Spoonful of Strangers: A Look Inside the Cuddling Business
Although the cuddling business caters to different types of needs, it seems Americans are deprived of touch, and willing to pay for it.
During a brisk Saturday afternoon on 69th and 3rd in a small slice of the Upper East Side, 28 men and women buzz up to a loft four flights up. Among them is a full-figured regular, tattoos and shaven head, who clutches her teddy bear, a burly veteran, clad in blue flannel pajama pants, who is open to talking about his struggles with mild PTSD, and the event facilitator, Adam Lippin, exuding positive energy in his white Adidas joggers and purple shirt.
Soft jazz floats through the apartment as the faint scent of feet lingers in the air. Trays of snacks and bottled water grace the kitchen as people mull about and chat while munching on fruits and nuts waiting for the 3:30pm start time. There is a make shift changing room consisting of two people holding up a curtain on a rod that people briefly disappear behind only to emerge in more appropriate clothes for the event. To an outsider, it may appear as a dinner party or family gathering. But time reveals the real reason everyone came: at 4:04pm, the cuddling begins.
Lippin, makes certain to explain the rules and boundaries of this three hour cuddling session. He describes this apartment, covered in pillows, blankets, and mattresses, as a sacred space. The whole room laughs as he advises if you see someone on the street, avoid running up to them and saying “so how about that fucking cuddle party last night, right?” It is a reminder that an event like this still remains misunderstood to the majority of the public.
Welcome to a cuddle party, a group event that promotes non-sexual touch, boundary setting, and communication. The company Cuddle Party has expanded over the past 13 years to 18 different locations, including international cuddle parties in Ireland, Australia, and Canada. But cuddle parties are only one of a growing number of cuddling services that have cropped up in the cuddling business. Cuddlist, one of the many professional one-on-one cuddling companies, was co-founded by Lippin, and has gained about 200 certified professional cuddlers who have completed the company’s training across 17 states as well as Canada and the U.K. Spoonr, a Tinder-esque app for cuddling that shut down for unknown reasons in January 2017, allowed users to meet up with strangers around them for a cuddling session. Websites like Cuddle Comfort boast over 86,000 members who are looking for someone in their area to cuddle. And a cuddling convention took place in 2015 held in Portland, OR called Cuddle Con. All of these new and growing services have played a role in catering to an increasing audience and expanding the cuddling business.
Even though there are more cuddling services today than ever before, the first cuddle party phenomena dates back to almost a century ago, when they exploded in the 1920s. Then called “petting parties,” “spooning,” and “snugglepupping,” these gatherings scandalized the typically repressed American society. Far more sexual in nature than the modern cuddle business, groups of couples would get together to experience explorative touch that always stopped before sex. But the sexless operations of today began in Oregon in 2002. A few years later, the cuddle phenomena stretched bi-coastal to New York City with the founding of Cuddle Party in 2004. Despite common misconceptions, the modern cuddling business still struggles to separate themselves with the sexual connotations touch had in the original cuddle parties and today in modern society.
Professional cuddler, Michelle Renee, deals with these misconceptions all the time since receiving her professional cuddling certification with Cuddlist. But she believes what her clients lack in their lives is platonic, not sexual, touch in a digital age that is less physically connected than ever before.
This lack of touch is particularly prevalent in the majority of her clients being middle-aged men in relationships with an absence of touch inside that relationship. And although arousal occurs during sessions even when unintended, Renee is certain to emphasize the non-sexual nature of one-on-one cuddle sessions and screens her clients to make certain platonic touch is their sole intent.
But even when she’s not on the job, Renee notices that she likes to touch her friends when she talks to them. She loves the connection it creates that lets them know she’s present and there with you. She wonders if she’s like this because of the work she does or if she does this work because of this.
Renee is in the minority of Americans who touch each other in a casual setting, due to the low contact culture that exists in the United States. This was revealed in a study by Canadian psychologist Sidney Jourard, who counted the number of times groups from different cultures platonically touched during a one-hour period. Puerto Ricans touched each other 180 times; the French, 110; Americans, twice; and the British, zero. Brittany Jakubiak, author of Affectionate Touch to Promote Relational, Psychological, and Mental Well-Being in Adulthood, says she understands why people might turn to the cuddling business. “You could think of us more as a touch deprived culture potentially if you don’t have a romantic relationship or close friendships where you’re engaging in that kind of touch,” she says.
