All photos by Erin Fonseca
It’s 7:20 PM on Tuesday night, and I’m wandering the after-hours Wall Street wasteland looking for the apartment of “Ali C.,” where I have an appointment to cuddle. Like a massage, it’s $60 for 45 minutes. Since November, clients have been paying to lie in bed with Ali (or rest their shoulder in the crook of her neck on the couch), who runs a one-woman “cuddle therapy” business, Cuddle U NYC, out of her studio apartment.
There’s no "happy ending" handjob at the end. This isn’t a Chinatown massage parlor in more ways than one—a required pre-cuddle phone conversation establishes with all clients that the experience will be physical and possibly emotional, but not sexual. In fact, to hear both client and proprietor tell it, cuddling with her can be a verbal affair.
I’m not the ideal cuddle client per se. For one, I’m so cheap that I’ll probably end up paralyzing my face using at-home acupuncture. I’m not a man and therefore not as likely to visit a cuddler. Ali cites this gender imbalance, as do most of the professional female cuddlers that have been profiled, including Portland-based Samantha Hess. I don’t have “Asperger’s,” nor am I “overweight,” as Ali describes male clients who might come to her because “they don’t attract people to them.” I’m not in need of “re-mothering,” which she says is the main concern of the few women who use her services. I don’t feel under-touched, nor am I recently divorced.
I decide to approach the session like a blowjob class, but for cuddling.
From private sessions offered by sole proprietors like Ali to “Cuddle Parties"—which to me seem a bit like inappropriate flash mobs—professional cuddling doesn’t qualify as a growth market per se. Yet the industry is having a moment in the Internet Age for think-piece reasons I really am not going to pretend to care about explaining (search “millennials"; that’s what Google is for).
The economy—and the fact that it’s nice to work sporadically from home in a job where technically the only perquisite is having two functioning arms (sorry, John McCain) and a bed with clean sheets—seems incentive enough for any unemployed person comfortable with touching but not sex work. Ali identifies as a writer (she mentions a novel) and is living off her savings from a previous career.
I enter Ali’s nondescript but not inexpensive condo building—is there any other kind in the financial district?—and her doorman checks my name. He does this with all 30 of her clients, who must provide their driver’s license upon arriving in her home so she can take a photo of it with her iPhone.
I read that she greets new visitors with a hug, and feeling like I should adhere to new-client protocol, I lean in for one when she opens the door. Ali is surprised, but adapts so quickly I don’t have a chance to feel like an idiot. It shouldn’t be worth noting she isn’t even a touch awkward or insecure, but I so rarely interact with people that aren’t, I find myself making a special mental note of it.
Ali looks like Vashti Bunyan in her forties, with well-groomed eyebrows and clear attention paid to split ends. Expert eyeshadow is noticeable behind square D&G frames, and we’re wearing similar outfits: dark blouses and grey-black skinny jeans with leather boots. She has an almost palpably maternal presence, with the warm attentiveness of the ideal kindergarten teacher. She nods and widens her eyes in agreement with almost everything I say. I feel liked almost immediately, I and have to make a conscious effort to sit up when I realize I’m relaxing and tucking my legs underneath me on the couch, as I do when petting a particularly receptive cat.
It was just last week that Ali, “New York City’s first professional cuddler,” got what all entrepreneurs need: press. She’s not happy with the original news story, she tells me right away, referring to the piece quite frequently during our interview. I hasten to point out that she’s not the first to be frustrated by a media coming-out party hosted by the New York Daily News. (Almost every single professional cuddler currently getting press in the United States was at one time profiled by the Daily News, which, as far as I can tell, has had an editorial meeting and decided to run a cuddling vertical). She has ten new clients already.
Despite some unflattering photography angles, the Daily News piece isn’t bad exactly, or not for the reasons she thinks. But Ali says she “learned from the experience,” confidently directs our photographer not to take photos from certain angles, and changes into a “cuddle outfit” for our appointment more in line with the Lululemon brand of the hip-fit woman than the floral pajamas from her first photo shoot.
In the Daily News photo, the sturdy man cradling Ali, with his handlebar mustache and Adidas exercise pants, makes me squeamish, for no other reason than that the session looks so un-clinical. Which cuddling is, obviously. But Ali is confidently branding her company not as a cuddle service but as “cuddle therapy.” The fluffy phrase doesn’t detract from the simple logical jump that would render Ali a (cuddle) therapist.
While a large-scale business called the Snuggle House in Wisconsin was shut down after fears of prostitution, I can’t help letting the question of the sexual misconduct get eclipsed by another: How illegal is unlicensed therapy?
I ask Ali if she calls herself a therapist. “In a lot of ways I do.” And does she feel the weight of that responsibility? She pauses and then begins to speak a bit slower. “Um... yes. Well. Yes, I do. Yes. Since the article came out I’ve had... a couple of men, but mostly women, contacting me saying, ‘Are you hiring? How do I learn to be a cuddler?’” This makes her “nervous.”
Ali responds more enthusiastically when I ask if she feels like she’s healing people. “Most people are coming to me because they’re hurting. It’s because they’re in pain.” It is her belief that no one comes “just to cuddle.” Men tell her about their childhoods and experiences with women.
When I talk to David Orr, an IT specialist based in New Jersey who was also interviewed for the Daily News piece, he supports her assessment that “it definitely is therapy.” Orr points out that some people might “just want to sleep” during their sessions, but that seems like “a waste of time.” He suffers from seasonal depression and scheduled a cuddling session as one strategy among many to combat it.
Ali's speech is peppered with new-agey healing terminology, words that I find generally self-explanatory as to their final goal but not the practice that might achieve it. After a few anecdotes about how she overcame her own “dysfunctional family life” with “inner bonding,” which she says is the source of both her life philosophy and snuggle therapy, I admit to being confused and ask if she can explain her source. The concept is drawn from a self-help book she read six years ago called Healing Your Aloneness: Finding Love and Wholeness Through Your Inner Child. She sought out the book because her mother never “related to her in a way that was loving.”
I ask what practicing inner bonding might look like.
“So, if you imagine yourself, little Kaitlin at six. If something bad happened to you at six. Feeling those feelings... Find out how your inner child is feeling and feel those feelings, and hold yourself.”
Except for the incident in which my sister cut a hole in a two-tone hat that took me six months to knit in third grade, I don’t have any notable childhood trauma.
We decide to try cuddling. I immediately become less comfortable. Ali asks if I want to reconstruct a touchy-feely moment I might have had with my mother. She mentions a female client who told her that "no one has ever brushed my hair." Ali spent the second session combing her hair on the couch. My mother is a really small, comforting person who often paints my nails while we watch TV. I rest my head on Ali’s shoulder, trying to pretend she’s my mom. Then I sit up.
“Ideally, you’re just sort of giving up control and being nurtured.”
I admit I don’t want to give up control, so we move to the bed where I might be less antsy.
She suggests I close my eyes and let “our heartbeats... synch up, and that will modulate [my] nervous system.” I close my eyes and try to relax as she spoons me. This lasts for about a minute. She points out that I may not be giving into the therapy. I concur.
She rubs my palm for a little while, which would work on a normal person, but I actually stop my manicurist from giving me hand massages because I don’t know what to look at while she's touching me.
I realize after five minutes of pretending to get cuddle therapy that I’ve grossly underestimated how frigid a person I am. But Ali is cheerful, suggesting that I don’t want her services because I don’t need her help emotionally. After a couple of anecdotes, we agree I had a very normal, supportive childhood and mother. She doesn’t ask about my father.