Cuddling. It's not for everyone, is it? Especially us Brits. We're suspicious of that word: cuddle. We ridicule it. Prefix it with the word 'professional' and you have us guffawing, indignant that such a thing could exist. So the news that BeCuddled – the UK and Europe's first professional cuddling agency – is to launch in south west London was greeted (by myself at least) with a narrow-eyed curiosity and instinctive mistrust: what is professional cuddling, and why would anyone want to subject themselves to it?
Kitty Mansfield, the founder of BeCuddled and a professional cuddler, has been an holistic therapist and bereavement counsellor for 15 years. Cuddling, she says, was the missing piece of the jigsaw of the hybrid service she was offering. "I was kind of thrashing around from where to go from the place I was in because I didn't feel that I was really getting to help people as much as I thought I probably could," she tells me. "I heard about this lady in upstate New York who opened a very small cuddle practice and a lightbulb went on." Mansfield opened her first cuddle practice, BeSnuggled, three years ago in Kent. Now, demand is such that she has begun to train others to become professional cuddlers and will launch BeCuddled next month. Eventually she aims to have a professional cuddler in "every metropolitan area in the UK."
"There's actually a lot of me out there," she says. "Most of them are already working in holistic medicine or are healthcare professionals or doctors with progressive viewpoints. I'm just the only person who's put their head above the parapet and said 'OK, let's give this a try.'"
It's easy for those of us getting cuddles on the regs to scoff at the idea of a 'professional cuddling agency'. But the importance and health benefits of human touch should not be trivialised. Fundamentally, cuddling is touch therapy, and touch is proven to release oxytocin – the love, or bonding, hormone – which helps boost the immune system and lower blood pressure, stress and anxiety.
Hard as it might be for many of us to imagine, there is a large swathe of society who can go without touching another person for days, weeks, months on end. Barely a week goes by when a new statistic isn't released, revealing just how isolated we have become as a nation. Britain has been called the loneliness capital of Europe and a study this year reported that 84 percent of Britons feel lonely, with 13 percent of us feeling lonely all of the time.
"We live in an increasingly disconnected society," says Mansfield. "Even though technology means we are connected in more ways than we can deal with, on a day to day basis people are getting touched less and less. I have people come to because they have lost their wives or partners, people who are socially awkward, people who are disabled, autistic, suffering from PTSD. Or because they are just downright lonely."
While Mansfield says that her clients are a broad range of people, the one valid generalisation she can make is that she has more men than women come to her for cuddles. "Men suffer from what I call touch isolation," she says. "When they grow up they have fewer opportunities than women do to be touched outside of a relationship or sexual encounter. Women touch more, they touch each other more. Men have fewer opportunities and I think that's reflected in the demographic of my clients."
Why then, do we find the idea of cuddling therapy so difficult to stomach, to take seriously? The problem, says Mansfield, lies in the fact that that touch has become totally sexualised in the western world. We struggle to disassociate the idea of being physically intimate with another human being from having sex with them. Consequently, the connotations of cuddling are such that the thought of being that close with a stranger is weird, creepy and, for many, potentially quite frightening.
It's one of the reasons the much-derided app Cuddlr failed to really get off the ground. Not only was it roundly branded as "creepy" by the press, but people wanted different things from the service – it goes without saying that not everyone just wanted to meet in a bar for a friendly hug and a flat white.
"I think an app gives entirely the wrong impression," says Mansfield. "People need to be able to book cuddles with confidence knowing that the other person knows what they're doing. How can you police an app properly?"
Ultimately, it was the inability to sort the wheat from the chaff, if you will, that meant Cuddlr's days were numbered (although it has since been sold to a US developer and has relaunched as Spoonr. Make of that what you will.)
BeCuddled has strict guidelines of what is and what isn't appropriate behaviour for the cuddler and cuddlee. There is no nudity, and it is made clear, as Mansfield states on her website, that "cuddling is not a euphemism for sex or prostitution."
"I've put as many safeguards in place as I can," she says. "You know, you could go to a massage therapist and they could behave inappropriately or their client could behave inappropriately. There's no 100 percent safe way to ensure that never happens, but in the three years I've been doing it I've never had a problem. People know exactly why they're coming to me. They know what they're going to get and importantly, they know what they're not going to get."
So what is it that you actually get from a professional cuddler? The BeCuddled services range from The Classic Snuggle – one to six hours at £50 an hour spent 'relaxing in the arms of your BeCuddler' – to the Dawn Til Dusk Snuggle – an all night session with DVDs, snacks and cuddly toys at £450. There's also, for those that want it, position suggestions from Rob Grader's The Cuddle Sutra to choose from. But, as Mansfield explains: "It's so much more than just cuddling. It's holding someone's hand, it's stroking their arm, it could literally be just sitting next to them. It's some sort of human interaction, some sort of warmth, someone telling you 'yes, you are worthwhile.'"
The cost might seem steep, but, of course, paying to be touched in a non sexual way for therapeutic reasons is nothing new. There used to be a stigma surrounding massage, but now we're more than happy to strip off and let a stranger rub our naked bodies for a hefty fee. But while we're now happy to give cold hard cash for an hour on the masseuse's bed, paying for a cuddle is still something we're going to need to get our heads around. "People say to me, 'I wouldn't pay 50 quid for a cuddle' and I say to them, 'good for you. If you've got a support network around you of friends, family, a dog or a cat of course you wouldn't come and pay to be cuddled. But what about the people who don't have any of that in their lives?"
We might be a long way off from wholly embracing the concept here, but over in the US the professional cuddling industry is thriving (albeit in a niche way). "I think the Americans can be a lot more accepting of what someone might perceive here of being quite wild and wacky," says Mansifeld. "I'm not for a minute thinking this is going to take off in a crazy way. I think it will grow organically. It's hard to find me on the internet, so I was surprised once I'd put my website up that people were finding me. It meant that people were looking for me."
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