ne of the best parts about being a theatre major was contact improv. Ostensibly, contact improv was all about gaining familiarity with the physical energies of your castmates, which meant you were better able to listen and respond to them on stage. In reality, it was a super great excuse for a bunch of over-sexed teenagers to grope each other in a dark room under the auspices of “art.”
Contact improv was one of the first things I thought of when I heard about cuddling parties. A bunch of hot strangers rolling around in sweatpants while Solange croons in the background? Basically Union Pool on a Saturday.
According to Kassandra, a certified professional cuddler, this is a common misconception. What occurs at cuddle parties, and between professional cuddlers and their clients, is deliberately non-sexual. And that, she says, is part of the pleasure.
“There’s a huge myth in our culture that platonic touch isn’t satisfying,” says Kassandra. “But the human body has a huge need to be touched and held, and we suffer without that. Unpleasant things happen.”
She’s right: Touch is the first sense that develops in utero, at about eight weeks gestation, and infants deprived of touch exhibit radical mental and physical developmental delays even years later. The benefits of consensual touch in adults are also widely known: A lack of touch, or “touch hunger,” can cause depressive symptoms, while hugging raises serotonin levels and decreases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. And while in some cultures, touch is much more common — one study found that French teenagers touch each other far more often than their American counterparts, resulting in less peer-on-peer aggression — there’s a lingering taboo against many forms of pleasurable touch in American culture.
“I really like to touch people,” Kassandra says frankly. “But we live in a culture where it’s really not okay most of the time — like, you’re at work or school and touch is actively frowned upon. And, socially, there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation. You might touch someone’s shoulder and their partner will be like, ‘Are you hitting on my husband?’”
Professional cuddling seemed to her a natural extension of her work as a personal coach and yoga instructor, and another avenue for her empathy. She’s soothing even through a phone line; her voice is warm and round, like tracing the grooves of a favorite button. Typically I’m a nervous interviewer — but with her, my shoulders drop, and I curl into the couch like a cat. In other words: If I was going to pay a stranger to play with my hair, I think I’d choose her.
Kassandra works with Cuddlist, one of several organizations that screens and trains professional cuddlers. After Craigslist banned personal ads last year, these organizations became vital to cuddlers and clients both. They also lend cuddling a certain legitimacy; much like finding a therapist, Cuddlist presents profiles of cuddlers to choose from — like Charles, a gay former US Marine, or Robin, whose profile photo shows her gently cradling a throw pillow.
While cuddle parties are more of a free-for-all consensual cuddle sesh, professional cuddling is a carefully negotiated one-on-one experience with a trained cuddler, in which the client dictates how and when they would like to be touched. Sessions can involve everything from light arm stroking to slow dancing to full-body spooning. It is, truly, the opposite of so many of our physical experiences in the world: non-sexual, safe and consensual.
A close friend of mine is someone we’ve (lovingly) referred to as a “toucher” — she grabs for my hands when we’re walking in public, and I don’t have a single photo of her in which she isn’t nestled into someone else. She’s had to break herself of this habit around her coworkers; in fact, she’s been pulled aside and reprimanded for it on more than one occasion. If anyone were to go for a good cuddle, it would be her. But even she said she’s not comfortable with the idea of paying a stranger to snuggle.
In fact, of the individuals who request cuddling services through Cuddlist, over 90% identify as men. Kassandra surmises this is largely due to the fact that, on the surface, cuddling seems like it could be a pathway to something sexual; and men have, for centuries, believed that sexual pleasure through the body of another is something they can pay for. Some do come looking for a sexual experience, although Kassandra says she has never felt unsafe in a session. And this careful boundary negotiation, she says, is part of the work.
“I can’t guarantee that I or the client won’t get turned on,” she says. “Arousal is part of the nervous system. What we agree to is not to increase it or to act on it. And that creates an environment that is pretty darn unique. There is no shame if they get turned on and no pressure to perform. We can talk about it without it threatening the relationship. You can notice that energy ebbing and flowing. We really don’t have other avenues for that kind of experience.”
Learning how to be in your body, and learning how to experience physical pleasure as something powerful but not threatening, are skills that can take a lifetime to learn. Cuddling is an active experience: Cuddling practitioners will ask questions to empower clients in understanding and articulating their physical needs. “We are trying to help you to notice that you are the expert of your own body,” says Kassandra.
That sort of returning to the body is deeply powerful for anyone, but especially for those who have experienced feeling unsafe or abused. Most of Kassandra’s long-term clients — and indeed, those who have benefited most from the practice — have experienced some sort of trauma. What they are looking for, she says, is a way to re-learn touch: to understand that touch can be something safe, and even pleasurable.
That’s what one cuddling client, Mark*, told me. He sought out professional cuddling on a friend’s recommendation while going through a “difficult, isolating time.”
“I was having a hard time trusting anyone, or myself for that matter,” he says. “I felt like I was in a car that wouldn’t slow down.”
In his sessions with Kassandra, he’s found a safe, open space without expectations, where he can “set down my worries and anxiety and enjoy an embrace.” The experience has allowed him to understand the potential for a relationship to be open and nurturing, and has changed the way he interacts with others. “I started to feel welcome in my own skin and felt as if it was easier to connect. I feel closer to myself and others. I am so very thankful.”
Still, Kassandra estimates that roughly 90% of clients don’t return for a second session. “My unproven theory is that some of these clients feel some form of attraction, and people just often don’t have the capacity to differentiate between wanting something and acting on it,” she tells me. She also acknowledges that cuddling, for some, can be too intimate, demand too much vulnerability.
“Noticing what we want is a life-changing practice,” she says. “Many of us are conditioned to do what we think we should, rather than what we want to do. If your whole life is about what you shouldn’t do, being opened up like that is frightening. The clients who continue to come back to me are really willing to change.”
Many of our taboos against touch exist for good reason. And paying someone to cuddle might seem particularly profane, like commodifying intimacy. Not one person I talked to while writing this was open to the idea. Still, is it that different from paying a masseuse to go at your lower back, or how your scalp trills under your hairdresser’s firm scrub, or the way I silently beg my yoga teachers to press their hands against my hips? There is a palpable relief to the idea of structured, clearly bounded touch — a kind of greedy touch, freed from the expectation that pleasure is a thing that must be returned in equal measure.
After my conversation with Kassandra, I found myself noticing how humans do and don’t touch each other; the spaces I consciously leave between myself and others, and the ones I close. The way I place my hand on someone’s shoulder when I’m making a point, or the ease with which I can curl into my husband’s body, his geography as familiar as my own. I think about how rarely I ask for what my body wants; I think about how women have been taught to make our bodies smaller, or that our pleasure comes secondary to our partner’s.
“Cuddling can show people how to experience pleasure on a spectrum,” says Kassandra. “If the only way you’ve been touched is in violence or in sex, you don’t have a lot of understanding of the nuances of touch. There’s so much to learn. There’s a whole world here.”
Illustrations by Amber Vittoria.