghosting. I was embarrassed to realize that I simply hadn’t had much practice being attuned and honest with my preferences and feelings in the moment and relaying them verballyto anyone, really, but especially other men, and especially with regard to touch.
I left having cuddled several different men and agreed to cuddle others I’d missed the next time. I was rejected a few times, and I did some rejecting myself. I got hard a few times, but in the spirit of the party, I didn’t indulge in sexual contact with my boner. I felt emotionally raw and head-spinny afterwardsI’d opened up a realm of bodily experience I didn’t know was there.
The messaging around both Go Naked and Cuddle Party events emphasize that they are not anti-sexparticipants in both are free to do what consenting adults do outside the agreed-upon constraints of their parties. Both cultures have seized on an opportunity to think outside the box when it comes to embodiment togethermost of life is either clothes-on-and-not-touching or clothes-off-and-fucking. They hope to fulfill needs for body positivity and touch that are woefully neglected in the culture of American men. But I think they do much more.
My experience in both cases was that, though I wasn’t allowed the practice of sex, I was involved in a constant negotiation of my body and sexuality around the boundaries of group consentwhich is to say, my embodied experience was that of a suffusion of sex that wasn’t carried out.
They exposed to me the extent to which our day-to-day performances of self mask and prohibit a wide range of unmet opportunities for intimacy. At a nudie party, for instance, the status cues and shielding provided by clothing aren’t there, and a forced encounter with everyone’s cocks, butts, and pussies makes them simultaneously available for sex by material possibility and off-limits by agreement. I was able to see myself as among equals.
At a Cuddle Party, bodies are made available for touch that wouldn’t be accessible through the politics of sexual attractionI cuddled and was cuddled by men I wouldn’t fuck, including some straight guys. (Don’t get me wrongI also cuddled guys that I would have sex with if given the opportunity.) Both cultures embrace the fact that we tend to be unpracticed at living in the liminal space between clothes-on-and-not-touching and clothes-off-and-fucking.
I’ve begun to notice how that liminal space expands and contracts for me across all social spaces. In one way, it’s filled up my world with consciousness of my sexuality. In another, it’s helped me to see other people with more nuance than “Does this person want to have sex with me or not?”which, I’m ashamed to say, was more of a guiding factor in the formation of my relationships than I knew. It gives me a position from which I can be more communicative of my desires to myself and others, and it allows me the space to be able to enfold the needs and desires of the people in my life.
At sex parties, as well as in our own bedrooms, we pass through a gate to The Place Where We Expose Ourselves And Touch Each Other, then pass back through that gate to Real Life. Unfortunately, we can’t bring nudity into our day-to-day lives, and society is unlikely to give us space for cuddle piles in our workplaces anytime soon. But I believe we have a lot to gain if we work to dissolve those gates in our personal lives and cultivate curiosity around sexuality that’s allowed to be everywhere and nowhere at once. Maybe we’ll ask more questions about who we are in relation to others, maybe we’ll be empowered to have more sophisticated discussions around consent, maybe we’ll learn how to be better friends, lovers, and coworkers.
Personally, I think we’ll have better sex.