There's been plenty written about the Power of Human Touch, and its ability to, among other things, decrease stress, increase relaxation, and lower blood pressure and heart rate. Hugs slow your pulse, calm your nervous system, and make everything feel slightly less apocalyptic. This is also true when they come from a total stranger that you've paid $80 per hour for hugs.
That's the concept of the professional cuddling company Snuggle Buddies. At first glance, it's strange to think about paying for human touch—then you remember all the terrible things our daily lives are doing to our minds and bodies. As 27-year-old Snuggle Buddies employee Lisa VanArsdale explains it, "In a world where people sell their souls to offices and you stare at a screen all day, there's going to be a desire for tangible experiences." That line may be impossibly corny, but VanArsdale is endearingly earnest in almost everything she says. She has big, hopeful eyes that are just dying to see the best in you, and a raspy, almost child-like voice. She's curvy, too, her petite torso bearing the kind of bosom you could really nestle your head into—if that sort of thing were permitted.
Professional cuddling is not meant to be sexual. It's a point VanArsdale can't emphasize enough, though she seems aware of the fact that clients may not fully understand, even when respecting the rules. "I'm a teddy bear, not a girl," she explains. "There's no touching of the boobs or the ass. There's no kissing—even on the forehead—unless it's in greeting."
The Snuggle Buddies website addresses these rules plainly in the contract its clients must agree to electronically. Clothes are required, sexual requests are forbidden, and anyone who doesn't abide by the cuddling contract—even with rogue questions asked via email—is blacklisted. Most slip-ups occur during pre-session communication. VanArsdale hasn't personally dealt with any crossing of the line, except from actor Taye Diggs—but that wasn't technically a company-sanctioned cuddle session, and she'd rather not get into all of it again, thank you very much. (Though, it should be said, he's far from alone when it comes to playing dumb about the rules of pro-snuggle engagement.)
For the most part, the men who come to see VanArsdale just want to hold her or be held. Really. Strip clubs and prostitutes offer the fulfillment of more promiscuous desires, anyway. Professional cuddling may be female contact without the potential for shameful stigma, but it's easier to understand through a basic need for physical contact. When VanArsdale asked one of her earliest clients why he'd enlisted her services, he said simply, "I wanted a body lying next to me non-committally."
This particular client was a member of the male 40-or-50-something, divorced-or-should-be demographic that VanArsdale typically sees, and it makes up about half of the approximately 100 clients she's cuddled since she conducted her first session on Super Bowl Sunday last year. Her business all started with googling "ways to make extra money" and discovering a Penny Hoarder article that suggested cuddling as a possibility.
During the day, VanArsdale is a nanny, and she's discovered that caring for someone else's kid is not totally unlike cuddling a grown man. Both are surrogate roles, which sprout from not having the time to normally fulfill them: Parents would pick up their children at school if they weren't so bogged down with work, and middle-age men would be able to engage in the exhausting process of courting another human being into the level of intimacy required to share in their warm embrace.
A crippling fear of rejection is another factor, which is explicitly felt for the men— about a quarter of her clients, specifically—who use VanArsdale's services as a way to bridge the cultural divide. Over her short cuddling career, there have been quite a few Indian men, often with families back home, and Hasidic Jews, who are all but banned from touching women who are not their wives. That they are less likely to fit into the heteronormative masculine ideal is just one part of a far bigger obstacle. "They're coming from a society where touch is super taboo, especially touching the same sex," VanArsdale said.
One of VanArsdale's more recent clients is a Hasidic Jew who broke from his religious community in order to explore his sexuality. He told her he thinks he may be gay, but mostly he needs to be touched by someone—anyone—to ease himself into being comfortable with any human contact at all.
Some of the men VanArsdale sees have medical issues that make touch especially helpful. There was the 18-year-old with narcolepsy, a 30-something guy on the autism spectrum, and a wheelchair-bound man with muscular dystrophy who asked VanArsdale to sit on his lap because he had "never been able to get a full hug." It's in these stories that the therapeutic aspect of professional cuddling becomes clear. VanArsdale's background amounts to "loving to cuddle a lot in college," but she takes it seriously. Over the course of our discussion, she often espouses the cuddler's version of Patch Adams's philosophy of bi-directional care (she volunteered with him in Russia once, by the way, and he was very interested in her work).
"Some of these people are really hurting, and they're vulnerable and looking to be nurtured," she said of her personal mission statement, her voice nearly trembling. "If they're coming to me looking for healing, it's bad if I don't come off as capable and desiring." It's one of several moments when she is nearly overwhelmed by her own ability to care for others, as if the act of facilitating someone else's healing is a way for VanArsdale to find comfort herself.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter.