It’s 2:13 a.m. and the mace tucked in my bra is digging painful grooves into my skin. I curse under my breath, wishing I’d shoved my rounded pocketknife down there instead. The stranger plastered against me on the mattress mutters in his sleep. Only 47 more minutes, I reassure myself.
This is the homestretch. After seven hours of uncomfortable closeness, the minutes seem to have doubled in length. His heavy head crushes against my collarbone. A pair of dry lips hover above the exposed skin of my neckline. His wandering hands had finally found their resting place—grasping at my ribcage.
Professional cuddling was supposed to be easy, safe, fulfilling. I’d done the research.
I was sitting on the shag carpet in my room trying to budget my bank account to last the whole month. Between rent checks, credit cards, textbooks, grocery bills and bottles of wine—that ever-necessary college-student staple—I had $14 to my name. I poured myself a glass of Riesling and wafted through a Google search full of “get-rich-quick” schemes. Snuggling jumped out from my screen, ads promising hundreds of dollars a week. I read frantically: women who make a comfortable living by cuddling with random strangers? A job where I would get paid to simply exist? Done.
But in the hotel room, trapped in the grasp of this particular random stranger, it no longer seems so easy. Sure that he’s finally asleep, I try to break away. I begin gently easing out of the contorted, twisty position my captor holds me in. My weary muscles reprimand me for the tension I’ve unconsciously strained them with. One of my arms wriggles free from the tangles of the thick hotel comforter. My other, stuck underneath the stranger’s heaving torso, slowly begins its long journey.
The man’s snoring stops, and then I’m not so sure. His fingers tighten their grasp across my stomach. His face searches for mine in the dark. His scratchy, gray mustache drags itself up my neck and his nostrils wheeze as they fill with the scent of my hair. “You smell so good,” he whispers, his sticky breath hot in my ear. I cringe. My jaw clenches, and my defeated body sinks back into pillows. I lay motionless, waiting for his rhythmic breathing to return. I tilt my head to glance at the clock on the bedside table: 2:17 a.m. Forty-three more minutes.
In the world of professional cuddling, my experience was not the norm. The subtle stroking hand wandering down a little too close to my hoo-ha was a fluke. The sneakily executed boob graze was unintended. The hair-huffing, well, that was just fucking awkward. But for most cuddlers and clients alike, the service provides the unique opportunity for platonic touch, no strings attached.
Virtually unheard of before 2012, cuddling has expanded exponentially across the country with rave reviews. The practice is offered by both businesses and individuals, all aiming to give clients the healing benefits of platonic touch, companionship without commitment, and emotional, physical, and mental stability—at a price. Charging anywhere from $40 to $80 an hour for one-on-one sessions, established cuddlers can easily afford to quit their day job.
But why do people drop hundreds of dollars for this seemingly simple commodity? There’s a science behind it: Studies conducted by Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute show that we thrive on contact—a lack of human interaction can contribute to depression, stress, high blood pressure and aggression. But any amount of it, on the other hand, releases a chemical called oxytocin into the brain, effectively lowering high levels of stress and blood pressure. Human touch reduces anxiety, physically accelerates the healing of injured body tissue, boosts the immune system and creates feelings of calm and happiness. The oxytocin overload produced during a single, hour-long cuddling session is like cocaine for the overly tactile.
“Touch is a rich medium of social exchange,” writes Dr. Matthew Hertenstein in his essay “Gender and the Communication of Emotion Via Touch.” “Through it, individuals form strong attachments…they soothe and calm. Touch intensifies the meaning of emotional displays.”
Samantha Hess, one of the first cuddling professionals in the world and creator of Portland-based Cuddle Up To Me, understands this basic need for these emotional displays better than most. For her, snuggling has become more than a career—it’s an opportunity to create a “pay-it-forward” kind of happiness.
She treats her clients “like my family,” Hess says. “When they stop sessions with me, I’m still going to want to know how they’ve been, and I’m still going to want to check in with them and say hi. I care about people. And that’s the whole point. I want to create a self-perpetuating cycle of positivity.”