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.”
This attitude has helped her create one of the most successful cuddling businesses in the country. But while her altruistic approach is shared by some, it’s not the industry standard. Speculations about the cuddling business have sprouted alongside its successes. Madison, Wisconsin-based Snuggle House shut down after three weeks following allegations of prostitution taking place behind its doors. The young service is still shrouded in suspicion: Can physical interaction really be completely platonic? Does true companionship have a place in such a strange, intimate act? Hess and her fellow cuddling connoisseurs certainly think so. But for many people, achieving that integrity is a lot to strive for. Notably in a hotel room with a man you’ve never met.
As 2:17 glares back at me from the bedside table, I think back on how I ended up in a hotel room with a stranger lying next to me.
I had emailed the founder of The Snuggle Buddies—based in Pennsylvania—about expanding his business into Iowa on a Friday afternoon in September. He hired me three hours later. An hour after that, my picture was on the website. I was given my first cuddling client that night. I thought I’d be getting some sort of training soon after. Maybe some best practices. Or the copy of The Cuddle Sutra I was promised. I got nothing.
Except for a call from the founder’s wife. A cuddler herself, she explained her philosophy over the phone—complete with a thick New Jersey accent and a lot of profanity.
“Maybe you have to deal with a guy’s bullshit for an hour, but then you get to go home,” she said. “If they get inappropriate, tell them to keep it therapeutic or else you’ll leave. They’ll fucking behave. They don’t want to waste their money. But as long as you get the money at the beginning, that’s all that matters. You can leave after that if you feel like it.” I had been in the business for all of five hours and already knew that probably wasn’t the best approach. My speculations made me panic. What had I gotten myself into? Did I just sign away my life to a brothel owner? Dread nestled deep into my chest.
After a quick discussion about session protocol and payment instruction—and how The Snuggle Buddies wouldn’t be held accountable if things went awry—it was up to me to learn exactly what to do. And here I am two weeks later, staring into the dark—anxious, uncomfortable. Also worried the mace might spout from my cleavage and possibly blind me.
The strange man in bed with me requested the session earlier that week, and I had taken the necessary precautions. I reassured my sister that I would most likely not die. I convinced my boyfriend not to text me incessantly. I flat out didn’t tell my parents. I made sure my roommates knew the address of the hotel, and I told myself that cuddling was going to be the easiest $325 I’d ever make. Even then, I was so afraid that I cried as I drove myself to the hotel, my fists clinging to the steering wheel with the last remnants of my self-supplied bravery. I walked into the hotel praying that my tears would keep themselves hidden until I exited through those doors again eight hours later.
He was waiting for me in the lobby. We had already went over the contract. I explained the do’s and don’ts. No sexually suggestive activity? Check. No touching in areas covered by undergarments? Right. No unnecessary communication outside of the appointment time? Easy enough. No nudity? Of course not. In return, I promised to show up with hair washed, teeth brushed, and his confidentiality intact. He assured me there would be no problems.
It began innocently enough: holding hands on the couch, intertwining our arms and watching a college football game. “You’re prettier than your picture,” he said. He gushed about his prized Cuban cigar collection. I obligingly listened. He talked about RVs. I gasped in all the right places. He told me about his grown children, his divorce, and the accident that had led to his partial paralysis. His wheelchair glinted in the corner. I wondered if I was helping to fill some sort of void as I put on the pajamas he had requested I bring then moved to the bed.
The man twitches next to me. The clock blazes 2:25. I start counting the
recurrent, flashing green light of the fire alarm overhead for the umpteenth time.
One flash: I remember his hands rubbing the length of my body, trying ever so hard to get away with cupping my butt on their way down.
Two flashes: His fingers tracing across my collarbone, up my neck, under my shirt along the bare skin of my back.
Three flashes: His pudgy hand inching its way from my knee up my thighs.
Four flashes: His head on my chest, and his voice as he said, “I can hear your heart. This is exactly what I wanted.”
Five flashes: My attempts at redirecting his wandering fingertips away from my chest by clasping them between mine. Once. Twice. Three, four, five times. And finally, the verbal threat that I would get up and leave before he apologized and told me I “just feel so good.”
I peek toward the clock, knowing I will be disappointed. 2:36. I continue counting flashes until I hit 50. I lose count twice and have to start over. A sharp twinge pulsates between my ribs as I try to keep breathing.
When I peer toward the table, relief pours over me: 2:54. This time, as I slide out of his grasp, he doesn’t stir. I pick up my things and tread softly out the door, not even bothering to change out of my pajamas. The cool night air greets me as I walk outside. I get in my car and start the engine, and I sit in silence for a small eternity. My brain screams at me to acknowledge the sexual harassment I had just endured, but my weary mind is already fighting to forget the whole night. I look back toward the hotel. My heart chimes into the argument and I find myself hoping that, somehow, the man sleeping upstairs got what he was looking for.