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Ideas

Touched by a stranger: the rise of professional cuddling

Cuddling parties. Spooning-for-hire. It’s all pitched as “wellness” — but can it fill the void?

By Alix Strauss

Shanna, a professional cuddler, is sitting on my couch in my New York apartment, ready to hold me for an hour. She’s in her mid-30s, with loose, long, dark hair and an open, eager face. She and I are both dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, as required by her employer, the cuddling service Cuddlist. She goes over their code of conduct, which includes rules such as: “no encouraging sexual arousal,” “no inappropriate touching,” “no exchanging of saliva” — none of which gets an argument from me.

Over the next hour, for $80 on my American Express card, Shanna rubs my hands with oils, massages my back, strokes my arms and legs, rubs my feet, and spoons me. Several times during the session I remind myself that this is like touch therapy, or a more intensified, new-age-like massage offered at a wellness retreat. But as open and accepting as I try to be, and as much as I remind myself to breathe through the experience, to see what healing benefits cuddling has to offer, it still feels uncomfortable.

“Thank you for your trust and vulnerability,” Shanna says after hugging me goodbye. I’m not sure I feel better. I’m not sure what has happened. It’s been the most bizarre and surreal exchange I’ve ever had.

This highly personal afternoon was part of a small but gaining-in-popularity industry that’s part of a larger “wellness” obsession. Others meditate or forest-bathe. I hired a so-called professional cuddler to hold me.

Cuddling is a movement for people who believe in the healing power of healthy touching — think “laughing yoga” or hugs in public. People who study human interaction say it’s on the rise thanks, in part, to our constant connection with our smartphones and other technology, rather than with people we like and feel comfortable around.

Adam Lippin, creator of the Atomic Wings food chain, founded Cuddlist.com in 2015 after deciding, upon turning 50, that he wanted to make a greater impact in people’s lives.

“It was the right time for me to sell my business,” Lippin says. “I was done opening restaurants.” He says he likes starting businesses in less saturated markets, and cuddling spoke to a need he’s felt himself. “There have been times in my life when I’ve felt a profound sense of loneliness, times when I’ve been touch-starved,” he says.

Needing to be touched is universal, Lippin tells me. “We are not a high-touch culture and people are lonely. Biologically, we are wired to want to connect. Culturally, we don’t get enough of it.”

Cuddlist, which hires out cuddlers to go to individual homes or lets clients make appointments at a cuddler’s dwelling, started in New York and Chicago with a few practitioners. Four years later, the company operates in 30 states and has 15,000 clients, two-thirds of whom are repeat customers. The company has trained more than 1,200 people, most of who come from a wellness background — yoga instructors, doulas, spiritual healers, and massage therapists. Not everyone stays. Many take the training, which costs $150. It includes an online curriculum where one answers questions and writes several essays, which the lead trainer assesses. After some mentoring, trainees can be certified after only one trial-run performance, which is evaluated and critiqued, for an additional $80. It’s not what I’d call a hardcore, lengthy program. Still, Lippin says business is growing.

“When we started, most of our clients were hetero, divorced men in their 50s and 60s, and women who wanted to be nurtured because they’ve been the nurturer for so long,” says Lippin. Now he says his cuddlers are seeing more “people who have anxiety, stress or a disability, and those who are dealing with trauma. We’ve also seen an increased number of people coming to the site who are getting referrals from therapists.”

“People are lonely. Biologically, we are wired to want to connect. Culturally, we don’t get enough of it.”

Lippin thinks the #MeToo movement, which has forced people to rethink physical boundaries in work and relationships, could be one of the reasons for his site’s success. In a Tinder-Grindr hookup nation, he says, Cuddlist provides a kind of education about correct behavior.

“Everything we do is based on consent, boundaries, and self-advocacy,” he says. “A lot of men haven’t learned social skills or how to have healthy touch. They’ve never been told what the right behavior is. They don’t know what platonic, consented boundaries are. This is the most profound work we do. People are learning what not to do.”

That education can happen in group settings, too. The cuddling movement also includes “cuddling parties” — a pajama-like soiree where strangers appropriately touch each other.

Soleiman Bolour, 41, a trained cuddle party facilitator, is a board member of the 14-year-old Cuddle Party, a federally recognized nonprofit educational organization. Once a month, he hosts 15 to 20 people in his San Diego home for a three-hour event.

