From the moment we are welcomed into the world with a loving embrace, the need to be held is established. This isn’t solely an emotional need; hugs help reduce stress, stave off depression and boost immunity. In fact, the result of physical affection on wellbeing is so profound that touch-starved people across America are willing to pay for it. Now you can now hire a professional cuddler to spoon you the same way you might hire a massage therapist for bodywork.
“When you’re touching somebody and it’s consensual, a hormone called oxytocin is produced—known as the bonding or love hormone—that helps you connect. At the same time the stress hormone, cortisol, decreases,” explains Adam Lippin, one of the co-founders of Cuddlist, a site that facilitates therapeutic cuddling. “Our clients report that it’s been better for them than any therapy they’ve ever had. ‘Like a massage for the soul’, one said.”
A former yoga and meditation teacher, Lippin co-founded the site at the end of 2015 with the intention of connecting hug seekers with trained “cuddlists”, who qualify by taking the company’s online course, attending a cuddle party (an organized event for non-sexual touching), undergoing an evaluation and honoring the Cuddlist code of conduct—which, among other things, stipulates good hygiene and clean clothing.
As a masseuse and energy worker, Saskia Larsen—who charges $80 per hour for cuddles on a large squishy couch in her New York apartment—is typical of most cuddlists, the majority of whom are in some form of healing profession already. It’s a vocation that’s built on the transcendent qualities of touch: “I worked with an elderly Hasidic man who would cry during massage sessions. His wife didn’t like to be physical, and that culture isn’t a cuddling culture. There was very little nurturing going on for this 75 year old man.”
Another client—a man with Aspergers—remarked gratefully “nobody has held my hand in five years” during an energy healing session with Larsen. “The need for touch is on a continuum,” she explains. “Some people don’t need much contact, but there are a ton of people who do, and because of the way they were raised and societal norms they might not even be aware, and it’s affecting them mentally and physically.”
The typical client looking to be professionally held is overwhelmingly male, straight and in his early fifties. Around 81 percent are single or divorced and report dealing with depression and/or anxiety. They’re lonely, these men, which isn’t a great surprise given that American males are culturally encouraged to embody the strong, silent brand of masculinity—the kind that inhibits the vulnerability necessary for deep connection.
The importance of therapeutic cuddling is even more clear when you consider that the average Cuddlist client falls into the demographic most at risk of suicide. In this country 7 out of 10 people who take their own lives are middle-aged males grappling, quietly, with mental health issues. The calming, nurturing affects of cuddling, and the emotional unfurling that often happens between client and cuddlist over time, can improve quality of life in ways both big and small.
For Clyde Hollins, a 50 year old from Queens, New York, it was a logical way to ensure physical comfort after his divorce became official. “I work long hours at a law firm and was looking for non-sexual affection without having to go through the work of relationships,” he explains. “I found it was a good stress reliever, and for me it does something similar to meditation, where you’re focusing on the here and now instead of work or other things.”
Although Cuddlist is strictly for cuddling, not coitus—”most people select out after reading the code of conduct if that’s what they’re looking for,” says Lippin—when bodies press against other bodies unintended physiological things do occasionally happen.
When either cuddle partner becomes aroused the best way to cool things off is through conversation, Hollins explains over text—a point we didn’t touch on over the phone, but that he retrospectively felt was important to include for the sake of reader curiosity. I ask him if it’s a regular occurrence and he replies: “Not sure what constitutes regular, but not in every session, or with every cuddle partner […] it differs for each person and where their mind goes, but it does happen to both men and women.”
Given that 75 percent of cuddlists are women serving a largely male clientele, communicating consent and boundaries is paramount. To date no serious incidents have been reported, but this is still a situation where women are inviting virtual strangers into their homes, and there will always be an element of risk involved. Larsen and her clients make a mutual agreement that if either one is feeling uncomfortable, at any point and for whatever reason, they can ask to shift and the other will comply, no questions asked. “Some clients, I’m as happy as a clam. Others my skin is crawling the whole time, but that isn’t their fault,” she says. “We have different chemistry with different people.”
As long as she feels physically safe, Larsen’s role is to shelve any ick-type thoughts and provide a calm and caring, almost maternal space for the client. It’s a service that continues to become more vital as the way we socialize grows more virtual. After all, touch is how we bond and communicate. It’s how we comfort one another and keep the existential dread at bay. Cuddling is a fundamental, essential part of what makes us all human.