When H. Melinda Krakowski, a customer service representative in New York City, was married, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was alone, even when her husband was in the room with her. That’s because they almost never touched, and she felt starved for physical affection.
After Krakowski and her husband separated, she sought out group activities to curb her loneliness. That’s when she discovered cuddle parties: gatherings for people to engage in consensual, nonsexual touch. One facilitator of these events, entrepreneur Adam Lippin, was in the process of creating a professional cuddling agency.
Lippin had gotten into yoga and meditation and wanted to start a new business venture that promoted wellness. His co-founder, Madelon Guinazzo, also a cuddle party facilitator, had already been seeing clients who paid her for private cuddle sessions. So late last year, the two scouted out cuddle party attendees who might be interested in working with them.
At that point, they weren’t the only ones trying to make cash off cuddles. Cuddle parties had been around for over a decade; in 2014 an app called Cuddlr launched to connect people seeking big or little spoons. The reception wasn’t all positive: In 2013, a “Snuggle House” in Wisconsin shut down due to accusations of involvement in prostitution. And several professional cuddlers have spoken about clients who were hoping for more than a cuddle.
Still, when Lippin approached Krakowski to join his agency, she thought: “Why not? If you like it and I like it, everybody’s happy.”
When someone contacts Krakowski through the site, they talk over the phone or Skype to determine whether they might be a good match. If a potential client seems more interested in a therapist or sex worker, Krakowski will decline. She tells me that she’ll only work with clients she’ll enjoy cuddling.
“I don’t do anything with anyone I don’t feel affection for. When I spend time with someone, I genuinely feel something for them,” she said. “I want myself to be with someone who genuinely feels affection for me as well. They pay for it, but there’s something real behind that.”
After Krakowski and a client establish that their goals are compatible, she’ll come to their home and ask what kind of touch they’d like. “Every touch is verbally stated,” she said. People may make blanket statements, like “anything you want to do with my hair, you can do,” but strict standards for consent are integral to professional cuddling.
All cuddlists establish ground rules when they meet with clients, Guinazzo says – and one is that if either party feels uncomfortable at any point, they’re required to say so. Another is that before anybody touches anybody, they have to ask. For example, a cuddlist might ask if a client would like their arm stroked.
In addition to respecting clients’ boundaries, these policies encourage people to figure out what they like, Guinazzo said. Often, clients are so touch-deprived that they don’t even know where to start. Guinazzo and Lippin believe this deficit does real emotional damage.
Research has indeed established a link between touch and mental and physical health. According to a meta-analysis published in the journal Developmental Review, touch can decrease a person’s heart rate, blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as releasing the endorphin oxytocin. It also found that massage, which Krakowski said is sometimes a part of cuddle sessions, can decrease depression and boost immune functioning.
Many cuddle party attendees and Cuddlist clients realize that they’ve been using sex to fulfill their need for touch. “If you have sex because that’s the only way to get it,” Lippin says, “that’s very draining.” Guinazzo believes that part of the reason hookup culture exists is because people turn to sex to quench their thirst for touch.
And when people are touch-deprived, Lippin said, it increases loneliness. Lippin also thinks Americans’ rigid views of masculinity discourage men from engaging in nonsexual touch. In fact, he conducts cuddle parties just for men and has found that many men feel liberated in a setting where they can interact physically without any sexual expectations.
According to Cuddlist, the company’s clientele is over 90 percent male. Some clients have disabilities or appearances that leave them lacking touch in their everyday lives. Clients have cited relaxation, stress relief and human connection as their biggest goals for using Cuddlist. Some don’t have many loved ones around, and others might be afraid to express their needs to them, Guinazzo said.
People may not overcome this fear permanently through a cuddle session, but Krakowski hopes to provide a temporary escape from it. Cuddling has also benefited her since her separation. It has made her more relaxed, she said, less depressed and more confident.
As Krakowski and I parted ways, she asked if I wanted a hug.
“OK,” I said.
“But do you really want one?” she asked.
That’s when I understood the power of professional cuddlers. With one simple question, Krakowski made me think about what I wanted versus what I was doing because it was expected of me.
That’s a question all of us, cuddlists or not, could stand to ask ourselves.