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On a typical night at work, Kathryn Ver Brugge spends the bulk of her time hugging, snuggling and spooning.
“I’ve literally had sessions where I’m just sitting in a car holding hands for two hours,” says Ver Brugge, a self-described “international cuddle professional.”
Her job: to connect with lonely people who just want human contact.
“To me the touch aspect of cuddling is almost secondary to the energetic space and connection that we create,” said Ver Brugge, who charges $250 for a two-hour session.
The cuddle business is hardly new. What’s new is that commercial cuddling – which involves platonic touch without sex – is nuzzling its way into the mainstream.
The industry has grown up so much that cuddle professionals held the first cuddle industry convention last week at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O’Hare Hotel & Conference Center. Cuddle studios like Santa Monica’s Cuddle Sanctuary hold regular group cuddle sessions. A web series is in the works about professional cuddling. Men are increasingly joining the ranks of cuddlers. And a growing number of websites let people book cuddle sessions or sign up for cuddle training. Commodified cuddling is also a thing in Japan.
But cuddling just for the sake of cuddling that’s not a prelude for, well, something else?
“A lot of people don’t understand it,” she said. “But the clients understand it.”
There’s nothing apparently illegal about cuddling, says Peter Carlise, formerly Honolulu’s longtime prosecuting attorney and one-term mayor. And he said nothing that came across his desk while he was in office indicated that the cuddle industry was a front for prostitution.
The cuddlers emphatically say they’re not involved in sex for hire. And local authorities haven’t had a problem. Asked if the Honolulu Police Department had arrested anyone for improper cuddling, police spokeswoman Michelle Yu said, “Not that I know of.”
And there’s definitely a market for cuddling. Cuddlers at Papaya’s place charge $1 a minute, and some charge much more. Ver Brugge averages about $1,000 to $2,000 per week, she said.
Murielle Rodrigue, a former Honolulu cuddler, said she earned about $3,000 to $5,000 a month, cuddling part-time for $100 an hour or $1,000 for an overnight cuddle session.
To be sure, cuddling is still a nascent profession. No states license cuddlers. And there’s no national cuddling body, like, say the Yoga Alliance, which registers yoga schools and instructors to help ensure basic levels of training.
Still, anecdotal evidence suggests the profession is taking off.
Len Daley, a psychologist in Montgomery, Alabama, says he has trained 160 cuddle party facilitators since 2004. And he has 40 more in training.
“We’re not taking the world by storm,” said Daley, who works for the Veterans Administration in Tuskegee, Alabama, when not leading cuddle training. “But it’s very steady growth, and the number in the pipeline is larger than ever.”
People seek out cuddlers for a variety of reasons, professionals say. Some clients are between relationships and want human contact but don’t want to date. Others are under stress or suffering from trauma. For some, a hug from a professional cuddler is the first contact they’ve had with a person in years.
Rodrigue, who worked as a part-time cuddler in Honolulu before taking a full-time job as a swim instructor, said many of her clients were military personnel who were suffering post-traumatic stress after returning from war zones.
“Cuddling is definitely effective in relieving that stress,” she said.
Sex really isn’t the point of cuddling, says Susan Kaye, a psychologist and cuddling advocate in Austin, Texas, who specializes in sexuality. For people like “late life virgins” who are freaked out even by the prospect of touching someone else, cuddling can be a therapeutic way to become comfortable with physical intimacy.
“They can just go get laid, but that’s not setting them up for healthy relationships,” said Kaye.
Watch Kathryn Ver Brugge explain her profession:
If psychologists like Kaye are bringing clinical experience into the world of professional cuddling, others are bringing tools from the wellness industry. Before she started Cuddle Sanctuary, Jean Franzblau previously trained managers for L.A.’s YogaWorks studios.
Franzblau is now incorporating best practices from the yoga business to her group cuddle sessions. People can book appointments using the MindBody Online interface commonly used by yoga studios. Also like a yoga studio, Cuddle Sanctuary offers discounts for 10-class packages and unlimited memberships.
Professionals are now looking at licensure or accreditation, possibly on the state level or through a national accrediting entity or both.
Daley, the Alabama cuddle trainer, said the first Cuddlexpo, the conference in Chicago, was a step toward laying the foundation.
Meanwhile, Franzblau said, the quality of cuddling can vary.
“We want the industry to be legitimized because it’s in a very sloppy state now,” she said. “It’s the wild, wild west.”
The novelty of cuddling and lack of standards can lead to misunderstandings. Rodrigue, the former cuddler, said clients would frequently try to do more than cuddle, and she would have to draw firm boundaries.
Ver Brugge said she screens clients by meeting with them first before a cuddle session, but even that’s not foolproof. After one such meeting, she said, the client followed up with a text saying he had “never been with a German woman.” She had to explain that they really would just cuddle.
For Rodrigue, such misunderstandings are part of what drove her from cuddling. But she said she might go back into it if it were better regulated.
“There were definitely times when I was like, I’m really grateful I’m a girl and can get paid to do this,” she said.
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