The AARP Loneliness Study gives some insight into the effects this lack of touch has on the general population and where the cuddling business is gaining some of its steam. The AARP reported that 35 percent of people living in the United States suffer from loneliness, up from the 20 percent reported in 1980. Also reported was that one quarter of U.S. households consist of only one person. Because marriage rates and number of children per household continues to decline, more and more people live alone in social isolation, leading to a decrease in overall health. Cuddling services provide an outlet and holistic healing to combat these increasing numbers.
Lippin actually founded Cuddlist because of this lack of touch in people’s lives, and because he saw this was something that was missing as an option to help people live happier and healthier. “Culturally, we’re fucked up,” he says. And in order to contribute something to the greater good, Lippin left behind his life as an owner of Atomic Wings to become the CEO and co-founder of Cuddlist, a cuddler for hire business, in January 2016 as a way to provide people with the one thing therapists can’t do: touch.
Therapy, medicinal, and holistic healing are all words that come up frequently within the cuddling community. Despite the common use of hiring a professional cuddler or attending a cuddle party to fulfil a lack of platonic touch in day-to-day life and create and foster a connection, alternative uses of the cuddle business also play an important role.
Cuddle party attendees Belinda and Kevin Porter have been married for almost 30 years and love the consent aspect of these gatherings. The Porters say it’s important to learn and teach consent inside but also outside of a sexual context. People are always trying to tell other people how to live without giving them the right and privilege to have their own choice. Mrs. Porter says cuddle parties are a great place to practice saying no in a safe container. “Easy word, hard to say. We need to learn to be a society that asks and accepts no,” she says.
Professional cuddler Renee had one of her cuddle party attendees learn the power of saying no when she was going through training and facilitated her first cuddle party ever. Renee says she received feedback from the participant thanking her for learning to say no. “She’s online dating and she had an offer for a date and she used to say yes out of obligation,” Renee says. “And she said it was because of coming to my party, that she realized she could say no. And it seems so simple, but people just don’t have practice in it.”
Other than the purpose of boundary setting and learning about consent, the cuddling business has also been trying to gain more credibility as an alternative health treatment along the likes of somatic therapy or massage therapy. Dr. Suzanne K Oliver, professor at Syracuse University, went through three years of somatic therapy certification learning The Alexander Technique in order to understand how to work the body and the biomechanics behind tuning in to discover what is constricted, blocked, or out of balance. She can see how the cuddle business could provide something massage and somatic therapy can’t. “There’s a lot of respect that goes into being an accomplished person with your hands,” she says. “I think if this is done right, it can be very nourishing for people. There’s so much loneliness in our world.”
Lippin has seen this nourishment first-hand in his experiences, and it is a path he hopes Cuddlist and the cuddling business will explore further. He recounts stories of people who have hired professional cuddlers and reaped unbelievable benefits. One client with Parkinson’s described their nervous system as quiet after a session. Another client with multiple sclerosis stopped shaking for three days after their cuddle session. Lippin says he sees a lot of potential in the business with veterans suffering from PTSD and hopes to branch out in that sense within the next year. But until then he will continue to grow his business and facilitate cuddle parties like the one in New York City.
There is a natural talent Lippin has in leading a cuddle party and maintaining the space. He is a reminder of the rules and boundaries as well as a mentor to open up to, but his presence is not overbearing. He does not take part in the massage trains, puppy piles, or spooning sessions this time around. He leaves the attendees to stare intimately into each other’s eyes in silence or talk about their days while intertwined. There is a buzz of both quiet chatter and a warm kind of energy in the ruby red room four flights up.
The sun has set and almost three hours have passed, meaning the time available in the safe, soft space has expired. Lippin mentions that it is time to have the closing circle. Some people have to be roused awake from their naps while others smile lazily at each other, stroking a hand or a head or a leg. Lippin encourages people to share their thoughts and open up about what they thought of the experience. Some people came out of curiosity, some after getting out of a relationship, some because they came from a different country where touch was far more normalized, some because they are dealing with trauma, and some of these people just love any kind of touch they can get.
After a short meditation exercise, the party commences but the people continue to linger. Numbers and hugs are exchanged as soft words of dinner plans or drinks at a nearby bar mix with the rustling of people gathering their things. Twenty-eight men and women exit the apartment in pairs and groups, grabbing a bite or finishing a conversation. Nobody who wants to, leaves alone.