Like most psychotherapists, Desiree Robinson spends the majority of her time in an office talking with clients. But occasionally she'll start the day in her office and end it on a Thai mat piled with cushions and pillows, cuddling with a different kind of client.
"I make it a point to not hold sessions in spaces designed for sleep or sex," she told me of her cuddling practice, which she adopted as a side gig earlier this year.
In addition to being a licensed therapist, Robinson is a professional cuddler for Cuddlist, a service that connects people who feel lonely or deprived of nonsexual touch with paid cuddlers. And she's not alone: Robinson is one of the roughly 20 percent of Cuddlists who are also licensed therapists, according to Adam Lippin, the CEO of Cuddlist.
"Both modalities affirm clients and create an atmosphere of acceptance," Lippin told me. "[Therapists and cuddlers] are skilled in compassionate listening and judgment-free space holding that promotes feelings of confidence and connectedness."
Even before she joined Cuddlist, Robinson noticed a connection between therapy and physical touch. Sometimes, during a particularly grueling therapy session, she felt the urge to hug a client; other times, clients explicitly asked for physical comfort.
But as a therapist, she had to keep her distance. Physical contact is considered a gray area in the field—it's not illegal, but many therapists worry that something like a hug could be taken the wrong way and could result in a lawsuit.
So Robinson turned to cuddle therapy, fronting the $79 fee to get certified with Cuddlist, both as a way to expand her therapy practice and to make a little cash on the side.
"Crying into a tissue on a therapist's couch is different than crying in someone's arms."
These days, Robinson spends roughly four to eight hours meeting with Cuddlist clients each month, plus an additional three hours per week working on her marketing strategy to acquire new clients. She pays Cuddlist $30 a month to have her profile included in their database, similar to the fee she pays Psychology Today to list her profile as a psychotherapist. And so far, it's paid off: She charges her cuddling clients the standard $80 an hour, which works out to roughly the same rate she charges her therapy clients ($120 for the initial consultation and $55 to $85 an hour for subsequent sessions).
Despite these similarities, Robinson is careful to keep her therapy and cuddling work separate. To avoid the ethical and legal ramifications, she does not cuddle with her therapy clients and vice versa.
Her Cuddlist profile does, however, mention she is a licensed therapist—something she thinks is a selling point in attracting new clients. She also sometimes lets her therapy clients know about the other parts of her career.
"I don't advertise cuddling to them, but I'm also not hiding," she told me.
Cuddle therapy was born of the belief that everyone could benefit from a little more nonsexual physical touch. Since the first recorded "cuddle party" in New York more than a decade ago, the industry has ballooned to include companies like Cuddlist, Cuddle Time, and Cuddle Therapy, where anyone can pay to spend time with a professional cuddler.
"Most of us don't get enough touch in our lives," Lippin told me. Cuddling, as he sees it, can be an extension of the things people work out in talk therapy. "Where talk-therapy ends, touch-therapy continues. Crying into a tissue on a therapist's couch is different than crying in someone's arms."
Karissa Brennan is another therapist turned professional cuddler. In addition to working with clients in person, Brennan also connects with people via an online-therapy platform. She sees both online therapy and cuddling work as ways to supplement her skills as a therapist.
"When someone holds you, you find that you can hold you," she told me. "You feel cared for, so you then give yourself permission to care for yourself."
Online therapy and Cuddlist are only two of several avenues and companies therapists use to supplement the income they earn from working with clients in person. Some of them blog about mental health and host ads on their site, others publish self-help and psychology books, and a few of them take part-time administrative positions at mental health companies.
It can be hard to imagine therapists would need to spend so much time supplementing their income. Therapy isn't cheap, costing an average of $75 to $150 per session. But many therapists earn less than $30,000 a year through their primary work, either because they subsidize sessions for low-income clients or because they can't book enough clients. Therapy fees also go toward the cost of operating the office, continuing professional training, or maintaining a license. As a result, side hustles have become increasingly common
For Brennan, having alternate sources of income was a bonus—but professional cuddling also helps her sharpen her skills in the traditional therapy setting.
"As a business owner, I agree that having multiple sources of income is wise, yet I also believe in a holistic approach to healing," Brennan told me. "I believe it is part of my duty to understand other practices and how they can benefit my clients in ways I cannot help them [as a therapist]."
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