REAL LIFE PORTLANDIA
I Went to a Cuddling Convention
Charging $60-$80 an hour, the business of professional cuddling is booming. But does cozying up to a paid stranger do more harm than good?
“Are you a puppy or a kitty?”
The man asking me this is in his mid-40s, with an impressive salt-and-pepper beard that just touches his orange t-shirt. He is on all fours, and his backside is wiggling back and forth as if he were wagging a tail.
As weird as this moment might be, it’s the least weird of my entire day. Because it is Valentine’s Day and I am spending the day watching people learn how to snuggle platonically at CuddleCon 2015, the world’s first cuddling conference. CuddleCon is an event that promises lessons in cuddling, couples massage, and dancing the bossa nova. Mostly, though, it’s a public relations vehicle for the new and rapidly growing professional cuddling industry.
In this particular class, I am sitting in a room covered with mats and pillows watching 30 grown adults lope around the room as they self-identify as either dogs or cats. If you are a puppy, our instructor has told us, you want everyone in the room to touch you. If you are a cat, on the other hand, you want only certain people to do so. We are told that finding out if we are a puppy or a kitty will help us achieve healthy intimacy with those in our lives; to that end, small waves of 20-something hipsters, middle-aged suburban couples, and aging hippies are approaching one another on all fours looking to get their heads scratched and their backs stroked.
Exactly how all this is supposed to help us achieve a healthy intimacy was never quite explained. I’m not inclined to ask now for fear that such a discussion might prolong this exercise, which I am really hoping ends soon. The man with the orange t-shirt has decided that I am cat, and is rubbing his shoulder against mine making soft purring noises.
When you live in Portland, sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between real life and an episode of Portlandia.
Still, I am committed to sticking with my training because I find that I am fascinated with the whole concept of professional cuddling. A few days prior, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Now that I do, its very existence is an itch I can’t resist scratching. So I have come to CuddleCon to learn, because I want to know exactly what it is that a professional cuddler does, and more importantly, is it wonderful, or is it a complete joke? Or, as the psychologists and psychiatrists I would speak to later would insist, is it something far more troubling than a joke?
Professional cuddling, if by chance it has yet to cross your radar screen, is exactly what it sounds like. People hire themselves out for cuddling sessions with clients, usually for between $60-80 dollars an hour. And before you roll your eyes, know this: business is booming.
Most female cuddlers say that they can choose to work between 20 to 40 hours a week with little or no advertising or marketing. This is partly because word of mouth spreads quickly, but it’s also because there are few one-time clients of professional cuddlers. Those who decide to try it usually become regular clients, and most set up sessions as often as once or twice a week.
What’s more, there is little expense and no training required to become a professional cuddler. Since it’s a brand new industry there is no real oversight, either by government regulation or professional trade association. In most cities all you need is a general business license and someone willing to pay you. Because of this, successful cuddling businesses are popping up all over the country. None, though, is as successful as Samantha Hess and her business Cuddle Up to Me, the primary sponsor of CuddleCon.
Hess, who bills herself as a “Celebrity Professional Cuddler,” is the emerging industry’s most visible and successful face. She claims to receive as many as 10,000 emails a week from potential clients. Even if that’s an exaggeration, the demand for her services is clearly real. Hess’s Cuddle Up to Me has a team of professional cuddlers and a collection of small private cuddle rooms. When you talk to her in person, it’s easy to see why clients gravitate to her. She’s a vivacious and charismatic bundle of energy. And although her training was in physical fitness training, she’s a natural-born promoter. Over the past several months Hess has been the flavor of the day for mainstream media heavy-hitters such as Anderson Cooper, ABC News, CBS Sunday Morning, People, USA Today, and even the Wall Street Journal. And if that’s not endorsement enough, Hess also notes she’s had no less than three marriage proposals from regular clients.
Hess is very up front about herself and her profession. For one thing, she was the first professional cuddler I talked to who admitted that the industry actually does have bad apples who accept tips in exchange for “additional adult services.” Moreover, she was very candid that many of those who seek out her services are at-risk, and open about the fact that she’s had no formal training in how to deal with such clients.
“In my service,” she told me, “we specialize in dealing with people who’ve had physical abuse, emotional trauma, autism, all sorts of diseases and disabilities.” As for that lack of formal training, Hess insists that her training “comes from a life of ups and downs.” She explains she’s gone through a failed marriage, been in eight auto accidents that led to chronic back pain, and witnessed her mother being a victim of abuse. She says that’s all the training she needs—that, and willingness to listen to her clients.
Hess is trying to shape her industry into something more respectable. Last year she paid an attorney to create a waiver for clients to sign that explicitly states the platonic nature of the transaction. She is also selling a 40-hour certification program to other professional cuddlers, developed entirely on her own and based on her own experiences.
“We are not just making our clients feel better,” she says, “we are literally improving their lives.”
The life-improving claims made by Hess and others in her industry about the power of pay-per-snuggle are truly impressive. If the industry’s spokespeople are to be believed, the benefits of hiring a professional cuddler can be miraculous, especially for those clients considered at-risk. Cuddlers claim they can help people with intimacy problems, severe depression, autism, and other mental health disorders. They say they can be a vehicle of healing for those who are victims of abuse and other trauma. Indeed, the cuddling industry often notes that there are “numerous studies” that back up all of these claims. At one point in our talk Hess claimed that she was working with cancer researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) who are studying the effects of professional cuddling on cancer patients. She says the doctors believe her services can reduce the amount of time a patient needs treatment.
