The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some people are paying for cuddles. And it’s not what you might think.

Certified cuddler Annie Hopson, right, with daughter Rebecca Hopson, left, in Ellicott City, Md. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The 32-year-old photographer from Virginia had a busy life, but he was single, and starving for physical contact. “I started to get to a place where if somebody started to greet me with a hug or even being in close proximity to someone, it was almost sort of a shocking feeling,” he said.

And so he turned to one of the country’s newest professions: cuddling for hire. Once a week he paid $80 to be held, stroked and embraced for an hour in a nonsexual way. Like most people interviewed for this story, the man, Chuck, wanted only his first name used because paying to get cuddled can feel embarrassing — especially in less touchy-feely areas like Washington.

But demand is growing. In the past four years storefront cuddle shops have opened in Portland and Los Angeles, and one-on-one cuddle providers are proliferating across the nation.

While paying for touch may sound awkward or unnatural to those who get plenty of it from partners or other close connections, for some people it is an antidote to a culture where casual physical contact seems elusive. The percentage of U.S. adults living without a spouse or partner has risen from 39 to 42 percent in the past 10 years, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, and the rise in on-screen interactions means more socializing takes place without even the possibility of touch.

I went to get hugged by a professional cuddler. Here’s how it felt.

At the two-year-old website Cuddlist, which has trained around 400 professional cuddlers and connects clients to providers around the country, “Most clients are under some level of duress: anxiety, stress, loss, or need,” said co-founder Adam Lippin.

Some have a physical disability or post-traumatic stress or are on the autism spectrum, which can be a barrier to forming intimate relationships. “For the average person, you and me, we can be lonely and we can feel a need but it’s not a starved kind of need,” Lippin said. “For a lot of them this is a human connection that they’ve never had before.”

The benefits of touch are well-documented, from 1950s experiments showing infant monkeys preferred more cuddly terry cloth “mothers” over wire mesh ones to 1980s Romanian orphanages full of touch-deprived children with severe emotional problems.

Studies show massage therapy to be associated with increased attentiveness, decreased depression and immune system boosts. Research has also found that touch positively influences people’s social behaviors and relationships.

Yet the United States is among the world’s most touch-averse cultures. Studies dating to the 1960s found that Americans tend to touch each other casually less frequently than people in France or the Caribbean.

And while today’s parents may touch children more than they did in the mid-20th century when experts warned against it, two 1999 studies in Paris and Miami found that American adolescents still touched each other less than their counterparts in France and that American preschoolers touched their peers less and were touched less by their parents than French ones.

Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine and author of the Paris and Miami studies, said little research exists on the benefits of professional cuddling, but she has seen interest grow.

“I think when anything like this is so increasingly popular, it’s certainly functioning as something very helpful for people,” she said.

The Cuddlist site has logged over 10,000 requests and lists dozens of providers. The West Coast and New York City are home to many, but the practice appears to be catching on more slowly in the D.C. area.

“I don’t know that the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is the most progressive area in the world, and this is kind of woo-woo,” said Don Shanks, 61, a Cuddlist provider in California, Md.

But Jasmine Siemon, 37, a cuddler in Germantown who trained in Los Angeles and was recently certified by Cuddlist, said there is a robust market in this area, from stressed-out college students to lonely empty-nesters. “They are all over — all ethnicities, all backgrounds, expats, nationals.”

Damien, a 39-year-old engineer in Alexandria, Va. who is single, goes to Siemon every three months or so to relieve stress. The professional nature of the interaction makes him feel safe.

“You don’t have a personal relationship with that person, which in some ways makes it easier being open with that person,” he said. “These services allow you to share things pertaining to you and not worry about it going any further or spreading to people you don’t know.”

Mark Stone, a divorced holistic kinesiologist in Chicago, started seeing a professional cuddler after realizing he didn’t know how to touch a woman in a nonsexual way.

