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1.17.18 5:00 AM ET
Predating the #MeToo movement, cuddle parties took the nation by storm, finding audiences starved for the language that would land them the stress-free intimacy they so craved.
The golden rule for Cuddle Party attendees: “Ask permission and get a verbal yes before you touch anyone.”
The oft-pajama-clad participants were encouraged to check in frequently by asking fellow would-be cuddlers questions such as: “Is this okay?” “How does this feel?” “Does this feel good?” Reid Mihalko pioneered these consent-based non-sex parties in 2004, 10 years before California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the first “affirmative consent” standard into law.
With little in the way of formal academic credentials for sex ed training—he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts—Mihalko went from Cuddle Party co-founder to famed Sex Geek, lecturing at universities across the country and launching his own series of sex education workshops and DVDs. Touted as a “sex and relationship expert,” the 49-year-old continues to preach the importance of consent throughout his lectures; one of his more popular college campus talks is “How to Be a Gentleman AND Get Laid: Navigating Consent, Sexual Freedom, Partying, Dating, Relationships and What It Means To Be a Man On Campus.”
But now one woman is accusing Mihalko of gross hypocrisy.
Adult actress Kelly Shibari says that about eight years ago she had a disturbing encounter with Mihalko when she was invited to one of his workshops in downtown Los Angeles.
Fascinated by the workshop, Shibari says she offered Mihalko a ride back to where he was staying while in town. She was looking forward to extending the conversation as they drove—but the conversation didn’t go as planned. “As I drove him back to his friend’s place, he spent the entire time trying to figure out how to have sex with me. I kept telling him, well, I’m a sex worker and a porn performer, you can’t get this unless you pay for this and I wasn’t doing any private sessions,” recalls Shibari. “He kept hammering at it, even after we parked and I said no. He’d come up with scenarios, like what if we did a video together, or different kinds of workshops. It felt like he was coming up with workshop ideas just so he could have sex.”
To complicate matters, these workshops represented a work opportunity for Shibari.
Expressing a sense of exasperation, Shibari, 45, seems to relive those moments as she shares her story with me. “He was doing the puppy dog thing. He said, ‘Well if we can’t have sex is there something else we can do? You’re so pretty, etc.’ I stood my ground and he tried to come up with all these different scenarios and so I was like, ‘Would a handjob work?’” recalls Shibari. “It was like he didn’t understand he was pushing too far and I was like, fine, I will give you a handjob if you’ll just leave. I don’t think he understood what he did was wrong, especially because a couple of months later he hired me for a hand sex workshop. I accepted and in a weird way that probably negated any uncomfortable scenario that happened before.”
Still, she did not feel comfortable with the encounter. Those were the early years of her adult entertainment career, which for many performers is a time of uncertainty—not knowing what you can and can’t say no to while still maintaining a profitable career. “When I first got in the industry I wanted to be a team player, I wanted to play along,” says Shibari.
The incident seemed especially out of line with the public emphasis Mihalko placed on affirmative consent.
To give a sense of the game Mihalko talks, when The Daily Beast contacted him and gave a sketch of the nature of the accusations—harassed into giving him a handjob in a car—Mihalko’s first response was to note his concern about any pressure regarding names. “I don’t want you to tell me who it was. In role modeling as a cis man, especially a white cis man, I make it a policy to ask for information and not names until the people who have names want me to know.” Mihalko went on to explain it as “nerdy consent” stuff and indicative of where we are with rape culture in today’s society.
Despite not being given a name, Mihalko went on to say that he remembers when he met Kelly Shibari there was indeed a handjob in the car. “I believe that was at the beginning of Kelly and I getting to know each other. Back then I had a lot less unexamined privilege and was very extroverted,” he says.
He notes it was also around that time that he was shifting from cuddle parties to sex education and wasn’t yet as experienced in professionally interacting with porn performers. “I saw porn performers as excellent in communicating their boundaries because they communicate as part of their profession. Now all these years later, knowing what I do now, all I can say is that we are all human and just because someone is a performer or sex educator doesn’t mean they are amazing about speaking up,” says Mihalko.
Trying to remember the situation with Shibari in the car, Mihalko surmises that he was probably “really nerdy” and was very excited to be talking shop with a sex industry colleague. “It was like musicians talking about music. I was just geeking out. Looking back, I now realize that might come across as pressure because all I’m doing is talking about sex with them,” says Mihalko. “My assumption back then, which is different from today, is that everyone is capable of telling me to shut up.”
Jokingly referring to himself as a golden retriever on espresso, Mihalko explains, “I’m that kind of energy,” acknowledging that his enthusiasm can sometimes be mistaken for pressure, “so I’ve learned to recalibrate, to be the well-behaved golden retriever on espresso. I’m using humor but not trying to trivialize it.”
Ten years ago, Mihalko says he was probably checking in but may have been less aware of any existing power dynamic, calling himself less “savvy about sexism” then. As a result of his growing popularity, Mihalko explains the importance of using side channels—a new policy he’s developed due to his celebrity status and what he calls the “wonkiness” of shifting power dynamics. If someone has an issue and they feel unable to take it up with him directly, he encourages them to bring the issue up via other people or methods, in a way that they are comfortable doing. He calls the situation with Shibari tricky, since he considers her a friend: “I performed with her in a porn, she did a workshop with me and we stayed in touch afterwards.” Mihalko also says he reached out to Shibari after discovering she’d named him on a list of “bad” industry people but nothing came of it. This also might be why that encounter came to mind.
“When somebody comes forward with any information, my advice is to thank them for speaking up and ask them to tell you more,” says Mihalko. “Treat the situation like it happened yesterday, even if it was 15 years ago. It’s not about why didn’t they speak up sooner, it’s huge that they are speaking up at all. Ask them what they need, ask how to clean up the mistakes, and how you can help to start the process of healing.”
Shibari continued to work with Mihalko after the handjob incident and says, “I thought it was good business. I had initially passed it off as an industry thing that people do because it’s porn.”
Just last year Shibari says Mihalko approached her, inviting her to one of his play parties. “I said no and stormed off. He obviously doesn’t get it,” says Shibari. “Maybe you should think about your prior interactions with someone before you approach them and apologize.”
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