No nudity. No sex. Just cuddling.
That's what one New York woman is selling, for $60 an hour or $90 for 90 minutes. Yes, it's legal outside Nevada, and no, it's not what you think. Jacqueline Samuels' appointment-based business, The Snuggery, offers private, boundary-driven sessions to the snuggle-deprived. She's doing it because she believes in the healing power of touch—psychological and physical benefits she says Americans are sorely lacking.
"I've always loved to cuddle," says Samuels, 29, of Penfield, N.Y., who is pursuing a master's degree in social work. She once gave out free hugs at a local mall, but was told to leave by security. "I thought this discomfort with physical affection must mean something—that it deserved further exploration," she says. Later, while interviewing sex workers for a graduate school research paper, she learned that many of the women reported their clients didn't want to have sex "as much as they wanted a person to be physically close to and speak to."
Samuels is clear about her boundaries during cuddling sessions, and says most of her clients have been respectful. (In the past six weeks, she's had 19 customers; some have returned several times, while others are once and done.) In the FAQ section of her website, she addresses some of the potentially iffy issues:
Q. What if I become sexually aroused during my session?
A. Don't worry, it happens! Although sexual activity is not permitted, arousal is perfectly normal and should not make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Q. Do clothes/pajamas always stay on for the duration of our session?
A. Absolutely! Nudity is not permitted.
Q. Are snuggling sessions therapy?
A. Snuggling sessions are not therapy but they can be restorative, rejuvenating, comforting, playful, and fun.
Indeed, "strangers aren't so strange once you cuddle for a minute or two," she says. "Many of my clients leave feeling more energized and at peace—grounded and happier, perhaps."
Samuels isn't forging the path to equal-opportunity cuddling alone. Travis Sigley, 24, of San Francisco, runs Cuddle Therapy, specializing in private appointments, group sessions, and workshops on non-sexual intimacy. He works with both men and women, and meets with his clients ahead of time to establish some level of familiarity. "I saw a need for genuine affection and intimacy coming from people who sometimes hadn't experienced it for years," he says. "It's healing. It's fulfilling a very basic human need."
Cuddle Therapy, Sigley says, provides a space for people to have intimate experiences and touch. During a typical session, he sits on a bed or couch with his client, and they both close their eyes. Sigley leads some basic meditation, and then they lie down and begin cuddling. "The other person guides the experience," he says. "Whether they need to talk, or just want to relax and hold someone or be held. I once worked with someone who had chronic body tightness, and it dissipated after she had time to relax and cuddle. The anxiety in her body just faded away."
Sigley's anecdotes echo scientific evidence on the power of touch, particularly massage therapy, which experts say extends to cuddling. Research has shown that baby monkeys deprived of cuddling by their mothers fail to thrive and often have developmental and mental problems, even if they're provided with the food, water, and shelter necessary for survival. Being hugged regularly appears to help lower blood pressure and heart rate, while boosting self-esteem. One study, for example, led by researchers at the University of North Carolina, found that couples who hugged each other for prolonged periods had higher levels of oxytocin—the "cuddle hormone." Oxytocin creates feelings of calmness, eases depression, reduces stress, cravings, and addictions, and increases immunity, so that the body repairs, heals, and restores itself faster.
"Touch is one of the great, untapped healing secrets of our society," says Wayne Jonas, president and CEO of the Samueli Institute in Alexandria, Va., a nonprofit that researches healing practices such as meditation. "There's extensive research showing that the proper use of touch is as powerful as many of our proven drug therapies—without the cost or side effects."
Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, studies the effects of massage therapy and other forms of touch at all stages of life, from newborns to senior citizens."There are a number of conditions that benefit," she says. "Cancer, asthma, diabetes, fibromyalgia. We've come to see it as a major biological and physiological reaction that happens when you're moving skin against skin."
Mary Jo Rapini, an intimacy and sex psychotherapist for the Methodist Hospital Pelvic Restorative Center in Houston, Texas, has seen the power of touch first hand. She often asks couples she works with to touch each other—because many, she says, can't remember the last time they held hands. Still, she's apprehensive about the safety and practicality of a venture like The Snuggery. "My immediate reaction is that it's a little bit odd," Rapini says. "There's no certification, and it seems a bit naive, like it could turn into something dangerous."
And on its surface, engaging in intimate touch with a stranger does appear to be a paradox. Spooning with someone you've never met before? Squeezing someone you feel no emotional attachment to, have no shared history with? But touch experts say the benefits remain. "The mental and physical effects of touch don't require that the persons touching have a relationship," Jonas says. That said, having a relationship can indeed alter those effects, for better or worse. "While a hug from someone you love may be more relaxing than a stranger, a hug from someone you fear can generate more anxiety than from a stranger," Jonas says.
Still, Rob Grader, a massage therapist and author of The Cuddle Sutra, believes cuddlers achieve the strongest benefits when they're with someone they care about. "There are lots of ways to have casual sex, but casual cuddling is pretty hard to find," he says. "Cuddling intensifies the intimacy of a relationship, and it's good for both partners. It's a chance to talk, to touch, and to just experience togetherness."
He's right about that. And maybe Sigley is right that, in an ideal world, cuddling-for-hire wouldn't be necessary. He's looking forward to a day when there's no longer demand for his services. "There's a need for this right now," Sigley says. "We live in a culture where people have no other way of exchanging affection than by paying for it. It's a valuable service, and it's good to have it while we need it. But it shows that we've lost connection with each other on a genuine, day-to-day level, because our priorities and needs have been focused elsewhere."