It's Saturday night. You arrive at a small house party in Canberra's south, alone. The host greets you at the door with a smile and a hug. In her arms, you quickly feel at ease.
You peer around the room, spotting men and women of varying backgrounds in their early twenties and some in their sixties. You don't know a soul, but you swan into the room as if you do. You might as well; in a few minutes you'll be getting to know them rather well.
The host sits you down with the rest of the group and begins to tell you how you're going to touch each other.
There are no bowls filled with keys, you're at a cuddle party.
Jasmina Bacic is a massage therapist and "professional cuddler" who works with singles or couples offering sessions of hugging or hand-holding, from her Monash home studio. And it's all non-sexual.
She believes touch is a powerful tool for wellbeing, and through her work helps those struggling with loneliness, or those who simply need a bit more of a physical connection in their lives.
Two months ago, I wrote about how she was preparing to host Canberra's first cuddle party. Since this time, she's hosted two, and both have been warmly received by a small yet strong crew.
Canberra cultural worker Kimmo Vennonen is one of her regulars.
Vennonen works with Bacic in one-on-one sessions for a couple of months, to meet his need for "humanity" and "to feel present with another human being without complication".
It was his go-to remedy during a tough time in his life, a kind of therapy he had never heard of until early 2018.
"I essentially found out I needed at least one hug a day, or at least some meaningful conversation. I needed something genuine, and not sexualised," Vennonen said.
"It helped me move through some roadblocks and I'm now in a better place."
Making the transition from one-on-one cuddle sessions with Bacic to the group session wasn't difficult for Vennonen. But he admits that for some, there can be some awkwardness.
"Like in any social situation, people want to feel at home with each other and relax, so that can take a few minutes for people to let their guard down a little and feel comfortable. And at the cuddle parties, it has been handled pretty well.
"Also participants always have the option to sit out, they don't need to feel compelled to do anything."
Bacic's cuddle parties begin with everyone meeting around the kitchen, drinking water - it's an alcohol-free event - and nibbling on snacks. Once all have arrived, they move into the living room where there are bean bags and cushions on the floor.
"We are all told about the rules, and we practice saying: 'No.' Consent is essential, and we all understood how easy it is to say no from the outset. We are then encouraged to touch those near us, in a simple, non-threatening way, so with a hand-hold."
The guidelines are also displayed on a board.
"Some might think a cuddle party might be unsafe, but for me, it's the safest place of all. Because there are those rules on contact and consent, and they are crystal clear. Unlike in the real world, it's a jungle out there. It's a great structure for meaningful contact, for people who don't get enough humanity in their life.
"A cuddle party is not a group grope."
The party continues for nearly three hours. Most lie peacefully with one another, cuddling when both parties agree, exchanging casual conversation. Some participants who perhaps aren't ready, sit to the side, just observing until they decide they're ready.
Vennonen is in a relationship, but he has this need to have contact with other people in a safe space.
"This is not on the same plane as a relationship. There's no sex. My partner doesn't see the cuddling as competition, or a threat."
In his work, he spends a lot of time in his head. He sees a cuddle party as the "antidote" to that.
"What seems to happen at the cuddle parties I've been to is that everyone leaves on a high. It's uplifting. It's simply the vibration and buzz of being cared for by people in a platonic way."
And for people who'd like to try it out, he says life is too short to wonder: "What if?" That's no fun.
Another regular at Bacic's parties is IT consultant Bhaskar Tamuli, who recently moved to Canberra.
Unlike Vennonen, Tamuli is a cuddle party veteran. He used to attend cuddle parties and festivals when he lived in Sydney and was always trying new activities based on improving human connection, like eye gazing and "free hugs" workshops. He says these events gave him the motivation and the encouragement to continue seeking out similar experiences.
He never thought Canberra would be the place for it until he noticed Bacic's event on Facebook.
"I like the cuddle parties because it helps establish communication, and to help understand each other's boundaries, which I don't think is done very well in wider society.
"I need that human connection. It really is a need and not a want."
At the most recent party, where three men and three women were in attendance, the saying of the night became: "What a time to be alive."
He said it came from one of the women participating, who was reserved at the beginning of the night, but then quickly relaxed and seemed to be the one having the best time.
And does he tell his friends about his cuddling?
"Cuddle parties, they aren't common. But I am not ashamed. Initially, when people I know hear about it, they say: 'What is this?' Nobody really goes to cuddle parties, they go to cocktail parties."
Follow Touch therapy by Jasmina on Facebook to find out about upcoming cuddle parties.
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