“We so much embrace sexuality and we so much embrace sex in marriage and relationships with others that we lose that connection with just feeling safe in touching and holding,” said Stone, 53. “I think a lot of guys don’t know how to do that very well with their partners. They don’t know how to hold a physical nonsexual space with a partner.”

Lippin and his co-founder, Madelon Guinazzo, set strict rules on what does and doesn’t happen in a session. Client and cuddler talk by phone before meeting and agree at the outset that it will not turn sexual; either party can end a session at any time.

Meetings are not limited to touch. Clients can talk about almost anything during a session, though discussing sexual fantasies about the provider is off limits. But they can lean against the provider, or hold hands, or spoon while they talk.

While massage therapy might seem to be the perfect way to fulfill the need for touch, nonsexual cuddling addresses a deeper, more emotional need, professional cuddlers say.

“Massage therapy ethics are all about one-way touch,” said Annie Hopson, a Cuddlist provider in Ellicott City, Md., who is also a massage therapist. “There was not a way for [clients] to be okay with saying, ‘Could you hold me?’”

Along with clients, Hopson regularly exchanges touch with other cuddlers in the area who include dancers, lawyers, nurses, and tech professionals. This week, her 19-year-old daughter, a college student who lives with her, became a Cuddlist provider as well.

For some, being held by another person is a new experience. Steve Curry, of Northampton, Mass., who has spina bifida, said that for much of his life, “as far as being in a touch relationship, most touch centered around my medical care needs, not emotional needs.” He has two-hour cuddle sessions twice a month, and “it’s never enough.”

Francis, 57, a Northern Virginia construction worker who is single, goes for another reason. “I have sometimes felt the need to care for a child, since I never had one,” he said. “With some of the pro cuddlers being young enough for me to be their father, holding them and cuddling them, instead of them cuddling me, sort of fulfilled that desire if only for a moment.”

After professional cuddling, some clients say they are more comfortable initiating touch with friends, or they no longer flinch when someone touches them casually.

Some cuddlers also host cuddle parties where strangers come together for a communal hug. These have an eager clientele in the Washington area, said Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker who has hosted over 300 of them here since 2004. And interest has spiked recently.

“I’ve noticed since the election there’s more need for people to bond,” she said. “People are scared. They’re highly anxious, they’re more depressed and a cuddle party, while it’s not an antidote to that, it’s a way for people to feel safe.”

Leonard Rosenbaum, 50, regularly attends cuddle parties in the Washington area. “I love giving warm, nurturing, loving touch,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to offer that to somebody whereas walking down the street, going to a bar, I couldn’t say, ‘Can I put my hands on your back, would you like a massage?’”
Professional cuddlers acknowledge that arousal is a danger of the trade and say that’s not shameful as long as it is not pursued. If someone becomes turned on during a session, participants are advised to change to a position that is less stimulating.

“If there’s sexual chemistry does that mean you have to act on it?” said Lippin. “You notice it, you let it pass.”

Dan, 43, who works in finance, said cuddling sessions took the place of an intimate relationship for about a year when he didn’t have one.

“I was aware that I needed contact with people,” he said. “I had been to massage parlors that were not on the up-and-up. I’d leave there with feelings of shame or feeling dirty, and this was different.” The fact that it was platonic made the sessions more rewarding, he said.

Nidhi, a 20-year-old college student in Chicago, said cuddling with Guinazzo helped her after her mother died during her freshman year.

“It reminded me a lot of being with my mom; it helped me reframe some of my grief and relive the moments I didn’t get to have with her,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was paying for touch, I felt like I was paying for therapy. Of all the kinds of therapy I tried this was the most effective.”

For Chuck, the Virginia photographer, cuddling paid off in more ways than one. He is now in a relationship and no longer goes to a cuddler — but he says the sessions made it easier for him to date and find a partner.

“It made me more relaxed and carefree,” he said. “In dating you might be extra nervous if you haven’t been getting enough contact…I wasn’t thinking about it because my (touch) needs were met already.”