Sometimes we just need to be held. While the internet makes us more connected to the world at large, it also disconnects us from human contact. Look at that rush hour subway: packed trains, everybody on their smartphones, no one talking to each other. Across the world, new businesses are popping up to cure our existential internet age isolation by offering cuddles for cash. We talked to 30-year-old pro cuddler Hasnain MirZa about crushing loneliness, the science of snuggling, and what it's like to canoodle for coin in Montreal.
VICE: First of all, you sign off your emails as "Guru MirZa." Um... Why?
MirZa: I do that because I really enjoy cuddling and love to teach and share the art of cuddling with people: how comforting it is, how beneficial it is. So I did a search to see if there are any other guru cuddlers out there—I know "cuddler" is not really a word in the English language dictionary, but I'm using it anyways—and I couldn't find anyone else, so I self-proclaimed.
OK, so tell me about the origins of your business, cuddleme.ca.
I'm a respiratory therapist. I work for McGill [University] in an intensive care unit, and I always see my patients during the holiday time—there is no one there for them to visit, or no one comes to see them. They're already alone all the rest of the year, and during the holiday season it's even sadder. So I started this company in December 2014. Around that time, I saw on the news that there was a company similar to this in Japan. My goal was to have at least one client on Christmas Day—and I did. I want for everyone to have the affection they need because we're social beings.
Things have taken off since then. What kind of people reach out to you?
When I first started this company, I thought more women would call. I was wrong. My main population is actually men—I'd say 95 percent. They range in age from 18 to 75. Most of them don't have any companionship. About 40 percent are repeats. These are businessmen, athletes, students, healthcare professionals. I've even had a journalist.
Why do you think there's a need for this kind of service?
Everyone needs affection, and it's hard to get it, unfortunately. Cuddling is becoming more and more popular because there are more and more lonely people in our society. We're more prone to use Facebook or text messages to communicate rather than meeting someone. And more and more people are isolated as the population grows older.
You work in the medical field. Is there any science behind our desire to be snuggled?
There is no one that is actually studying cuddling, but there are some scientific articles that have been written that say that human-to-human, skin-on-skin contact promotes the production of oxytocin. And oxytocin, as we all know, is a very powerful hormone that our body uses to have this bonding feeling with people, having this feeling of being loved, feeling safe. It's a great hormone. The feeling is absolutely amazing when it gets released! And a hug—a proper hug—will put those hormones in your bloodstream.
Walk me through a typical session.
We start by giving the client a hug—and that hug is held for 20 seconds. Why 20 seconds? In the first five seconds, they're in a state of thinking, OK, this is a bit weird. Ten seconds after, that's when they're really going to relax their shoulders and breathe more normally, and you'll just feel a connection. Then, for the first ten to 15 minutes, the client and the cuddler will sit face-to-face or side-by-side and just talk. There won't be any touching at this time. Then we go with how the client likes it. With some, all they want is to just lay on your lap and talk about how their day was and what issues they're having. You put down a pillow, put their head over it, and have a hand on their head and another on their shoulder. Some clients like to spoon, and the way that we spoon is that we put a pillow between the midsections of the two people so there won't be any genital area touching. Some people want to sit face-to-face and hold hands. Some people want to watch a movie together. Some people want to listen to music. Some of them cry. They really want to let out what's pent up inside them.
How much does a session cost?
It is $90 for an hour, tax included, within the island of Montreal.
How many cuddlers do you work with?
Including myself, five. All of my employees are part-time. I can't hire just anyone. This is a professional service: There's no funny business, there's no kissing, no direct midsection to midsection contact. I keep it very, very legitimate and want people who I trust 100 percent, so the people I have as my cuddlers are all my friends or people I've gotten to know. I look for three qualities in a cuddler. Either, A, this person has studied some sort of psychology; B, this person has some sort of medical background; or, C, they're very spiritual, they meditate, and have a full understanding of themselves.
Will this become a full-time gig?
I'm keeping this as a part-time thing. I still work full-time at the hospital. The goal is not to get rich off this.
How do you protect your cuddlers from creeps?
I care about my cuddlers and their safety, security, and wellbeing. We have a whole process of verification. There's a video Skype conversation prior to meeting face-to-face with a client. And if at any time the cuddler does not feel comfortable—which has not happened—he or she has the right to refuse service. When you're inside with a client, right away there's a legal contract that they have to sign that says there's no kissing or inappropriate touching. And when we meet a client, we also take a photo of their ID. I always know where my cuddlers are at all times. They all have basic self-defence training. We've had zero incidents so far because the people who contact us need help. These are people who are really alone.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style.
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