Intimacy for rent: Inside the business of paid cuddling

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A man from the Bronx hires a professional cuddler to hold his hands once a year, sitting on the same bench, in the same park, on the anniversary of his brother’s murder there.

A shy Indian journalist living in New York, called his cuddler when he was contemplating suicide. The cuddler picked him up at 2am from a bar, and took him home (at no charge).

These stories were related by professional cuddlers from Cuddlist.com, one of around a dozen professional cuddling agencies that have sprung up in the US. The company trains and certifies would-be professional cuddlers. Its website serves as a virtual marketplace for clients and cuddlers to find each other. 

Cuddlist.com is intent on presenting paid cuddling as a platonic and—importantly—a therapeutic service. It has set out to fill a perceived void in the emotional realm of modern society, one where sex is easy to find, but not genuine intimacy. Yet in a nascent industry where there is no clear definition of what the service is, Cuddlist.com is struggling to establish paid cuddling as “a real thing”, a legitimate, non-sexual service that the current wellness industry fails to provide.

Legitimate healers?

The idea of therapeutic touch is not new. Lots of studies have confirmed the benefits of  touch. Paid cuddling as healing though, probably dates to 2003 with the founding of Cuddle Party. It was set up as a network for members to organize and attend pop-up parties where they could cuddle with anyone in attendance. Parties usually charge an admission fee of around $30.

But after 13 yearsthe business of paid cuddling is still not seen as “a real thing,” laments Adam Lippin, CEO of Cuddlist.com. “It’s really easy to look at this and roll your eyes. But imagine if you’re not on Tinder, or Match.com or Grinder—for whatever reason, you’re not in the dating pool. Or you suffered a loss and you just need someone to hold your hand. Or maybe you have issues with intimacy. This is the place to go to. Worst case scenario you’ll have someone totally present for you. Best case scenario, you’re on a way to healing.”

He offers a powerful argument. Except “healing” is not the term that people usually associate with cuddling. It’s sex.

It doesn’t help Lippin’s cause that the cuddling industry has been walking a murky line between sexual services and platonic touch. In 2013, a cuddling agency called Snuggle House was shut down after a three-week existence, due to allegations of prostitution taking place behind its doors. Another, the Cuddle Time Agency, plasters its website and Facebook page with photos of young women, and an intentional or unintentional focus on their cleavages.

Unlike some other agencies, Cuddlist.com doesn’t provide “overnight sessions.” Nor does it only cater to male clients. Its fairly substantial code of conduct emphasizes setting boundaries and gives cuddlers guidance to deal with tricky situations like arousal.

But even after the website has made it clear that it’s a non-sexual service, its cuddlers still get calls asking “On what surface do the cuddling sessions take place? What? Not on the bed?  Not even your ‘favorite’ client?”

Adam Lippin thinks the cultural stereotype of cuddling services really misses the point: What’s lacking in our society is not access to sex but access to real intimacy.

“It’s not that hard to get sex. In fact, there are people who swipe right on Tinder too much and the sex doesn’t even work for them anymore. But it is the only way in our culture right now, for them to get any form of touch and intimacy,” says Lippin.

Unconditional intimacy

Cuddlist.com’s slogan is: We’re sex obsessed but touch deprived. It resonates with many of the service’s clients. 

Among them is Jay Zemann, who confounds the stereotype of who you might imagine pays for cuddling. He’s happily married and has established a fairly successful career as an artist. But he says that in real life, cuddling with a loved one is often bounded by time constraints.

“Often the touch is having to get something out of the closet, you move each other around or holding hands in the elevator, and then it’s done. That’s not enough,” says Zemann.

But more than compensating for “I can’t get enough touch from my partner.” Professional cuddlers argue that real relationships are too complicated to give room for nurturing touch. That’s why you need them.

“If you get touch from a spouse, there might be conditions on that. What’s the chore that makes up that cuddling? The fact that there is a payment frees up the client. They don’t owe me anything. ” explains professional cuddler Saskia Larsen, who is also a massage therapist and an actress.

What customers are really craving, thenis not just intimacy, but a certain type of intimacy: an undemanding, unconditional intimacy.