However, the truth about the potential positive benefits of hiring a professional cuddler is a lot murkier than the industry claims.
For starters, take those “numerous studies” that prove the benefits of paying someone to cuddle: they don’t exist. The cuddling industry is simply too new for any clinical data to have been gathered. I should also probably note here that I was unable to confirm Hess’s claims of working with OHSU cancer researchers. She declined to give me any of the doctors’ names, lamenting that due to her recent level of media fame they were afraid they’d be constantly pestered by reporters. When I called OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, none of the people I talked to had heard of such a study.
Still, even without clinical data on professional cuddling, I thought the body of professional psychological and psychiatric data that does exist could at least give me a hint as to the industry's possible benefits and risks. So I reached out and talked with three psychologists and two psychiatrists to get their take. Each of the five gave almost identical answers, all of which were deeply troubling.
The mental health professionals all agreed with the professional cuddling industry that touch is an important part of well being for humans. However, the psychologists and psychiatrists I spoke with all stressed that this does not mean that paying for cuddling creates happier, healthier, or more well-adjusted adults. In fact, they believe that there is a significant risk of professional cuddling causing real harm, especially in the cases of those at-risk populations the industry targets as clients.
“Simply put, they don’t know what they’re doing,” says Lauretta Young, MD. Young is a trained psychiatrist who is a consultant to the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners as well as the Chief Medical Officer for Health Republic Insurance Co. According to Dr. Young, the training and education it takes to successfully work with people who have the kinds of issues the cuddling industry claim to help takes years. She says that attempts by professional cuddlers to base treatment on either their gut instinct or personal experience can be disastrous. “Trauma victims and people suffering from depression can actually be made worse by people who don’t know what they’re doing—and these people don’t.”
Dr. David Brillhart, a licensed forensic and correctional psychologist, agrees.
“When cuddlers talk about being careful with an at-risk client, are they familiar with how to look for those people’s triggers or how those triggers affects their lives outside of their sessions?” he asks. “With the types of people they cater to, cuddlers might truly believe they are helping without realizing their actions are actually re-traumatizing their clients.”
In addition to the issue of training, the mental health professionals I spoke with insist that the relationships being formed between professional cuddlers and their regular clientele aren't what the cuddlers might wish to believe. Dr. Brillhart points to Hess’s three marriage proposals as proof that you can’t have a cuddling relationship without it becoming more in the mind of the customer. “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.”
The mental health professionals I spoke with also voiced concerns over the potential safety of the professional cuddlers themselves. One psychologist I spoke with worried that a client harming an industry worker seemed “pretty inevitable.” He said this is because industries that cater to intimacy have a tendency to attract predators. “Without the proper training to identify what to look for, let’s just say I would be pretty concerned.”
But perhaps the most fundamental point the mental health professionals agree upon is this: In order for loving touch to be positive for a human, that feeling of love has to be authentic—and you can’t have real authenticity when you have to pay to receive it. This is why the code of ethics embraced by the mental health profession prohibits any physical or emotional intimacy with their clients.
“Mental health professionals don’t actually charge you to tell you are a loved and worthwhile human being,” says Dr. Brillhart. “They try to give you the tools to provide that for yourself without having to pay for it.”
Everyone I talked to agreed: Professional cuddlers' hearts might be in right place, but they are absolutely dangerous.
It is late afternoon on Valentines Day and I find myself on the sidewalk a few blocks away from the convention talking to Dave, a conventioneer who also happens to be a client of a professional cuddler. I have been stretching my legs and Dave has been sneaking a cigarette, and when we see one another's CuddleCon armbands we stop and chat.
Dave is one of those large men whose profound obesity somehow masks his real age. He might be in his early 30s; then again, he might be in his mid-50s. His large glasses magnify his bright blue eyes in a way that makes them look three times too large for his face. His teeth are crooked and slightly browned, and despite this he has a smile that’s infectious. I ask him about his experience with professional cuddling, and his slight smile turns into an ear-to-ear grin.
“I won’t tell you who my gal is, cause I don’t want any competition,” he cracks, and then follows up his own joke with what can only be described as a rolling belly laugh. “But she’s pretty great. The two of us have something special she doesn't have with other people she gets with. I know that sounds foolish, but we do.”
I ask him if what they have is platonic or something else, and he thinks before answering.
“Yeah, it’s platonic I guess. Maybe.” He looks out at the distance and considers. “But I also think there’s something else there. I mean, I’m not the kind of guy women usually want to hold, ya know? I… I don’t quite know what I’d do if…” His voice drifts off as he stares ahead.
The one thing that Samantha Hess and all the mental health professionals I spoke with have in common is their belief that professional cuddling is a clear-cut issue. With Dave, though, it’s hard not to see it as more cloudy. I like Dave. The thought of someone charging him for the privilege of believing that someone might love him for an hour, I will confess, makes me angry. But if I’m being honest, when I look at him I suspect that his belief that a woman would never hold him comes from actual experience as much as anything else. And I find that raises the annoying question, how bad is it that he gets to live that fantasy through professional cuddling? My brain knows the psychotherapists and psychologists are right. My heart knows that if I were in Dave’s shoes, I would tell them all to go shove it.
“So… platonic, or non-platonic?” I ask again after a moment. Dave turns his head and looks at me.
“I don’t really know.”
I tell him I don’t either, and we head back to the convention. There is still much we both need to lean about cuddling.