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Would you pay $100 for a hug? Photo: Instagram
I am lying on a strange bed in a dark room, and Samantha Hess is trying to seduce me.
Not – and I want to be absolutely clear about this – in any sexual way.
Quite the opposite.
Hess is an attractive, vivacious 20-something who is a professional cuddler. Today, she is attempting to persuade me that hiring a fully clothed stranger to get into bed with you and embrace you in a loving, but platonic, fashion is a healthy way to spend $80–110 an hour.
I had first met Hess at Cuddle Con, the world’s first professional cuddling conference, earlier this year. Held in Portland, Oregon, in the US, Cuddle Con attracted hundreds looking to learn the art of “platonic intimate touch".
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Professional cuddling is exactly what it sounds like. People hire out their cuddling services to clients by the hour. And before you scoff, know this: business is booming. Most of the female cuddlers I spoke to bill regular clients 20 to 40 hours a week. Because the industry is not regulated, no training or expertise is required. All you need to be a legal professional cuddler in most cities is a business licence and a willingness to embrace strangers for an hour or more.
And so now here I am, still trying to understand this thriving cottage industry, face down in a small room at the back of Hess’s Cuddle Up To Me boutique in Portland, wondering how I am going to explain all of this to my wife. Cuddle Up To Me is the storefront where Hess and her three employees do their cuddling. In their publicity photos, the shop looks like the kind of a chic salon that serves you champagne while your highlights set. In real life, however, its furnishings are drab and spartan. At the back of the shop are several makeshift rooms, each with its own bed. The walls are decorated in nature themes with glowin- the-dark paint. The aesthetic is clearly meant to be soothing; instead I feel like I’ve been transported to the back of a ’70s porn star’s van.
Staring at the moon and stars wall mural, I sense the weight of Hess on the bed as she lies down beside me, then feel a strange leg drape over mine and fingers caress my back.
And I find I am asking myself the same question I imagine most clients of a professional cuddler ask as they are lovingly embraced by a stranger: how the hell did I get myself into this?
Strangely, there was very little actual cuddling to be found at Cuddle Con.
The one-day event was just beginning as I arrived. Young hipsters and middle-aged couples mingled with ageing hippies, and almost everyone was dressed in their pyjamas. The convention’s actual “presentations” included a strange assortment of activities being offered free by local vendors, ranging from a bossa nova lesson to an hour with a New Age life coach. She promised we would learn to become better partners once we determined if we are puppies or kitties. Puppies, she explained, like to be touched by everyone, while kitties prefer just to be touched by a few people.
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She asked everyone to go around the room on all fours, doing our best canine or feline impressions. I backed up against the wall to signal I would not be participating in the exercise, but it mattered not. Within minutes I was approached by a middle-aged man sporting an orange T-shirt and impressively long grey beard. As he rubbed his shoulder against my body while making loud purring noises, I found myself staring into the middle distance, wishing I’d gone to the bossanova class instead.
Still, I was clearly alone in my discomfort. I spoke with a lot of cuddling clients, and they all credit the service for bringing positive changes to their lives.
One such client is Natalie. A gregarious, dark-haired advertising executive, Natalie hired a male cuddler when her marriage started struggling.
"I hated my husband even touching me," she explained to me over coffee. "I began to wonder, is it just me? Am I that woman who hates to be touched? So I hired a cuddler to find out."
The cuddler she chose was, she admitted, a man she was attracted to from the outset. "I liked the way his shirt showed off the muscles in his back, and so I thought, why not? And so I became a regular client, and discovered that it wasn’t me that was incapable of intimacy – it was the marriage."
After her eighth cuddling session, Natalie started looking into divorce proceedings. I told Natalie what she described did not sound particularly platonic.
"I suppose that’s true," she conceded. "I mean, we never kissed, let alone got naked. But I can’t say it wasn’t sexual on some level."
While the industry admits that there are some "bad apples" who use professional cuddling as a gateway to more adult services, it goes out of its way to communicate that the service is in no way erotic. Hess acknowledges there are times, especially with male clients, when the issue of physical arousal, um, arises. In most cases, she reports, a simple repositioning does the trick. If not, the session ends before things get awkward. (Well, more awkward.) "Our services are 100 per cent platonic," she insists.
