After a few hours of conversation in a room at the Super 8 motel in Roseville, Marissa Weiss fell asleep with a man’s arm around her waist.
The man, however, was not her boyfriend. In fact, they had met only hours before. Weiss, 22, was a “professional snuggler.” For $80 an hour, she would cuddle, comfort and caress for a fee.
“There’s no undertone or hidden message,” said the college student from River Falls, Wis., who quit the side gig in January to focus on classes. “It’s just platonic cuddling.”
The clothes may stay on, but the cuddle movement is taking off in the Twin Cities area. Interest in nonsexual touching is accelerating with newer online companionship services and cuddle apps that make it easier to get a cuddle fix. Then there’s the “cuddle party,” where, once a month, a few dozen pajama-clad people gather in a south Minneapolis living room for a cuddle workshop of sorts.
While cozying up to a stranger might sound weird and paying for it might even sound fishy, cuddle proponents say its benefits are vast. Cuddling releases oxytocin — the love hormone — which can ward off depression and loneliness, reduce pain and even lower blood pressure, according to research.
“The argument for human touch is particularly poignant in our culture now because we don’t go shake hands and sit with people as often as we used to,” said Chandler Yorkhall, integrative medicine practitioner at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. “Research bears out that touch is as important as food. Medicine doesn’t have everything we need; we can also benefit from things that touch into our primal human needs, such as touch.”
Spoonr, the Tinder of snuggling apps, was launched in September and has more than 300,000 downloads. The location-based application allows users to find people nearby who also want to cuddle. A recent search within 20 miles of Minneapolis turned up 96 users.
In Portland, cuddle enthusiasts gathered last Valentine’s Day for CuddleCon, a cuddling convention. National car service Uber is getting in on the snuggle phenomenon, too, by delivering kittens to people in cities, including Minneapolis, for a 15-minute snuggle. And in Virginia, a goat cheese farm was inundated with responses to its request for volunteers to snuggle baby goats.
Cozying up to a furry animal is a no-brainer, but spooning a stranger?
“It totally makes sense to me,” Yorkhall said. “It makes you feel better. It’s a fix in a weird way.”
Professional snugglers say they have to be open to snuggling people of all kinds and know how to respond to clients who have suffered trauma or who try to cross the line.
The blurry nature of for-hire cuddling — part massage, part companionship — can lead to disappointed customers and unorthodox requests, cuddling professionals say. One female professional snuggler turned down a male client’s request to wear black nylons. Another male client with a tragic story of abuse and neglect just wanted to hold hands and talk.
Research shows that babies fail to thrive without physical touch and connection to others. Adults without human touch can experience depression and loneliness.
But can intimacy be bought? Not exactly, said Lauren Fogel, a psychologist and certified sex therapist for the Allina Health clinic on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.
“I think people need to be mindful about what their intentions or needs are before pursuing something like professional cuddling,” Fogel said. “It is an unlikely means for intimacy, but perhaps a temporary means for comfort. The harm is when those two concepts become confounded.”
Many proponents of platonic cuddling are keenly aware that paying for cuddle time leads skeptics to assume that there’s more than meets the eye.
“Sex is easy and sex is cheap, but it’s more valuable to have a close connection,” said Minneapolis professional snuggler Andrea. “Everyone needs touch, and some people just aren’t lucky enough to have the traditional venues for that.”
Andrea, 23, who withheld her last name to preserve her privacy, said most of her clients are men in their 50s. “They’re successful businessmen who are lacking touch in their lives,” she said.
Andrea gets clients through Snuggle Buddies, a New Jersey-based cuddling business with a roster of 125 snugglers. The company takes in half of each freelancer’s fee — about $16,000 a month in revenue, said its founder, Evan Carp.
On its website, thesnuggle buddies.com, Carp outlines the rules, including: “All clients must sign an agreement that no sexual activity of any kind with snugglers will take place.”
If arousal happens — and it does — professional snugglers are directed to take a break or change positions. Thanks to “The Cuddle Sutra,” the unofficial handbook for many professional snugglers, there are seemingly endless cuddle poses: Cheek to Cheek, Come to Papa, Sardines.
Despite clear expectations of platonic cuddling services, some people do cross the line. “We have procedures in place to deal with that,” former cuddler Weiss said. She wasn’t required to carry a weapon, but “I [was] armed. I [carried] a small blade with me.”
Nonetheless, she said the benefits of the profession outweigh the risks. During her first overnight appointment, her client lamented about his anxiety and depression before falling asleep next to her.
“I was honored to be able to help him at least a little bit,” she said. “There was nothing fishy about it.”
One-on-one cuddling isn’t your thing? Enter the cuddle party.
In a Minneapolis living room, after paying a $20 fee, nine pajama-clad adults spread out on a floor covered with blankets, pillows and sleeping bags. Candessa Hadsall explained the norms, including getting verbal consent to touch, practicing saying “no” and respecting boundaries.
“If you came to this cuddle party tonight thinking you were going to get to have sex with somebody here, I’m sorry, but I need to disappoint you and tell you that sex is not going to happen,” she announced. “That’s a different kind of event.”
Hadsall is a registered nurse and became an official Cuddle Party facilitator in 2006. Cuddle Party is a national organization that requires a workshop to begin the party so participants are clear that it’s a nonsexual event.
“My goal is to teach people that cuddling doesn’t have to be a sexual activity,” Hadsall said. “In our culture, you say ‘cuddling’ and people think you’re having an orgy.”
Amid a mix of strangers and some friends from past cuddle parties, the mood was light and filled with laughter as each person shared why he or she was at the party.
“Our society is so deprived of touch,” Thomas Stout said. “This idea that the World Wide Web connects us all? It has separated us all because we don’t see each other and talk to each other and touch each other.”
“I found it on Meetup,” Rosanne “Zanne” Butler said. “You can find just about anything on Meetup.com.”
“At my first Cuddle Party there were six or seven of us spooning,” said Renae “Nettie” Peterschick. “The oxytocin high can last a good couple of days. It’s a good feeling.”
As the group toppled into a “puppy pile,” the conversations varied: children, grandchildren, careers.
Much like an adolescent slumber party, some broke off into pairs or small groups.
“I want a snuggle sandwich,” Diane Long announced, turning to Becky Shipman. “Do you want to be the little spoon in front?”