6 Reasons America Is Starting To Pay For Cuddle Parties
Over the last few years, snuggling services have sprung up across the nation. The Cuddle Time Agency is active in 19 cities. There's even a service, Cuddle Comfort, which aims to be something like the Uber of, uh, casual human contact. As opposed to the actual Uber, where the human contact is decidedly less "casual" or "desired at all." We sat down with two professional cuddlers to learn a little bit more about their new, snuggly industry ...
We Need Human Touch To Stay Sane
Our sources for this article, Jean Franzblau and "Tom," are both professional cuddlers. Jean runs an organized service called Cuddle Sanctuary, which connects clients with cuddlers. You could call her a cuddle pimp, but you probably shouldn't. Tom sometimes works with her, but generally has a "private practice." Here's Jean explaining the purpose of her work: "I help adults who might feel very isolated and stressed find connection, community, a bit of fun, and a health boost. And I do that through healthy human touch."
Who would have thought, "Meet me in my Love Dome" could ever be such a G-rated statement?
There's some evidence to back her up on the "health boost" claim. One study found that premature infants gained more weight and bone density when touched regularly. Hugging can also reduce your blood pressure. That last study involved people hugging their partners. But a lot of folks don't have partners. As Tom told us: "I'd say the most immediate and obvious need is that some people are feeling lonely. And what I'm learning is everybody, to some degree, feels lonely." He believes that many clients use him for "emotional upkeep." And that seems perfectly reasonable ... depending on the price.
Whoever said you can't put a price on friendship never had to pay their bills with it.
Jean's service offers myriad cuddle options, including sessions of 30, 60, and 90 minutes. She provides a "menu" of different cuddling activities, as well as non-cuddling ones: "Some people want to gaze into your eyes. Other people might need to hold hands, or they don't want to spoon, or they go straight to spooning."
Whichever menu option doesn't lead to accidental super-sizing.
For private sessions, she and her cuddlers charge $2 a minute -- which, holy crap, sounds like a lot. It's $20-$25 for a group workshop, though. Tom charges too, but on a sliding scale: "I'm de-emphasizing the financial aspect of it. Right now, I do things on a sliding scale ... I have clients who are college-age who are still in need. You can pay me whatever you can afford ... the biggest thing is to take care of yourself and get yourself whatever you need."
Aw, doesn't charity make you feel all ... well, cuddly?
It Teaches Awkward People About Consent
Jean's group cuddle sessions are essentially training workshops to help people learn how to touch: "I have workshops weekly and monthly ... where people come together from all walks of life, and they practice the skills of consent and boundary-setting, and create a safe environment where people can cuddle each other if they want to."
Some places even offer Human Cuddlipede options.
She also considers it a valuable goal to teach people how to say, and hear, "no." "We practice rejection so people can get used to hearing 'no' ... we do a very simple exercise: We put people in pairs where one person asks for a hug and the next person says 'No thank you.' If someone says 'No thank you' ... you say, 'Thanks for taking care of yourself' or 'Thanks for knowing your boundary.' There are so many reasons a person might say no to touch ... but maybe all they're saying is no thank you. And what a shame it would be for someone to walk away from that situation feeling rejected."
Tom mainly does private sessions, but he still considers a big part of his job to be instructional. "They leave these kind of practices realizing they have a lot more personal agency then they had before. When people learn they can just ask ... 'May I sit next to you?' 'Would you hold me?' These are things we think of as weird to ask ... but learning how to ask for things you need, and learning how to say no to yourself ... these stories of personal agency are revolutionary for some people."
But be careful not to end up in an endless cycle of celebratory group hugs because someone learned how to ask for a group hug.
The client base for this isn't just a bunch of oddly sweaty tech nerds or something. It's quite varied: "My most unique was a woman intending to be a nun, wanting to get cuddles in a way she knew would be nonsexual. So she had a cuddler with me, and with another female cuddler. One client is a widower -- out of a relationship, clearly. Grieving and in need of healthy human touch and connection. One person is a woman with disabilities which keep her housebound at least some of the time."
It's almost as if we're all humans with an equal need for connection. But if that's true, even jerks would need to snuggle now and then. Surely, that can't be right.
It's Basically Prostitution Without The Sex
Many of Tom's "private" clients book him for services that don't center around touch at all. "When I take clients, I sorta like to emphasize that ... whatever makes you feel better ... the other day, I had a client where he and I played board games for 1.5 hours. If you want to watch TV, play board games, whatever it is to make you feel a little bit more appreciated and a little more loved ... for me, I like to focus on the friendship aspect. For Cuddle Sanctuary, they focus more on the physical touch."
And sometimes the lulz.
Tom doesn't view his work as feigning any kind of relationship. "I have never, ever treated any of my clients in a romantic fashion, ever offered it, nor have I ever even been more affectionate to them than I would if I met them in a public space. That's kind of why I say I offer 'services of friendship.'"
Tom's clients are coming to him because they need human contact. And when you put vulnerable people in a situation like that, you're going to wind up engaging with them in some pretty raw ways. He told us about "a woman who, just by being held, spooned, started to break down into sort of sobs, and she started to shake. Because she was so in need -- she'd been giving for years and years as a mother and as a social worker, but she hadn't been loved in so long ... her breathing was labored, she grabbed my hand and held me tighter, and we went into some meditative breathing together ..."