“That unconditional presence for the client is not even something I can provide in any of my own relationships. I get mad at my boyfriend sometimes. But I’m always there for my client,” says professional cuddler Shanne Marie.

Don’t touch

People’s willingness to pay for cuddling speaks to more than dissatisfaction in their personal relationships, though. It’s also about a perceived lack of human connection in general in modern society. Lots of cultural dos and don’ts prevent people from touching each other, creating an invisible emotional distance.

“Touch deprivation has become commonplace in our world, with mandates against touch happening in our school systems from as early as the preschool stage. Teachers are not allowed to touch children and children are chastised for being affectionate with each other,” researcher Tiffany Field told Quartz. Field is the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. She says that people have become afraid of touching each other.

Sometimes, these taboos can lead us to ignore the existence of other people entirely. Psychologist Robert Sommer describes a phenomenon in modern society called dehumanization, which happens when we’re forced to be physically close in a crowded space like, say, a subway. Because our personal space is violated, a natural response is to feel uncomfortable. To ease that discomfort and anxiety, we “look through” people around us, we treat them as inanimate.

Jay Zemann says he couldn’t get enough touch from his wife. But nor could he get it from people around him. Things often got unnecessarily awkward.

“When I put my arm around somebody, even guys, they’ll be like ‘What is that about?’ I just have to say, ‘It’s alright man I don’t want to sleep with you.’

“I think it doesn’t have to be like that,” says Zemann. 

This hunger for intimacy might explain why the client pool of Cuddlist.com is so diverse. Yes, there are lonely old men whose spouses passed away, and there are people suffering from autism. But many of its clients are married, or in a relationship, and successful in life.

And it’s not just an American phenomenon. The business of cuddling is sprouting up all over the world. In Japan, for example, you can go to cuddle cafes named “soineya”, which translates to “sleep together shop.”

A blind spot

If there is, indeed, this hunger for intimacy, why can’t other “healing” services, like psychotherapy, or massage therapy provide it?

As Lippin and the cuddlists Quartz spoke to see it,  there is a blind spot in the current wellness industry. Psychotherapy is too intense and distant.

“I have a friend who is a social worker. She always says, ‘You know how many clients just need a hug but I can’t offer them because it’s illegal?’ I heard the same thing over and over again from nurses, PTSD workers. A lot of these people became our earliest cuddlers, ” explains Lippin.

And massage therapy is too physical. There’s no emphasis on emotional connection. “Cuddling distills that touch to pure nurturing. It’s both physical and emotional,” says Larsen.

Professionals from Cuddlist.com say that cuddling should occupy a sweet spot between a physical and an emotional service. The service’s cuddle sessions offer a mixture of physical touch and emotional companionship. For example, a 75-year-old client talks 85% of the time during his three-hour-long cuddle sessions with his cuddler. Another client, who has autism, prefers to be silent but finds great comfort in just holding hands.

That latter client might suggest a new direction for the cuddling business. According to Lippin, several major research institutes in the US have sought to collaborate with Cuddlist.com to bring its services to a clinical population—veterans, for example, or people on the autism spectrum.

Intimacy as a commodity

Does paying for cuddling make intimacy a commodity, like every other thing we rent and share today? You can hire a stranger on TaskRabbit to do your chores. You can ride a stranger’s car to get to work. Why not hire a stranger to touch you platonically, and commoditize their companionship?

But if intimacy becomes a commodity, is it still genuine intimacy? Does it still have as much healing power as the touch and cuddles of loved ones?

Many clients who found comfort from their paid cuddling sessions would say yes. Cuddler Saskia who cried in the video above would say yes, too. It may sound contradictory, but there can be genuine feeling involved in this money exchange.

Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein calls it “bounded intimacy” in her research on sex workers. She argues that the intersection of commerce and intimacy has created a different form of authenticity—still genuine, but bounded by the constraints of time and money.

So what does all of this mean?

Well, maybe in the future, paid cuddling can evolve into a regular commodity and nobody will feel weird about it. When you lose a loved one, you book a cuddling session. When you can’t get that intimacy from your relationship, you turn to a professional.

But, if you have had a sly smile on your face as you read this article, I’d say that future is not yet that close.