Professional Cuddlers—Who Are They and What Do They Do?
As one of our senses, touch is highly important and considered a primary love language, with many people dependent on touch, both casual and sexual, for their well-being and happiness. However, people who do not have easy access to touch from a loved one or close friend can feel very isolated and alienated.
Many of these people have turned to the services of professional cuddlers, who practice a form of therapy involving one-on-one physical touch. The concept of professional cuddling may seem strange, and a cuddling session might be difficult to imagine, however, the demand for these services has grown significantly in recent years.
Chicago-based cuddlist Keeley Shoup has been a touch therapy practitioner for more than six years. As well as working under the mantle of Chicago Cuddle Therapy, Shoup is also a co-owner of Cuddlist, a listing service that helps people find qualified professional cuddlers.
She got involved in the work after attending a group event called Cuddle Party as a participant. The organization allows adults to explore physical touch and meet like-minded people, and though Shoup was originally reticent about attending, she said the experience at her first cuddle event changed her life. She cried for two hours in a "very important, cathartic way."
"It shifted my paradigm and world, and being a participant feeling that way made me want to provide that same experience for other people by qualifying as a cuddler myself," Shoup said.
Why is touch important?
Tasha Bailey, an integrative therapist based in London, agreed on the importance of cuddle therapy.
"Many people may have had a negative experience of physical touch, through abuse or neglect," Bailey said. "Therefore, accessing cuddle therapy might feel safer for them, as there are specific boundaries and an outlined procedure involved."
Our relationship with touch begins at conception and is reinforced when we are born and held by a parent or caregiver. Touch is also the way we first explore the world as babies and toddlers.
"Biologically, [touch] connects us to oxytocin, a hormone often referred to as 'the love drug,'" she said. "It is a warm and fuzzy feeling, which we connect with feeling loved, safe and connected. Oxytocin gets released when we cuddle or have sex, and research shows that it reduced anxiety and stress levels."
When we don't have touch, our emotional and physical needs are not met, Bailey explained. Without touch, we are more susceptible to the flow of cortisol, a stress hormone that can increase feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Several studies by psychology experts indicate that hugs and touch are helpful for battling stress, negative thoughts, high blood pressure and increased heart rate, and beneficial for our overall well-being.
Without touch, we are more susceptible to the flow of cortisol, a stress hormone that can increase feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.
"We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth," renowned family therapist Virginia Satir famously said.
Professional cuddlers can be a good solution for this need, but the practice is not as widely known as cuddlers would like. The profession can engender certain stigmas about the kind of people who do this work and those who need the services of a professional rather than a loved one for cuddling.
Jean Franzblau began as a one-on-one cuddler but transitioned to training services by founding Cuddle Sanctuary, based in Los Angeles, and now works as a professional trainer. Franzblau said the term "professional cuddlers" can make people laugh and creates a marketing problem for the industry. But she has a response to people who have a preconception about professional cuddling being "weird" or who ask about the people who would use such a service.
"I would wish for people to consider life experiences that are different than their own," Franzblau said. "There are so many groups of people who don't have access to nor do they have the social capacity to bring themselves to find someone who can cuddle."
Bailey agreed: "Some people may not have access to physical affection or might feel a sense of shame which stops them from asking for affection from loved ones. Asking for our emotional needs to be met can be a vulnerable task and, sadly, is not normalized enough in our social context."
Why people seek professional cuddlers
Franzblau and Shoup both highlighted that many clients are neurodivergent or autistic, and crave touch but struggle to connect with others. The service is useful and important for them to be able to get the touch they want without feeling uncomfortable trying to use social skills to find a cuddling partner.
"The reason why people going through a relationship transition come to see me is because getting into a new relationship isn't possible for them," Shoup said. "They don't want to rebound and be unethical to someone and they're not interested in any of the hang-ups of what a relationship might mean, but they still have that basic human need for comfort, care and kindness. I can provide that."
Joe Smith, who requested his last name and location not be used, is a cuddlee who has engaged the services of a professional cuddler for the past four years and will continue to do so in the near future.
"When I started [seeing a cuddler], I was going through a stressful time at work as well as struggling to manage a health condition," he said. "I am single and divorced, and I was missing the intimacy you often have with close family and close friends."
Smith explained that sessions with a cuddler are similar to being in therapy, as well as being with a friend.
"She might suggest a book to read or some homework to help me in a specific situation I bring up," Smith said, adding that this helps him immensely.
Smith is extremely positive about his experience with cuddlers and feels it is the best option available to him to get the intimacy he craves without the burdens of a full-fledged nonprofessional relationship.
The process of a cuddling session
Before an initial cuddling session, Shoup has an extensive screening process with the client.
"Who is this person? What are their other medical issues that I might need to be aware of? We talk about what brought them into this work, because it's so vast and so different for so many people," she explained.
The cuddler and the client work together and discuss what they want out of the session.
"The session starts off with everyone washing their hands," Shoup said. "We sit down in a neutral place and we have an opening agreement where we check in about how both the client and I am feeling that day, how our bodies are doing, and any significant emotional things that might impact the session."
They transition into establishing a set intention for the session. Then they begin the cuddling time, which can vary from sitting in silence if that's what the client prefers to listening to music, watching movies or playing video games while cuddled up. Keeley mentioned that on occasion some sessions incorporate improvisation or dance elements to explore how touch can be a light-hearted, playful experience, as well as boundary and consent exercises that allow the client to practice setting boundaries.
Some sessions have no touch involved or begin without cuddling until the client feels comfortable with that step. It is very much an individualized experience, as Keeley noted. There is no "one size fits all" for cuddling.
Not all cuddlers are the same
The cuddling industry is unregulated and there are many so-called cuddlers out there who may not be up-to-scratch for providing unique services. Clients such as Smith have had to try out several professionals before finding the right one.
"I have evolved and am really pivoting my whole practice to training others," Franzblau said. "I have a six-week course with homework before, during and after. That includes working with people one on one and then getting feedback from people they've worked with that I can read to assess how they're doing."
Her program also teaches cuddlers about setting boundaries and provides business skills, such as marketing and social media, to give them a wealth of knowledge about how to be successful in this industry.
CuddleSage is another professional cuddling training program available for people who want to get into the industry. But it has a distinction: It is the first and only cuddle program created by Black women and centers Black women in their principles and teaching. The four-module course covers the basics of touch and the history and science behind cuddling, and teaches prospective cuddlers how to provide the best care for their clients.
Is a professional right for you?
Just as there is a need for professional cuddlers, there is a need for people to train cuddlers to provide the best services for their clients. This can be difficult in an industry not considered a form of therapy by local, state or federal regulators. The industry is self-regulated, but there is no overarching governing body to accredit cuddlers and ensure their services are worth it, only smaller organizations such as Cuddle Sanctuary and CuddleSage which can vet cuddlers. However, there is no barrier to entry and it's up to clients to do their research into the credentials of the person with whom they are cuddling.
Professional cuddling is an increasingly popular service, and the industry will likely continue to grow as our technologically focused world forces further detachment from our peers, friends and loved ones. There are so many reasons why someone might want to seek a professional cuddler, and cuddling can be highly beneficial to their physical and mental health, along with their overall well-being.
There should not be a stigma attached to people who get their touch needs met by a professional, just as there should not be a stigma attached to people who attend talk therapy. Both are practices designed to help someone move past obstacles and live a better life, whatever that might look like, so who are we to judge?