The industry has been getting a lot of press. Hess has been featured on CNN, Fox News, and in The Wall Street Journal. She even cuddled Neil Patrick Harris on America’s Got Talent!
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And although the media and the public might still be wrapping their heads around this new industry, everyone at Cuddle Con is a true believer. Sherry, a newly minted professional cuddler, claimed this is the most fulfilling job she’s ever had.
"I get paid to help people every day," she gushed. "One of my very first clients actually broke down in tears during our first session. He said that no-one had ever been willing to just hold him his entire life. Just touching him brought tears of joy."
Hess sums up the mood of the industry when she explains to me, "We are not just making our clients feel better, we are literally improving their lives."
Professional cuddlers claim that their services can be used to heal victims of trauma, PTSD and depression, and that cuddling is an effective therapy for health issues from autism to cancer. All of the cuddlers I spoke with referred to "many scientific studies" that prove this. I had several questions about these studies. (Who performed them? Where are they published?) Sadly, no-one seemed to know anything about any of the studies, except that they were absolutely, totally, 100 per cent real and not at all made up.
"Trauma victims and people suffering from depression can actually be made worse by people who don’t know what they’re doing," insists psychiatrist Dr Lauretta Young. "And professional cuddlers don’t know what they’re doing."
She tells me cuddlers untrained in mental health could trigger client relapses. Furthermore, each mental health expert I spoke to voiced concern that the cuddling industry targets those with psychological and intimacy issues. Rather than being a healing force, they argue, the cuddler’s client becomes dependent on intimacy for hire. The word they used to describe the industry is "predatory".
Mental health experts are also dubious that the sessions are as platonic in the minds of clients as cuddlers like to believe. Psychologist Dr David Brillhart explains, "Regardless of what you’ve told a client, when you rely on intimate touch and intimate verbal messaging, you’ve muddied the waters. You’ve created a situation where, to that client, you are romantically linked."
When I shared the mental health experts’ opinions with Hess, she assured me the only way I would ever understand professional cuddling would be to experience it myself. And thus I find myself in bed with Samantha Hess, "Celebrity Professional Cuddler".
I have filled out the pre-cuddling paperwork. In addition to listing emergency contacts and ways I like to be touched, this includes an agreement stating no sexual contact will be allowed from either party. I have had my required half-hour pre-cuddling interview, where I answer questions including: "Is there a kind of cuddling that you long for that your wife just won’t give you?"
I have even dutifully gone through a hundred-plus pictures of cuddling positions, some captured in a book entitled The Cuddle Sutra (of course). Today, Hess asks me to choose three to five of these positions to try, but there are just too many to choose from, and many of them look identical to my untrained eye. When I tell Hess I can’t see a difference between the Big Spoon Position and the Rock Star Position, she points out that in one my left arm would be at a 90-degree angle from my body, while in the other it would be at a 110-degree angle. Eventually I ask her to choose the positions and surprise me. The first position Hess chooses for our session is the Back Scratch, and it does indeed feel platonic.
Weird, maybe, but weird in an entirely platonic way.
As I get my back scratched, I ask Hess why she thinks cuddling has taken off so. When she tells me cuddling’s success is due to the real love people get from a professional cuddler, I ask her if you can ever truly feel loved by being given something you had to pay to get. She confusingly argues that love paid for is more valuable than love given away.
Finally, she shifts us into our last position: The Heart. There is almost no touch, but our heads sit on the same pillow and we gaze into one another’s eyes as we hold hands. It feels postcoital, and vastly intimate. It’s not sexual, really, but there is no question that with this position I have transgressed my vows to my wife.
For the first time since I began this story, I am very ready for it to be over.
Afterwards, she asks me if I have any last questions, and though I do I mostly just want to go home and hold my wife.
For Hess, as well as people like Natalie, paying for cuddles is a valuable commodity to be purchased. For me, though, it’s a pretty pale comparison to hugs you get for free.