I met my first cuddling client at Hot Tubs by the Hour, an innocuous-looking beige building on a busy street. The lobby was dark, and from behind the cash register, a round white woman, indifferent, watched me approach my client, Ron. He was pale and balding, with a pot belly spilling over ironed khakis. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and led him to the rented room.
The rented room was small with white walls and no windows. A simple bed abutted the wall and a hot tub released steam in the corner. He sat on the bed. We made a bit of small talk, then I said the line I'd rehearsed: "I'm looking forward to exploring different kinds of touch with you, but in order to feel safe, I want to remind you of the rules—no nudity, no kissing, and no sexual touch." He agreed.
A week before, desperate for money as an underemployed artist, I'd combed Craigslist job ads and come across one seeking cuddlers: $40 per hour, no sex, no nudity. I needed the money, but I was also curious: What kind of person pays for cuddling? What would it feel like to cuddle a stranger?
Ron wore his boxers and I stripped down to my sports bra and shorts (I would later learn that stripping down isn't required, but is often requested by clients).We embraced on the bed, my head nestled in the crook of his arm, and I rested my arm across his round belly. We talked while entwined. He owned a construction company, worked seven days a week, 17-hour days, and used this to relax. He asked me just to talk to him, so I told him stories about bicycling through my city when I first moved there. Then he asked if he could lie on top of me.
I could feel his boner pressing against my thighs. "You're so beautiful," he said, brushing my face with his lips. I reminded him there was no kissing. He grazed his hands along my breasts, and I gently pushed him away. "I just want to remind you of our agreements," I said, over and over.
Cuddle Time, the agency where I worked, opened in New York and now has branches in 19 different cities. Their website is a quilt of mixed messages. At the top of their landing page is a photograph of two young blondes, smiling and leaning toward the camera, revealing dramatic cleavage. There are subtle reminders that the service is about platonic touch, interspersed with photos of young, sexy women. One of the FAQ answers reads: "Think of this like making out with your girlfriend, only this is not your girlfriend, and no making out is allowed."
Cuddle Time was inspired by Cuddle Therapy, an earnest service offered by Travis Sigley in San Francisco. Eight years ago Sigley became the first cuddle practitioner in the country, offering touch without sexual exploration. He wanted to push back on the cultural belief that people can only find touch, affection, and intimacy through sexual pursuits. His service, he told me, is valuable precisely because of its platonic nature: It deconstructs cultural messages that sex is the sole avenue to connection and allows clients to rebuild their relationship to physical touch.
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Sigley is clear to articulate both his boundaries and his intention to provide a healing practice. He sits down and drinks tea with each new client, discussing his techniques and asking the client to talk about their needs and goals. He's worked with women and men, gay and straight, and says in his eight years of practice, no client has ever crossed a boundary.
But other cuddlers have had different experiences. Casey Nin, who's worked as a cuddler-for-hire at Cuddle Time for the past seven months, got into this line of work to "destigmatize the activity of touch." She begins every session by discussing her boundaries, always wears stretch pants and a loose T-shirt to cover up, and gently corrects people when they cross a line.
And lines do get crossed "most of the time," she told me. Her clients have asked her on dates, requested she wear less clothing, and even tried to solicit sexual services from her. Each time, she turns them down as compassionately as she can. (Cuddle Time's job contracts specify that the company does screen clients, but ultimately, they're not legally responsible for anything that happens between a cuddler and a client.)
"To people who don't have access to intimacy or connection," she said, "finding it is so rare. When they meet somebody and they can really open up [to], they feel they've found something extraordinary and they want to follow up on that connection." When I asked if she fakes the intimacy, she told me the money is her primary motivator, but "when I'm there, I'm all theirs."
When Sigley began his cuddling venture, he dreamed of creating an entire industry of non-sexual intimacy and connection. He did succeed in inspiring an industry—but not the one he wanted. Many spinoffs, including Cuddle Time, "are totally missing the point of what this is all about," he said, by using a cheap capitalist trick to sell sex rather than filling the need for human connection.
Browse any cuddler-for-hire site and you'll find photos of women in lingerie or skimpy clothes, cleavage exposed, blurring the line between a truly platonic service and under-the-table sex service. Cuddle Time's cuddler bios, embellished by the agency, include descriptions like "submissive," "great figure," and "high quality gal."
When Nin first started at Cuddle Time, she saw the photographs on other women's profiles and deliberately chose images of herself "in a turtleneck, in the forest, looking like someone's little sister." She's considered starting her own cuddling business, since "there's lots of opportunity for a more wholesome-looking service," but she's not sure she could make as much money if there wasn't "that hook of a potentially sexual service."
Still, she's happy to stay in the cuddling industry for now.
"Some clients don't know what they want," Nin told me. "People think the only way to get touch is through a sexual relationship. Hooking them into being there, with an insinuation of something sexy—maybe it's good for them."
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Photo via Flickr user Paul Stevenson