It's more than cuddling -- it's creating a domestic experience that feels genuine, and being a shoulder to cry on when people get vulnerable. The divorce rate would seem to indicate that this is not a job anyone can do.
The Cuddlers Enjoy It, Too
There are a lot of reasons to start hookin', but almost none of them are "wanting to bang more." But both of the professional cuddlers we spoke with got into the field because they suffered from a lack of touch in their own lives. Here's Jean: "I was, for many years, a successful professional and single, and found myself very independent, and also very lonely. I remember a time ... I had a business trip in Honolulu, which might sound very glamorous, but this is a tough memory ... I befriended this man, and I feel I hijacked his evening. I think he was trying to figure out what I wanted ... I was craving human contact and intimacy. 'Can I join you for dinner? Can we spend more time together?' I thought I was picking this man up, a sexual thing ... I didn't know a person could have needs for human touch besides sex ... And since that time, I've realized I had ... needs for human touch that weren't being met."
It's quite nice to be a human pillow, especially when you have your own human pillow too.
Tom's story was similar: "I got started by ... first researching ways to get cuddles myself. I was looking for platonic and nonsexual resources for just finding friendship and love. I think that's what I needed at the time. And I discovered ... I wanted to give that to people. I made a website for myself, and I started trying it with friends and friends of friends ... and people reacted really well to creating this sort of platonic space for exploring touch."
But all that spooning isn't entirely divorced from forking ...
It's A Safe Surrogate For Infidelity
Prostitution is often considered a "safety valve" by sociologists: a behavior which provides many with an outlet from some of our society's more repressive sexual attitudes. Professional cuddling is also a safety valve for some. It's a way to get physical contact without breaking the law or the bounds of matrimony.
Jean said, "I've had a few ... clients who are in sexless marriages. And so these are, in each case ... men, in middle age, who are starving for touch and trying to find a way that does not break their relationship agreement with their spouse. When they saw this service, they thought it went right to what they need ... because it allowed them to keep their integrity and take care of themselves."
"Feetin' ain't cheatin'."
She told us about one client who was "a woman in a long-term relationship, and her partner would not touch her. She was like, 'I've got to take care of myself.' Some people come from touch-averse communities. I've had some ... stiff and tense men from India come looking to change their way of looking at human touch and connection."
But unhealthy relationships lack more than sex. Tom has had a number of clients whom he felt were "not loved enough in a healthy way," and desperately needed more nonsexual contact than their partner provided. They were "mostly people in their 40s ... people who have their stuff together. They have been married for a while, maybe they've been through a marriage, they have kids ... what I'm noticing is that when people get a little bit older, they've had some time to figure themselves out. They're not so egotistical at that age. They're sort of looking around and going, 'Hey, I'm not getting enough of something, and I'm ready to do something about it.'"
And dammit, they're going to be wearing comfy pants while they get that done.
Avoiding Arousal Is An Important Part Of The Gig
A lot of folks aren't used to cuddling with anyone whom they aren't going to, or at least hoping to, fuck. Jean said, "Because in our culture the concept of touch and sex are so married, it takes some reeducation to remind people what they were like in elementary school, before all the rules came and separated us so cruelly."
You have to provide your own post-naptime juice boxes, however.
In other words, some people have trouble accepting that "a person I find attractive is touching me" doesn't always precede the exchange of fluids. In order to protect her employees, Jean is very proactive about dealing with arousal: "I want to clarify that it's not just men ... but with men it's more obvious, and it can be like a flash." Boners. Those are boners she's very politely referring to.
"First of all, we talk about arousal at every workshop, and with every client. A guy coming into the service is really scared, the potential for spring-loaded shame." It doesn't have to be an issue, though. "If somebody is the big spoon, that might create some arousal. Well, why not get away from the spoon position for a while? Step away for a moment."
It's enough of a thing that, as a rule, it's only sightly less important than "Take a damn shower first."
Jean has personally had issues with clients getting too close: "I had a client straight-up say, 'I like you and I'd like to date you.' And we had a straight-up discussion ... 'Do you want to keep having the cuddle appointments?' ... He said, 'I want to keep cuddling. I feel like I can distinguish between the two, and I'll let you know if that changes.'"
She also encountered an issue with her very first client: "He just says, 'This is opening my heart and making me feel very affectionate' ... and I happened to make mention of my boyfriend, and he was like, 'What, you have a boyfriend?' ... and maybe I don't need to mention that in a session, it's not about my life ... and I noticed he didn't come again."
In order to keep her cuddlers safe, she's instituted a buddy system: "I have the driver's license of anyone who comes to work with any of my cuddlers. And we use what's called a silent alarm, and the client is aware of that. Somebody who works with Cuddle Sanctuary will know when a cuddle is supposed to be over and the client gone. The pro cuddler uses a safe word to let their safety buddy know they are done."
If you can figure a sneaky way to nab fingerprints, even better.
But Jean stressed that despite (or because of) all those precautions, she's never had a serious issue. And neither has Tom. In fact, they're both a bit perplexed that touching is considered so contentious at all, when there are obviously an awful lot of people down with paying to snuggle.
Robert Evans runs the Cracked personal experience article team, and he has a book coming out. You can order A Brief History of Vice now.
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