“We spend the first hour learning about consent and boundaries, and playing games regarding how to share what you want, and how to say no to something you don’t,” Bolour says. “The next two hours are freestyle cuddling. People make requests, like, ‘Can I lay next to you? Can we sit back-to-back?’” The party ends with participants talking in a circle about the experience.

Both parties and one-on-one cuddling sessions, Bolour says, offer touch to people who feel lonely or physically disconnected from others, who are single and not having sex, who have realized that documenting their day visually on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is not a suitable substitute for human contact.

“Cuddling has become more popular as we continue to redefine what it is: healing art, like massage,” Bolour adds. “People are starting to understanding that cuddling has nothing to do with sex.” The #MeToo movement, he says, is pushing people to think about how to seek touch respectfully and with integrity. “How do I ask for what I want without crossing boundaries?”

Practitioners say cuddling addresses a growing modern phenomenon: the concern that, with so many digital ways to communicate, we are losing human connection and becoming more isolated.

“I’m very concerned we are losing face-to-face opportunities [for] verbal communication,” says Rosanna Guadagno, a psychology professor at Stanford University who studies social media. “We become increasingly bitter, lonely, and depressed if we don’t get touch.” Guadango argues that we dehumanize people when we swipe left or right, encouraged by profit-seeking app developers. “They want us addicted to our phones and apps for interaction, and they aren’t questioning whether this is healthy for us or not.”

Recently, Field visited 12 airports and witnessed almost no intimate touching — no heads on shoulders, no handholding, no passionate goodbye kisses.

Dating apps and other technologies may be instigators of loneliness, but so is our increased tendency to live solo. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the percentage of U.S. adults living without a spouse or partner has risen from 39 percent to 42 percent in the past 10 years.

“Our brains are wired for close contact with people, for interpersonal interaction and our ability to read what’s going on, to look at someone and react,” Guadagno says. “We are losing those skills. I’m not sure cuddling is the answer to solve that.” Still, she adds, professional cuddling and cuddling parties speak to a need. “It’s an interesting way of trying to address this deficit.”

Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says there’s no research yet that shows professional cuddling is beneficial. But she says it likely has many of the same effects as massage: putting the nervous system into a more relaxed state, reducing stress hormones.

“Professional cuddling is growing in popularity because people are not getting into intimate relationships as early as they were, or are not as intimate with others because of social media,” Field says. “There’s very little social interaction now.”

Recently, Field visited 12 airports and witnessed almost no intimate touching — no heads on shoulders, no handholding, no passionate goodbye kisses. “Physical affection has gone out of vogue, at least publicly,” she adds. “Young people up to 40 are not getting involved in intimate relationships like they used to. So now they are finding other ways to satisfy their physical intimacy needs.”

Specialists and research say positive touch has been proven to boost the immune system, increase attentiveness, and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. It also influences people’s social behaviors and relationships, making them feel less lonely and more nurtured.

Like any matchmaking situation — be it friend, coworker, doctor, mate, or therapist — comfort and connection are crucial. I’m sure that for some people, professional cuddling can be beneficial emotionally, physically, and mentally. But for me, it was different: Even though I kept reminding myself that it was a therapeutic situation, my cuddling encounter left me feeling less connected to others.

The invited intimacy with a total stranger was unsettling and odd. It magnified, in my mind, the fact that I’m single, that I miss the deep physical connection I had with my ex, and that I don’t get enough touch during the day. I work at home, and my closest office mates are my gregarious neighbors, my friendly doormen, and my familiar Starbucks posse. Though I have good friends and attend a plethora of media events and business meals, there’s still a lack of connection that comes from a self-employed, gig-economy lifestyle. A quick kiss hello, a lingering hand on my arm, or a hug goodbye from the people I cherish most don’t fill the void.

But neither does human contact for hire — and Guadagno, for one, isn’t surprised.

“Cuddling with a stranger is like giving us meaning with someone we don’t know, and that can be unsettling and unsatisfying,” she says. “We need to focus on the meaningful relationships we have, building those relationships, and finding new ones if we don’t have them. Too many of our connections are with technology. We are missing the fulfillment of deeper relationships.”

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.

 

Illustration by Mar Hernández

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